Spring is finally in the works, but winter isn't done yet. The local produce gods confirmed as much last weekend at the winter market, where I found carrots, onions and celery root, among other holdouts from area root cellars.
These three ingredients happen to be what you need to make mirepoix, a chopped mixture of aromatic vegetables that is used as a base for many soups, stocks and sauces. There are many regional variations on the aromatic mix theme. They go by different names and involve the occasional substitution of ingredient (leek for onion here, bell pepper for carrot there). Let's stick with the French way, which is how I learned the concept. This is near the outer limit of my classical cooking abilities, and may be the closest thing to a French cooking lesson you will ever get from me.
You can use mirepoix to Franco-fy two easy soup recipes: rotisserie chicken soup and packaged ramen noodle soup. Cheater's Chicken Soup makes use of one of that most pliable of ingredients: rotisserie chicken. The other recipe, Haut Ramen (that's "Top Ramen" in French, for the unfrozen cavemen in the crowd), employs mirepoix as well.
Since both recipes include the part where you have to make the mirepoix, let's review that step.
The most important thing is that the pieces are uniform of size and square-like of shape. For the Cheater’s Chicken Soup they can be as large as a half-inch or more on a side. The Haut Ramen recipe requires a brunoise, which is French for "finely diced." Making brunoise is a technique that's more effectively shown than described, so check it out on YouTube.
Using your best knife technique, trim and mince equal parts onion, carrot and celery (or celery root, aka celeriac). If using celery stalks, include the leaves. Cut it all into consistently sized chunks, large or small as the recipe calls for.
Cheater's Chicken Soup
One cook's value-added product is another's raw material. Rotisserie chicken, cooked long and slowly enough that the bones are nearly spoon-tender, can make a really good soup — even if the kids eat half of it on the way home.
As long as they don’t throw the bones out the window, I can cheat my way into a pot of soup on just half a chicken; thanks mon mirepoix!
1 rotisserie chicken (or home-baked if you’re smart enough)
Mirepoix (larger chunks)
Tomato, canned or frozen
Spicy things (optional; my preference here is pickled jalapeños)
Salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic powder, herbs and other flavorings
Olive oil or butter
Gain control of the remains of the chicken, pull it into pieces and remove the bones. Snip the bones and tendons into small pieces with cooking scissors, and place them into a pasta basket or similar arrangement that can be submerged in boiling water and can just as easily be removed, along with its contents, from the pot. Put the skin in the basket to make the soup more oily, if that's your thing. Simmer the bones while you get the rest of your mise en place (that’s French culinary-speak for arranging your cooking materials.)
The next step is to cut the mirepoix and sauté it gently in a heavy pan, in olive oil and/or butter, allowing a mild brown to develop.
While the mirepoix is browning and bones are simmering, cut or pull the chicken meat apart to the consistency you wish, and add the meat to the browning mirepoix, allowing it all to cook together for a moment. This would be a good time to play around with herbs and spices. I like thyme, but you could go ginger/lemongrass, or my mom's favorite: dill.
The soup can be taken in many directions at this point. Remove the pasta basket with bones inside, add the mirepoix and chicken to the pot, and replace the basket of bones back in the pot. At this point, I add some frozen tomatoes from last summer's stash to the basket, so the tomato skins can be removed along with the bones and skin. I also add a pickled jalapeño or two, allowing it to contribute gentle heat and acidity to the pot.
The soup will be ready as soon as the carrots are soft enough to eat. But if possible, take a little extra time and let everything cook together for an hour or so. As it cooks, tweak the seasonings as necessary: a little salt here, a bit of garlic powder there, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime and so on until it tastes right. Then drop a dollop of mayo on that masterpiece, and you've got some evidence in hand that sometimes cheaters do win.
While it's true that a good mirepoix elevates the ingredients around it, there's no reason to literally use Top Ramen brand when there are others to be had, like Sapporo Ichiban — or pretty much any other random brand you might find— that will be better in quality.
If you really want to test your skills, start with mirepoix and add what you need to make a broth that's yummy enough that you can skip the flavor packet. Save that packet for a rainy day; you never know when you might want a blast of savory flavor.
Me, I use the packet in the soup.
1 package of ramen (preferably the good stuff)
1/2 cup mirepoix, equal parts carrot, celery and onion, chopped into brunoise
Drops of sesame oil
Seaweed (a ripped-up sheet of nori, or furikake seasoning)
1 egg (optional)
Heat the water. Add brunoise mirepoix and flavor packet to the water and bring to a boil. When it gets there add the noodles.
When the noodles are done, add your egg, if using. Cook a moment longer, then turn of the heat. Leave the egg whole, or give it a minimal stir with a fork, depending on how you like your yolk, then put the lid on for two or so minutes.
Remove the lid. If egg is done to your liking, sprinkle with seaweed, drizzle with sesame oil and enjoy the slurping sounds of your own enjoyment. Keep slurping until the birds are chirping.
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."
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