The secret to simple, flavoursome consommés and soups all boils down to a good stock, says Mark Hix

Elixir, crystal and bouillon sound so glamorous on a menu. But is it clear exactly what they are? Don't let the fanciful names fool you - they're nothing more than consommé in drag. Once you see through the terminology - the French just love to dress up their dishes and menus with elaborate terms - you'll realise they're simply different names for clear soup.

Elixir, crystal and bouillon sound so glamorous on a menu. But is it clear exactly what they are? Don't let the fanciful names fool you - they're nothing more than consommé in drag. Once you see through the terminology - the French just love to dress up their dishes and menus with elaborate terms - you'll realise they're simply different names for clear soup.

You'll find similar clear soups elsewhere in the world - described without anywhere near as much fuss. In Asia a clear broth - dashi, for example - forms the basis of most soups. And though these may look thin and not especially interesting, clear soups can have amazing depths of flavour. I've eaten some incredible clear soups in my time from fragrant Thai broths to Italian brodo with tiny agnolotti pasta parcels filled with rabbit, and intense lobster consommés infused with truffle.

Whatever it's called, consommé has always had a place on classic French menus. There would be one in the soup section as a light and luxurious option to a creamy soup or broth, and grand old banqueting menus would almost certainly feature a consommé before the fish course or after the first course.

As a commis chef in a hotel kitchen you would normally be relegated to making the clarification, or base, for the consommé, which consists of meat, fish or vegetables. You can make a consommé from just about anything, but the basis generally consists of lean, flavoursome meat, such as shin of beef, vegetables and herbs all minced up and mixed with egg white and cold stock, then brought up to a slow simmer and cooked very gently for an hour or so. The concoction is then left to settle and carefully strained through doubled-up muslin.

In large hotel kitchens we used to have this scary contraption called a bowl chopper, a rotating bowl with two fast moving, sharp double blades. You feed ingredients in one end and they come out all chopped up. It was probably the most useful and most dangerous piece of kit in a kitchen. There you'd be, with a bit of a fuzzy head, chatting to your colleagues about the events of the previous night while feeding food into the machine ... Ouch. I won't go any further as I would love you to make and enjoy clear soup without associating it with young chefs short of a finger or two.

These consommés, achieved at such a cost, have been elbowed out, though, by frothy veloutés and cappuccino soups. It's incredible how froth has caught on since Gordon Ramsay started it off at Aubergine, giving soups an amazing extra dimension. Everybody's at it now, whizzing soups with hand blenders. Having said that, those bubbles are beginning to lose their appeal now they're everywhere. So let's forget all the froth and seriously try and clarify the issues.

If you are not too fussed about your clear soup being crystal clear, you can, with fresh ingredients and careful cooking, make a stock that will still pass as a consommé. It's often more luck than judgement though, as the blood on the bones or carcasses will make the stock cloudy. A way around this is to blanch the bones by bringing them up to the boil from cold and then draining and washing them and then just make your stock as normal.

Basic clear chicken stock

Makes about 2 litres

This recipe gives you the basis of a perfect clear soup - all you need to do is add a garnish. It won't qualify as a full on consommé, with the depth of flavour that implies. The way to do that is to make a double stock, using this stock instead of water as a base for the next batch of stock. Chicken wings and necks make very good stocks, although the wings will leave a fair bit of fat on the stock. This isn't hard to get rid of. Chill the stock so the fat solidifies and then it can be lifted off. This recipe makes a couple of litres. Freeze it in smaller quantities and it will keep for up to six months.

2kg chicken bones with as much fat removed as possible
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large leek, roughly chopped and washed
3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
10 black peppercorns

Chop the chicken bones with a heavy knife or cleaver a few times, then wash them in cold water. Put them into a saucepan, cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Drain in a colander, discarding the water and wash off again in cold water. Return to a clean pan with the other ingredients and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 1 12 hours skimming every so often. Strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve, taste and continue to simmer to concentrate it if it needs more flavour. The stock can then be seasoned to taste and garnished with some shredded cooked chicken and vegetables, especially mushrooms or asparagus. If you want to call it a brodo, add some tiny agnolotti or other small filled pasta parcels to it. Or buy ready made won tons from Chinese supermarket and turn it into won ton soup.

Basic beef consommé

Makes about 2 litres

Consommé can be made with beef, minced chicken legs (bones removed) or game. Once made it can be frozen and used as a base for lots of interesting soups. Add shredded meat and vegetables, or follow the suggestions above for an Italian or Chinese soup.

