Learning how to build flavor in food is critical to good cooking. It’s a concept driven home with food professionals from their first day of culinary school to their last. You don’t have to be a professional, though, to know how to make a flavorful dish. You simply need to take a moment to think about how to make the most out of each ingredient.
Mexican Chicken, Beans and Greens Soup With Masa Dumplings is a good illustration of building flavors, step by step.
It starts with the chicken. For this recipe, I like to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs. They have more flavor and stay moister than breasts. I could simply add them, along with onions and garlic, to the chicken broth and let them simmer away, but if we take a moment to brown them first, then brown the onions and garlic, too, we create a powerful foundation of flavor.
Next, we focus on the chiles, which will be one of the primary flavors in our soup. Dried pasillas, which have a slightly sweet, smoky flavor and mild heat, are the chile of choice for this soup. They’re easy to find in most grocery stores. Look for dried chiles that are soft and pliable. They’ll have a better flavor than older, more brittle chiles.
The chiles will need to be hydrated with hot water, but toasting them for a minute or two in a dry skillet before doing so will result in an even more intense flavor.
Puréeing the chiles with their infused soaking liquid, along with tomatoes and the cooking liquid from the chicken, with those browned onions and garlic cloves, creates a rich base, packed with complex flavors.
Allowing that base to simmer for a few minutes while you make your masa dumplings gives those flavors a chance to migrate throughout the soup. Why does it matter? Try tasting the soup immediately after you purée it. Then taste it again after it’s simmered. The simmered soup will have a much more nuanced, balanced flavor.
The masa dumplings are a fun feature to this soup that introduces what for most people will be a new ingredient, masa harina. This is the type of corn flour used to make corn tortillas, tamales and a million other Latin American dishes. It has a deep, earthy flavor that pairs beautifully with the chiles and beans.
Lastly, combining the cooked soup with a few fresh toppings adds one more layer of flavor. Salty cheese, creamy avocados and a squeeze of lime, added just before eating, highlights and boosts the rest of the flavors in the soup.
All those steps may seem like a lot, but they’re easy to do and because most of them can be done while other things are simmering away, they don’t add much time to the cooking process. What they add to the eating process, though, is priceless.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @meredithdeeds.