Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lazy Sunday and Philly Cheesesteak Soup

The forecast calls for autumn-like temperatures and for me that means firing up the oven, baking some artisan bread and making a big pot of soup. A friend of mine recently inspired me with a soup she made for dinner and I thought I'd give it a try and put my spin on it.

I've made many many pots of soup over the years. I can't tell you how many turkey frames or chicken bones ended up in the soup pot. Ham bones and beans, lentils and kielbasa. Veggie beef, hot and sour, chili, cream of this or that. One soup I have never made from scratch before- cheese soup. No real reason why, just never have. That is where my challenge to myself begins-master the cheese soup and up the ante by making Philly Cheesesteak Soup.

I picked The Chef's brain a little for cheese soup recipes. I tell ya, it's nice having a resident expert in the house! I think he was a little crabby (allergy season) with my questions but he's a good sport anyway. I'm sure it's tough for a chef to answer these silly questions about what's such a basic recipe but my Chef is as passionate about food as I am. We talked about different cheeses to use, what melts better than others, real cheese versus the fake cheese gunk that's VERY common in Philadelphia on a cheesesteak sandwich. 

Pulling off this soup is going to be quite an event. I need to start with the croutons. Get a nice loaf of crusty bread and cut into somewhat large cubes. Melt half a stick of butter, add 1/4 cup olive oil and several cloves of fresh garlic, cut in half and crushed. Heat for 10-15 minutes to infuse the garlic. Drizzle over the bread cubes, tossing to coat evenly. We have been snacking off our baguette I bought for croutons, so I had only half to work with.

Now, here is a trick I just learned from Food Network chef Damaris Phillips- heat a big cast iron skillet for about 5 minutes until hot. Add the croutons and cook and stir until toasty allover- you end up with a crusty, chewy bite of bread and not a dessicated cube of yuck. Set aside and allow to cool. You can do this the night before even and keep them stored in an airtight container.

Now let's get started on the steak strips. My plan is to buy a small piece of sirloin to cook, but you could use leftover steak if you had it.  Let's get started on the Philly Cheesesteak part. You will need-
  • one 4-6 oz tender steak such as sirloin or New York Strip*
  • one large sweet onion
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
Slice the meat into strips, then again crosswise into bite-sized pieces. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Clean the vegetables. Cut the onion into strips and again crosswise into bite-sized strips. Repeat with the bell pepper. You don't want fajitas here- just bite size pieces. I also used half a Hatch chili pepper fora little more kick.

In large skillet melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Add the steak and stir fry for a minute or two. Add a couple more tablespoons of butter to skillet. Add the vegetables, season with salt and pepper. Cook and stir over low heat for 10-15 minutes until onions have become a little caramelized. Add peppers a little later if you like more crunch. Remove from skillet to bowl and cover with foil.

* You want to make sure what you have is TENDER, so if you choose to go with say, round steak, you're going to need to cook that low and slow in some braising liquid for a good hour or two until tender. My mom often used steak like this in pepper steak or stroganoff, adding the other ingredients much later.

Now that we've got that part done, we need to get our soup going. For the cheese soup, you will need-
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup good Cognac
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1 pound cheese- I am using half mild cheddar and half Monterrey Jack for smooth melting, shredded
A little cognac never hurt, right? "Airplane bottles" are perfect.
In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk to make a smooth roux. Add the chicken broth, milk and cognac. Cook over medium high heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens and bubbles. Remove from heat. 

Using a wooden spoon to stir, add the cheese in parts, stirring until melted before adding the next handful. If needed, return to LOW heat briefly to melt. Cover pot and set aside.

To serve, in each of six deep bowls, evenly divide the steak and vegetables. Fill the bowl with soup, top with garlic croutons and serve immediately. Alternatively, you can just combine everything except the croutons, which is what I did.

The first thing you get is the ever so slight whiff of that cognac on your first bite. It adds just the perfect bit of "luxe" that cheese soup can lack. It really kicks it up from homestyle comfort food to something just a little more gourmet. Then you get the tender bites of steak and onions and peppers and those crusty, chewy homemade croutons- believe me folks, don't skimp on the croutons and buy store bought. These are like little bits of garlic toast and oh so good. This is going to be such a great dinner on a cold, snowy day. It's filling and creamy and hearty at the same time. You're going to love it.

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