Friday, April 23, 2010

Homage to the Bouillon Cube: Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup

It looks as good as it tasted - bouillon cubes and all. :)

Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup. That's a mouthful - literally and figuratively.

It sounds insanely complex, and daunting to most people who have never made Tom Yum Soup. Luckily for them, it is actually really easy to make - especially if you happen to have a nice big, healthy collection of bouillon cubes in your pantry.

"Bouillon cubes?!"
you say, outraged.

Why yes. Bouillon is a cook's best friend. Or at least this cook's. I've been using bouillon cubes (or their granulated equivalent) in all my cooking since I can remember, and so did my mother, and her mother, and her mother before that (maybe it's a Mexican thing?)...

Wow! I can hear the "absolutely-positively-always-make-your-own-stock-even-though-it's-a-time-consuming-process-and-should-therefore-be-saved-for-a-rainy-babyless-day" purists in outrage now: shock, horror, blasphemy and all that jazz!

But I ask you: is it really so bloody horrible to use bouillon cubes? They are inexpensive, convenient, and pack a punch of flavor that almost any dish will benefit from.

"But what about all the salt?!"

"And what about all the preservatives?!"

Good points. Which is why I figured I'd go ahead and explore the bouillon cube a little bit and find out for myself what the real story behind these little foil-wrapped cubes of salty deliciousness actually is. Let the salt-licking begin!

* * *

Bouillon Cubes: Blessing or Blasphemy?
history intermixed with ever-humble opining
4 points to ponder

4. Broth, Bouillon or Stock?
Technically speaking, "bouillon" is a French word for a "broth" or "stock." Interestingly, the verb "bouillir" in French means "to boil," which is a clue as to the traditional process of making a broth or stock: extended boiling of aromatics (herbs and vegetables alike), meat, and meat carcasses or offal to create a savory, flavored water which is then the base for sauces, soups, stews, etc.

The difference between broth, bouillon and stock is nebulous at best, but actually just boils down to one simple thing: salt. Stock has no added salt, broth has some added salt, and bouillon has a huge amount of added salt (even going past the 50% mark at times).
Stock is the stuff you boil up at home and use as a base for sauces etc., broth (essentially salted and seasoned stock) can be served on its own as a soup and usually comes in a can if you do purchase it, and bouillon is a heavily seasoned, processed product bought in cubes or granules which needs to be rehydrated at home.

Bouillon is primarily marketed by three big brands: Maggi,
Oxo* and Knorr, with the first two being the original companies to commercialize bouillon cubes in 1908 and 1910 respectively. image credit

3. Why a CUBE? And what kinds of "portable soups" are out there?
The bouillon cube made its entrance onto the culinary scene a long time ago. An American physicist and inventor named Count Rumford is credited with inventing this "portable soup" as it was called, back in the 19th century for the Duke of Bavaria. But it has been around much longer than that, with nomadic cultures having also used it far before that. source credit

I suppose the idea of a cube comes down to sheer portability and convenience. The cubes fit tightly into a small cardboard box and stick neatly in a pantry. Not to mention they are incredibly easy to dissolve in warm or hot water, saving time and space.

There is a shocking plethora of flavor variety in the Bouillon Cube world. In my pantry alone I have several interesting variations - some of them "ethnic" and others just boring old "staples." The sky is the limit when it comes to portable, inexpensive, salty flavorings. And I, for one, have taken advantage of that fact.

A small sampling from my personal bouillon collection & where they came from:

Chicken Bouillon (my go-to staple), Chicken & Tomato Bouillon, Vegetable Bouillon (for vegetarians), Beef Bouillon, Beef-rib Bouillon (Mexico), Beef & Chipotle Bouillon (Mexico), Shrimp Bouillon (Mexico), Fish Bouillon (Mexico), and, of course, Tom Yum Bouillon (Singapore).

Why do "real chefs" hate them? Or do they? *suspenseful intake of breath*
Traditionally, and probably still for the most part today, "real chefs" would not be caught dead using a bouillon cube in their food. Definitely not in a restaurant. And even if they did use the odd Oxo cube at home, they'd probably never admit it. My guess is it has something to do with not being labor-intensive or elitist enough, but of course they'll all say it comes down to flavor. :)

Not so these days. Not only have I seen several cooking shows where celebrity chefs have admitted to "shortcuts" such as stock cubes and microwaves at home and in the professional kitchen (*GASP!*), but now the infamous and widely lauded Marco Pierre White of Hell's Kitchen has actually made a commercial advertising my favorite brand of "portable soup": Knorr.

Admittedly, it's a commercial for "stock pots" (or easy, take-home demi-glace) which are kind of like the royalty of bouillon cubes in that they are neither cubes, nor powder form, but hey, it's a start. It's stock made easy for the home cook. And with low-sodium, low-fat, better flavor and no MSG, I think it's about as good as a "bouillon cube" is ever going to get.

