bisque to zuppa de pesce, the gamut of soups warms a wintery
body and soul
temperatures plummeting to pipe-freezing lows, I’ve been heating
my kitchen with soup. More specifically, I’ve been enjoying—and
warming—myself with a succession of compotes that require
little culinary effort and also serve the handy purpose of
clearing out the—I hesitate to use the term—icebox.
Although it’s a year-round treat (think summer gazpacho),
soup comes into its own when the weather turns cold. And we’re
not talking consommé. You want a soup that feels like it’s
coating every square inch of your innards as it courses through.
Bruce Jay Friedman’s Lonely Guy’s Book of Life instructs
the hapless bachelor to “start every dinner by sautéeing onions,
peppers and mushrooms in Filippo Berio olive oil. Nothing
tastes bad if it starts off with those three.” Including a
good, thick soup.
Think in terms of process, not product. There may not be a
name for the brew that gets rid of last night’s chicken, a
can of black beans and some celery stalks on the verge of
wilting, but tie them together in a velouté and you’ve got
tonight’s feast, needing only a heel of bread to make it complete.
Back in my professional cooking life, preparing the day’s
soup was the job of the one who opened the kitchen in the
morning. When Mario, the longtime chef, took his turn, it
was often without any idea about what he’d prepare until he
had onions and garlic and bay leaves sautéeing in a giant
pot. While also lighting the ovens and steam table and setting
up the day’s other sauces and specials, he’d check the reach-in
and walk-in boxes and assemble an array of vegetables and
meatstuffs to send to the soup.
Some days were ritualized: Fridays, for example, were always
shrimp or lobster bisque, the body of the soup a combo of
pumpkin purée and cream. Winter saw an upsurge in potato-and-leek
soup (potage parmentier), which is nothing more than
a hot version of vichyssoise.
It starts with the garlic-onion-bay leaf combo, but add to
that a quantity of well-washed leeks. Peel a bunch of potatoes,
and chop them small and add the pieces. If you prepare the
potatoes beforehand, keep them in a container of water so
they won’t discolor.
I like to sauté the potatoes for a while, but they can be
added after you make the roux. That’s your principal thickening
agent, a mixture of flour and butter cooked until slightly
brown. Once your onions are translucent, add a quantity of
flour equal to the butter in the pot; stir it with a wooden
spoon to keep it from burning, which it will tend to do in
your pot’s hot spots.
Although you’ll get a just-fine result from cooking the potatoes
in water, I like the added oomph of a chicken stock. Whatever
you use, simmer the mixture until the potatoes are soft, then
grind it through a food mill (a vital piece of soupmaking
equipment). Taste and season the mixture, then finish it with
cream (or a mixture of milk or half-and-half with egg yolks).
Temper the cream with a couple of ounces of hot soup, then
whisk it all back into the soup, taking care not to boil it.
There are variations aplenty. No food mill? Leave the potato
pieces intact. Too scarily meat-free? Add some bacon. No reason
not to put the Friedman peppers and mushrooms in there if
you so desire.
You can mess with the underpinnings, too. Substitute shredded
carrots, say, for the potatoes. Save broccoli and cauliflower
stems and build a soup around them. A cream soup with mushrooms
is one of life’s best flavor combos, especially when you complement
it with a dash of sherry.
It doesn’t even have to be a cream soup. Make a stock with
a whole chicken (carrots, celery and onions are also stock
components, and you’ll get an extra snap of flavor by studding
the onion with a couple of cloves), save and shred the meat
and make chicken soup, adding pasta or rice for added body.
Ditto a chunk of beef, which can be worked through beef stock
into beef-barley soup.
Then there’s the realm of beans. My favorite winter soup is
a toss-up between lentil and split pea soup, both of which
I enhance with a ham bone and bits of its meat. Start with
dried beans and reconstitute them in chicken or beef stock.
Sauté those onions, add the beans, and you may even be able
to skip the roux.
A too-thick soup should be easy to thin: more stock, or even
water if necessary. If the soup isn’t as thick as you’d like,
you can alter it after the fact (but before the cream is added)
with a slurry of corn starch or arrowroot and water, added
to the boiling mixture. Both result in a slightly gelatinous
mixture (think Chinese food); corn starch muddies it, while
arrowroot keeps it fairly clear. Or make another roux, remembering
to temper it before adding it.
My most recent batch was a pot of chicken-and-potato soup,
thick and redolent of good paprika. And once we finished dinner,
we put the pot under the kitchen sink and left it to thaw
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.