Why do I love soup? Let me count the ways:
- It is extremely versatile.
- There are soups for all seasons.
- It is meant to be shared.
- It gets better as it sits making it the perfect leftover food.
- Great soups can be built from humble ingredients.
- Every culture has signature soups.
- It can be a one pot meal.
Kathy always tells me that no one makes soup like I make soup. And more importantly, no one will make soup like I make soup. My retort is, "If they made soup like I make soup, they would eat more soup!" I like to find little ways of instilling layers of flavor in the food I make. It is not necessarily any harder, it just takes a different mindset. So, let me start off by saying, a well-made soup was never achieved by throwing everything in a pot at the same time and letting it boil away. Rather, a great soup is built from the first ingredient up. Here are my tips so that the next bowl of soup bowls you right over.
Virtually everyone praises soup for its ability to become the place where leftovers end up. "Boy, I am tired of eating this rice, asparagus and roasted chicken. I know, let me throw it in a soup!" Call me crazy, but I don't want to start off a dish with items I am already over eating. Nor should your soup become the landing spot for the entire contents of your fridge and spice rack. Instead pick a star ingredient and support it with a great cast. Think beautiful borscht punctuated with sour cream and fresh dill instead of clean out my fridge potage.
Pick A Place:
There is no better way to build your soup than to stay within a regional focus. This will help guide your ingredient and spice choices in a very thoughtful way. In fact, you probably do this already without thinking about it. Southwestern? You add things like cumin, peppers and cilantro. Thai? You pick coconut milk, lemongrass, lime, ginger. Spanish? You throw in smoked paprika, roasted garlic, saffron. By thinking regionally, your soup will taste like it is supposed to, built on years of flavor combinations that work.
Follow The Seasons:
I know most people only make soup in the Fall and Winter; but that is a shame. Many Spring and Summer ingredients shine in soup. Make a great chilled pea soup or sweet corn chowder or why not try a refreshingly cool, minty melon soup for the sweltering August days? As long you are making a soup that uses ingredients that are in season, it will always taste appropriate.
If the goal of great food is bestow flavor at every stage, than ingredients have to enter the pot in stages. For example, I always sweat my vegetables first, sometimes caramelizing them. If I use canned tomatoes, I cook out all the extra liquid, concentrating the flavor, before proceeding. If I add tomato paste, I let it fry first, softening the harsh acidic bite. I also, always, add the spices and aromatics before the liquid is introduced. I have already sung the praises of using whole, toasted then ground spices. However, frying the spices in the cooking fat before adding the liquid ingredients gives your soup a completely different flavor. It will help enhance the flavors of a spice, making them bolder and more intense. This step will also suffuse the fat with those aromatics....my nose is tingling just thinking about it.
Season As You Go, With Salt That Is:
It is hard to play catch-up at the end of the dish. At that point, you are really just salting the broth or liquid of the soup. And you may actually end up using more salt to compensate for the fact that the other ingredients do not have much flavor on their own. Instead, think about seasoning each ingredient as it enters the pot, making each step taste good. If you do this, it is obvious that the final dish will be properly seasoned and taste good as well.
You should always have stock on hand and use this instead of water for your soups. To take it one step further, make your own! I know this is not practical for everyone, but there is a huge difference. My homemade stocks have much more depth of flavor and body than anything I can buy in the store. This sets my soup off on the right path. It also means I have control over all the ingredients in the pot. And truly, I make my own stock just a couple of times a year. A big batch, sealed, labeled and frozen gets me through months at a time. At the very least, you can boost store bought versions in creative ways. For example, if you are making corn chowder, simmer the shucked corn cobs in the milk or your favorite brand before adding it to the soup. The cobs will impart their sweetness and corny flavor to a pre-made product.
Simmering Simply Suffices:
Never boil! Any long-cooking soup should never climb above a simmer. Boiling is just too vigorous and simply unnecessary. When you boil soup, everything gets jostled and breaks apart, vegetables lose their integrity and fat gets emulsified into the liquid instead of rising to the surface.
Skim The Fat:
If you are simmering properly, you should notice a nice layer of fat on top of your soups. Although it is not necessary, I like to skim this off as it cooks. At this point, that fat has done its job. It helped sweat the vegetables, fry the spices and carry those flavors into the liquid. It is worn out, tired and now time to leave the party. By removing the fat, you improve the clarity and texture of the final soup. Don't worry, you can always garnish with a drizzle of fresh olive oil, a pile of crispy bacon or a swirl of brown butter to put that fat back.
Acid At The End:
I am huge fan of finishing most every soup with a bit of acid. The type depends on the dish, but a little dash brightens all the flavors.
A well chosen garnish can elevate your soup. Think of it as the perfect accessory to the already great outfit. For example, add a dollop of pesto in minestrone or a small sampling of caviar in your vichyssoise. Don't hold back, be playful, have fun, make it delicious....