Consider soup. Specifically the tortilla soup at La Esquina. More specifically, the tortilla soup just handed to you by the delivery guy. The bag stamped with the restaurant’s logo, the thick, wasteful pile of paper napkins and plastic spoons. The insulated white, lidded paper cup, the whole thing wrapped tightly in plastic to prevent spillage.
I usually use a fork to prick a hole in the plastic, then slip in the handle, slide the whole thing off and delicately, very delicately, remove the lid. And slurp with the provided spoon, which is flexible and deep-bowled. If ever there were a case of supreme packaging this is it. Finally pried open, what earlier smelled of nothing but warm paper emits a cloud of steam that will curl your toes.
The smoky smell precisely mirrors the broth, which I suspect is made with a touch of dried chilies. Tomatoes, lime, chilies, corn, oil, come through in a magical blend. I try to fill each spoonful with broth, a bit of shredded chicken, avocado, fried, still crisp tortilla strips, and bits of those chilies.
To me, this is soup at its best: a rich broth with plenty of suitable garnish. Which is why matzoh ball soup-a bowlful of barely flavored water interrupted by a dense white softball-is so infuriating. If you’re looking for a good, brothy soup, go for high quality wonton or ramen, with their tasty broths and multiple garnishes.
Proper soup-such as the aforementioned tortilla-has to be carefully layered and interesting, otherwise it’s just a bowl of liquid. Which is why excessively thick clam chowder is so tragic-its clams and garnish wrecked by a heavy hand of flour.
Pureed soups-a personal favorite-are especially tricky, as they should taste of the central ingredient without smacking you over the head. Spinach soup is the perfect example. A bowl of pureed spinach tastes on the order of iron filings, hence the need for potatoes, onions and carrots. Less potent veggies such as cauliflower and broccoli can be left on their own, but I like a touch of leek for a little extra, varied taste.
I could go on, for soup is a world of its own, the only food to command its own Soup Nazi. And in true Soup Nazi fashion, I demand one rule only: season 3 times, beginning, middle, and end. Do so at the end and you’ll have a potful of salty soup.
As for garnish, a neat party trick with pureed soups is to snip elegant and uniform raw bits of the eponymous ingredient and lay them on top before serving. Not only does this add a bit of crunch, but it identifies the soup in a playful, catering kind of way.
I’ve asked La Esquina for their recipe, but they refused. An entirely appropriate response. Just ask the Soup Nazi.
1 large sandwich or hero roll torn into ½ inch pieces
1 leek, light green and white part only, washed and sliced
1 rib celery, sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced
1 bunch broccoli, a few large florets reserved on the side for garnish
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
- Make the croutons. For speed, I broil, but oven roasted at 300 or pan fried work fine. Either way, toss with plenty of olive oil in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Cook on a tray until lightly browned. Remove and reserve.
- Prepare the garnish: using a paring knife, snip the reserved large florets into tiny, ¼ inch florets. Reserve in a bowl.
- Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. When hot, add the leek, celery, and carrot and gently cook, stirring, until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile, chop the broccoli into a bowl, and, using a paring knife, peel the fibrous stems, chop the insides and add to the bowl. You should have about 6 cups.
- Stir in the broccoli, add water to cover by a few inches (about 8 cups depending on the pot), season again with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.
- Using a ladle (you could use a slotted spoon, but you’ll need a ladle anyway so why dirty an extra utensil), transfer the veggies to a blender, tipping the ladle each time to drain off the liquid into the pot. Add a few ladlefuls of broth to the solids in the blender. DON’T OVERFILL, no more than 2/3 full or you’ll be scraping the stuff off the walls.
- Puree to soup consistency until you’ve run out of solids. Err on the thick side as you can always add more broth. While the machine is running, pour in the cream and re-season for the third time.
- Pour back into the (rinsed) pot and serve dotted with 4 or 5 of the tiny florets and croutons.