Sunday, January 19, 2014

Soup's on!


After a week of warm days that melted snow, bared roads and caused rivers to rise near flood stage, the temperature fell overnight into the teens, bringing with it a veil of light snow frosting the evergreens.  Old man winter has returned, leaving us all hugging the fire and craving warm meals. Nothing is as satisfying or soul-warming as a good soup on a chilly winter’s night. Now I don’t mean the kind that comes in a can or as a plastic bag of dehydrated veggies and pasta, I mean real soup, the kind made from scratch and that is full or wonderful aromas and flavor.  No time?  It’s easier than you think, especially if you plan ahead, and the result is a meal that pleases body and soul for a fraction of what you might pay for a can of add-water soup.
Although I make soup year round, I really come into it when the days start getting shorter and the temperatures drop.  Soup simmering on the stove or in the slow cooker fills the house with a heavenly fragrance that brings the whole family to the table, especially if it is accompanied by a loaf of fresh bread, biscuits, or corn muffins.  We have some favorites, but most soups all start the same, with the broth: meat, seafood, vegetable, or a combination of both. 

Let’s start with a basic chicken broth, which I make from real chicken that I buy as often as possible from small local farms.  That is part of the trick of truly terrific chicken broth, but only part. The rest is dependent on how you prepare the broth, which I’ve often heard referred to as Jewish penicillin, and I do know more than a few people who believe that good chicken soup and plenty of sleep will cure any cold or flu faster.
As I wrote just about a year ago, I start my chicken broth, well most any broth, with the trinity of soup bases: carrots, celery, and onions.  For a couple quarts of good stock, which is really what you need for a credible soup, I use a two medium carrots, two to three stalks of celery, and two medium onions.  Of course, I wash and peel appropriately, then mince fine.  I also finely mince a couple good sized cloves of fresh garlic, but save those aside. 
There are two schools of thought on what is the best fat for sautéing the veggies.  Some people believe that it isn’t real chicken stock unless it has schmaltz – rendered chicken fat – and there is a magical something in terms of flavor that it does add to the stock.  However, it can also be a lot of work to collect and render that fat, so for those who aren’t purists or who are heart or waistline conscious, a really good extra virgin olive oil will do the trick. I put two to three tablespoons in the bottom of a deep stainless steel stock pot, and heat gently until the oil is wavy.  Add in the carrots, celery, and onion, stir to mix well, then turn the heat to medium low and let sauté, stirring regularly until the onion is transparent and slightly golden.  Toss in the reserved garlic, stir again, and sauté for another two to three minutes. Of course what comes after depends on whether the stock is going into the freezer or the soup pot.
Pot o' soup
For plain freezer stock or for chicken soup, I add in couple of parsnips (home grown) scrubbed clean and chunked, a few fresh sage leaves finely chopped, and a sprig or two of rosemary and kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Simmer another two or three minutes, stirring often.  Next add in a cup of dry white wine (usually a Two-Buck Chuck variety from Trader Joe’s), and use a wooden spoon to scrape of the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Let that simmer for a few minutes, and then throw in one or two chicken carcasses (cooked or raw), add about ten cups of water, and bring it all to a boil. If you don’t have whole chicken carcasses, ask the guys behind the butcher counter if they can put together a couple pounds of chicken backs, and add those with a couple pounds each of chicken legs and wings to the pot – skin on. Reduce heat and simmer covered for one to two hours. 
Now, remove the pot from the heat and let cool for a few minutes before pouring through a colander into another stock pot. Let the leavings – chicken carcass and veggies – cool, and when cool, pick the meat from the carcasses, discarding bones and skin, and any bits of cartilage that have turned up. You can either set the chicken meat aside to go into chicken soup later, or freeze it as I do. What you have left is lovely chicken stock, by half cheaper and quite likely better for you, than what you can buy in the grocery.  And, it forms the foundation for many a soup to come.
One of the newest recipes in my soup collection, but one of my favorites is Italian Fish Stew, which came from daughter, Kasey.  Although a New Englander through and through, and therefore invested in the milk/cream, potato and fish chowder that makes Maine and other states in the region famous, this stew has a heady Mediterranean flavor to it that honors my husband’s Italian heritage with a subtle pairing of flavors.  Even better, it’s fast and easy to make
Italian Fish Stew 
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 chopped garlic cloves
  • 2 tsps. fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 tsps. fresh chopped oregano
  • 2 cups. chopped tomato
  • 6 cups good chicken broth
  • 4 cups fresh spinach, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 ½ lbs of haddock, cod, or even halibut
  1. Sautee onion and garlic in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add herbs, cook 1 minute more.
  2. Add tomato and chicken broth, and heat until simmering.
  3. Add spinach and fish. Simmer until fish is cooked, less than 10 minutes.
I serve this with good rustic bread and little else, although a nice glass of white wine like a verdicchio, is also nice. 

Around Thanksgiving, this broth forms the basis also for a lovely curried turkey and leek soup that combines the leftover bird with my favorite leeks.   Again, it’s a complex blend of ingredients that creates an amazing flavor.
Curried turkey and leek soup

3 tablespoons butter and a dribble of olive oil
2 cups leeks, cut in coins
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons curry powder
5 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups potatoes (red add good color unpeeled), diced
3/4 cup carrot, peeled and diagonally sliced
3/4 cup celery, chopped
2 1/2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
3/4 teaspoon rubbed sage
3 cups cooked turkey, chopped
1 cup half-and-half or heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, to taste
You can add fresh spinach to this for color and flavor and if you choose to do so, wash and stem about 10 ounces of baby spinach.
Curried turkey and leek soup

In a large Dutch oven, melt butter and oil over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring frequently, until tender. Add flour and curry powder, stirring until smooth. Cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually add broth, stirring until blended.

