Sunday, November 27, 2016

Some Tips for Flavorful, Budget-Friendly Soups

One of the best budget meals when you have two burners and no oven or crockpot is soup. It allows you to spread out a small portion of meat while the entire dish absorbs its flavor, to bulk up with cheap vegetables and to add a wide variety of vitamins and minerals depending on your access to varied-colored vegetables. However, when bland, it's not at all a joy to eat. Here are a few tips I've learned to stretch meat, vegetables and flavor. (All opinions. All optional.)

For us, it is cheaper to buy meat once or twice a month and then freeze it into portions for one meal. This means it must thaw or be allowed time to cook longer. Regardless of if it is frozen or thawed, you can still begin the same way: browning the flavor-enhancing vegetables. For us, that means onion, garlic, ginger and/or red peppers (as everyone but me doesn't care for the raw pepper flavor.) There are two reasons that I do this: If you throw onion or garlic in without browning it first, you lose a lot of delicious flavor and end up with a more raw version of their tastes.

Once these veggies are brown, I always brown the meat next. The basis of any soup with meat is the broth. The broth will have so much more flavor if you brown the outside of the meat first. After it is brown on the outside, I fill it up with the required amount of water and dried spices or soy sauce and let it simmer for at least two hours on low. (Dried spices can possibly be a cheap option for flavor. Here, sometimes they are expensive depending on what you get.) Another tip if you want tender meat is not to rush it: low and slow renders it much more tender than a rapid boil. For a good broth, it is best to use the bones from previous meals and boil until you get the good stuff out, but since I usually have frozen meat, I make sure to leave any bones in until the last minute as they augment the broth and then I separate them out. (Here in Cambodia, it's very common to leave all of the bones in even when served. I don't do this because my little ones are likely to choke on them, but they do like the bones and will chew on them if available.) I usually makes sure the meat is in small pieces so that it can go all through the soup and everyone gets as close to an equal amount as possible.

After you've figured out which direction you want to go with your soup flavor profile, you can choose the cheap filler-veggie to accompany it. For us, the cost-effective choices to bulk up a soup include lentils, black beans, pulses, potatoes, chickpeas, acorn squash, and sweet potato. Then, to this in a smaller quantity I usually add things like greens (spinach, cabbage, bok choy), flax (for omegas), carrot, or any other colorful option.

Last, one of the most important steps is to taste the almost finished product and adjust your seasonings. Not enough salt leaves all of your delicious flavors hidden, while the right amount highlights them. I save my fresh herbs until last as they are too delicate to hold up to boiling. Usually Khmer cilantro, parsley, lemon grass, or basil are available. An exception is Kaffir lime leaves, they will hold up to boiling well. Also, if I use lime/lemon juice, I add that during this step.

 I enjoy the challenge and ability to be creative with combinations, and thankfully, my family hasn't complained about it either. Usually, we pair the soup with cous-cous, rice, dumplings or possibly baked potato if it's more of a thick stew or chili. Soup can also be thickened with a cornstarch or flour-water slurry added at the end, but that's not usually necessary. These are always our supper option, so there are other ways to fit in vitamins and minerals during the day, through fruit and raw vegetables. There are a myriad of options one can use in combinations, but following this method with any of the options has really helped me get some delicious products.

As I don't have professional chef training, I'd love to learn from you: How do you make soup flavorful yet budget-friendly?

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