When developing my recipes, I have the home cook foremost in mind; even gourmet chefs don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen. So I like to keep my recipes simple, using fresh, natural ingredients, which yield fantastic results without fuss. This is especially true for soups. At my house, very few dinners are served without soup. Perhaps it’s because the soup is always so good and so easily prepared. Some are, indeed, complete meals, and in the winter, what could be better? But when it comes to making soups, I’ve heard repeatedly that most cooks find it an imposition (and possibly even a deterrent) to first make soup stock (with meat or poultry) before proceeding with a recipe. Almost all cookbooks use stock as the essential ingredient in a good soup, which, from the outset, already excludes the earnest but busy cook, or forces her to settle for an inferior commercial base.
The good news is that you can make a delicious soup from scratch, using just water as “stock,” without any meat. Until recently, my mother (who fed us wonderful soups made with chicken or meat every other night, which, in my native Morocco is called dinner) was happy to believe that any soup I cooked that she liked was made with stock. Invariably, she would proclaim, “Ha! See what a difference it makes?” Trust me… if I could make a convert out of her, you should be no problem at all. You will never miss homemade stock in these recipes.
Making soup is the ultimate showcase for you as a cook. You have great freedom, flexibility and room for creativity, provided that you keep a few basic principles in mind:
Choose full-flavored vegetables and grains. Your choice of ingredients matters. The best vegetarian soups use intensely flavored vegetables such as celery root, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, carrots, watercress, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Combine milder vegetables such as zucchini, string beans and red peppers with more assertive ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic and basil.
Combine ingredients effectively. Resist the temptation to make soup (or any dish for that matter) with a very long list of ingredients. First of all, you do not want all your soups to taste and look the same. Second, you should always give a particular ingredient and/or seasoning the chance to star. A short, well-chosen selection of ingredients will yield infinitely better results than an enormous, undistinguishable medley.
Exercise caution with cooking times. Except for miso soup, al dente does not work for soup. Vegetables must be tender, but not mushy. Beans need to be soft enough to release their starch, yet retain their character. In a pinch, it is better to use canned beans than those that will end up incompletely cooked and indigestible. All root vegetables require longer cooking times in order to fully release their flavors and fragrances. Add delicate vegetables – such as zucchini and bell peppers – halfway through the cooking process so they don’t become mushy or discolored, or worse, tasteless. Very delicate leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, lettuce and scallions should be added at the very end of the cooking process. A minute or two is all they need to wilt, yet retain their bright colors.
Modulate the texture of the soup. In order to avoid thin, watered-down soup, start with less water and err on the side of thickness. All the recipes here will result in soup you might have to thin, so before serving, adjust the texture by adding a little liquid, if necessary.
Sauté in olive oil. Leeks, onions, celery and garlic that are properly sautéed in very good olive oil guarantee a delicious soup. I allow about 1/3 cup of olive oil for 3-4 quarts of soup, which gives the soup the richness and smoothness it needs without making it too caloric. Do not try to reduce this amount further in an effort to make the soup leaner as it will result in an undistinguished “boiled” baby-food-like soup with no texture to speak of. The soup recipes here each yield a large batch, so the oil will add no more than 30 calories per serving, in exchange for lots of good taste and texture.
Thicken the soup appropriately. If you are making a smooth, creamed soup, include one or two of the following starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, parsnips or peas. When blended with other ingredients, they will create a thick, rich texture. If you are making a chunky soup, just a handful of barley, rice, split peas or lentils will add the necessary starch and impart a wonderful taste. Grains such as bulgur, oats, millet, cornmeal or farina will disperse in the liquid and produce a delicious soup with a somewhat less starchy texture. Each grain yields a different result, so try different combinations.
Use only the best. Not the most expensive, not the fanciest, just the best. It is perfectly fine to use leftover vegetables or beans in a soup, but it is not acceptable to use wilted greens or blemished vegetables. Your soup will reflect the high standards you apply in selecting your ingredients, so, whenever possible, use seasonal vegetables – or frozen, unprocessed vegetables – at the peak of their perfection.
Storing, freezing and reheating the soup. Never divide a soup (or any) recipe. Why should you, once you have that pot going? Just as importantly, don’t serve it all week until it’s coming out of everybody’s ears. Just freeze it! Set aside the amount you think will be eaten (plus a little more for the cook to enjoy the next day) and pour the rest into one-quart plastic containers equipped with tight-fitting lids. Fill each container a half-inch from the top to make prevision for the soup’s expansion when frozen, and label and date each container. Don’t forget this last step or you will be stumped by some UFOs: unidentified frozen objects. The day will come when you will be delighted to find quart-size containers of several soups in your freezer, each enough for two ample servings. To reheat, place the frozen container under warm, running water for a few seconds, and then slide it in one block into a pot with just a little water added. Reheat on a low flame, stirring occasionally. This process takes only a few minutes in total, and is well worth it to avoid microwave-reheating, which might scorch the outside before heating the center. (I only ever recommend microwave-reheating for small quantities.)
Here then are some of my favorite season-appropriate soups, sure to keep you warm and satiated during these cold, winter days and nights.
This article appeared in Kosher Inspired, Issue 2, February 2011. Kosher Inspired is brought to you by Mishpacha Magazine.