As Thanksgiving is at the end of the month, the kitchen beckons. I’m dreaming up side dishes and figuring out what to make for the gathering at my table. But menu planning requires something good to satisfy your belly and soul, so make a pot of nourishing soup while you plan your holiday feast.
Soup can be made ahead of time, it feeds many, it saves in the fridge and then the freezer. It can be dress up, warmed, reheated, and sometimes you can discover new flavor combinations using unusual ingredients. I served one of my soups for breakfast--- roasted squash--- topping it with grated chipotle cheddar and crumbled potato chips instead of croutons. (Note: barbeque flavor would have kicked it up a notch.) What better to dip your morning toast in?
When beginning a soup, imagine layering each flavor. Here is a step-by-step way to make your soup sensational:
SEASON THE POT
First, begin with the essence of that pungent allium family for the foundation flavor of your soup. Choose leeks, shallots, and/or onions (sometimes I use more than one kind) as your seasoning ingredients. On a low flame, sauté with a generous pour of olive oil, and allow the onions to melt until browned and close to caramelizing. This should not be rushed, as the slow beginnings of a good soup require time. As your onions, leeks or shallots simmer into that aromatic golden pungency, prep your soup ingredients.
After about 5-10 minutes, stir the leeks/shallots/onions around and take care so they don’t burn. Turn the heat down lower if you suspect any blackening (which will ruin your soup). Start slow, take your time, and don’t rush. Imagine it’s like a first kiss.
After about 20 minutes, drizzle in some balsamic or sherry, just a touch. At this point I've added a pinch of sea salt.
TIP: Add a splash of sherry, Marsala or mirin. It creates depth and enhances the soup.
Then add garlic and a “mirepoix” of carrots and celery chopped fine. Mirepoix is a French term that goes back to the 18th century, its name associated to the Duke of Mirepoix. I’m uncertain of the story behind it, but mirepoix is traditionally carrots, celery and onions diced finely and used as a base seasoning to soups and braises. Similar to adding aromatics, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil, marjoram, savory--- a blend known as Herbes de Provence--- building a soup base is important to the integrity of its taste. Otherwise, your soup will taste bland and no one wants cafeteria food.
You can use traditional mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions or add bacon, mushrooms and other flavor enhancing ingredients. Garlic, wine and butter can give it an extra nudge into soup base ambrosia. Please take notes here. If vegan, Earth Balance can be used with some earthy wild mushrooms and a splash of sherry. Get sexy and make this soup your own aphrodisiac combination.
BROTH: VEGGIE (OR CHICKEN, BEEF, FISH)
The best way to make your soup sparkle is homemade broth. Don’t be intimidated— it’s easier than you think.
You can use your veggie scraps--- carrot greens, kale stalks, mushroom stems--- to add to the pot and really get some great flavor going. Spend a little time in the kitchen making broth with a big pot and pre-measured containers to put in the freezer for when you need it. There are many cookbooks that can guide you on how to make an amazing homemade broth. Depending on your soup you can make, use and freeze for later use broths of different kinds such as a light vegetable broth for springtime blends of peas, carrots and other seasonally 'light' soups, or dark mushroom broth for a vegetarian French onion soup.
TIP: Have homemade stock on hand.
If you don't have time or energy to make broth yourself, using the Tetra Pak boxes of broth are completely fine. Just choose the best kind--- organic and low sodium. There are several good brands of soup broth out there in the supermarkets.
LOCAL & SEASONAL PRODUCE
Go to your local farmers market and use seasonal produce. If you can't or there isn't one close, do your best to find quality organic ingredients. Some local farmers deliver boxes to your doorstep of their seasonal produce.
Fall produce is abundant in earthy root vegetables like sweet potatoes, celery root (celeriac), carrots, butternut squash, winter squashes like pumpkin and kabocha, and parsnips. Roasting the veggies in olive oil, thyme, sherry, sea salt and some red onions make your house smell amazing. Chop up your root vegetables into bite sized pieces and toss them in a bowl with olive oil, dried herbs, sea salt and sherry. Roast them on a big sheet pan for about 30-45 minutes or until they look golden and luscious enough to add to your broth on the stove.
SPICES, HERBS & AROMATICS
Spices and herbs are part of my treasure box when I make soup. Think like a magician and use your fingers to take pinches of dry roasted spices and season your soup. Ginger, garam masala, and paprika adds zesty spice, while turmeric gives a beautiful gold-orange color to pumpkin soup. Chiles, leaves and other additions depending on the soup--- like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves for a Thai style Tom Kha—give it an aromatic boost.
RUSTIC OR CREAMY?
