Holly A. Heyser
It's not often I write a post solely about a recipe. I've dedicated whole sections of my site just to recipes, so I prefer to write about other things and point those who may be interested to the recipes themselves. But consommé is more than just a recipe—it is one of the great discoveries of my experiments with wild game cooking.
Consommé is one of those classic French techniques anyone who attends cooking school learns to do. I've seen all sorts of chefs roll their eyes at consommé as boring or overly fussy. But at its best, consommé is powerfully flavored broth so clear you can read the Bible through it. A well-made consommé is also one of those dishes that is far harder to execute than it looks. Consommé shows skill and panache without shouting, like a Savile Row shirt: crisp, understated, but oozing style and class. Consommé is the Grace Kelly of soups.
Tragically, consommé died about the same time as Princess Grace, in the early 1980s. What happened? Why do we not see it on menus anymore? Probably the same reason no one wears a vest with their suit these days. To too many chefs, consommé is passé, like sole meunière or steak Diane. But I ask you to consider consommé with fresh eyes.
A perfectly executed consommé is almost entirely devoid of fat—although I prefer just enough fat floating on the surface to make it look like there is a sprinkling of gleaming jewels adorning the broth. It will taste powerfully of whatever it is made from, and of course it will be crystal clear.
It is that clarity that is so difficult to achieve—in life, in writing, and in soup.
My first encounter with a truly great consommé was as a boy in a French restaurant in New Jersey my mother and stepfather took me to; I can't remember the name. I remember being unimpressed with the simple bowl of soup set in front of me, until I drank some. All I can remember after that is an overwhelming sensation of beef. It was beefier than any beef I'd ever eaten, and to this day the only beef broth that beats it is from a Japanese soup house in St. Paul, Minnesota called Tanpopo.
For years, I'd known how to make consommé, but never dared try it. Consommé seemed impossibly difficult, and, more importantly, expensive. And this may be why few restaurants make it anymore. Yet it was at a restaurant where I first learned the technique. Any of you who ate at Grange's Duck Dinner last November will remember that Chef Michael Tuohy and I did dueling consommé courses.
Mine was a classic duck consommé with duck liver ravioli.
Holly A. Heyser
It was a triumph, a masterpiece. But I failed Chef Tuohy, Chef Dennis Sydnor, myself, and my guests by forgetting to salt the consommé before service. I still feel nauseous thinking about it.
Back home, I made the dish again. And again. Now I think I've nailed it, and this version is even better than the one we made at Grange. Walk with me for a bit, and I will show you how to make magic with bones and broth.
You will need several days to make consommé, but most of the time you can be doing other things, and you can store the broth in the fridge for several days if you get busy. Ideally, you start on a weekend and finish the consommé either during the week or even the following weekend. Sound like a lot of work? It's worth it.
First, you need to make duck stock. I wrote a long piece about making wild game stock several years ago that will help newcomers to homemade stocks. (Incidentally, if you want to make this consommé with venison or beef, you will need to make beef or venison broth first.)
Once you have your stock you must chill it in the fridge, preferably overnight or up to several days.
Now you must make a raft. A wha? A raft. You'll see why it's called that in a minute. Remember I said how hard it is to achieve clarity? This is where the raft comes in. Nowadays I hear there are high-tech hydrocolloids you can use in modernist cuisine to clarify broths, but for centuries the answer has been egg whites.
Holly A. Heyser
Egg whites are primarily protein and water, but it's the proteins we're looking for. Put egg whites into a liquid and heat it and the proteins will form a molecular mesh that will act like a magnet, attracting the suspended solids that cloud your broth. The egg whites will rise to the surface of the liquid, drawing all the solids with them. Once strained, the liquid will be clear.
But it will also have less flavor, because a lot of those suspended solids taste good. This is why a raft is made from not just egg whites, but also finely chopped vegetables, tomato for acid, herbs, and some spices, plus an additional hit of meat.
This is another reason I suspect restaurants don't make consommé: It is undeniably expensive. You not only need meat and bones to make the stock, but you also need lean meat to grind with the raft to finish the consommé. If your customers don't appreciate the work that goes into consommé, then charging them $13 for a bowl—for what looks like clear, unadorned soup—might cause a ruckus.
Fortunately, we have no shortage of meat. Holly and I have been lucky enough to have had a banner duck hunting year, and so we had enough ducks to use for the raft. Even still, it kinda pained me to grind up 2 1/2 pounds of duck breasts for a soup. But they were sea ducks we'd shot in San Francisco Bay, so it was a good use for them.
To finish a consommé, you pour your cold stock into a stockpot—the pot needs to be taller than it is wide—stir in the cold raft and turn the heat to medium. It is vital that the stock heat up gradually, and it is important to stir everything frequently until you see the raft start collecting on the surface of the stock.
Holly A. Heyser
Once the raft forms, simmer very gently for at least one hour, and no more than 90 minutes. If you are making fish consommé, no more than 45 minutes.
Finally, you can either ladle your consommé through the raft into a clean container, or you can skim off the raft and pour the consommé into the container—either way the soup needs to be poured through a paper towel set in a sieve.
Unless I am making consommé as a base for pasta, like I did at Grange, I don't garnish it. I want those who drink it (yes, you drink consommé, without a spoon) to experience the full glory of the soup. But you can garnish if you want. A traditional garnish for wild game consommé is julienned mushrooms.
I urge you to try making consommé, whether you use duck or chicken or beef or fish—you can even make a vegetarian consommé with mushrooms. Serve it to people you love, and take a little pride in explaining to them what you went through to achieve clarity. It can be a religious experience.
Click through to Hank's blog to view his complete recipe for duck consommé.
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