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Published: Monday, 1/10/2011

Soup secrets: Take the chill off winter with a simple, hearty concoction

It's good food. It's even Mm-mm good.

There is nothing like a big pot of soup to take the chill off a blustery, gray winter's day. It warms the body and the soul, a steaming restorative that can brighten a gloomy afternoon and make you feel better about yourself.

When boiled down to its essentials, soup is just a fluid - usually water or stock - with at least one other ingredient. And that's what makes it so satisfying: its simplicity. On the other hand, a soup can be marvelously complex, with dozens of harmoniously selected ingredients and hours of time simmering on the stove. And that's what makes it so satisfying too: its sophistication.

Nothing smells better than a pot of soup simmering on the stove. The aroma fills the entire house with happiness and warmth.

The secret to making a good soup is that there is no secret to making a good soup. If you have, say, some stock, a little meat, and a few vegetables, it doesn't really matter what the specifics are. If you heat it all together, you've got soup.

In her book Soup: A Way of Life, Barbara Kafka writes, "There is no definitive recipe, no single authentic oneā€¦ a little variation in ingredients or technique will only personalize the soup rather than causing disaster."

Which means that if you're making soup and you mess up the recipe, you'll still get soup. You might even come up with a new and better recipe.

Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been making soup for around 8,000 years, give or take, and it still is a major method of preparing food in just about every culture around the world. In China, soup is served at the end of the meal and is also sipped as a drink. In Japan, soup is eaten with every meal, with the familiar miso soup traditionally served at breakfast.

With the onslaught of the winter's chill and a post-holiday need for thriftiness and low-calorie meals, we have taken to making a lot of soups lately, especially as a main course. The meals have been filling and varied, and the house has smelled simply ambrosial.

For a bit of the exotic we made a Japanese soup of beef and egg, which is the essence of simplicity served in a bowl. A rustic dish from the Japanese Country Cookbook, it is simple to prepare and quick to cook, especially if you cut the meat into small pieces. It is an unusual mixture of beef and egg, which is here cooked like an egg drop soup.

The recipe calls for togarashi, a Japanese hot pepper spice mix. I didn't happen to have any on hand, and the last Asian market I went to didn't sell it (though others do). Real togarashi includes the peel of a citrus fruit, some seaweed, sesame seeds, and garlic. I substituted a Chinese chili garlic paste, which worked admirably, although the flavor was undoubtedly different from what they would expect in Japan. But that's just part of the evolutionary process of soup-making.

If you don't have chili garlic paste, a simple sprinkling of red pepper flakes will work just fine. If you don't like your food spicy, skip the pepper entirely. It's still awfully good. And for an additional variation, leave out the egg, pop the soup in the fridge, and eat it cold the next day.

We also tried the White Bean and Rosemary Soup from a trendy Greenwich Village dining spot called Home Restaurant. The original owners, David Page and Barbara Shinn, published some of their best recipes in a book called Recipes from Home, including the one for this soup. We gave their warmly filling soup extra zest by adding rosemary while we cooked it, and sausage would go well with it, too.

Ms. Shinn, incidentally, is originally from Toledo, a graduate of the now-closed McAuley High School. She reports that she and Mr. Page, who is her husband, now run a winery on Long Island. Shinn Vineyards is the only commercial-sized organic winery on the East Coast, she said, and is in the process of becoming only the second winery outside of California to be certified for biodynamics, a system using strictly defined methods of sustainable composting.

On one recent especially chilly night, we decided to warm up with a bowl of Senegalese Peanut Soup, a spicy and slightly sweet concoction that makes use of peanut butter and curry powder in an unexpectedly harmonious way. In Senegal, they like their food fiery, and this soup can be made as hot as you like it - or can take it.

If you want to cool it down, add richness or give it an even more exotic flair, you can add coconut milk to the pot. A bit of cilantro at the end of cooking would be a worthy addition as well.

From France comes Potage Parmentier, a deceptively simple soup made of leeks and potatoes that is far tastier than the sum of its parts. It is one of Julia Child's best-known and most-loved recipes, which we have altered only slightly by cutting back on the salt. Made from just six ingredients, including water and salt, this soup has a pure taste that makes it suitable to use as a base for more complex soups. Bacon would go especially well with it, and you also could add celery root before pureeing all the vegetables together. But try the soup on its own, first.

