Aspen Times Weeky: Stir it up — soup’s on!
Rock Bottom Ranch Kitchen
Feb. 10: Serious Comfort Food
Mar. 10: Appetizers for Entertaining
Apr. 14: Spring Greens
Hands-on cooking demos, 6-7:15 p.m.
Rock Bottom Ranch
2001 Hooks Spur Rd., Basalt
I’ve had soup on my mind lately. After all, an estimated 3,000 people turned up for Soupsköl 2015 two weeks ago; Square Grouper’s creamy Cajun chicken and corn chowder with shrimp bisque floater and cornbread crumble tied for the championship trophy with newcomer Meat & Cheese Farmshop & Restaurant’s classic chicken, lemongrass, and coconut-milk tom kha gai. (For the Grouper, it was a rare three-peat.)
Then I considered the puzzling proliferation of seafood stews on Aspen menus: at Zocalito (cod, calamari, shrimp, mussels, and avocado in piquant tomato-chile broth) and Grey Lady (lobster, littleneck clams, mussels, cod, shrimp, confit potato, and leek with saffron rouille), on special occasionally at Rustique Bistro (orange-scented saffron-tomato broth with calamari, clams, Ruby trout, salmon, and frogs’ legs), and every Friday at HOPS Culture (tomato-braised calamari, baby octopus, mussels, sweet shrimp, chickpeas). Plato’s chef Aaron “Time is Love” Schmude sinks serious effort into his achiote cioppino (clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, fennel confit, Avalanche goat and pork chorizo, pearl onion), which, for diners, is $34 very well spent.
The classics don’t fail, either. Jimmy’s Bodega makes a mean New England clam chowder. Hearty chicken noodle soup feeds the soul at the J-Bar and Prospect at Hotel Jerome. The Popcorn Wagon slings pork green chile. Ajax Tavern, Mezzaluna, Zeno, and Annette’s Bakery each serve a distinct tomato concoction. Spring Café has soup du jour: mmm, that sounds good, I think I’ll have that.
On the top floor of the Aspen Art Museum, SO in the Andrea and James Gordon Café showcases inventive soup on a new menu every Tuesday. Will this week’s Black Bean with Cilantro-Chipotle Sour Cream top last week’s lemongrass-infused Thai Carrot Soup with Fiery Peanut Gremolata? I can’t yet say; my deadline was Monday.
Recently I dined at bb’s bar, where I slurped up chef Matt Zubrod’s $7 lobster chowder with bacon and clams — a dish I can’t help but order whenever I visit. I chatted with Zubrod, who’s been experimenting with pho (along with every other chef riding the ramen tsunami wave in this country). Similar to his Soupsköl entry, Zubrod’s duck confit pho is on bb’s bar menu, but recently he launched an underground “Red Light Ramen” series in bb’s lounge. Every Friday from 6-10 p.m., Zubrod serves up two other types of pho: tonkotsu (pork) and shoyu (chicken). You heard it here first.
So, OK, soup is nothing new. In fact, it was mankind’s earliest culinary creation after the advent of fire: throw a bunch of ingredients into a cauldron with water, let boil, and voilà: soup. Soup is thought to have spawned the modern restaurant industry, as restoratifs such as broth and consommé were the first dishes served in public eating houses in 18th-century Paris. As lighter meals were served later in the day, the very word, soup, stems from the same word that gave us “supper.”
Even though I simmer my own vegetable stock routinely and possess an arsenal of favorite recipes, I dropped by Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt last week for “Hearty Soups,” the inaugural cooking demonstration in the property’s revamped commercial kitchen. Even with homemade stock and mise en place pre-prepared, it’s no small feat that RBR director and former Little Nell chef Jason Smith makes three homemade soups to feed 20 hungry guests in 40 minutes.
“If we don’t know how to prepare it, then it doesn’t do much good to go buy it at the farmers market,” Smith says, highlighting RBR’s educational mission. Unfortunately, because it’s January, the Persephone Effect is, well, in full effect: Plant growth slows and chickens halt egg production from Thanksgiving to the third week of January, when daylight drops below 12 hours a day.
“We can’t feature too many of our ingredients,” Smith says, noting that RBR roaster chickens sold out long ago. “We’re just trying to stay warm for winter.”
Instead, Smith shares a variety of kitchen tricks that make soup cooking even easier. He demonstrates how to dice an onion ultra-fast (slice lengthwise, keeping root attached; slice horizontally through center; slice cross-wise 7-8 times). “Just trust me,” he says, throwing 10 whole cloves of garlic into a sweet potato-kale soup. Indeed, any pungent flavor mellows over time.
“I hate peeling and dicing really hard squash,” Smith says, to a chorus of approving murmurs. He presents two seeded halves of butternut squash that have been roasted on a sheet pan between two leafs of aluminum foil for about an hour. He places a cookie cooling rack over a large bowl and in one motion pushes the squash flesh through it, wiping the skin clean and blowing our minds in mere seconds.
As garnish for the roasted butternut squash bisque, Smith chops a fistful of chives — but not before rolling the ends with a thin, wet strip of paper towel to prevent greenery from getting all over the place. We learn other key tips — to cook roux (equal parts butter and flour) until brown and nutty; the merits of snow-white pork lard; an easy substitute for crème fraiche (Greek yogurt thinned with water).
In the end, the best soups boil down to a universal truth. “The basis of a good soup is always good stock,” says Smith, who leads the next Rock Bottom Ranch Kitchen demonstration on February 10 (see opposite). Recipes are but guidelines.
“If you don’t like the flavor of fennel, don’t put fennel in your stock,” he says. “Because we sold out of chickens this year, I went to Whole Foods and bought a precooked rotisserie chicken. I pulled the meat off of it, and made a stock with the bones. If you take these ingredients, throw them into the pot, and turn the water on, you’ll have a better product than what you can buy at the store.”
Homemade soup: it’s what’s for dinner.
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What we wouldn’t give to be able to have a real Halloween festival of mirth and merry making this year, much like the masquerade ball at the Hotel Jerome in 1908.