Attempt to re-create a chef’s signature soup, and you do so at your own peril. Chances are that some attention has been paid, some difficult technique or unusual ingredient has been used that discourages the process.
Chris Nugent recently walked me through the steps of his dish. He and his wife, Nina, opened their Goosefoot restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood in December of last year, a mere month after he left his seven-year post as executive chef at the city’s Les Nomades, where he had earned acclaim. In April, Chicago magazine proclaimed Goosefoot as the best new restaurant in the city, beating out Grant Achatz’s Next.
The 38-year-old chef is soft-spoken and humble; his plates are meticulously and thoughtfully crafted. “I like to refer to my food as having a little flavor-forward harmony, with French tradition and respect for the farmer,” he says. Nugent must be one of the few buzzy chefs to be eschewing pork products; he and his wife agreed to keep them off the menu, in part, because of a clientele that includes the large Jewish population in nearby Skokie.
It’s no wonder that the wait for a table at the intimate, serene Goosefoot has held at a steady three to four months. Nugent offers a nine-course tasting menu that changes with the seasons; some recognizable element of the goosefoot family (beets, Swiss chard, lamb’s quarters, purslane, etc.) is always included. When I visited, the menu featured loup de mer with Meyer lemon and leek; roasted quail with beluga lentils, ginger and compressed apple; a cheese course of an aged Pleasant Valley Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin, a bit of mascarpone mousse and a tapioca crisp that is such a good idea he ought to package and sell them by the bag; and the sunchoke soup, which is silky smooth and enhanced by the textures of hidden elements at the bottom of the bowl.
On a Sunday afternoon when the chef would have been shopping the farmers markets, he had the soup’s ingredients prepped and ready in his narrow, sparse restaurant kitchen where three cooks and an intern work in the evenings.
The soup takes about 30 minutes, start to finish. Nugent begins by sweating the onion and garlic and thyme in canola oil, making sure they don’t pick up any color that might alter the soup’s pale, pinky-beige hue. He adds the shallot a bit later, so it won’t stick or burn in the pan. He likes using sunchokes because of their slight nuttiness and lemony flavor, keeping the peeled slices in water to prevent discoloration. (The recipe can be easily modified; white asparagus or another seasonal pale vegetable can be used instead of the sunchokes, he says.) He cuts them into small pieces to speed up their cooking.
Other chef tricks he shared:
* He places the pan of sauteed aromatics on top of the boiling sunchokes, so they steam and stay soft.
* He heats the broth before adding it to the mixture, to avoid a drop in temperature.
* If you go the richer route and add butter and truffle oil to the soup base, those ingredients can be added to the blender (in batches) as you puree.
* He steams the vegetable and seafood additions (in this recipe, a little diced, cooked potato and coin slices of poached lobster) and garnishes before adding them to the soup; sometimes he uses a little soup to warm them up in a separate bowl.
* He serves the soup in a conical bowl that’s about five inches deep, which helps keep the contents warm till the last spoonful.
About that froth: It might seem fussy for a home cook, but it’s simple to do — and as integral to this dish as the diner’s surprise of seafood and vegetable at the bottom of the bowl. Nugent flavors the milk with white truffle oil and a pinch of salt. He heats it in a saucepan to 160 degrees. A hand-held frother can create an impressive cloud of foam within a minute or two, and the froth can hold in a pan off the heat for about 10 minutes, he says. Any leftover, frothed milk can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for a day, then used to build a pasta sauce: a touch of cream, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese, then fold in summer market vegetables.
6 generous servings
Crab, poached bay scallops or shrimp can be used instead of the lobster meat.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be made a day in advance and reheated over low heat.
For the soup
1 pound sunchokes (see headnote)
6 tablespoons canola oil
1 large Spanish onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice (1 1/2 cups)
4 medium cloves garlic, sliced
Leaves from 2 sprigs thyme
1 medium shallot
8 cups no-salt-added chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup heavy cream, heated over low heat in a small saucepan
1 cup whole milk, preferably at room temperature
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces (optional)
1/4 cup white truffle oil (optional)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup poached lobster meat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup peeled potato, cut into 1/4-inch dice then blanched (see NOTE)
For the froth
3 cups low-fat milk (2 percent)
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
Kosher or sea salt
For the soup: Peel the sunchokes. Cut them into 1/4-inch slices, then place the slices in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloring.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and stir to coat; cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the onions soften but do not take on any color.
Add the garlic and thyme; cook for a minute or so, then add the shallot; cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add the broth. Drain the sunchoke slices and add them to the pan; cook (uncovered) for 20 minutes.
Add the warm cream and the milk; remove from the heat.
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large stainless-steel bowl.
Working in batches, transfer the soup mixture to a blender, making sure to fill the blender no more than half full. Remove the center knob of the lid and place a towel over the opening (so steam can escape). Puree until smooth, each time adding some of the butter and the white truffle oil, if using. As you work, transfer the soup so that it passes through the strainer into the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover to keep warm.
For the froth: Combine the milk, white truffle oil and salt (to taste) in a small saucepan; heat to 160 degrees (almost bubbling at the edges). Use an immersion (stick) blender or frother to create a frothy top layer on the milk in the pan; let it rest/stabilize for 3 minutes before using it to garnish the soup.
When ready to serve, divide equal amounts of the lobster meat and potato in individual bowls. Gently pour the soup over each portion. Top with equal amounts of the froth. Serve immediately.
NOTE: To blanch the potato, boil a medium saucepan of water over high heat. Add the peeled, diced potato and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until they begin to be translucent and become tender. Drain and cool.