It was sunny and 72 degrees a few days ago when I ran into my friend Rebecca. "Isn't it ironic," I said, "I'm writing about cozy, warming winter soups this week?" She replied, "It's always a good time for soups!" She's right! Hot, hearty soups are appropriate anytime but they are definitely something we crave this time of year.
The beauty of homemade soups is that you can make big batches and freeze them, they're generally economical and healthy, and they improve your chopping skills. Are you a novice cook? Soups are pretty much foolproof, and they're adaptable.
To be ready to whip up a soup you should always have certain items on hand: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and potatoes. In the pantry have dried and canned beans and legumes, jars of whole or chopped tomatoes, and chicken, vegetable, or beef stock or bouillon cubes. From there you can buy the fresh ingredients needed: chicken, chorizo, fish, cabbage, zucchini, whatever.
A hearty soup is a meal in itself, but can be followed by a salad with toasted baguette slices and one or two or three cheeses. This time of year it's nice to make a salad as laden with goodies as your soup with a variety of greens, chopped apples, toasted walnuts or pecans, and perhaps a sprinkle of Roquefort cheese crumbles. And don't forget to heat your bowls, you don't want the soup to cool off as everyone is chattering away over how delicious it is.
It is believed that soups have existed since mankind figured out how to make cooking vessels out of clay, around 20,000 B.C. Before that, turtle shells and hollowed out bamboo may have been used. The Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef discovered a cooking pot in a cave in China that had signs of having been used over a fire. Now this doesn't prove that it was used to make soup; it could've been used to make a version of moonshine -- but that's a story for another day.
Suffice it to say that every culture in the world has some form of soups: borscht in Russia, tom kha gai in Thailand, ramen in Japan, caldo verde in Portugal, and cullen skink in Scotland. Janet Clarkson, author of "Soup: A Global History," points out that in ancient cultures food and medicine were intertwined, and soups in particular were considered restorative and easily digestible. They still are, as a matter of fact -- chicken soup has been proven to assist in recovery from a cold.
So whether you're cooking for a sick friend, or just spending a weekend morning making soup for your family, here are some recipes worth trying.
Simple Vegetable Potage
This is one of my favorite easy soup recipes. It is from Mimi Thorisson's "French Country Cooking." To follow this soup, I make the pear cake from the same book.
Serves four to six.
2 Tbsp. butter
1 lb. carrots, peeled and chopped
2 russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 large leek, cleaned and chopped (I use 2 or 3)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1 qt. chicken or vegetable stock
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. tomato paste
Chopped chives for serving
In large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add carrots, potatoes, and leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened a bit.
Add nutmeg, some salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes over low heat.
Let the soup cool a bit, then add cream and tomato paste, and puree in a blender or use an immersion blender. Reheat gently before serving and top with chopped chives.
Andrea's Mom's Awesome Chicken Wild Rice Soup
This is my friend Andrea's mom's soup. I make it all the time and it is always a big hit. I have made some adjustments, such as adding way more vegetables than called for in the original recipe, and adding raw chicken meat instead of leftovers. Feel free to leave out the mushrooms; they don't bring much to the party.
Makes 10 cups.
1 cup wild rice (or use Lundberg brand's mixed rice)
4 cups water
1 3/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. butter (I use olive oil)
1 onion, chopped
3-4 ribs celery, chopped
3 cups sliced mushrooms (approx. 5 oz.)
1/4 cup flour
6 cups chicken broth
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. white pepper
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 lb. good quality chicken breast meat, cut into large pieces (After soup is finished, I cut the chicken into bite-size pieces; this way it is less likely to get overcooked and toughened)
Cook wild rice with four cups water and three-quarters teaspoon salt for 40 minutes. Drain. Cook onion in butter or oil until soft. Then add mushrooms and celery. Cook for about 10 minutes more. Add flour and stir for a few minutes. Add broth and bring to a boil, stirring, until thickened. Add cooked rice, spices, milk, and sherry. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add chicken pieces and cook gently just until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes, depending on size of pieces.
Serve with some good toasted whole grain bread.
Mediterranean Cod Soup
This soup is from one of Amanda Hesser's books and she credits Tim Boyd for this recipe. For topping the soup, as if it were a bouillabaisse, I toast baguette slices and top them with "homemade" rouille. Just mix a bit of saffron threads, a quarter teaspoon minced garlic, and a dash of hot sauce to a quarter cup mayonnaise. Put a bit on each baguette slice and float in the soup when serving. Have extra bread and rouille on the side; everyone will want more.
Serves four to six.
Chunky Basil Sauce
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
1 Tbsp. minced onion
1 tsp. each dried oregano, basil, garlic, and salt
1 35-oz. can Italian whole tomatoes
Heat oil and saute shallots, onions, and spices. Pour off about one cup of liquid from tomatoes and set aside. Chop tomatoes coarsely and add to the oil and spice mixture. Bring to boil, then simmer about 35 minutes. If sauce gets too thick, add a bit of the tomato liquid.
1 recipe tomato basil sauce
1 1/2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce (I used Rao's arrabbiata)
1 cup chopped onions
2 green zucchini, cut into half-inch dice
1/4 cup sliced black olives
2 tsp. chopped fresh tarragon (if you don't have this but have some Pernod in your liquor cabinet, add a tablespoon of that to get the anise flavor)
2/3 cup white wine
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 cup water (optional)
1 1/2 lbs. fresh cod, cut into 2-inch chunks
Combine the two tomato sauces with onions, zucchini, olives, wine, and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until zucchini is soft. Add water to the desired thickness. At this point you can refrigerate the soup base; it improves overnight. Or continue by adding cod chunks to simmering soup. It will cook quickly so test every few minutes. When cod is done, remove the chunks with a slotted spoon and place in warm serving bowls. Ladle soup over the fish and top with rouille croutons.