Basic Soup Improvisation

Zoonar

The Three Opportunities: You can dictate the character of your soup by how you decide to start cooking it.

1. Bold and sturdy flavors come from starting the soup by fast-browning the onions and some of the vegetables in good tasting oil or butter over medium-high heat.

2. Mellow flavors are achieved with slow-stewing onions and key ingredients, like herbs, in a little fat in a covered pot over low heat.

3. Clear, true flavors come from simmering everything in liquid with no pre-sautés.

A Basic Formula:
  • 2 parts onion
  • 1/2 part garlic
  • 2 parts members of cabbage family (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)
  • 1/2 part carrot
  • 1/4 part celery with leaves
  • 1/2 part root vegetables (celery root, rutabaga, turnips, etc.)
  • 1 part leafy vegetables (salad greens, chard, kale, turnip greens, mizuna, dandelion, escarole, endive, collards, etc.)
  • 1 part dry white or red wine
  • Water as neeeded

Note: Wine is a powerful flavor booster because alcohol opens up flavors that neither fats nor water release. Also, red wine is high in umami, a chemical component of some foods which heightens flavors. So be generous with the wine. Use white wine in pale soups, red in dark ones, and anticipate 1/2 cup for every 8 cups of liquid. Contrary to rumor, all the alcohol in wine and other spirits does not cook off.

More Opportunities:

  • Asian fish sauce is another taste-building soldier because of its umami content. Half a teaspoon in a soup for four or six lifts flavors.
  • Consider pan juices from roasts, sautés and stews to be gifts. Ridiculous amounts are charged for little pots of their commercial equivalents, and you can have them for nothing.

Whenever you brown something and there is a glaze or browned bits on the bottom of the pan, add a little water and scrape up the sticky bits and brown film over heat. This is where a flat-bottomed wooden spatula is indispensable.

Pour the liquid into the individual sections of ice cube trays. Once frozen, turn the cubes into labeled freezer bags. When you need to boost the character of a pan sauce, a soup or a stew, pull out one or two cubes and cook them into the dish. Each cube equals about 2 tablespoons.

  • Most tomato sauces make good soup. Dilute them with broth or water, enrich them with cream, puree them for a smooth soup or leave them chunky served with crusty croutons and fresh herbs.
  • Finish soups with a squeeze of fresh lemon, or a favorite vinegar. It is like placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence — the soup's flavors brighten up.
  • A spoon of plain whole-milk yogurt or sour cream has saved many a dull bowl.
  • A spoonful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a bowl of soup saves the blandest recipe. It does even more for a good one. Never throw away the rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Even if the cheese was not premium-priced, you would want to use it all. This could be one of our oldest flavor boosters.

Use it the way Italians do, simmer Parmigiano rind into stews, braises, and every kind of soup. Frugal cooks even cook the rind into the soup, pull it out, dry it and use it again and again. At Parmigiano-Reggiano prices, it's good to know this cheese never dies.

Those cooks have known all along what scientists uncovered only recently, Parmigiano lifts, amplifies and melds the flavors of other ingredients in a unique way. Research shows the cheese is loaded with what is called the fifth taste, or umami, which acts as a catalyst to enhance other flavors. So tightly wrap those pieces of rind, and keep them in the refrigerator or freezer until the opportune moment arises.

Parmigiano Reggiano is one of those foods that is adopted like children into the family. Like the burger, hot dog and fries in America, in Italy Parmigiano is the cheese everyone knows on a first name basis.

It wasn't just family frugality that led to saving the cheese rind when the rest of the cheese was gone. The sense I have after spending a lot of time in Italian homes, is that in Italy, saving the rind is like respecting a beloved relative and keeping her safe.

  • Fresh herbs torn and scattered over a serving of soup brighten and refresh it.
  • The unexpected combination of olive oil and fresh-ground black pepper works with any Mediterranean style soup, especially the bean and lentil varieties.
  • Mediterranean-style soups take on whole new personalities with a last-minute seasoning called gremolata. Usually it is used on Osso Buco, but gremolata is a lot like pesto in the way it complements so much.

In a food processor mince together the shredded zest of a lemon, 1/2 tight-packed cup flat-leafed parsley and 3 to 4 large garlic cloves. Moisten the mix with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spoon a little into each serving of soup.

Thickening with Flavor

Cream soups were traditionally thickened with flour as well as cream. For a modern, lighter take, thicken with flavor instead of starches or fats.

For bean soups, crush a cup of the beans and return them to the pot. With vegetable soups, stews, and meat braises like pot roast, puree a few of the vegetables that have been cooked in the pan liquid, then stir them back into the pot. In many cream soups you can skip the cream and instead use a good-tasting potato for more substance.

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