3 litres cold beef stock (a good cube will do)
300g shin of beef, minced or finely chopped in a food processor
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
Half a leek, roughly chopped and washed
A few sprigs of thyme
1tsp tomato puree
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 egg whites

Finely chop the vegetables in a food processor with the thyme and tomato purée. Add the beef and egg white. Mix well with the cold stock in a saucepan; a whisk is good for this or use your hands. Slowly bring to a simmer stirring a couple of times in the first few minutes, then leaving it. As it comes up to a simmer the egg white and meat mixture will form a solid crust. Don't be tempted to stir - just leave it to simmer very gently for an hour. Carefully strain the consommé through a colander or strainer lined with some double folded muslin or a clean tea towel.

Thai spiced shrimp broth

Serves 4

After a shellfish feast I hate throwing away the shells as they make such a good bisque or clear soup. If you're not a shell hoarder like me just buy your prawns with the head and shells on.

for the soup

500g large raw prawns with the heads and shells on
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 stick of lemon grass, roughly chopped
2 lime leaves
A small piece (about 20g) of root ginger or galangal
3 cloves of garlic
Stalks from Thai basil and coriander
1 12 litres fish stock (a good cube will do)
3tbsp Thai fish sauce

for the garnish

1 stick of lemon grass, outer leaves trimmed off, and chopped
4 lime leaves
A small piece of root ginger, peeled and shredded
1 mild red chilli, seeded and shredded
2 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the angle
A few sprigs of Thai basil
A few sprigs of coriander
60g Oriental mushrooms - enoki or hoi shemegi

Remove the shells and heads from the prawns, leaving the tail on. Put the meat in the fridge. Wash the shells and put them in a saucepan with the rest of the soup ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer gently, skimming regularly, for 1 hour. Strain the soup through a fine meshed sieve into a clean pan and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Run a small knife along the back of the prawns and remove the black entrails with your fingers under the tap. Put the prawns and the rest of the ingredients for the garnish in the soup and simmer for 4-5 minutes and serve.

Borsch with duck

Serves 4-6

In countries like Hungary and Russia there are lots of variations on this great soup, some including beef, goose and chicken as a base. It can be served hot or cold and, in summer, can be turned into a jelly. Traditionally it's probably usually thicker than this one, and can be served with sour cream and little stuffed patties called pirogs. This is the opposite - a ruby red broth of jewel-like clarity. Admittedly it's not as homely as some borschs, but it looks very impressive. It is quite a lot of trouble and potentially messy, but if you really want to get into creating clear soups it'll give you a sense of satisfaction. Try to buy raw beetroot for this as you will get more flavour into the soup. Remove the fat from the duck before you begin making the soup, but don't throw the fatty skin away as it makes a great salad ingredient fried until crisp. Add to a bitter lettuce like frisee, or simply sprinkle with sea salt as a snack with drinks.

1 medium sized duck with the skin and fat removed or 4 large duck legs
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
A few sprigs of thyme
10 black peppercorns
1kg raw beetroot, peeled and roughly chopped (1 small one or 200g reserved for the garnish)
3 litres chicken stock
1 egg white

Remove the legs from the duck and remove the bone with the point of a sharp knife. Put the bones into a pot with the rest of the duck carcass with the breasts on, the onion, leek, thyme, peppercorns and half the beetroot. If you're using only duck legs take the meat off two of them and put aside, adding the bones and the two other whole legs to the pot. Add the small beetroot, or 200g piece, cover with the chicken stock (add some water if it doesn't quite cover the duck), bring to the boil and simmer for one hour, skimming every so often.

Strain through a fine meshed sieve, reserving the carcass with the breasts on (or the two whole legs) and the whole piece of beetroot for the garnish. Put the strained soup somewhere to cool. Remove the cooked meat from the bones and shred it. Shred the piece of beetroot into matchsticks with a knife or mandolin if you have one, and store in the fridge until required. Put the rest of the raw beetroot in a food processor with the raw duck meat (remove the bones from the legs if you haven't already) and coarsely blend. Remove from the processor and transfer to a large stainless steel saucepan. Mix in the egg white and season with salt and pepper.

When the stock is cold, mix it well with your hands or a whisk, with the beetroot mix and put it on a low to medium heat. Carefully stir a couple times in the first couple minutes, then allow it to come up to a steady simmer. The mixture will form a crust that will float on top of the stock. Don't be tempted to stir it, but let it simmer very gently for an hour. Carefully strain the soup with a ladle through a colander or strainer lined with doubled-up muslin or a clean tea towel, being careful not to disturb the crust too much. You'll have a rich, clear ruby tinged broth.

Season the soup to taste, then add the duck and beetroot and simmer for a minute or so to re-heat.

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