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Soup Symposium

“Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven,” goes a familiar commercial jingle. I would revise it with this addendum, “Except maybe a big pot of piping hot homemade soup on a brisk afternoon or evening.” We’re talking seriously sustaining comfort food here, which stands on its own—though some freshly baked bread would be a welcome accompaniment!

Soup is a comfort in any season: It is refreshing chilled in summer as well as hot on nippy days. Some especially versatile soups are enjoyable served warm one day and cold the next. Just be sure to serve cold soups thoroughly chilled and hot soups steaming.
But temperature is just one dimension of this practically universal culinary format that provides cooks all over the globe with innumerable opportunities for creative improvisation. Soups are not only an exceptionally expressive medium but also laudable for their nutritional standing—chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and often protein and fiber too.

Whether a simple broth, a smooth purée, or a chunky mixture that verges on a stew, soup can be an “appeteaser” or a mainstay of a meal at any time of day—for lunch, dinner, or even breakfast. And, making soup doesn’t have to be a lengthy, involved process. Long, slow simmering suits some soups, such as grain- and bean-based ones, and these often taste better after the flavors have mingled for several hours or overnight—so make a large pot to enjoy for several meals. Others, such as light vegetable or miso broths, are ready in a matter of minutes and at their best as soon as they are made. Each type is a convenience food in its own way—the former can be made ahead of time but reheated quickly; the latter are quick to prepare.

Whatever kind of soup you’re making, take care to avoid vigorous boiling. Simmer soup gently, so that you don’t cook the flavor right out of it. To preserve their potency, add delicate seasonings such as fresh herbs and fragile dried herbs like dill, tarragon, chervil, parsley andcilantro to long-simmered soups near the end of cooking. Also, some dried herbs tend to develop an acrid taste when cooked too long.

Soups provide myriad sumptuous means to showcase the best of each season. They’re also a good way to use up the odds and ends in the refrigerator, pantry and garden. Consider all of your leftovers—raw and cooked vegetables and fruits, stocks, juices, sauces, and cooked grains, beans and pasta—as potential soup ingredients. For instance, combine leftover steamed, roasted, or stir-fried vegetables, some noodles or rice, and vegetable stock for an especially quick meal. Blend ripe banana, peach, strawberries or melon, yogurt or coconut milk, and fruit juice, and you’ll have a delectable fruit soup. In kitchens where I’ve worked, I’ve become famous for my “soup kits”—collections of ingredients that I habitually gather for soups.

Vegetable stock is a great foundation for soups and is easy and economical to make yourself. You’ll avoid the excess salt and additives in many commercial stocks, and, if you wish, you can customize the flavor for a particular soup. Keep a quart-sized plastic container in your freezer and gradually fill it with fresh, unspoiled vegetable and fruit scraps and parings, including carrots, parsnips, potatoes, squashes, mushroom stems, celery, corncobs, onions, leeks, parsley, apple or pear. When it’s full, combine the contents with two to three quarts of water and a pinch of salt and simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, then strain and cool. Stock will keep for about a week refrigerated and a couple of months frozen. Avoid peppers, eggplant, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbages, mustard, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, turnips, watercress, rutabagas, and radishes, or your stock may taste bitter. Other soup stock options are vegetable blanching and steaming water and bean and noodle-cooking water.
One of the most common soup flaws, I find, is a “flat” taste due to improper seasoning. Salt is a flavor enhancer and may correct the situation. Taste and add it at several points while the soup simmers and then make a final adjustment at the end of cooking. A small amount of citrus juice, dry wine, or vinegar can also bring out and balance a soup’s overall flavor.

I season some soups with miso of one sort or another. Besides a salty taste, miso contributes a certain depth of flavor and rich heartiness to soups. Add miso, diluted with liquid, at the end of cooking. Take special care not to let the soup boil after stirring in the miso or you’ll destroy the valuable digestive enzymes that it contains. The same goes for unpasteurized tamari and shoyu. Reheat a soup seasoned with miso or soy sauce slowly and gently. A double boiler is a good technique for reheating any soup, whether or not it contains miso.

