A Meditation on Mulligatawny Soup and the Devolution of a Professional Chef to a Home Cook. Or is it?

Thirty-nine years ago, on October 2nd, we opened The Purcellville Inn in western Loudon County, Virginia. One of my favorite comments regarding our journey to successful restaurant ownership is, “We didn’t know how much we didn’t know!” But we learned and, over six years, I evolved as a working chef. Each day started with the sound of a hose turning on below my bedroom window when our daytime dishwasher, Loretta, began washing the kitchen mats we dragged outside the night before. I would stumble down the stairs, stopping to turn on the Bunn coffee maker and unlock the kitchen door. I would begin another day of preparing lunch and dinner specials, writing the latest holiday promotional menu, interviewing and scheduling staff, calling suppliers, checking in on the local farmers and growers and, always just before service, declaring the “Soup of the Day.”

You don’t need a plan to make soup. My favorite children’s folk story was “Stone Soup.” Three starving soldiers returning from war pass through villages bereft of food stolen by marauding armies. The soldiers stop in one town to find all the doors barred to them. Undeterred, they place a large cauldron of water over a fire and put one stone in the bottom of the vessel. One by one, villagers creep from their homes, asking the soldiers what they are cooking, and a soldier replies, “It is stone soup, but it would be even better with a few carrots.” Or a few potatoes, or a bit of meat, or some herbs and seasonings—and one by one, the villagers run back to their houses and return with a few offerings. Before long, everyone shares the feast of nourishing soup.

“Use what you have” served as a practical business application in my work kitchen and my menu planning, resulting in a profitable food cost at the restaurant. And as a home cook, I continue to plan meals by first looking in my pantry and refrigerator. I follow food trends, frequent Amazon Prime for exotic vinegar and spice mixtures, update and rewrite old recipes. But Stone Soup continues to inspire me daily, as does the Cooking column of the New York Times and their frequent reference to the “no recipe-recipe.” As I ruminate on whether or not, almost forty years on, I am a better home cook than I was a working chef, I offer up a recipe (as well as a few no recipe-recipes) that was requested recently.

The Purcellville Inn update on Mulligatawny Soup

The first key ingredient here is the best homemade chicken broth you can find: not too reduced and dark, but clean tasting and full of flavor. A whole chicken will give you the best result. Make your broth base by adding rough-cut vegetables (carrots, celery, onions) to the pot with dried thyme, bay leaves, and whole peppercorns. Simmer in several quarts of water before adding the chicken. Cut up the pieces of a whole chicken so as the pot simmers, you can pull out the white meat and debone it, throwing the bones back in the pan and thus not overcooking the meat. Set the white meat aside for an excellent chicken salad or shred it for the soup.

Do the same with the dark meat: you can shred or dice up the cooked chicken for pot pies or enchiladas, or prepare a poultry version of Hunter’s Stew. Sauté mushrooms with minced garlic and shallots and thyme and set aside. Next, sauté carrots, onions, red and yellow bell pepper. Add white wine, a few cups of that great homemade stock, the mushrooms, and some wonderful oven-roasted grape or cherry tomatoes. Halve the red orbs, and toss with olive oil, shallot slices, garlic and thyme, S& P–cook them low on 325 F in a casserole and stir every so often until they release their juices and begin to caramelize, but not burn. Finish the Hunter’s Stew flavor profile with fresh Tarragon. Thicken the stew to your liking with a paste of soft butter and flour (a Beurre Manie). Serve over Polenta!

The second key point for the best results is the flavor and quality of your yellow curry powder. I don’t have a go-to brand anymore. I can no longer find the brand I bought in quantity all those years ago at The Inn. I just keep buying and tasting. Look for something that is bright yellow and has a clean and not bitter flavor. Don’t focus on heat. You can always add warmth by splashing in your favorite hot pepper sauce or my current go-to: ground Aleppo pepper. Don’t sauté the Aleppo with the veggies and other spices. Let it bloom when you add the liquid to the soup. It won’t taste spicy right away. Let the flavor develop. This is low and slow heat, not tongue burning.

Third decision point: Heavy cream or unsweetened coconut milk? Your preference.

4th: Add rice to the soup, or serve the soup over rice? Make your choice.

