September 23, 2013
velouté de pistaches
“Use the force, Luke. Let go, Luke.” And so the disembodied Obi‑Wan Kenobi telepathically instructs Luke Skywalker just before Luke destroys the death star in the concluding moments
of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
(which I’ll always know as the original Star Wars
movie). I often tell cooking students to use the force. They stare at me blankly.
Watch any master ply his (or her) trade, and you’ll sense the magic of a master using his (or her) soul more than his (or her) head. This includes cooks. One of the drawbacks of how we learn to cook in the western world is that we learn to follow a recipe with our heads rather than learning to cook with our souls.
Some people are described as natural cooks, people who can just whip up a great meal at a moment’s notice with no written recipes in sight. These talented folks often are cooking with their souls rather than their heads.
Often what separates the great from the good is whether the artist generates his (or her) art from the head or the soul. In the 1979 documentary film, From Mao to Mozart, Isaac Stern spends much of the movie extolling young, extremely talented and technically perfect Chinese violinists to play from their hearts rather than their heads. The difference in their playing after his advice is immediately discernable.
The world’s museums are filled with many great paintings, but what separates the great from the super‑great is the emotional component that we feel when a picture speaks to us rather than just hang faultlessly on a wall. Great paintings often exhibit phenomenal craftsmanship, but are devoid of emotion. The same is true for other forms of visual art. I remember the feeling when I first visited the Musée Rodin in Paris. Here were a slew of technically perfect sculptures by the great French master, but what really blew me away were the few pieces in the museum by his one‑time girlfriend, Camille Claudel. In her pieces, I felt I could feel the artist’s aura.
Maybe this explains my problem with “engineered” cooking, the so‑called Modernist cuisine of Nathan Myhrvold or avant‑garde cooking of Wylie Dufresne or Ferran Adrià. Maybe their cooking is new, exciting, surprising, and even sometimes tastes good, but it’s all highly thought out and over engineered. It often lacks emotion.
I have a friend who I would describe as a natural cook. When he lets himself go, everything he produces is memorable. But somewhere in his past, he was taught that in order to produce good food, he had to follow someone else’s recipes, or that his own instincts were not acceptable. Although his guests always laud his food, I know that when he “uses the force” rather than a recipe to guide him, his cooking is transcendent.
For a number of years now, he and his spouse have hosted a large holiday dinner party. As always, the food this year was good, but the greatness he achieves when he cooks just for my wife and me was lacking. In the latter circumstance, he is more relaxed and under less pressure. Last year, he started the meal with a Persian‑style pistachio soup served as an amuse‑bouche. It was quite tasty, and if his guests wouldn’t have been staring at a large meal to follow, I’m sure they would have asked for seconds. I was inspired by the soup and asked him for the recipe.
A few days into the new year, I received an email from my friend saying that he couldn’t find the recipe, but he thought he had gotten it from Gourmet Magazine. I couldn’t find a pistachio soup recipe on the epicurious.com website, but I did find a recipe on food.com that referenced Gourmet Magazine
and said the author of the original recipe was Najmieh Batmanglij. So I searched her name and found her 2006 book, A Taste of Persia: An Introduction to Persian Cooking
. On page 45 of the book, I found a recipe for soup‑e pesteh
(pistachio soup). There’s an almost identical version of the recipe on page 82 in her 2011 book, Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies
. The chief difference between the recipes, other than the more “with it” description of ingredients—“salt” is now “sea salt”, “chicken broth” is now “homemade chicken broth”, and “sugar” now “grape molasses or sugar”—is that the garnish has morphed from plain barberries
into barberries cooked in grape molasses. In any case, both recipes could do with a little simplification.
I condensed the three alliums into one, eliminated the dried spices, and left out the sweetener. I would have used the specified Seville or some other bitter orange juice if I had it, but the jar of fresh Meyer lemon juice in my refrigerator was more convenient. My version of the recipe yields four portions as an intermède. Although I’m presenting a written recipe, feel free to let the “force” take you elsewhere. I did.
250 ml (1 c)
30 g (3 T)
15 ml (1 T) or to taste
fresh lemon juice
1. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium‑low heat. Add the shallots and sweat until soft. Don’t let them brown.
2. Add the chicken broth, pistachio meal, and rice flour to the saucepan. Whisk until well incorporated, turn heat to high, bring to a boil, set heat to low, cover, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
3. Mix in the lemon juice. Thoroughly puree the soup with a hand or stand blender until it feels very smooth when you taste it. Season with salt as needed. Chill before serving.
4. If the soup separates, buzz it with a hand blender for a few seconds. Divide the soup between individual serving glasses, and garnish with a few barberries on top of each portion.