Your soup is enhanced with a layer of onions, garlic, leeks, shallots. You’ve kept your pot going on a low simmer. Jazz ballads are playing through your house and the aroma of roasted veggies makes your kitchen smell heavenly. You are making something magical. So, do you want a rustic and hearty soup with bite-sized chunks of melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash and carrots, some dark leaves of kale, and earthy beans on your spoon? Or do you fancy a smooth spoonful of a creamy celery root purée with white sweet potato and apple?
Lentils go well with tomatoes and a garam masala of spices, from a warm Indian palette of ginger, turmeric, cayenne and cumin to more herbaceous French technique of thyme, pepper, caramelized red onions and bay leaf. You can add a splash of red wine or sherry, paprika, and one unique spice I have found to work well is sumac. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of homemade garlic infused olive oil before serving.
A bowl of hearty veggies --- carrots, parsnips, squash--- cut in a rough style that fits a spoon works with a tomato base, white beans, kale, chard and pesto. Just perfect with a warm crusty baguette.
If you want something sublime and creamy, butternut squash is your steaming bowl of voluptuous fall flavor. You can also use sweet potatoes and kabocha squash that blend up into a marvelous consistency. Another autumn favorite of mine is celeriac.
MY SECRET VEGAN INGREDIENT: CASHEWS. If you want to give your soup a creamy quality without the cream, use cashews. Soaked for a few hours in your broth, cashews are one of my secret ingredients. Then blend. A good high-speed blender will make this process easier.
NOTE: Make sure you ask your family or friends if they have a nut allergy before serving them a bowlful of cashew based soups. I have some experience in cooking for people with food allergies so I am very conscious of what I serve.
ADD LEGUMES OR OTHER PROTEIN
I love beans! They thicken up rustic soups and give them body, especially lentils. If you choose to use meats, such as chicken, add it to your pot. It’s not my specialty, as I’ve been vegetarian mostly and am not skilled in the meat department. I have been lucky to make a few dishes with meats that were deemed superb by those carnivorous --- a duck braise, a chicken braise--- but aside from being lucky, I don’t claim to know my way around the butcher shop.
Garbanzos, white beans, lentils and other legumes can be added at this stage if you are making a soup that can make them shine. I like earthy bowls of bean soups with kale and use them more as a stew over rice, or in the morning for breakfast with a poached egg.
Chicken soup is a universal medicine in any kitchen. I’ve made a Korean pot of ginseng chicken soup (samgyetang), Thai style with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, potatoes, carrots and basil. I’ve made chicken soup a la Provencal using thyme, carrots, white beans, haricot vert, potatoes, garlic, onions and olives with crusty breadcrumbs and a basil pistou.
ADD GRAINS, TOPPINGS AND CONDIMENTS
Croutons are always the traditional topping, but other ingredients such as pesto, crushed nuts, herbs and creamy condiments can add more complexity to your bowl.
Need some inspiration? Here are two wonderful recipes from my favorite soup cookbook, Love Soup, by Anna Thomas. If you are obsessed about soup making and want to learn from one of the best vegetarian soup cooks, find her cookbook here. The title of this blog post is made in her honor. Thank you, Anna, for inspiring me!
WHITE BEAN AND GARLIC SOUP WITH GREENS
( Recipe by Anna Thomas from her cookbook, Love Soup. This recipe features sage and garlic, which is perfect for the fall season. If you aren't a fan of sage, replace with thyme. )
Chard is excellent in this soup, but spinach, kale, or beet greens also work very well. Each one will give its own particular character to the soup. Whichever one you choose, be sure your greens are firm and glossy.
Long ago I learned to simmer white beans with sage leaves, letting the sage impart its perfume to the broth. At some point I began adding peeled garlic cloves as well--- more and more of them. Together, the beans, garlic, and sage create a broth that is both delicate and rich tasting, and that is the basis of this soup. You can add almost anything, or add nothing and it will be delicious.
8 oz. (225 g) dried white beans, cannellini or Great Northerns
2-3 tsp. dried sage or 10 fresh sage leaves
6-7 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
1 large yellow onion, chopped (300 g)
1 Tbs. (15 ml) olive oil
1 bunch young green chard or other greens
2-4 cups (500 ml - 1 liter) basic light vegetable broth
freshly ground black pepper
fresh lemon juice
garnish: fresh fruity olive oil
optional garnishes: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or croutons
MAKE THE SOUP
Rinse the beans and put them in a large soup pot with enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Do not add salt at this point, but add the sage leaves and the peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring the water to a boil ad then lower the heat to a simmer. Leave the beans to simmer gently, covered, for as long as it takes them to become tender; this will vary with the age and size of the beans, and can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. Add a bit more water if necessary to keep the beans well submerged. When they are almost tender, add salt to taste--- at least one teaspoon, probably more--- and keep simmering until the beans are soft. Ladle out about 1 1/2 cups of the beans and reserve.
