The Plain and Fancy of a Great Velouté
Salsify and carrot on a guinea hen base.
Velouté means velvety in French. Have you ever had a soup that tasted so velvety and delicious you were actually taken off guard by the pleasure? It's more than a puréed bowl of soup, it's a poem in texture and flavor.
All veloutés have their base in the plain and simple. During the winter, we have cold stored roots galore: rutabaga, turnips, potatoes, carrots, celeriac, salsify, and parsnips, among others. Legumes like soissons, coco beans, fava and lentils can also be great core ingredients to a velouté. When Spring comes around, there will be all kinds of amazing flavors to play with. But beginning with roots infused and softened in your house stock with carefully selected aromatics: garlic, shallots, onions or leeks, it's easy to create a great base, kind of like stretching and preparing a canvas with a perfect smooth layer of gesso, ready for the color.
For the stock challenged: If you are short on stock, adding a little bit of meat to your simmer is an effective substitute to home made stock to infuse a rich flavor element. If you are vegetarian, your added yeast based veggie demi-glaces you have prepared at home should also be incorporated at the beginning, to give your vegetables a chance to absorb the flavors.
Keep the base simple. Remember complimentary flavor pairings you have enjoyed in the past. Bacon and rutabaga, for example, or lamb and soissons. Keeping the number of predominant flavors down to one or two main flavors and keeping them separate and complimentary is the secret to a soup with impact. Potatoes are a very good neutral thickener. I add at least one small potato to the mix. You would be surprised at the beautiful singular flavor that can be coaxed from a root like celeriac. When paired with spatchocked quail...
Don't simmer too long. Just do it long enough to soften the vegetables. For 4 servings, When preparing velouté, I begin with my carefully chosen roots, and use in general enough so that when washed, peeled, and chopped, I've filled a small saucepan up 3/4 of the way. I put them in the pan, wedge the aromatics, herb bouquet, and meats in between, and cover the lot with house stock or even water, depending on my ingredients. Brought to a boil and then lowering the heat, this simmers for 15 to 20 minutes, until the vegetables are just soft. No more.
Blend it, then strain it. Remove any bouquet you have infused with the base ingredients, and use the stick blender to puree everything to a smooth finish, including the meats you have included with your roots. Push it through the chinois. straining is paramount in achieving the sought after velvety smooth texture of a velouté that takes you to that higher plane. If you're not going to bother with straining it, be prepared for a thick soup that might be great on a cold day with some crusty bread, but not the luxurious texture you find in a velouté. You might think that with today's technology in blending equipment, we shouldn't need to send it through a sieve, but the difference in mouth-feel really does make it worthwhile.
Enrich it. The addition of cream, butter, or egg yolks is a step that when done with care, really can have a beautiful effect. I reserve this for when we are serving to guests these days. Although it is indisputably fattening, there is something in cream: fresh or lightly cultured, that tops off the rich velvety impact for an "oh" effect. Good butter does even better. Enrichment can push a fabulous flavor combination to something sublime.
Brighten the flavor. Everyone has had home made soup that just flew under their radar. It was bland. Heavy. Stodgy. It didn't have any particular punch. It reminded them of their childhood stay in an orphanage. Brightening the flavor is a step that can take an otherwise perfectly boring soup and give it that elusive gastronomic wonder appeal. Sorrel, a lemony garden herb, is a good brightener minced and added just at the finish. Otherwise, there are all kinds of great vinegars that while being all but imperceptible in the final product, a spoonful whisked in at the last minute will add a certain brightness that can transform a pretty good but forgettable soup into a great memory for your guests. A simple squeeze of fresh lemon juice can do wonders.
Finish it carefully. Don't forget salt and pepper, plus any combination of spice additions as a last finishing touch to flavor a soup. I recently ground up some dried chipotles, and love the light smoke and warmth it gives. My house spice mix also gets lots of action in finishing my velouté, but remember, these flavors are meant to enhance and uplift the existing flavors in a soup, not become the theme.
When serving soup to guests, you can top it off with a little composition of sauteed meats, crisped bacon, wild mushrooms or sprigs of herbs. I reserve a pinch of this and that from previous meals just for this purpose. The velouté will be rich enough to support a little colorful raft of delectable goodies that compliment the flavors underneath. When you quickly crisp up meats in a sauté pan for finishing, give them a nice dose of seasoning that echoes what's in the velouté, because that little burst of colorful flavor on a translucent field of delicate velvety soup has a lot of impact. Sometimes when staying light and simple, just a sprinkle of fresh herbs is just right.
Carefully note your successes. With time, you'll realize that while happy accidents can happen, it's not always the case, and you don't want to forget how to get that great combination and balance again.