5th: What kind of apples? As the year progresses, go for the freshest ones you can find. The sweet/tart, crisp/tender flavor of Envy suits the recipe well this season. Try roasting them with other vegetables for an easy and economical sheet pan supper (cauliflower, carrots, onion, bell peppers–the timing varies for each one. Put the longest cooking vegetables on first and add others as you go. First, toss each addition with olive oil and your choice of herbs and seasoning. Add the apples last. Finish with a small drizzle of good white wine vinegar). Don’t want to heat your oven? Throw peeled, and diced apples into a sauté with chicken or pork chops. For a “Sauce Normand,” deglaze your pan with a little apple brandy and cream and a dash of chicken stock. Serve it with partially steamed and then roasted Baby Dutch (small Yukon Gold) potatoes and a lovely green salad. If you decide to indulge in a bottle of French Calvados to make this dish—drink it as an aperitif with a little sparkling water or wine, garnished with an apple slice. Maybe we should call this drink a Kir Normand?

6th: Serve your Mulligatawny with condiments? Why not? Make a party meal out of it: a big crockpot on the buffet or pot on the stove, bowls laid out with rice ready to scoop, and toppings to add to your family or guests’ preferences: toasted unsweetened coconut, toasted slivered almonds or pine nuts, yellow raisins or sliced dried apricots plumped in dry vermouth or white wine, diced raw apples, slivers of fresh jalapeno and serrano chili peppers (remove seeds and stems), fresh herbs of your choice (parsley for sure, maybe cilantro?). Thin some plain yogurt with a little coconut milk to swirl over the top.

7th: No side dish required. Make a citrusy olive-oil cake for dessert with a dried-cherry compote. Or, if it’s the berry-picking season, slow roast some strawberries with a little turbinado sugar and finish with some aged balsamic vinegar. You’re welcome!

Okay, finally, the recipe:

Mulligatawny Soup

Ingredients

2 medium white or yellow (not sweet) onions, ½ inch dice, should yield 2 cups
1 cup celery, ½ inch dice (about 2-3 stalks celery)
1 cup peeled carrot, ½ inch dice (2-3 medium-sized carrots)
1 red or orange (go for color!) bell pepper, ½ inch dice
1 leek, washed of grit, dried, sliced in half lengthwise, and cut into thin half-moons
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced or grated
3 TB butter, preferably unsalted
3 TB neutral oil
1 TB fragrant yellow curry powder
3 TB all-purpose flour
½ cup extra dry vermouth or dry white wine
5 cups chicken broth, heat before adding to the pot
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp ground Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes (start with ¼ tsp) or your choice of hot sauce to taste
2 Envy apples, cored, but not peeled, ½ inch dice–if it looks like too much apple, save some to use as garnish
2 cups diced or shredded cooked chicken—add more if you are making this more of a stew
½ cup heavy cream or unsweetened coconut milk
S&P to taste
Garnishes as recommended above
Steamed white rice (I recommend Basmati!) for serving
**I prefer NOT to add the rice to the soup. It gets overly soft and soaks up the broth too much for my taste. Or have warm rice ready and stir into the soup just before you serve it up into individual cups or bowls.

Method
Melt butter with oil over low heat and add vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, frequently stirring over medium-low heat until onions are translucent and everything begins to soften.

Add garlic and turn heat to low, stir, cook for 30 to 60 seconds until it becomes fragrant.

Add curry powder, frequently stir to “bloom” the spice in the butter/oil.
When it becomes fragrant (don’t let it brown or burn), add the flour, stirring continuously to coat all the vegetables. If it is sticking to the pan, add a little more neutral oil or melted butter.

Deglaze the pan with white wine, stirring and scraping up the bottom and sides. Slowly add in the hot broth, stir to make sure each addition is incorporated, and any lumps dissolve.

When all the chicken broth is added, add the dried thyme and Aleppo pepper and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently and scraping sides to keep anything from sticking and burning.

Once the soup thickens, add the apples. Cook until apples are almost tender.

Add the chicken and the coconut milk or cream, being careful not to let it boil or the cream might break.

Season to taste with more pepper sauce/S&P.

Serve as suggested above.

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