Since this ible is for the hungry scientist contest, itll have a healthy smattering of science in it. Bear with it, the science will help make you a better cook, and youll soon be improvising, making additions and substitutions, and eyeballing ingredients in no time.
By the by, I LOVE to cook, especially with a bunch of friends and a favorite beverage in hand. I recommend cooking this soup as part of a fall or winter meal with some friends; have them bring crusty bread, pungent cheese, and beverages.
Step 1: Gathering Your Ingredients
1 large baking potato
6-8 medium shallots
6 cloves garlic
1 bunch basil
2 tbs butter
1 tsp sugar
several tsp salt
several tsp pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp coriander
1-2 tsp thyme
1-4 tsp cyanne pepper OR several whole dried chilies
3/4 - 1 lb boneless skinless chicken brest
5 cups chicken stock
1 can coconut milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
A few stale dinner rolls, or any bread you have lying around
So lets discuss some of the ingredients so you know what youre looking for. This step is ridiculously long, so you can skip all the stuff below if you want (except for the first part about carrots, its REALLY REALLY REALLY important!), but its there if you should have a question about an ingredient.
The veggies are the stars of the show, so spend a little money on them, youll still probably end up spending the same amount on all of them as you do on just the chicken and cream.
The carrots should be flavorful, so buy organic if you can. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES BUY BABY CARROTS!!!!!! Baby carrots have a much higher sugar content than regular carrots do, and your soup will end up tasting really sweet and gross. If you skimp and cut corners on every other step, make sure you dont ignore this one.
I know there are plenty of delicious potatoes out there, but we want a baking (russet) potato because of its grainy texture, which will add a full creamy texture to the soup when it is done. Waxy potatoes add flavor, but they dont puree as well. If you want to use a Yukon gold or some other type of waxy potato, make sure you also use a russet.
Shallots are more closely related to garlic than onions, so if you cant find any or prefer not to fuss with them, add one medium onion (something flavorful, I like sweet onions) and a few extra cloves of garlic. Elephant garlic is more closely related to shallots than garlic, so it can be directly substituted (note: Ive never tried this substitution, let me know what you think if you do!).
Garlic will make your kitchen smell flavorful and welcoming, so if nothing else use it to set the theres about to be a ton of great food mood for your guests. Any garlic will do, but some options are better than others. Some special pungent species of garlic you find at your local farmers market is the best, the pre-minced garlic is fine, and even the dry powdered stuff is perfectly acceptable.
The basil and coconut milk lend the soup a Thai theme. Dried basil will work, but the fresh stuff is best. If you can find Thai basil or some other special basil, go for it.
The sugar may seem like an odd ingredient considering my dire warning above about how baby carrots are too sweet for this soup. The recipe calls for browning all of your veggies first. The sugar helps to caramalize the veggies. Caramalizing involves cooking foods with high sugar contents down so you get lots of browning reactions going. Browning reactions (known as Maillard reactions to professional chefs and hungry scientists) are basically chemical reactions that take place when food is cooked on a high heat. They produce new flavor compounds that did not start in the original foods. A good example is the production of butterscotch flavor (from the compound diaciteal) when making beer (for the record, if youve made a beer that has a butterscotch flavor, youve done something wrong, the big beer companies will throw out hundreds of gallons of beer of they detect this flavor in their beer!), or hints of vanilla when caramelizing onions. Adding sugar to your veggies when you brown them will help the Millard reactions along and make your soup nice and flavorful! For more information about Maillard reactions, check out On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Its literally THE textbook for food science majors, and one of my favorite reference books ever.
The spices are to taste. Black pepper adds a nice kick to the soup, salt enhances the flavors in general. I defiantly recommend something spicy. Aside from contributing to the pseudo-Thai theme weve got going, it rounds out the body of the soup. If you are adverse to spice, consider adding one pepper from the store that isnt all that spicy (the produce guy/girl at your supermarket can help you find these). The chemical in peppers and chilies that makes them spicy is capseasen. Capseasen is housed in the seeds and white flesh of chilies and peppers, so if you dislike spice, consider using a poblano or Serrano and scooping the seeds and white flesh out. Be careful when you do this, the spice is contained in an oil that tends to stick to your skin, so wear rubber gloves, or wash your hands and use LOTS of soap, and avoid rubbing your eyes for a few hours. My personal spice preference is dried chipotles. They add a smokey flavor to the soup, and the ones I have a good and hot. Speaking of smoke, paprika is there for smoke, so if you dont have it, dont fret just leave it out if you dont care to go out and buy some.
The chicken breast can be anything you like. It can even be some other part of the chicken, I just find boneless skinless breasts the easiest to work with and keep moist.
For the coconut milk, I recommend the normal stuff, not the light stuff, but I understand a lot of people out there like to cook light. If you use the light stuff just be aware your soup will be a little less creamy, maybe add more potato or stale bread. The same goes for the heavy whipping cream. It will make your soup rich and creamy and fantastic, but if you dont want all of the calories, use less of it and add more bread, or substitute regular milk and more bread. If you are going to use skim milk just skip it all together. Milk has fat in it, and this fat will absorb the flavor of the soup (flavor compounds are fat soluble), so using too much cream will mute your flavors a bit. This isnt always a bad thing, it can help tame a pepper that ended up being too spicy or the garlic you accidently burned.
The chicken stock can be anything, but in my expierence Kroger brand stock sucks. The stock will add more flavor than you might think, but it will be subtle, so if you go cheap it wont be super apparent, but if you go expensive or home made it will defiantly come through in the yum factor. Low sodium stock is great because it gives you the option of salting the soup the way you like it (although I always end up using a lot of salt because of the cream and such anyway).