Finally, a garnish furnishes a special finishing touch to a soup. Croutons provide a contrast in texture to a smooth purée, and a dollop of yogurt or sour cream does the same for a chunky soup. Edible flower blossoms and leaves and fruit slices contribute beauty and visual interest as well as a bit of flavor. Minced fresh herbs or a sprinkle of a pungent spice add a piquant accent to each serving.
Now, get out a heavy-bottomed pot, fire up your range, and give the following three-soup sampler a try. The first two illustrate different ways to make soups creamy without dairy products. The third offers a double whammy of warmth—in both temperature and pungency.

Susan Jane Cheney is the author of two cookbooks: Breadtime and Stir Crazy!. She is a former member of the Moosewood Collective.

Golden Carrot Soup
A small amount of potato gives this soup a smooth background creaminess when blended. To subtly vary the soup’s flavor, substitute other herbs such as marjoram or tarragon (to taste) for the dill.

  • 1 1/2 tsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 c. sliced carrots
  • 1 medium potato, cubed
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 6 c. water or mild vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 tsp. fresh minced dill weed (or 3/4 teaspoon crushed dried)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs. minced fresh parsley

Directions: Heat the oil in large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the onion and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic, carrot, potato, pepper and nutmeg, and continue to sauté briefly.

Add the water or stock and 1 tsp. salt. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until the vegetables are thoroughly tender. Stir in the dill. Remove the cover and cool somewhat.

Blend, leaving part of the soup a bit coarse for some texture.

Return the soup to the pot and bring it back to a simmer. Stir in the lemon juice and add more salt to taste. Serve hot, garnished with the parsley. Serves 4.

Creamy Cauliflower-Cashew Soup
Blended cashews add a velvety richness to this soup. The nutty flavor of tarragon is an agreeable accent.

  • 6 cups mild vegetable stock or water
  • 1 medium to large onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small (1-pound) head cauliflower, divided into florets
  • 4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed dried tarragon or 1 to 1/2 tsp. fresh
  • 1/2 c. lightly toasted cashews
  • 2 to 3 tsp. lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 Tbs. minced fresh parsley

Directions: Combine the stock or water, onion, carrot, cauliflower and garlic in a soup pot. Bring to a simmer and cook about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are very tender. Add pepper and tarragon, and remove the pan from the heat. Cool the contents to lukewarm.

Combine the cashews with soup stock to cover in a blender. Blend, adding more stock as necessary, until the mixture is thoroughly smooth, then return it to the soup pot. Blend the remaining soup stock and vegetables in batches, leaving about a third somewhat coarsely textured, and combine with the cashew “cream.” Heat gently, then season with lemon juice and salt. Serve hot, garnished with parsley. Serves 4.

Two Sisters Soup
Serve this spirited Southwestern-style bean and vegetable soup with cornbread to complete the traditional American Indian culinary threesome: corn, beans and squash. For enhanced flavor, I like to toast and then grind whole coriander and cumin, but you can substitute unroasted ground spices.

  • 1/2 tsp. whole coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp. cumin seed
  • 1 to 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 6 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium to large red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 c. butternut squash cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 small chile, minced
  • 1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
  • 5 c. water or mild vegetable stock
  • 2 c. cooked anasazi or pinto beans
  • 2 Tbs. fresh lime juice, or to taste
  • Finely chopped cilantro to taste

Directions: Toast the coriander and cumin seed in a heavy-bottomed ungreased skillet over low heat. Pulverize with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and set aside.

Add the oil to a large saucepan or soup pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion for several minutes, until it appears translucent. Gradually add the garlic, bell pepper, squash and chile, while continuing to sauté for several minutes. Stir in the toasted ground spices (add them earlier if untoasted) and about 1 tsp. salt.

Add the water or stock and beans and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook 20 to 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and flavors melded. Season with salt and lime juice to taste. Serve hot, garnished with cilantro. Serves 4.

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