Friday, May 4, 2012

The proof is in the soup



Marco Pierre White leaned towards me, looked into my eyes and made me a promise. 
"This will be", he said softly, "the best pumpkin soup you will ever taste". He gestured towards the recipe he had just scrawled in my notebook and nodded meaningfully. 




Truth be told, it wasn't quite as romantic as it sounds. We were in a romantic setting - the top floor lounge of the Shangri La Hotel in Sydney - but there were at least four other people present, including another writer, the lovely Catherine Smith from the NZ Herald's Weekend Life magazine. Marco had in fact just shared his recipe with the two of us, and I think it's fair to say we were both a wee bit in his thrall at that moment. The Marco charisma had come to the fore. It was the end of a brief interview, but things were just getting interesting, because Marco had just started to get excited as he talked about cooking. Specifically, about cooking with Continental Stock Pot, a product he says he has used throughout his whole cooking career, including in his Michelin-starred restaurants. 


It's interesting the products famous chefs choose to endorse. I have to admire Marco, not promoting fancy cookware or special-occasion crockery, but something quite prosaic; an everyday ingredient used by many a home cook and, it must be said, sometimes sniffed at by hardcore foodies and food writers. Marco swears very earnestly by this product, and has no shortage of ideas about how to use it, including this soup. 


It turns out this wasn't actually a special recipe just for us - my idea that I had inspired him to share a secret was pretty quickly squashed when I found out it's a recipe he often cooks for demonstrations and has been quite profligate in giving to other media - but still. When a world famous and Michelin-feted  chef makes that kind of promise, you can't not cook the soup, right? It was all I could do to wait until Saturday to give it a go. 




The recipe itself is extremely simple (5 ingredients) and quite unusual. It demonstrates Marco's point about the Stockpot product quite cleverly and beautifully; the idea that it can be used as seasoning as well as straight stock. Because it's a gel concentrate, it can be diluted with liquids other than water, opening up an interesting range of flavour combinations. Marco spoke of pork simmered with a combination of orange and tomato juice (plus Stock Pot) and pot-raosted lamb with a porcini, Madeira, water and Stock Pot sauce. 


So here we have a soup with no water, no onion or garlic, no salt or pepper. We start with diced pumpkin, cooked gently in olive oil until soft. Then fresh carrot juice and one Stock Pot gel (I used chicken) are added, and the mixture simmered for 8 minutes. I wouldn't have thought to put carrot juice into pumpkin soup, but the flavours are really quite complementary and the carrots add a stunning intense colour. I made a half batch of Marco's recipe, which was all I could have made really, considering it took me a whole 1.5kg bag of carrots to get 650ml carrot juice. Marco specified 'big carrots' because, he said, their flavour was better. He also specified big pumpkins; I used one of the large grey Crown pumpkins which seemed to work well. The only flavourings apart from the Stock Pot in the soup are a little bit of Parmesan and a little cream. The whole thing took about half an hour to make, including chopping and juicing (although not counting cleaning the juicer, a job which always reminds me why I don't use the juicer very often). 




So how was it? I'll admit I had my doubts, despite that intense gaze and all those Michelin stars. I thought I'd be able to taste the stock in that unpleasant way that powdered stock flavour sometimes comes through if you use it in soups. I also thought the soup could be too salty. In fact, neither of those things happened. The stock was undetectable, and the seasoning was perfect. The carrot wasn't really discernible, except as a mellow, background sweetness. And the whole thing had a lovely smooth and velvety texture. Sandy pronounced it "absolutely delicious" and although he is not a fan, in general, of pumpkin soup, he said it was the best one he'd ever tasted. I am inclined to agree. This has to be my new default recipe, and now I want to try the method with other combinations of vegetables, not to mention giving some of those other ideas a go. As I write I have a leg of lamb slowly simmering away with red wine, rosemary, garlic and (you guessed it) a bit of Stock Pot. The very good news is that there is now a salt-reduced version of the product too, which fits HFG's criteria for stock (which not many products do). So count this as a new staple in my pantry. And a new culinary crush on my list.