Broccoli soup. It’s not a topic which will set the culinary world ablaze. There is no controversy of foie gras or technical skill of soufflé or even you would imagine the sheer finger licking goodness of a rack of ribs. However, I firmly believe that I learnt the most about cooking from a simple broccoli soup and I still make the recipe all the time. Most broccoli soup recipes are chock full of cream or are combined with stilton but this one is so simple most people don’t believe it will be nice. It has only broccoli, water salt and pepper in its ingredient list but it teaches you all you’ll ever need to know about how to season properly and why sometimes simple clarity of flavour is more impressive than all the bells and whistles. Put simply – broccoli soup rocks.
I know I have lost many of you already. Broccoli soup is bad enough but now I’m taking away all the things that might have made it taste nice. Well, that’s what my family thought and they ate their words (after eating the broccoli soup) and my mother-in-law is a complete convert who makes it all the time. The secret is salt. Salt is simply wonderful and is the single most important ingredient in not just this broccoli soup but pretty much every meal cooked in the western world (In the East they get their salt from other forms like soy or fish sauce). Now, I’m not talking bucket loads of salt designed to give people heart attacks. I’m talking just enough salt to bring out the natural flavour of food without tasting salty. You see, unlike pepper (which adds a peppery taste to food and is a spice) salt is a seasoning. It changes the way our taste buds react allowing us to taste flavours more strongly and with more subtlety. Ever wondered why restaurant dishes can have so much complexity to them and how you can really taste that star anise in the carrots. The answer isn’t that they put loads more spices in or that they’ve somehow injected flavour though some molecular wizardry, it’s often just that it’s well seasoned.
The great lesson I was given on seasoning was simply to taste this broccoli soup at different stages of the recipe. The cooking itself is very simple, broccoli florets are boiled until just cooked (not mushy), removed from the water and blended until smooth with a little of the reserved cooking water (add enough water to make it smooth and silky but not thin and watery). At this point it tastes exactly like you’d expect – bland, unappealing and frankly disgusting. However, place a few tablespoons in a separate bowl and start adding salt tasting as you go. You’ll find it gradually starts to taste more and more of broccoli itself, it becomes vibrant and even the texture changes as it begins to feel creamy. Keep adding salt and this intensifies until eventually it breaks and you start to taste the salt itself and it becomes unpleasant. That there is the magical barrier where it goes from perfectly seasoned to salty and ruined, a barrier that once crossed is impossible to uncross.
Pepper, however, has a totally different effect. If you add the pepper before the salt, you find that you can barely taste it. The broccoli soup is still bland but with a slight after-note of spice. As you keep adding pepper, eventually it becomes nothing but harshness. Season with salt now and the pepper taste becomes almost unbearable burning the back of your throat. The salt doesn’t just bring out the flavour of the broccoli it also brings out the flavour of the pepper. As such we were taught to season with salt until almost perfect, then to add the pepper until almost perfect and adjust a bit at a time with each one. If you get it just right, the soup is fresh and vibrant tasting almost buttery and intensely of broccoli. In the background there’s a peppery hit that brings everything to life without overpowering, the pepper should be there as an aftertaste that builds.
I really hope you try this broccoli soup – you can tart it up for a dinner party with goats cheese, walnuts and crispy bacon peeking up cheekily through the top of the soup but in all honesty you don’t need to. You can make it a little thicker (less water) and add it to a risotto base for a vibrant green risotto (which by the way goes amazingly with monkfish) or use it as a sauce for pasta with a little parmesan. It freezes well, keeps in the fridge and can be cooked in advance and reheated. But my favourite way to have it? Some crusty French bread and a bowl (or two) of steaming broccoli soup with a tiny drizzle of olive oil on the top.
Little tip: When making the soup – keep the broccoli stems, they’re delicious cooked in a little butter until softened – just peel them first.
Ingredients: (makes a large quantity – I often freeze some)
- 2 large broccolis. Stems removed and cut into medium sized florets
- Water, Salt and Pepper
- Place a pot of lightly salted water on a medium high heat until boiling. Add the broccoli and cook until just cooked (about 5-7 minutes). A knife inserted should slight out easily but the broccoli should not be in anyway mushy.
- Remove the broccoli with a slotted spoon and transfer to a blender. Add some (about a cup) of the cooking water and blend until smooth. Add more water until the right consistency, it should be thick but still soupy. At this point it will taste bland and horrible but trust me.
- Season well with salt and pepper – see the tips in the body of the post. Gradually the soup will become creamy, rich and vibrant. That’s it!