It's good food. And it's perfect for the winter.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Sliced Beef with Egg Soup

4 cups beef stock OR water

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup mirin (see cook's note)

1 parsnip, peeled and sliced in 1/2-inch slices

3/4 - 1pound tender beef, sliced thin and then to bite-sized pieces

4 eggs

Togarashi OR chili garlic sauce OR red pepper flakes (see cook's note)

Cook's note: Mirin is a sweet Japanese cooking wine available in the Asian food section of most large grocery stores or at Asian food markets. You can use dry sherry or sweet marsala wine, or add a little sugar to white wine as an acceptable substitute. Togarashi is a Japanese condiment combining hot peppers, garlic, citrus peel, sesame seeds, seaweed, and other ingredients. It is available at many Asian food markets. Chili garlic sauce, which is Chinese, is different but is an adequate substitute; it is found in the Asian food section of most large grocery stores or at Asian food markets.

Place stock, soy sauce, sugar, mirin and parsnip in a large pot. Boil; then add meat and simmer until tender. Beat eggs and pour over the top. When eggs are firm, the soup is done. Sprinkle with togarashi, chili garlic sauce or pepper.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Adapted from Japanese Country Cookbook, by Russ Rudzinski

Senegalese Peanut Soup

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons curry powder

3 cups chicken broth

10 medium-size tomatoes, cut in half crosswise, seeds squeezed out, coarsely chopped, OR 2 (28-ounce) cans tomatoes, drained, seeded, and chopped

2/3 cup smooth peanut butter

Salt and pepper

Sour cream

Lime wedges

In a 4-quart pot over medium heat, cook the onion, garlic, and cayenne pepper in the oil until the onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the curry powder and stir the mixture over medium heat for 1 minute more.

Add the chicken broth and tomatoes, simmer for 10 minutes, and strain the soup through the fine disk of a food mill or push it through a medium-mesh strainer with a ladle. Bring the soup to a simmer and whisk in the peanut butter. Season with salt and pepper and more cayenne if you want it hotter. Serve sour cream and lime wedges at the table.

Variations: You can give this soup extra richness and a velevty texture by adding a cup of coconut milk or heavy cream. Try a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro at the end.

Yield: 8 servings

Source: Adapted from Splendid Soup, by James Peterson

White Bean and Rosemary Soup

1 cup dried white beans, such as navy beans

2 quarts water, divided

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup diced celery (1/4-inch dice)

3/4 cup peeled and diced carrots (1/4-inch dice)

1/2 cup diced onion (1/2-inch dice)

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 bay leaf

2 fresh thyme springs OR 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon minced lemon zest

Bring the white beans and 2 cups of the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans.

Melt the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and cook until the vegetables are softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the beans, the remaining 6 cups of water, bay leaf, and thyme. Simmer until the beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove and discard the bay leaf and the thyme sprigs (if using fresh thyme). If the soup seems too thick, adjust the consistency with a little water. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle the hot soup into soup bowls and garnish with the chopped parsley, rosemary, and lemon zest.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Adapted from Recipes from Home, by David Page and Barbara Shinn

Potage Parmentier (Leek and Onion Soup)

1 pound potatoes, peeled and sliced or diced

1 pound leeks, white and light green parts only (about 3 cups), thinly sliced (see cook's note)

2 quarts water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2-3 tablespoons butter

2-3 tablespoons chives or minced parsley

Cook's note: Leeks must be cleaned before using. Cut it off where the light green part starts to turn dark, and remove the very bottom of the stem, where the roots are often attached. Slice the leek lengthwise and run the two halves under running water, fanning out the layers to dislodge any dirt that may be trapped inside.

With the pot partly covered, simmer potatoes, leeks, and salt in water until tender, about 40-50 minutes. Puree with an immersion blender or use a fork to mash the potatoes and leeks together. If necessary, reheat the soup until it simmers, take it off the heat, and stir in the butter one tablespoon at a time.

Serve, garnishing the bowls with chives or parsley.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Source: Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck



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