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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken Consommé

Clear soup. Not just clear, but crystalline. It is—or can be—perfection in a bowl. The effort put into creating such a dish speaks through the gentle flavors, perfect clarity, and precisely prepared garnishes. It is a foundation of the classic cuisine of Escoffier, but it originated earlier.

What Mrs. Beeton described in her entry "To Clarify Stock" was refined over the ensuing 40 years into Escoffier's King of Soups—Consommé. The concept of a clarified stock has been around for many years—indeed, some recipes can be found dating to the medieval period—but it has been refined over the ensuing years.

Mrs. Beeton said,
INGREDIENTS - The whites of 2 eggs, 1/2 pint of water, 2 quarts of stock.
Mode.—Supposing that by some accident the soup is not quite clear, and that its quantity is 2 quarts, take the whites of 2 eggs, carefully separated from their yolks, whisk them well together with the water, and add gradually the 2 quarts of boiling stock, still whisking. Place the soup on the fire, and when boiling and well skimmed, whisk the eggs with it till nearly boiling again; then draw it from the fire, and let it settle, until the whites of the eggs become separated. Pass through a fine cloth, and the soup should be clear.
This technique has only changed slightly since her writing—the basis of clarification is still egg whites, but now we include lean ground meat and mirepoix in the process, creating a mixture known as "clearmeat," which is then simmered in the stock, to create what is known as a "raft;" this raft traps the impurities in the stock and enriches it simultaneously, creating wonderful flavors.

Nowadays, a typical recipe for chicken consommé looks something like this:

5 qt/4.8 L Chicken Stock or Broth
1 lb/454 g mirepoix (i.e., 1/2 onion, 1/4 carrot, 1/4 celery) small dice
3 lb/1.36 kg lean ground chicken
10 egg whites
Some kind of acid (this varies in quantity depending on the acid, its strength, flavor, etc.)

All ingredients are combined, stirred frequently, and brought just to a simmer—the temperature should come between 120°-125°F/49°-52°C. Once that point is reached, it is left to simmer, with a small hole made in the raft, for 1-1 1/2 hours. The raft is periodically "basted" by drawing out some of the clarifying stock and pouring it gently over the raft, to keep it moist.

Garnishes for Consommé vary widely, depending on the style of cooking. I've found an amazing recipe for Duck Consommé with Potato and Nori (it's so much more than that, go look,) and I've seen Pheasant Consommé served with a Pheasant Galantine and Brunoised Potatoes and Carrots. Traditional garnishes include poached quenelles of ground meat, fine-cut vegetables, "Royale"—a kind of custard made with egg and stock—, eggs, wines—the possibilities tend to be somewhat endless. For this dinner, I've stuck with a classic—finely cut vegetables, allowing the richness of the soup to shine through without any interruption.

I started this Consommé a few days in advance by making chicken stock. Instead of chicken carcasses, I used two pounds of chicken feet, and three pounds of chicken wings. Chicken feet contain a great deal of cartilage, and therefore using them in stock creates a finished product with exceptional mouthfeel; gelatin in the finished product is essential to a high-quality stock, and a high-quality stock is essential to a perfect consommé.Wings have good amounts of cartilage (from young chickens, anyhow) and small bones. The only downside is they tend to be somewhat fattier than is desirable, but in my case the stock is going to be chilled and re-heated for use, so the fat will be easily removed.

Consommé, with raft visible.
Chicken Consommé
2.5 qt (2.4 L) Chicken Stock
8 oz (227 g) mirepoix, small dice
1.5 lb (680 g) lean ground chicken
5 egg whites
5 ounces diced tomato

8 tsp (40 ml) carrot, brunoise
8 tsp (40 ml) celery, brunoise

1. Chill thoroughly, then combine the mirepoix, chicken, egg whites, and tomato in a heavy saucepot. Add a small amount of the stock to facilitate mixing well. Slowly add the remaining stock, mixing vigorously to combine all ingredients.

2. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Once the raft forms, stop mixing, make sure a hole is present, and allow to bubble gently for 1 hour.

Clarified Consommé
3. Carefully ladle out the clarified soup, straining through cheesecloth.

4. If time allows, chill and degrease; otherwise, use a paper towel to blot up any grease that floats to the surface.

5. Blanch all garnish vegetables, shock, then place into service bowls. Pour hot soup over and serve immediately.

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