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Soup’s On
From bisque to zuppa de pesce, the gamut of soups warms a wintery body and soul

By B.A. Nilsson

With temperatures plummeting to pipe-freezing lows, I’ve been heating my kitchen with soup. More specifically, I’ve been enjoying—and warming—myself with a succession of compotes that require little culinary effort and also serve the handy purpose of clearing out the—I hesitate to use the term—icebox.

Although it’s a year-round treat (think summer gazpacho), soup comes into its own when the weather turns cold. And we’re not talking consommé. You want a soup that feels like it’s coating every square inch of your innards as it courses through.

Bruce Jay Friedman’s Lonely Guy’s Book of Life instructs the hapless bachelor to “start every dinner by sautéeing onions, peppers and mushrooms in Filippo Berio olive oil. Nothing tastes bad if it starts off with those three.” Including a good, thick soup.

Think in terms of process, not product. There may not be a name for the brew that gets rid of last night’s chicken, a can of black beans and some celery stalks on the verge of wilting, but tie them together in a velouté and you’ve got tonight’s feast, needing only a heel of bread to make it complete.

Back in my professional cooking life, preparing the day’s soup was the job of the one who opened the kitchen in the morning. When Mario, the longtime chef, took his turn, it was often without any idea about what he’d prepare until he had onions and garlic and bay leaves sautéeing in a giant pot. While also lighting the ovens and steam table and setting up the day’s other sauces and specials, he’d check the reach-in and walk-in boxes and assemble an array of vegetables and meatstuffs to send to the soup.

Some days were ritualized: Fridays, for example, were always shrimp or lobster bisque, the body of the soup a combo of pumpkin purée and cream. Winter saw an upsurge in potato-and-leek soup (potage parmentier), which is nothing more than a hot version of vichyssoise.

It starts with the garlic-onion-bay leaf combo, but add to that a quantity of well-washed leeks. Peel a bunch of potatoes, and chop them small and add the pieces. If you prepare the potatoes beforehand, keep them in a container of water so they won’t discolor.

I like to sauté the potatoes for a while, but they can be added after you make the roux. That’s your principal thickening agent, a mixture of flour and butter cooked until slightly brown. Once your onions are translucent, add a quantity of flour equal to the butter in the pot; stir it with a wooden spoon to keep it from burning, which it will tend to do in your pot’s hot spots.

Although you’ll get a just-fine result from cooking the potatoes in water, I like the added oomph of a chicken stock. Whatever you use, simmer the mixture until the potatoes are soft, then grind it through a food mill (a vital piece of soupmaking equipment). Taste and season the mixture, then finish it with cream (or a mixture of milk or half-and-half with egg yolks). Temper the cream with a couple of ounces of hot soup, then whisk it all back into the soup, taking care not to boil it.

There are variations aplenty. No food mill? Leave the potato pieces intact. Too scarily meat-free? Add some bacon. No reason not to put the Friedman peppers and mushrooms in there if you so desire.

You can mess with the underpinnings, too. Substitute shredded carrots, say, for the potatoes. Save broccoli and cauliflower stems and build a soup around them. A cream soup with mushrooms is one of life’s best flavor combos, especially when you complement it with a dash of sherry.

It doesn’t even have to be a cream soup. Make a stock with a whole chicken (carrots, celery and onions are also stock components, and you’ll get an extra snap of flavor by studding the onion with a couple of cloves), save and shred the meat and make chicken soup, adding pasta or rice for added body. Ditto a chunk of beef, which can be worked through beef stock into beef-barley soup.

Then there’s the realm of beans. My favorite winter soup is a toss-up between lentil and split pea soup, both of which I enhance with a ham bone and bits of its meat. Start with dried beans and reconstitute them in chicken or beef stock. Sauté those onions, add the beans, and you may even be able to skip the roux.

A too-thick soup should be easy to thin: more stock, or even water if necessary. If the soup isn’t as thick as you’d like, you can alter it after the fact (but before the cream is added) with a slurry of corn starch or arrowroot and water, added to the boiling mixture. Both result in a slightly gelatinous mixture (think Chinese food); corn starch muddies it, while arrowroot keeps it fairly clear. Or make another roux, remembering to temper it before adding it.

My most recent batch was a pot of chicken-and-potato soup, thick and redolent of good paprika. And once we finished dinner, we put the pot under the kitchen sink and left it to thaw the pipes.

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