Add potato, carrots, celery, parsley, and sage; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens slightly. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes.

If using spinach, stir it in now, and then add turkey, half and half or cream, salt, and pepper; cover and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust spices to taste before serving.
I like this best with fresh potato rolls, which I wrote about in an earlier blog.
Making a good beef stock is a bit more complicated, but nonetheless every bit as rewarding. 
I start with three or four good soup bones which can be had from the butcher, and even from most good groceries.  The bones serve double duty, too, because once they have given up the flavor to the stock, I share them with the dogs who love to lie before the fire and gnaw away on them.  Of course, we watch to make sure that they don’t splinter, but they provide hours of good chewing. But that’s another story.
Making beef stock comes from an old and tattered cookbook my great grandmother used.  Begin by preheating the oven to 400 degrees.  Then peel and chop two medium onions, a couple medium carrots, one rib of celery, a half cup of chopped parsley, and peel and halve three cloves of garlic. Lightly oil a shallow roasting pan and place the bones and veggies and herbs in it.  Now drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over all and place in the oven.  Roast them for about 45 minutes, checking often to make sure the veggies and bones don’t burn. 
When the bones are nicely browned, remove them from the oven and place in a large stock pot along with the roasted veggies.  Add two bay leaves, a half teaspoon of dried thyme, and two sprigs of fresh (1/2 teaspoon dried) rosemary.  Pour a cup of dry red wine into the roasting pan and scrap the bottom to release the juices and bits.  Add to the pot. Now fill the pot with enough water to cover the bones by about two inches, and add a pinch of kosher salt and a turn or two of freshly ground pepper.  Place over medium heat, cover and bring to a gentle boil.  Reduce to a simmer and let cook slowly two to three hours.  Depending on how fatty the bones are, you may want to skim off some of the fat as it rises to the top while the bones cook.
Now drain, using a colander.  If you want a really clear beef broth, use cheese cloth to line the colander.  I like my beef broth a bit meatier, so I just strain.  Cool slightly and pour into freezer containers and freeze.  I also cheat and use the broth leftover from pot roast to supplement this beautiful roasted broth, straining it too and storing it in the freezer.   The results are terrific and form the basis for beef or lamb stew, and for minestrone. 
Beef Stew
1 ½ lbs lean stew beef, cut in one-inch chunks
¼ c. flour mixed with salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ c. beer
4 c. beef broth
1 stalk of celery, thinly sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut in one-inch chunks
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
½ tsp. dried rosemary
2 bay leaves
Place beef chunks and flour mix in a plastic bag and gently shake.  Now in a large stock pot, heat oil and then brown beef in oil over medium-high heat.  Add onions and celery and cook until transparent, then add garlic and cook three minutes, stirring often. Now pour in the beer, and stir often to release browned bits.  Then slowly add in beef broth.   Bring to boil and add in carrots. Cover, reduce heat to simmer and cook a half hour.  Now add in potatoes, cover and cook at a simmer for another hour.  Salt and pepper to taste, and serve. Great served with biscuits hot from the oven.
Beef broth is also the foundation for minestrone, which we have often, again with good crusty bread. Minestrone is a predominantly meatless soup, if you don’t count the beef broth, and relies instead on beans for a protein source.  It’s also easy to make, and there are hundreds of variations on this soup.   I rely on canned beans rather than soaking dried beans overnight as I used to years ago.
Good bread
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium zucchini, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried thyme
1 large (26 oz.) can of tomatoes
1 15-½ oz. can garbanzo beans
1 15-½ oz. can cannelli beans
½ c. cooked pasta (elbows, farfalle, ziti – your choice)
5 c. beef broth


In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Drain and rinse the beans and set aside.
The road home
Add onion and celery to oil and cook until transparent.  Add in garlic and cook for two to three minutes.  Add in dried herbs and cook for two minutes, stirring often.  Add in beef broth, then canned tomatoes with juice.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat.  Add carrots and cook 15 minutes, then add potatoes and zucchini, reduce to simmer, cover and cook for a half hour.  Add in beans, reduce to a bare simmer. Cover and cook for an hour, stirring every so often.  Add in pasta and heat through.  Serve immediately. 
We often add a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese just before eating. 

A good soup is as essential to our existence as human beings.  For centuries, the combination of meat and beans, broths and herbs has sustained us, and so it remains today.  Beethoven so valued a truly good soup that he noted that only the pure in heart can make a good soup, and perhaps it is that inherent goodness that sustains and warms us.  Beyond the windows, snow falls light and fine, piling up in corners, softening the lines of the bat and swallow houses, muffling the sounds of passing cars.  Bruce has put a match to the fire and it has flared up sending a billowing cloud of wood smoke up into the winter sky, scenting the cold with its earthiness.  Beef roasts in the oven, the rich aroma teasing our sense.   The day draws to an end, the light is opaque, silvered by snow, and we draw the shades against black chill of night.  
Shelter from the storm

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