So there you have it, with a professional celebrity chef endorsement, I think that gives all the purists official permission to let their hair down for once. :)

1. Why should home cooks thank their lucky stars for them?
I think making stock is a beautiful thing. My official-chef-man brother-in-law takes as much joy in doing it as is humanly possible, and every year at Christmas time I know there will be, first, the tantalizing smell of veal broth and bones, followed by an intensely rich broth, which days later becomes a syrupy, savory, delicious sauce accompaniment to prime rib. It's an art, and one that deserves applause and lauding for the time, effort and skill involved in perfectly it.

Sadly, I don't have four days to spare every time I want to make gravy, or chicken soup, or even just a sauce for my veal piccata. So I use bouillon cubes. They take two seconds to grab from the pantry, and if you reduce the amount of salt you put into the completed dish, you aren't really over-seasoning. Not to mention, I truly believe that when cooking with meat-extract you get a richness in your food that is simply missing if you only use salt. You heart it time and time again on cooking shows, and taste it time and time again in bouillon-missing households.

Let's be glad we have the option to both make our own or throw a few granules in. It's the kind of gastronomic freedom that opens up Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup up as an option for a "quick" weekday lunch. I thank my lucky stars for that.

*Funny story about the Oxo Tower on the Thames river in London: they were told by authorities that neon signs reading company names were not allowed on the building, as they would be a blight to the up-and-coming Southern Bank area. Despite this Oxot constructed a tower atop their factory with a pattern that read "O X O" in bright red, neon letters. When confronted by the authorities, they claimed it was an entirely "decorative pattern" of naughts and exes. Cheeky.

* * *

Brenda's Bouillon-ridden
Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup

Serves 2

This soup is a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican and who knows what else. It is a classic "this is what I had in my kitchen so I'm gonna make it" dish that is as much a risk as making souffles the first time you meet your boyfriend's parents. Luckily I never did that, but had I, I'd hope it would come out as well as this soup did.

Despite having three bouillon cubes in it, it is not overly salty, and the cilantry flavors the broth really nicely. I like to add lime juice and sriracha sauce to it at the end as a nice kick. Both Southeast Asians and Mexicans like to add sour and hot sauces to their soups, which is one reason I love Tom Yum Soup. No, the bouillon is not a perfect substitute for making real Tom Yum soup with fresh lemongrass, kaffir lim leaves, fish sauce and galangal, or even a good pre-made paste, but it did the trick. And the rice noodles are perfect because unlike other noodles they don't swell up or get soggy in a broth. Perfection in a bowl.

* * *

6-7 cups of water
1 cube Chipotle Beef Bouillon
1 cube Shrimp Bouillon
1 cube Tom Yum Bouillon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
small handful of cilantro, rinsed
1 half small onion
Oyster Mushrooms (about 100g, or 1 large handful)
2 baby bok choys, stalks separated
1/2 lb (500g) prawns or medium shrimp (don't have to be peeled)
1/2 package of dry rice noodles (available at Asian supermarkets)

1. Heat the water in a medium pot and add the bouillon cubes, cilantro, garlic, and onion. Allow it to come to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Make sure the bouillon cubes are completely dissolved by stirring occasionally.

2. Taste the broth and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the garlic, onion and cilantro stalks.

3.Add the bok choy and oyster mushrooms and allow to simmer for 5 minutes more, covered.

4. Add the rice noodles, prawns and recover. Turn off the heat and allow it to sit for another 10 minutes or until the prawns are cooked and the noodles are soft.

Serve with chopsticks and spoon, and garnish with chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice and Sriracha sauce for an extra kick.
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  1. I wholeheartedly disagree with the entire premise of this post. Stock is extremely easy to make and store. Whether from the carcass of a roasted chicken or fresh chicken, veal or beef bones. If I don't have stock around for a gravy when roasting a chicken I'll use the neck and mirepoix while it's in the oven. Quick and easy. Sure my mother and grandmother used bouillon too - they also used canned mushrooms and frozen everything - the 50s-80s ruined our sense of cooking.

  2. Hi XtraKrispy, thanks for you comment.

    Unfortunately you don't seem to have read the post very carefully if you wholeheartedly disagree with its premise. If you had read it carefully, you'd see that its premise is not that stock is a bad or difficult thing to make - it is a tongue-in-cheek informational musing on how what bouillon is, was and has become as well as how it's nice to have so many options as a home cook this day in age (whether they be bouillon, stock pots, or store-bought / homemade stock). I also think your views of cooking in the 50s-80s are somewhat unnecessarily overarching, as I strongly believe there is wisdom and knowledge to be gleaned from every stage of humanity's culinary history, and would hate to presume to know or understand the impetus behind different historical styles of cooking. Not everything in cooking is solely about purity - sometimes cooking has to be and has been spurred by convenience, funding, and bare necessity. And by the way, preserving foods is an age-old practice (one that dates back thousands of years)that yields unique flavors as well as serving a practical purpose, and it definitely doesn't automatically mean "bad food."

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by. :)