Breaking Down the Seasons: Sucker for Soup

I am a sucker for soup. Potages are my passion. Bisques make me blush and gazpacho makes me gush. Unlike Seinfeld’s’ “Soup Nazi” and his “no soup for you,” I believe in universal access to one of my favorite food groups.

Whether it is a velvety velouté, a chunky chowder, or a clear golden consommé, there is both a mystery and comfort to all of these preparations. A warming bowl of steaming soup on a cold winter night can nourish the body as well as the soul and a chilled variety can be like a welcome breeze on the most sweltering summer afternoon.

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Soup is also an economical way to feed a large group of people. A few vegetables, a piece or two of meat or fish, and maybe a little starch or grain can go a long way to produce a healthy, tasty, and fulfilling meal on a tight kitchen budget.

Excellent soup can be made from just one or two very basic ingredients or can be made from a complex recipe taking hours of preparation and using a myriad of cooking methods and procedures. Butternut squash soup can be successfully made from just the peeled, diced squash, a sliced onion, a little sage, and water or stock. The classic soup olla podrida, on the other hand, can contain beef, lamb, pork, smoked pigs’ feet, chicken, and chorizos, carrots, leeks, onions, cabbage, garbanzos, potatoes, and a bouqeut garni, each ingredient taking a different cooking time and preparation.

Soups are often made with a broth, which differs from a stock by the fact that, besides the vegetables and aromatics, it contains meat as well as bones. The meat is then removed from the bones and cut up as a garnish for the soup or for another culinary preparation. At the Iron Horse Grill, most of our soups are made with a vegetable stock. We throw carrots, celery, leeks, onions, some tomato product, and other trimmings into a pot with thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, and water and simmer it for about an hour or two to release the flavors. At home, my wife Cathy will prepare a stock from the leftover carcass of a roast chicken or make a broth made from chicken legs to make her favorite comfort food “Kitty’s Chicken Soup.” Her mother’s recipe is a favorite of our son Garrett, a senior at NYU. In fact, when we told him that we were going to see him last night, his first request was a quart or two to weather him through the fall semester’s final exams.

At home, you can make your own simple stock or broth by taking a few vegetables, aromatics, and bones or meat if you like and simmer it until all of the flavors have been extracted. You can then store it for a few days in the refrigerator or put some in the freezer for future use. Once you have a great stock or broth, the soup will have a firm footing to stand on no matter what type of preparation your taste and imagination inspire you to make.

Soups also can inspire fervid debate. New England, Rhode Island, or Manhattan clam chowder? Each has its own dedicated fans. Long Beach Islanders on the Jersey Shore call a mixture of half- Manhattan and half- New England “Rhode Island Chowder.” That would be considered heresy where we summer in Point Judith, Rhode Island. Aunt Carrie’s is the Grande Dame of clam shacks there and it offers the true “clear” local variety, sans cream, of course. Make sure you order it ”heavy” and they will give you extra chunks of potato and clams in your quart.

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Soups can be classified loosely into two genres: clear and thickened. Clear soups are just that, a stock or broth garnished with anything from vegetables and flesh to pasta, rice, or grains. Consommé is the king of clear soups, clarified with a “raft” containing egg whites, vegetables, tomato product, and ground meat applicable to the stock used. It is a long preparation usually undertaken by only the most intrepid home cook. Minestrone, hot and sour, beef barley, miso, French onion, and harira are all clear soups that have their roots in different cultures. Thick soups can be prepared with potatoes or rice as the thickening agent, by adding cornstarch, arrowroot, flour, or a roux, or by simply puréeing the ingredients to make a hearty potage. Lobster bisque is thickened with rice; velouté soups like cream of chicken use a roux, vichyssoise relies on potatoes, while hearty vegetables like carrots, butternut squash, or pumpkin can stand on their own.

Adding cream to a soup is a matter of individual taste and dietary concern. One recent Saturday, we made a puréed cauliflower soup at the Iron Horse that most of our guests who had it swore it contained cream. However, there was none—only onion, cauliflower from the greenmarket, fresh thyme, and vegetable stock cooked slowly and puréed together, a preparation that even my vegan daughter, Deirdre, would approve. We garnished it with a few crisp caramelized cauliflower “croutons” and let the results speak for themselves. Prepare it at home and tell me what you think!

(Serves six)

1 large head cauliflower
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Coarse salt and fresh pepper to taste
6 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water
1 tsp olive oil

Remove the tough core from the cauliflower and separate it into florettes, making sure that you keep the tender part of the core intact. Reserve 24 small florettes.

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In a gallon soup pot, heat 1 Tbsp of oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat for 2 minutes. Add the cauliflower (not the 24 florettes), thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Sweat 2 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a simmer, and cook until the cauliflower is very tender, about ½ hour. Remove the thyme sprigs.

Purée the soup with a hand held blender or in a blender or food processor. Season to taste and keep hot.

At the same time as the soup is cooking, toss the 24 reserved florettes with tsp of oil. Spread evenly on a pan and caramelize them under the broiler or in a toaster oven. You can even caramelize them in a cast iron skillet over a medium-high flame. Season with salt and pepper and reserve. To serve, ladle about 6 ounces of soup into each bowl and top with the cauliflower croutons.

Phil McGrath is chef/co-owner of Iron Horse Grill in Pleasantville

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