Friday, January 24, 2014

Occitanian soup, freely translated (and another entry into my Culinary Hall of Fame)


Madeleine Kamman -- I am tempted to say, the great Madeleine Kamman -- remains my favorite cooking writer. Her New Making of a Cook and When French Women Cook comprise in themselves a complete cooking library, although I admit I prepare very few dishes from the latter; as she says in her introduction, most of its recipes are meant for entertaining and so are too elaborate for everyday. What is great about Madeleine, however, and what is evidenced in both books, is not only that she respects and teaches the science and the whys of cooking, which is always a great help (once you learn why your onions burned or your dough was tacky, you won't repeat mistakes endlessly), but that she has deep family and professional roots in France's and therefore the West's cooking heritage. She prefaces many of the recipes in The New Making of a Cook by saying, this is the authentic way (and why), this is the way I was taught and why, this is the no-shortcuts method which you must know in order to understand, etc. The cynic could argue that any writer on any technical subject is likely to claim that whatever he learned at his grandmother's side is authentic and in danger of being lost by foolish hustle-bustle modern man -- but Madeleine, whose attitude anyway is never lofty and judgmental like that, does seem to know her material. She knows, for example, that if you want to taste something like the fermented fish sauce of ancient Rome called garum or liquamen, "try to find on the French Riviera and in the backcountry of Nice a true pissalat, which by now has become a rare form of true liquamen."

Well, okay. Needless to say, I'll trust her on things like mashed potatoes or a good roast chicken.

Today's recipe is from the "Happy Marriages" chapter -- i.e., soups -- of The New Making of a Cook. I have had to translate Occitanian Soup into a somewhat less robust version of the original, not having access to confit fat, walnut oil, or pancetta. Not that it's anyone's fault but my own that I don't have access to these things. Confit fat, for example, is a kitchen product that you understand perfectly well you could make yourself, once you carefully read Madeleine's instructions about it. It's simply any animal fat, but usually duck, that is used as a kind of deep bath in which to cook a salted and spiced meat. Then the meat and fat are cooled and stored in a jar until wanted, the fat of course solidifying on top of the meat to act as a seal. So for a recipe calling for confit fat, you would reach into your cellar or fridge and spoon out a bit of it from the jar. The whole affair probably represents a cooking technique dating from the Stone Age, Madeleine says, "when meats were cooked in water in a large animal skin stretched like a pouch over an open fire. ...when one cooks meat this way and lets it simmer a long time, the water eventually evaporates, leaving the meat to finish cooking in its own fat." Incidentally, the spice mixture she likes best, to sprinkle on the meat you intend to cook in confit, comes from the village of Beynac in the Perigord (see page 786).

Need I elucidate why she takes pride of place in my little Culinary Hall of Fame?

But, the soup. In the very authentic version, you will start by soaking dried beans overnight in water. Then you'll cook them briefly and set them aside. Then, you'll brown pancetta and onions in confit fat, and add to them loads of chopped vegetables -- cabbage, leeks, carrots, turnips, and celery, plus a big bouquet garni of 20 parsley stems, 1 large bay leaf, and 1 "very large" sprig of thyme. Toss all of it and let it cook briefly, then cover the vegetables with water and cook about 15 minutes, then add the beans and their water and cook about 35 more minutes.

Meanwhile -- authentically, again -- you'll prepare, first, a persillade. This is a combination of 3 large cloves of garlic, diced, along with 1/4 cup of minced fresh parsley. Once this is ready in a little bowl, add half of it to a sausage mixture of ground turkey, goose, or duck meat plus Italian sausage removed from its casing, plus an egg and a cup of breadcrumbs. All of this mixture you will shape into six patties, which you'll then wrap in blanched, softened cabbage leaves. Tie these packages with kitchen string, and drop them into the soup to cook. They will be done after about 40 minutes' simmering. The right amounts of salt and pepper, of course, are for you to judge all through your cooking.

Finally, to serve, you will remove the string from the meat packages, and stir into the soup the other half of that persillade sitting in the little bowl. And you'll have a grated hard cheese handy to sprinkle on each individual portion. "A dry sheep's milk cheese from the French or Spanish Pyrenees" would be best, or a Pecorino Romano. (I used a Parmesan.)

May I, respectfully, translate? I think it's all right if I do. Somewhere in the 1100 page depth of her book Madeleine writes that over the years, she has learned to appreciate and accept the simple reality of other people's tastes.



Melt a nice-flavored combination of fats in a heavy bottomed pot. Butter and olive oil are excellent. Add and stir, soften and wilt, some chopped onions, leeks, carrots, celery, and Savoy cabbage. (This last, and the leeks, make a real difference.)

Stir in some herbs, like parsley, thyme, and basil. Fresh thyme is one of your very best friends in the soup pot.

Add water to cover the vegetables. I like to add a packet of peppercorns and coriander seeds stapled into a paper coffee filter, which substitutes well for the cheesecloth you don't necessarily need to buy.



Simmer the soup as long as you like. Apart from the preparation of the beans, even Madeleine's authentic version only really cooks for perhaps an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes, counting the forty minutes the sausage and cabbage packages will "finish cooking with the soup." The longer the better, however.



Do, by all means, make that persillade and stir half of it into the soup at the end. I think it's considered acceptable to moisten it with a bit of olive oil, too. If it doesn't give you a new and lifelong passion for fresh garlic, it will at least keep Dracula away for the night.

And about the sausage and cabbage packages. I believe there's no harm in making meatballs instead. A pound of ground beef or veal, mixed with half the persillade and the egg and breadcrumbs, may be formed into small balls and the balls simmered 15 minutes in a separate pot of salted water. Add these to the soup -- no strings attached -- and carry on.



When you sit down to dine you will almost, almost feel you are somewhere in the Perigord, which incidentally is just where those French boys found the Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux in the 1940s. Perhaps our ancestors then -- to be fair, Frenchmen's ancestors, wouldn't you know it -- painted so beautifully because they had just eaten so well. Confits, and things.

Madeleine must have the last word. This is one of the wisest things I think I have ever read: and it's in a cookbook.

"There is something instructive to be found everywhere and the more points of view you allow yourself to understand, the more you will become truly yourself by keeping what you like and discarding what you do not."

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