Cook the chopped onion in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, stirring often, until it is golden brown and tender, 20-30 minutes. Wash the chard or other greens thoroughly, cut away any tough stems, and cut into 1-inch strips. If you have any tiny spinach leaves, you can leave them whole.
Combine the reserved beans with the caramelized onion and about 2 cups vegetable broth and puree in a blender, or with an immersion blender, until they are smooth and creamy. Add the puree to the beans and their broth in the pot, along with the cut up greens. Add enough of the vegetable broth to give the soup a good, liquid consistency, so that it pours easily from the soup ladle. Simmer the soup until the greens are tender.
Taste, and correct the seasoning with more salt and some black pepper to taste. Add a discreet squeeze of lemon juice--- just enough to clarify the flavor of the soup, not so much that it becomes tart.
Serve the soup very hot, with olive oil drizzled on top. If you like, add a generous grating of Parmigiano-Regginao or a few croutons. I like to serve plain bruschetta with this: slices of baguette brushed with olive oil and grilled.
EVEN EASIER... Skip the puree step and simply let all the ingredients simmer together in the bean and vegetable broth at the end.
Stephanie's notes: Instead of dried beans, used canned. Caramelize the garlic cloves for extra flavor. Use a fruity olive oil with Meyer lemon essence.
ROASTED KABOCHA SQUASH AND CELERY ROOT SOUP
(Recipe from Love Soup by Anna Thomas)
A rich and lovely soup for the harvest season, this gets its complex flavor from the subtle layering of celery root and turnip under the sweet, golden kabocha squash. The browned butter and maple syrup stirred in at the end turn these simple ingredients into a luxury soup.
If you can't find kabocha squash, you can use butternut squash instead; it is usually available and reliably good.
1 kabocha squash (2 1/2 lbs.; 1 kg)
3 medium turnips (12 oz; 350 kg)
1 medium celery root (12 oz.; 350 g)
1 1/2 tbs. (22 ml) olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
2 leeks, white and light green parts (150 g)
1 yellow onion (250 g)
a few rosemary leaves
2-3 cups (475-700 ml) basic light vegetable broth
2-3 tbs. (30-45 ml) fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
hot paprika or cayenne
3 tbs. (45 ml) pure maple syrup, plus more to taste
3 tbs. unsalted butter
garnish: 3/4 cup (75 g) chopped pecans, lightly toasted
MAKE THE SOUP
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Cut the kabocha squash in half with a very sharp knife, scrape out the seeds and strings, and place the halves cut side down on a lightly oiled non-stick baking sheet. Peel the turnips and cut them in wedges. Peel the celery root and cut it into 1-inch pieces. Toss the turnips and celery root with about half a tablespoon of the olive oil and a pinch of sea salt and spread them on another baking sheet.
Roast all the prepared vegetables in the hot oven for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until the squash gives easily when poked with a wooden spoon and the turnips and celery root are tender and flecked with dark brown. When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop it out of its shell.
While those vegetables are roasting, cut the leeks in half lengthwise, wash them thoroughly, and slice thinly; you should have about 1 1/2 cups. Chop the onion and saute it gently in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, with a dash of salt and the rosemary, stirring now and then over medium heat until it is soft and golden brown.
In a large soup pot, combine the roasted squash, turnips, celery root, leeks, and sauteed onions with 4 cups (1 liter) water and a teaspoon of salt. Simmer the vegetables, covered, about 20 minutes to let them get perfectly soft. Add 2 cups vegetable broth, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, a pinch of hot paprika or cayenne, and the maple syrup.
Allow the soup to cool somewhat, then puree it in a blender, in batches, or in the pot with an immersion blender.
The various flavors in this soup are better when blended into one harmonious new flavor, but you can make the texture whatever you like. I prefer this as a silky-smooth soup, but you can stop at a rougher puree if you like. Add a little more vegetable broth if the soup is too thick to pour easily from a ladle. Return the soup to a clean pot and bring it back to simmer.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Lower the heat and keep cooking the butter for a few minutes, stirring with a whisk, until it is a light golden brown. Stir the browned butter into the soup.
Taste the soup, and correct the seasoning, whisking in more salt, lemon juice, or maple syrup as needed. This last step is essential, as kabocha squashes vary in sweetness and lemons certainly vary in acidity.
As always, when working on the sweet-sour balance you reach a point where only a good pinch of salt will make it right.
Sprinkle each serving of this soup with a spoonful of chopped pecans.
Stephanie's note: Toast hazelnuts, crush them, garnish.