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Recipe #235: Tomato-Carrot Soup with Parsnips & Fresh Herbs

Posted Jan 22 2011 9:47pm
It's winter & that means soup! :)

Invigorating & packed with flavor, this soup is one of my favorites thus far. And, it manages to deliver a great deal of taste without adding pounds. So, what makes this soup so full-bodied & rich, even though there's isn't a drop of cream, butter, or any other milk-based products? Well, lots of things. :) 

For one, the fresh herbs, particularly the basil leaves & dill, are incredibly crisp & vibrant, & immeasurably enhance the other flavors of this soup. Plus, the tomato paste, red wine, & many different kinds of vegetables all thicken the soup & also add more depth to its flavor. The end result is a profusion of complex & multi-layered flavors that come together beautifully. The ingredients of this soup manage to complement each other without fighting for center stage. In this case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. :)

And that, to a large degree, has to do with the very precise measurements chosen for each ingredient of this recipe. And, as is the case with most recipes, what hasn't been added is just as important as what has. :-D

For example, this recipe calls for dill & tarragon, two herbs commonly acknowledged as a marvelous match made in heaven. :) This herb pairing is found in all sorts of dishes, particularly those of American and European origins. Fresh tarragon gives food a fresh, vibrant taste, but since it's so strong, it needs to be used sparingly. Fresh dill, on the other hand, is not nearly as intense when used in comparable amounts, & so, can be used much more liberally. This flavor pairing tends to complement root vegetables (i.e., beets, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, etc.), many of which you'll not so surprisingly find in this soup recipe. :)

The foundation of this soup is a  mirepoix , a common triad of vegetables typically consisting of onions, carrots, & celery. This forms a solid soup base that anchors all of the other flavors.

Next to consider are the leeks & garlic: Leeks have a much subtler flavor element than garlic, & are thus, added in greater quantity. Both build upon the existing soup base, balancing each other out as well as rounding out the other existing flavors in the soup & adding another layer of complexity to the flavor "canvas." Yes, cooking is kind of like painting in this respect. :) Each layer must be applied with respect to the one before it. Each component part must be carefully considered in conjunction with how it fits into the whole.

There's also another consideration: Some of the stronger flavors (i.e., parsnips, tarragon, onion, etc.) will lose some of their strength as they simmer. Even so, some strong flavors like the rosemary & garlic, etc., will still remain rather pronounced, even after prolonged simmering, so they'll still need to be balanced out with mellower ingredients.

So far at this point in the recipe's development," we have the makings of either a rustic American, French, Italian, German, or Russian soup. ;) At this early stage, the template has yet to be fully defined.

With the addition of tomato paste, Tuscan Blue rosemary (i.e., a much milder form of rosemary than the more common, "pine needle" variety that most people are accustomed to seeing in the grocery store), & basil -- all of which are typically Italianate in nature & even more so, when combined together -- it might appear as if this soup has now headed in an obviously Italian direction. However, that's not the case. (Surprise, surprise. :) ) You'll notice we haven't yet added cannellini beans or fennel to seal the deal just yet. ;)

While these flavors might work together in their own sphere of existence, they become something entirely different when added to the existing soup elements. To some, these "Italian" flavors -- especially the basil -- might seem unusual or incongruous next to the tarragon & dill. However, it's the basil, quite ironically, that really pulls all of the different flavor components together like a giant lynch pin. Basil, like tarragon (& to some extent, dill), is a cool, refreshing flavor. However, unlike tarragon, basil provides a crisp, clean flavor without konking a person over the head with it. ;)

So what's the trick to getting this unorthodox combination to work? The secret is to add the basil in its uncooked form, but only after the soup has been removed from its heat source. After the soup has cooled for a few minutes, it's then puréed in the blender along with the rest of the ingredients.

While cooking basil might very well release its essence, it also changes its flavor & pungency. You see, basil tends to become slightly bitter if cooked for too long. That might very well be fine for a tomato sauce or an Italian soup, but it won't work very well for savory soups that require lighter & crisper flavors to balance out any potential "sharpness" or intensity. Cooked basil is just too overwhelming in this case. Sure, lemon juice may brighten the flavor of soups, salads, & pastas, but it's not a fix-all. ;)

The reasoning for the above method is simple: This way, the crisp cool flavors of the fresh basil can remain intact & can then bring out the crisper notes of these other herbs. Simply put, the object for the above method is to lighten & brighten the flavor of the soup.

