A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a long, curious story about home cooks who sustain injuries while operating their immersion blenders.
"Who are these people?" I wondered of the victims who recounted their visits to the emergency room as well as their ruined batches of Carrie-at-the-prom cookie dough. I have an immersion blender, but I couldn't imagine putting my fingers anywhere near the blades without making sure it was powered off — just as I couldn't imagine changing lanes on the interstate without taking at least a cursory glance in the rearview mirror.
But between the article and the snap of cold weather at the time, I did get a sudden hankering to use the immersion blender to whip up a batch of cream soup. This kind of soup is something that seems so old-fashioned I'm almost embarrassed to make it. But it always gets a thumbs up from the family. Cream of potato, cream of carrot, cream of cabbage: The more lowly and commonplace the vegetable, the warmer the welcome.
Let me lay down my quick rules of homemade soup: If I have a container of good homemade stock in the freezer, I almost always will turn it into a chunky bean, farro or vegetable soup to showcase its flavor and body. If I have a couple of emergency quarts of chicken broth in the pantry left over from Thanksgiving, then I hide it in a cream soup.
Many restaurant kitchens have taken the basic cream soup and elevated it to showcase-appetizer status. They mix the base in a high-performance blender, such as the Vitamix, until it becomes as soft and glossy as liquid silk. The soup may then get a last-minute spin in the blender or a visit from a cappuccino wand until the surface froths. And then the cooks garnish the soup — usually with something salty and crunchy to contrast its velvety texture and add another layer of flavor.
Without any disrespect to restaurant chefs, I think a home cook needs no garnish. If your soup looks like something that was served to 19th century farmhands by dour women in long aprons, all the better. Steaming, thick and army green, it should smell appetizing and have layers of flavor that open up on the spoon without any tricks.
To build these layers takes a little, not a lot, of patience. You need to really cook your base aromatics — onions, leeks, dried herbs — until they're released and concentrated any juices. You need to simmer the starring vegetable with a little potato (for thickening) for a good long spell until it has given up any texture or fight.
Then you add the cream, which works like an Instagram filter — blurring the edges of these ingredients yet amping up their colorful essences. That touch of fat makes the leek and shallot jump from the background.
I do have a little trick here, which is I like to use Mexican or Salvadoran crema — a lightly soured cream that is a bit thicker than heavy cream and contains a natural emulsifier that helps keep the soup's smooth texture after it boils.
There's one more trick: I like to add a judicious pinch of MSG to give that canned broth a boost and keeps me from over-salting the soup.
If the thought of MSG weirds you out, then a shot of fish sauce gives the same flavor boost.
Cream of broccoli soup Hands on: 10 minutes. Total time: 40 minutes. Serves: 8 2 tablespoons butter 1 large leek, white and light green part only, chopped and rinsed 1 large shallot, chopped 1 teaspoon dried thyme 6 cups chicken broth 2 broccoli crowns, chopped 1 large white or russet potato, peeled and chopped 2 bay leaves 1/3 cup cream or sour cream to finish (optional) Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon monosodium glutamate (optional) Melt the butter over medium-low heat in the bottom of a 5-quart pot. Add the leek, shallot and thyme and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are wilted, very fragrant and just starting to color — about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth, broccoli and potato, turn up heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the bay leaves and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are mush. Remove the bay leaves and blend in the pot with an immersion blender until smooth. (Alternately, transfer ingredients to standing blender, blend, then return to the pot.) Add the optional cream or sour cream and season to taste with salt, pepper and the optional MSG. Bring just to the boil, check seasoning and serve.
Today is Saturday, Aug. 30, the 242nd day of 2014. There are 123 days left in the year.
1864 — 150 years ago: A large pair of elk, captured in Iowa, were exhibited in Market Square today. 1889 — 125 years ago: The Rock Island Arsenal dam was being constructed under the supervision of Charles Frances, of Lowell, Mass. 1914 — 100 years ago: Mrs. Frank Mixer, of Rock Island, was the winner of the final preliminary for the women's handicap golf cup at Rock Island arsenal links. 1939 — 75 years ago: Sixteen hundred persons — many from war-fearful Europe — arrived in New York aboard the German liner Bremen. For two days on the trip, passengers were cut off from the world with both incoming and outgoing radio messages banned. 1964 — 50 years ago: Police reported five youths have been involved in the theft of about seven cars in recent weeks. Three of the youths were arrested Saturday afternoon, one was in custody as the result of a previous arrest, and the fifth is expected to be arrested today. 1989 — 25 years ago: The Rock Island/Milan School Board is asking the city to tear down Franklin School and allow the school district to pay back the estimated $100,00 cost during 10 years.