Monday, March 8, 2010

Great Expectations

If there's one thing that's not welcome in our home, it's carrots. Sure, I include them in all of my soups, stocks and stews, but generally they are met with resounding boos and guffaws and have on very rare occasion been the focal point of any meal (an event that only occurs when I'm home alone with no more culinary options than a fridge full of carrots and condiments). Disappointment at the mere speckling of carrots within a soup is enough to put a cloud over dinner, so I was more than shocked when my fella (long scarred by the frozen carrots and peas of childhood) suggested I use the abundance of carrots and ginger in our fridge to make a soup. Clearly my unemployed sulking period would be coming to an end if carrot soup were preferable to another night of take-out.

As a result I began to formulate a recipe that would appeal to even the most enthusiastic of carrot haters. It didn't help that while I don't hate carrots, I'm not particularly fond of ginger in large quantities. I decided to use my favorite carrot-tahini ginger dressing as inspiration. As one of the few food items that combines ingredients I don't normally care for and makes them delicious, this dressing doesn't completely mask the ingredients' flavors. It uses what's actually great about them (sweetness from the carrots, tart, lemony-freshness from the ginger) in order to compliment one another. The dressing is fresh and substantial and enhances the best parts of each ingredient for a resulting product that is the true sum of its parts (only better).

In keeping with the dressing's philosophy (the dressing, by the way, is from Dojo's) I started by sauteing the carrots and ginger with onions and garlic over low heat in order to pull out some of that sweet carrot flavor (without over caramelizing). Once I tossed everything in the blender I used chicken stock to help thin out the puree (vegetable stock would be lovely as well so long as it's not tomato based), along with freshly grated ginger, a splash of vinegar and a spoonful of sour cream for rich body. Not wanting to mask any flavors I was judicious in my use of spices, adding only a hint of smoked paprika, cumin and coriander to help the main ingredients' natural flavors pop. Once I'd gotten a nice smooth soup (relatively thin but not watery) I ran everything through a sieve. I would normally say this is optional, but ginger can be quite fibrous and woody and I've yet to encounter a blender that manages to break apart those fibers in any satisfying way.

The soup, it turns out, was a rousing success. It was not at all what I expected to be making, nor did I expect to enjoy it as much as I did. So much so that I'm proud to induct it into my winter recipe repertoire. It reminded me a great deal of my beloved dressing (available for purchase by the pint!), only better. In researching recipe ideas I found that carrot soups--even those from very reputable sources--often begin with carrot juice. I can't stress enough how important it is to use fresh carrots for this or any other carrot soup. Carrot juice is just that, raw carrots put through a juicer. There's no flavor development through cooking, meaning that the juice is not sweet or complex--it's like a bite out of a raw carrot in juice form. While this might explain why I've hated carrot soups in the past, it's also a good argument for what to do with all those winter carrots. Carrots are in top form this time of year, having used all that cold winter air and frigid soil to their advantage, concentrating their sweet flavor. They're always best in the weeks and months just before spring when they've put up with the coldest weather of the year. So if you're wondering how to best take advantage of this winter season, find yourself some organic carrots (roots like fresh ginger and galangal are also great in winter) and put them to good use. I suggest a soup or carrot dressing, but your favorite dish is good, too (anyone that likes sweet buttered carrots should be in heaven). Here's what I came up with:

Carrot-Ginger Soup

6 medium-sized carrots, peeled, trimmed and diced
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 small garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and chopped, plus 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1/8 tsp smoked paprika
1/8 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander seed
1-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 Tbsp cider vinegar (anything but balsamic will do in a pinch)
1 Tbsp sour cream (low-fat is fine)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp butter

1. Saute carrots, onions, garlic and ginger in the olive oil and butter over low heat in a non-stick skillet (make sure nothing has developed too much color and that the garlic has not burned). Once the carrots are cooked through, add the mixture to your blender and allow a few minutes to cool.

2. Add the paprika, cumin, coriander and fresh ginger to the blender along with 1/2 cup of the stock. Blend the mixture, slowly adding stock 1/2 cup at a time until you reach your desired consistency (you can even add more or a splash of water if you need more liquid). Add the vinegar and sour cream and blend once more.

3. Run the mixture through a sieve into a soup pot and reheat. Cook covered over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, then taste for salt and pepper and season to taste (I like a lot of pepper). Serve garnished with chopped nuts (I like almonds or hazelnuts) or croutons. Enjoy! 


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