This post is a bit of a rant and a bit of a cooking lesson.
Recently for lunch I grabbed a bowl of soup, as I usually do, from the Boffins Atrium Café at Innovation Place in Saskatoon (shameless plug for my wife's book of watercolor paintings of our beautiful city). My choices were Golden Chicken Rice or vegetarian Mushroom Barley. I love Mushroom Barley soup ... usually. So, what could go wrong? In a word, thyme. Not just thyme as one of the herbs used, or Thyme as a noticeable ingredient, but slap-you-in-the-face THYME, to the point where the soup tasted like brown liquified thyme with lumps.
The problem with thyme, and a few other flavors like sage, cardamom and fennel, is it can go from supporting actor to the villain of the play quite literally "in a shake". Others, like tarragon can be especially overpowering in lightly flavored dishes like a cream sauce, but may go almost unnoticed in more hearty foods.
How can you avoid that happening?
- Start with half the amount of thyme, or any other strong flavor, specified in the recipe or that you would think if you are cooking "au pif" ("by the nose", My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, by David Lebovitz). Taste, and adjust, going up in stages until you are happy with the result.
- Do this especially when you are starting a fresh container of dried herbs, or when switching a recipe from dried to fresh or vice-versa.
- If you really like a particular flavor, recognize that others may not be so enamored. Tone things back a notch or two. People with a refined sense of taste will still find the note and may appreciate the use of a light hand while those with lead palates likely won't miss it.
- If you catch yourself justifying a dish to others ("I just love the taste of fennel so much"), rather than being defensive, take the hint that you might have overdone things and use those comment to educate and refine your own palate.
Admittedly, in restaurants soup is frequently the final resting place at the end of a trail of leftovers, and that is OK by me.
In fact, many dishes that we call soup or minestrone or borscht, or any number of names from various languages and regions, all likely started their existence in the frugal peasant kitchens where a leftover piece of meat, a bit of cabbage and maybe a few beans would go into a pot of water with some gathered herbs and left to simmer. If you were really lucky, there might be some meat juices or a stale crust of bread and some other vegetables thrown in.
A few of these hodge-podge soups might have become seasonal favorites, based on the available ingredients at that time of year, because they were economical, nutritious and tasty. In time they would become codified into recipes, and some would be elevated to popular dishes, served in fancy restaurants. Think of Vichyssoise, which likely had its roots in the humble Potage Parmentier -- Leek and Potato Soup. Sweat some chopped leeks, add diced potatoes, water, salt and pepper, and maybe a grind of nutmeg, and boil until the potatoes start to soften and thicken the soup. Even here, a grind too much nutmeg will take it over the top and destroy the flavor.
Whether you are a home chef, making your best dish to serve treasured guests, or the humble line cook tasked with figuring out what to do with some leftover beef, cabbage and beans, the challenge is to use a light hand when it comes to flavoring in order to get the right balance and bring out the best of all of the ingredients.