The bread may seem like a kooky idea. I admit its not mine, Cooks Illustrated has a recipe for creamy tomato soup that I stole it from. But hey, it works! The bread disintegrates and makes your soup more creamy. It doesnt have to be stale, but if you have half a loaf of French bread lying around, heres how you can get rid of it without tossing it out.
Step 2: Prepping the Veggies
You want your veggies cut into pieces that will cook evenly during the browning process. The carrots should be peeled and cut into 1/4 inch slices. The potatoes should be peeled and cut in half, then half again (see the pictures), then sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices. The shallots/onion should be peeled and sliced in half, then chopped into thin strips. Mince the garlic and basil.
When all of the veggies are prepared, put your stock pot onto the stove. Your stock pot doesn't have to be a real pot meant for soups, but it should be fairly large, have two sturdy handles so you can manage it, be tall (not strictly necessary, but helpful), and have a fairly thick bottom so it conducts heat well and evenly. Heat your pot for a minute or two on high heat, then add the butter until it is all melted but not burning. Add the veggies, and stir for a minute or two to combine everything evenly. Add your spices and stir again until combined evenly. At this point, you want to keep an eye on your pot, but you don't want to stir it constantly. If you do you'll never give the ingredients a chance to brown. Notice my pot isn't very large, so only some of my veggies browned well. I like to use as few pots as I can (although I almost always fail at this), but you can use a larger pan for the browning, and then transfer everything into your stock pot. I personally love my cast iron pan. It's 12 inches in diameter, has a heavy bottom so it cooks evenly and holds heat well, and is generally awesome, but in the interest of dish parsimony, I decided to do everything in the stock pot.
Step 3: Chicken It Up!
Clean your chicken, and then slice it in half as if you were slicing two frozen hamburger patties that were stuck together (see the pictures). Now slice the halved breasts into 1/2 inch strips.
Move the chicken into a bowl, add the same spices you used on the veggies in smaller amounts. Eyeball this, I use about 1 tsp salt, 2 tsp ground pepper, 1 tsp paprika, 2 tsp cyanne pepper, 1 tsp dried basil, and a pinch or two of thyme. Add some oil (I like olive oil because of the flavor, and I have tons of it, but you might want to use a neutral oil that has a higher smoke point like canola. Toss the chicken.
Get out a frying pan. I have a sweet one I got in a free pile in my old apartment that has ridges, leaving room for air to circulate under the meat and giving 'grill marks', but any frying pan will work as long as all of your chicken can contact the pan at once. Heat the pan on high heat, and when it is good and hot spray it with cooking spray (or whatever you prefer: butter, oil, whatever). Add the chicken, and cook for a few minutes (maybe 5 or so depending on the size of your pieces) until the bottoms are white and the pieces are cooked half way through. Flip the pieces, and cook until done through, flipping when you need to to evenly brown all of the chicken on all sides (more or less).
Step 4: Making Your Soup a Soup!
Add the chicken stock and stir a few times. Add the can of coconut milk, and stir a few times to combine it. Pour in half the heavy whipping cream, and TASTE. Tasting is a very important part of cooking. You could have and should have been tasting the whole time, but it can be a little difficult to assess the seasoning of a soup by eating one hot carrot, so if you haven't tasted yet, definatly do now. Add seasoning as needed for your taste. A common pitfall of mine is seasoning to what I percieve to be other people's taste. This inevetably leads to a bland soup. Don't be afraid to add more spice, more salt, more pepper, whatever; just be sure to add in small increments so you don't over-spice. I usually end up adding the entire amount of cream, but you may prefer less, so add the second half slowly, stirring and tasting as you go. Remember, cream mutes flavors, so adding more cream might mean adding more pepper or salt or something else.
Now, add a few pieces of torn up bread. I added two dinner rolls I had laying around, but you may want less bread (or more, who am I to tell you how to live your life?). Stir the soup every few minutes until the bread is soaked through and the whole concoction is barely boiling and small bubbles are forming around the sides of the pot.
Step 5: Make It Creamy
You need to puree your soup. My preferred way is to use a hand blender. They can be found for like $10 at a Goodwill. Mine has variable speeds, but it doesn't have to be fancy. If you don't want to use/purchase a hand blender, and normal blender will work fine, just be sure to be safe about it. Your soup is very hot at this point, so if you puree it in a blender the steam will escape very quickly and if your blender is overfull you will get soup shooting out the top. Only use a few cups of soup at a time, making sure to include enough liquid so everything blends smoothly. Hold a hand towel firmly over the top of the blender, and pulse until the chunks are much smaller, then hold on high until the soup is creamy. Transfer to a separate bowl and continue pureeing the soup in batches until it is all done. You can also use a food processer, but I've found mine didn't puree, it just made the pieces smaller (roughly several millimeters in diameter), but not pureed, and thus the texture was wrong.
Add the chunks of cooked chicken and stir to evenly distribute them in the soup. Taste one last time, re-season as needed, and take a bow, you've made yourself an awesome batch of carrot soup. I like to serve it with warmed crusty bread (like a take-n-bake baguette) and a beer, but it can be served as a first course or main course. A few pieces of chopped basil on top or some scallions sliced on the bais (diagonally) would be a nice touch if you're trying to impress your boss, but the flavor and texture speaks for itself, so unadultered is fine too.
I hope you enjoy this soup as much as I do. You can chill it and serve it cool on a warm summer afternoon, or warm on a cold winter evening. You're a hungry scientist, expariment!
I'd like to give credit where credit is due. The original recipe came out of Mark Bitterman's "Best Recipes in the World". The science came from lots of places, but probably mostly from Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking", and to a lesser extend Alton Brown's show "Good Eats", and the bread chunks idea came from the Cook's Illustrated's recipe for Creamy Tomato Soup.