KITCHEN CALL: Warming soups take away the chill
It was much nicer this week to wake up to sunrise. But I’m no fan of driving home as dusk melts into the pitch dark. When natural light disappears from my favorite part of day — cooking dinner — I often turn to soup. A pot of soup simmering on the stove takes away the chill and can be easy on the cook.
Once the main ingredients are in the pot, bubbling gently, it leaves time to catch up on the blogs and tweets. I bring the laptop to the kitchen table while I watch over the pot.
Right now is the best time of year for soup made from farm-fresh, hard vegetables like potatoes, squash, pumpkin, carrots, even broccoli stems. These soups can turn out thickly laced with hearty nuggets of vegetable, or transformed to a creamy texture, depending on whether the cook feels like using the food processor. (Sometimes, I just don’t want to clean that thing.)
The simple formula starts with laying down some flavor in the form of onion — leeks, yellow or red onions, scallions, and maybe a clove of garlic. Soften them up first in a small amount of fat like butter, bacon fat, or healthier neutral oil like canola or vegetable. Then the main vegetable, peeled and chopped so it doesn’t take too long to cook, goes into the pot. Sweat that in the fat — do not brown — over low heat. When it is barely tender, add stock and simmer until soft.
Potato soup is a classic from France or Poland. It can be a plain vegetarian fair, strengthened with sliced, sautéed mushrooms. Or it can go one step further incorporating bacon bits or sliced cooked sausage — kielbasa or chorizo — for a hearty bowl that invites carnivores. In either case, leeks form the flavor base. The cook needs to carefully slice the leeks lengthwise after chopping off the tough greens, then run them under cold water long enough for all the sand to wash down the drain. Change it up from plain Potato Soup to Potato and Mushroom Soup or Potato and Bacon Soup by adding the secondary ingredients — mushrooms or bacon — for flavor. Turn it into a silky cream soup in the processor or the blender, adding a milk product — cream, sour cream, half-and-half to the mixture.
Carrot and Ginger Soup can easily be transformed into a Squash and Ginger Soup or Pumpkin and Ginger Soup just by making the one substitution of the main vegetable. It’s currently a good time of year to take advantage of already peeled and cut squash or pumpkin. Do cut them down further so the cooking doesn’t take all night.
For another variation, I skip the ginger entirely. Then, add a quarter-teaspoon of curry powder, or more to taste, with the orange juice. For a Southwestern twang, add cumin instead of curry powder. Sometimes I add frozen corn, chopped canned pimientos and canned black beans to this one and garnish with fresh cilantro rather than parsley.
To turn any of these variations into a cream soup in this age of concern about calories and cholesterol, I often skip the sour cream or heavy cream, using fat-free half-and-half instead. No one in the family ever suspects they’re eating the same recipe, because, after all, it turns out to be a different soup each time.
When darkness falls early, I like to cheer up the dinner table with candles. I hunt down all the nubs leftover from last winter, put the fat ones on saucers and the tapers into candle holders, and light them all at the same time.
CARROT AND GINGER SOUP
Makes 6 servings
To preserve this soup’s bright color, stir in a teaspoon of lemon juice just before serving.
1/2 stick unsalted butter or 2 tablespoons neutral oil, e.g. canola
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 pounds carrots, coarsely chopped
1 large waxy potato (Yukon gold, California white), peeled and coarsely chopped
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste
chopped fresh parsley, optional, for garnish
sour cream, optional, for garnish
1. Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over low heat. Add the onion; cook, stirring until it softens. Add the ginger; cook, 1 minute longer, stirring, until the ginger is fragrant. The onions and ginger should be tender, but not colored.
2. Add the carrots and potato. Cook, stirring, 7 minutes, until they barely begin to soften. Add the stock; bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce to a simmer. Cook, partly covered, 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add orange juice. Cook 10 minutes longer until carrots are very soft. Take the pot off the heat; cool at least 10 minutes.
3. Puree mixture in a food processor. Return to pot. Add salt and pepper. Serve hot or chilled with parsley or cilantro scattered over a dollop of sour cream.
POTATO AND BACON SOUP
Makes 6 to 8 servings
To turn this hearty country soup into a creamy soup, don’t chop the bacon. Cook, as directed but take it out of the pot when browned and crumble it; set aside. Then, after the soup is simmered, process it in the food processor, add the cream or half-and-half to the processor. Bring the soup to a simmer and swirl the bacon through it before serving or sprinkle it over the top.
Substituting sliced, cooked sausage for the bacon makes an even heartier version of this soup.
2 to 3 large leeks
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 slices bacon, chopped
2 pounds boiling potatoes (Yukon gold, California white), peeled and cubed
Salt, fresh ground black pepper
1. Trim off the tough green parts of the leeks; discard. Slit lengthwise and place under cold running water to remove all sand. Slice into thin rings.
2. In a large heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add bacon, reduce heat, and cook until browned. Add leeks and potatoes to the pot. Toss to coat with the bacon fat. Cook until leeks are tender and wilted.
3. Add 2 quarts water and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring just to a boil, then turn the heat down to a slow simmer. Cook for 35 to 45 minutes. Let the soup stand for 30 minutes to develop the flavor. (Or make this one a day ahead because it gets better overnight.)
4. Bring the soup back to a simmer. Ladle into warm soup bowls.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.