Every year when winter rolls around, it’s time to make soup at work. Frigid from plummeting temperatures, clients and staff want warm, flavorful liquids to defrost their bones. When serving soup, I always like observing people’s reactions; they usually tilt their heads back with a small smile, and smell the aroma. Next, they grab the bowls with both hands letting the heat warm their hands. Soup, for most people bring back familiar and comforting feelings – that’s why it is such a pleasure to serve.
Four months out of the year, five days a week, I have to come up with fresh, new recipes for soups. I never use a cookbook, or look on line for recipes. I usually open my fridge and pantry, and start foraging for ingredients.
When soup season comes around, I do keep some staples in the cooler, and in the dry-goods area. Celery, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, and carrots are always in the fridge. I also like to have fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, tarragon, parsley, and sage. A variety of dried beans, pasta, barley, quinoa, and couscous are also always in the kitchen.
The base for most soups is stock. Chicken, beef, veal, fish, and veggie are among a few. Stocks aren’t difficult to make, but they can be time consuming. Regardless of the protein, most stocks start out the same: equal parts chopped celery, onions, and peeled carrots; these stock veggies are called a mire poix. A bouquet garni (a variety of herbs tied together and dropped in the stock, or placed and tied in cheesecloth and added to the broth) is also used to enhance the flavor of the stock. Herbs are always fresh; try using parsley, rosemary, oregano, and sage. Once the herbs and veggies are in your stainless steel stock pot (never use aluminum), add water, and cook on a low-heat. At this point you can add the bones, shells (if you’re making shrimp or lobster stock) or fish parts. The most important part of making stocks is to always cook them slowly, making sure to never bring the liquid to a boil. Boiling the stock will make it stock cloudy and distort the flavors. A good, flavorful stock will usually take at least a few hours to cook. Once the stock has cooked completely, drain it through a chinoise or cheesecloth; this will remove any of the fine particles that are left over from the cooking process. When your stock is finished, you can store it in a cooler for up to seven days, or in the freezer for up to six months.
Cream Soups and Bisques
If you want a rich, delectable soup, you may want to try making a bisque, or cream soup. I always use the same process when making these types of soups. I start with a sweet onion, or some leeks, and butter. After melting the butter, I add the onions and leeks and slowly sauté them until they become caramelized. Once the veggies are caramelized, I add flour, salt and fresh ground pepper, and continue to cook. This mixture is called a roux, and is the base for these types of soups. The roux can cook for a few minutes, or longer depending on what type of color you are looking for; the longer the cooking time, the darker the roux. Slowly add milk or cream, and begin to stir with a wooden spoon. Add a small amount of fresh-grated nutmeg, and viola, you have your base- this creation is called a béchamel. At this point, you can add any type of protein you want, along with vegetables and fresh herbs. Try experimenting with some sweet wines, and sherry; nothing is off limits.
One recommendation: Invest in an immersion blender. This is a small hand-held blender that will help emulsify, and make your cream soups shiny, and smooth.
Once the stocks- are complete, it’s time to be creative. Instead of using your cookbook, take a peek inside your refrigerator. What did you make the night before? If you have some left-over chicken, cube it up and set it aside. Put some chicken stock on the stove, add your mire poix, the chicken and some noodles, and you have chicken noodle soup. Did you have a roast for dinner a few nights ago? Heat up some beef stock, add a mire poix, and heat slowly. Slice up some of the left-over beef, and put it in the stock pot. In a medium sized sauté pan, sear some mushrooms, then de-glaze with white wine. Add the mushrooms, barley and beef to your stock pot, now you have a beef-barley soup with mushrooms. Maybe you have some shrimp left-over from scampi dinner… make a béchamel, add sweet peppers, shrimp, tomato paste, lemon zest, and there’s your shrimp bisque- delicious.
Making homemade soups aren’t about the end result, it’s about the process. When it’s cold outside, try taking time from your busy schedule and spend time in your kitchen with your family or friends; open up a bottle of wine and enjoy taking time to cook. Avoid the cookbooks, and begin to create your soups by feel; eventually you will realize which herbs go well with which stocks, and so on.
It’s going to be a long, cold winter. Have a hot bowl of homemade soup, and be sure to enjoy it with some of the people that are important in your life.
Chef Chuck Kerber