The heat is on

Under pressure to finish holiday dinner, some cooks use a soup course to clear the company out of the kitchen

December 23, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

If I could stretch crime scene tape across my kitchen door to keep the in-laws out while I make holiday dinner, I'd do it. But for some strange reason, my husband thinks that would be rude.

So I resort instead to soup.

A bowl of something warm and creamy is so much more than a first course.

It is a diversionary tactic.

Soup's on, and everybody's off to the table and out of the kitchen.

"You get them out of your hair - you lovingly get them out of your hair," said John Shields, chef of Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Surely there are multi-taskers out there who can keep up their half of the conversation with Aunt Betty while simultaneously mashing potatoes, making gravy and carving the turkey. I am not one of them.

I'd always assumed that personal failing was known only to humble home cooks. But Shields assured me even professional chefs who turn out hundreds of meals a day sometimes struggle to put out a spread for family.

"I find it much more difficult at home," he said. "They want to socialize with you. ... It's really a juggling act to be able to get everything out and make it look like you're relaxed and everything's fine."

At moments like this, soup really is good food.

The truism that guests are magnetically drawn to the kitchen meets its polar opposite in soup, which pulls them out again. At family holiday meals, Shields has accomplished this by serving a potato-parsnip-leek soup garnished with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, chives and a grating of fresh nutmeg.

Mm! Mm! Good! for hungry guest and frazzled cook alike.

"It keeps them busy for a while," Shields said. "You always want to do that because it becomes so crazy."

Sometimes Shields sets up a soup station, where guests can fill their own bowls. Other times, he gets a volunteer to ladle and serve the soup. Either way, he uses that time to finish up the rest of the meal.

Lest every bowl immediately become suspect, let it be said that there are hosts who serve soup selflessly, who seek only to fill their guests, not empty their kitchens. Count Cindy Wolf among them.

When the chef-owner of Baltimore's Charleston restaurant hosts Christmas dinner for family, the first course is either oyster stew or a soup made with fresh chestnuts. For the latter, she roasts and peels the chestnuts, simmers them with chicken stock, cream and sauteed onions and shallots, and finally, purees and seasons the mixture - all with nary a thought of rousting relatives from her kitchen.

In fact, Wolf recommends soup for holiday gatherings as a way of spending more time with guests on Christmas, not shooing them away. Because soup can be made ahead, Wolf only has to reheat that course at dinner time, freeing her up to socialize.

"I think that's one of the great things about soup," Wolf said. "Soup is great the next day - it's better. ... As a professional chef, you want to try to do as many things ahead of time so you're not trapped in the kitchen."

The soup is only a small part of Wolf's Christmas menu. The rest: roast beef tenderloin with nicoise olive relish and a sauce made of red wine, chicken and veal stock; roast duck with pecan stuffing; cauliflower with brown butter; green beans slow-cooked with ham (a concession the normally crisp bean-inclined chef makes to her mother's York, Pa. heritage); a cheese-and-fruit course; and for dessert, flourless chocolate cake and pistachio creme anglaise.

That menu might push the average home cook over the edge, but Wolf can pull it off without losing her head, partly because of that do-ahead soup. She actually wants guests in the kitchen - no crime-scene tape for this hostess - so they can serve themselves from a pot on the stove.

"I'm looking for great food I think will please everybody and some components I can do ahead," she said. "I am making things that are special for them, but I'm not going crazy."

Chef Scott Sommer of Columbia's Iron Bridge Wine Company dishes up a much more limited spread on Christmas, but soup is on his menu, too.

"I kind of take the day off," said Sommer, who would rather watch his 1-year-old daughter, Gillian, and nearly 3-year-old son, Gabriel, open gifts than spend the day in the kitchen. "It's much more about the kids and the presents and doing the Christmas morning thing. When the kids are older, we might worry about having a more traditional Christmas meal. But right now it's about not getting bogged down."

Sommer's mostly serves "snack-y foods" like nachos and a vegetable tray that people can nibble on throughout the day. A sweet potato-pear soup he makes the night before helps turn that into a meal.

"The soup's already done," he said. "I can just throw it on the burner over low heat and forget about it. ... With two little ones running around and my in-laws in town, we've decided to keep the chaos to a minimum."

Chef Cindy Wolf's Chestnut Soup
Makes: six servings

15 fresh chestnuts

1 tablespoon corn oil

1/2 Spanish onion, small dice

2 shallots, small dice

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