This is the exactly same reason a Malbec is used. Unlike the sharp, oaky flavors of  CabernetMerlot , or  Syrah/Shiraz , Malbec is one of the crisper, more balanced French red wine varietals. When added to a complex soup like this, it's a pairing that really works wondrously well. Malbec grapes require more time in the sun (they need the extra heat to mature), and this, in turn, produces wine that is rich, dark, dense, juicy, full-bodied, & vibrant. It's a clean-tasting wine that's well-structured but smooth. Just perfect for a soup that already has a lot going on. :)

The specific wine I chose, Altos Las Hormigas Malbec 2007, was produced by an Argentine vineyard, as are many Malbecs these days. Argentina, and in particular the region around Mendoza, (where this specific wine is from), is making a name for itself as the source of some of the finest Malbecs ever made. The terrain is ideally suited for Malbec, allowing for the production of complex wines that rival those of Napa or Bordeaux.

This dry, velvety, & midweight wine, even with all its richness, is actually one of the lighter Malbecs. While it contains ample tannins, they are surprisingly polished & well submerged. The predominant flavors of red & black berries are layered with peppery & plum notes, & a hint of spice.

The bottom line is this: It's a decent, affordable wine that complements the soup, both as an ingredient and as a beverage to serve with the meal. :) If you don't want to take my word for it, you can check out its many favorable reviews: It was rated 89 (out of 100) points by The Wine Advocate and 88 (out of 100) points by The Wine Spectator, & was also recommended by the wine critics at The WSJ . And the beauty of it all: It cost me only a mere $11. :-D (It goes to show that, if you pay attention, you can get some decent wines without breaking the bank.)

All in all, it's a very gratifying experience when all of the elements of a recipe merge together so seamlessly like this that it's almost like the recipe magically created itself. :)

And now you have some insight into various types of considerations that go into the recipe-writing process. ;) It's part "science & logic," and part "soul & senses." ;)


Tomato-Carrot Soup with Parsnips & Fresh Herbs

Ingredients:
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 large, fresh bay leaves
1 c. yellow onion, peeled & sliced into 1/4" thick crescent-shaped slivers (about 1/2 small onion)
1 c. leeks (white parts only), sliced crosswise into 3/8" thick rounds (about 1 small whole leek)
1 Tbsp. garlic, peeled & very finely minced (about 2 large cloves)
2 c. baby carrots, sliced crosswise into 1/2" thick rounds (about 28 baby carrots)1/3 c. parsnips, peeled & diced (about 1 large parsnip)1 c. celery, diced(about 4 medium-sized stalks)
1/2 c. Malbec (i.e., French red wine varietal)
8 c. water
1/2 c. tomato paste
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste
1/2 c. fresh dill, very finely minced & densely packed
1 Tbsp. fresh tarragon leaves, very finely minced & densely packed
1 Tbsp. fresh Tuscan Blue rosemary leaves, very finely minced & densely packed
1/4 c. fresh cilantro, very finely minced & densely packed
1/2 c. fresh basil leaves, julienned (don't cook, add to blender with soup ingreds & pulse)
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
a few basil leaves, julienned (for garnish)

Directions: Heat olive oil in a large (8-10 qt.) stock pot on medium heat. Then, when oil is hot, turn down heat to low & quickly add bay leaves, onion, leeks, garlic, carrots, parsnips, & celery, and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Deglaze with Malbec, stirring occasionally, & cook until liquid's volume has been reduced by half. Add 8 c. water to pot, turn up heat to high, & allow water to reach a full, rolling boil. Then reduce heat to low, add all remaining ingredients except for the basil, and simmer, covered, for 20-25 minutes, or until flavors have melded. Remove from heat & let cool for 15-20 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Add lemon juice & stir. Transfer to a blender, in small batches, and purée each batch for about 2-3 minutes, or until smooth. If necessary, reheat before serving. When ready to serve, pour soup into bowls & garnish with a few shreds of basil leaves.

Yield: 4-6 servings. (Makes about 10 c. or 80 fl. oz.)

Chef's Notes: Soup will keep in the refrigerator for a few days or it can be frozen indefinitely, although it's probably best if used within 6 months to a year.

It's very important that you use a mild-mannered Malbec for this recipe. If for some reason, you're unable to get a hold of a Malbec that fits this description, make sure that whatever substitute you choose is a subtle-tasting red wine that's not predominated by oaky flavors. In other words, NO Cabernets, Shiraz/Syrahs, Chiantis, or Merlots! Yes, I know this is going to be a great challenge, as many vineyards these days seem to go overboard with the oak, but trust me, finding the right wine to complement your soup is really worth the effort. :)


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