Playing it smooth

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

THE word itself is delicious -- velouté, veh-loo-TAY. If you were in Paris, you'd see them on the menus in bistro after brasserie after restaurant. Velvety, creamy soups, sometimes classic, sometimes more inventive -- chestnut-celeriac with foie gras and cacao, or white bean showered with matchstick-size pieces of black truffle, or a velouté of porcini mushrooms with lardo di Colonnata and fatty-spicy ham from the valley of Les Aldudes in the Pays Basque (poured from a glass carafe at the table, no less).

On a recent wintry day, I spent an afternoon at a bistro by the Seine. Lunch began with a creamy chestnut velouté topped with a fat, toasty griddle cake stuffed with crème fraîche. It was warming, gently rich and deeply satisfying. I then found myself ordering bowlfuls of velouté all over the city.

Recipes: The recipes with an article about veloute soups in the Jan. 16 Food section were from to test kitchen director Donna Deane. —

Velouté sounds fancy, but it's easy enough to make. The point is to get the right consistency -- a not-too-thick, creamy-velvety texture -- as well as concentrated flavor. Knowing the basic construction of velouté lets you improvise with whatever vegetables you happen to have on hand. Try a velouté made with cremini and oyster mushrooms, punctuated with a little garlic and rosemary; or a soulful white-bean soup finished with cream and a little Gruyère cheese. Go elegant with kabocha soup dressed with a dollop of sour cream; slender, buttery croutons; and a light sprinkling of piment d'espelette (dried red Basque chile).

In the fall, definitely chestnut velouté, and in the summer, chilled avocado. Or even a Brazilian-style cashew soup from James Peterson's "Splendid Soups" that is basically a velouté -- roasted cashews puréed with cooked onions and garlic, added to chicken broth and finished with coconut milk.

Sauce velouté is a light stock that has been thickened with white roux -- flour cooked in butter. Velouté soup traditionally is a puréed vegetable soup made with broth, thickened with a little flour and finished with cream and egg yolks. (Cream soups are made with milk as the liquid instead of broth.)

But it's a flexible formula. Flour often helps thicken the soup and gives it a smooth texture, but you don't always need it. A tablespoon of flour goes into the mushroom velouté to add body, but for a kabocha squash or white-bean soup, the vegetables (or legumes) themselves make a thick enough purée. Be careful not to over-process the vegetables in your blender or food processor; it'll make the purée too viscous.

The mushroom soup is finished classically with cream and a little egg. But butter swirled into the kabocha velouté a little bit at a time at the end of cooking gives it extra smoothness and adds another dimension of flavor, bringing out the butteryness of the squash. Gruyère and cream enrich the white-bean soup -- the cheese stirred in just until it melts and then finished with the cream. So velouté.

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