Selling Soup

A few favorites for the chilly season.

(Photography by Kip Dawkins & Styling by Jennifer Sisk)

“We’re having soup again?” you often hear. The “again” tacked on the end, as if to eat soup were some poorer option. I suppose it is, because, like all the other food we cook regularly, we stick to the tried and true that we can turn out quickly and without too much thought. But when all is said and done, to stamp out your shivers at the door on a cold winter’s day and enter a warm kitchen filled with the aroma of a slowly cooked pot of soup is pure joy.

I put soup up there as one of the ultimate comfort foods, especially accompanied by a thick melted cheese sandwich. By itself, it can be your healthiest option, when you choose the ingredients thoughtfully and go easy on the cream garnish. Here we are just past the indulgent holiday season, and many of us are anxiously seeking those sensible alternatives. But then, who needs the misery of diet food, especially when that cold wind’s just whipped up and Jack Frost is wreaking havoc? Perish the thought of cottage cheese and a tiny pile of greens on a freezing day! Bring on a healthy soup, I say, to fill the belly and warm you to the ends of your toes, anytime.

Alice at the door.

We do all tend have our favorite chicken noodle soup option, and most cooks have a good minestrone recipe tucked away somewhere, but for a bit of adventure in these long cold months, venture further to discover the myriad of options to ladle into a dinner bowl. I’ve collected some examples from other countries in the hope that this will spur you on to explore even further. These recipes are all tried and true, and, without too much preparation time, you can have them sitting on your stove and bubbling away gently ’til dinner time.

From Mexico, pozole (pronounced ‘pot-zol-lay’) is a mighty soup to conquer the chills. The rustic taste of pork and hominy is punched up with the addition of dried chipotle chili peppers. The hominy thickens the soup, and a deep rich color makes it wonderfully pleasing to the eye. Ladled into a bowl of chopped, crunchy radishes and fresh green arugula, this is a soup to impress dinner guests, too. The straightforward preparations could make it a standard favorite. All kinds of pork cuts can be used; in fact, traditionally, it was the pig’s head! I’ve tried tenderloin, but the lengthy cooking time does not do well with the tender meat, which dries out quickly. Choose a piece of pork that has some fat and some bone — the flavors are deeper and richer. I use country back ribs, which work perfectly. Dried chipotle peppers are available at any well-stocked grocery store.

In Southeast Asian countries, the soups tend to be lighter and more tangy. The thinner consistency is easier on the palate in warmer climates, and citrus flavors are refreshing and cleansing. In Thailand, one of the most common soups is chicken in coconut broth. The lemongrass and lime balance the coconut milk soup, and although it is light in texture, the addition of steamed rice or a few strands of rice noodles will satisfy a mean hunger. In fact, this Thai chicken soup makes the perfect complete meal when poured over some warm cellophane noodles tossed with sesame oil, lime juice, toasted sesame seeds and a generous handful of fresh cilantro. To make sure it’s healthy, I only ever use reduced fat coconut milk. You would never know the restriction, all the flavors are so pleasing.

Traveling north to the subcontinent, Mulligatawny is what comes to mind. The word is a bastardization of two Tamil words, ‘mulagu’ (pepper) and ‘thani’ (water) and this can be a fair warning of its spiciness. Made famous during the British Raj, the stew has many interpretations. In its purest form, it is a thin broth with peppercorns and tomatoes. It is sometimes vegetarian, but here I share my South Indian variation made hearty with chunks of beef and potato. In fact, it is so hearty and robust you can stand your spoon in it. This dish was traditionally eaten by the Christian community, a favorite lunch after Sunday service. The British influence has been the addition of milk to tone down the heat level. So the result is a fragrantly spiced stew, with some heat, but never overwhelming. Perfect after a cold day’s tramp in the country or a weekend working in the yard, as it cooks gently, the fragrance of exotic spices will waft through the house with the promise of an exciting meal to come. I have to admit enjoying this dish best with nothing more sophisticated than a hunk of crusty white bread. But if you want to be faithful to the theme, any Indian bread, like naan, found at most good Indian grocery stores, is a great accompaniment. Just follow the instructions on the packet for heating. All the spices for the stew can be found at an Indian grocery store as well.

Vegetable soup is somehow richer when you start off the cooking process with butter. I use it sparingly, but this base is so worthwhile to the final product. So instead of sautéing the onion and garlic in olive oil as I usually do, it’s butter for this recipe.

Do let yourself be inspired this winter with something a little different on soup night. It is so easy to slip into a winter routine where you hate to cook because you’ve run out of ideas, and your diners are unenthusiastic because of your half-hearted attempts: Write up an ingredient list right away, and get started on a foreign (soup) adventure.

RECIPES:

Mexican Pozole

Thai Chicken in Coconut Broth

Beef Mulligatawny

Parsnip and Collard Greens Soup


From our February 2005 issue.

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