Cowgirl Chef: Time to fill your fall soup bowls

Posted Monday, Oct. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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French potato-leek soup Makes 4 servings I made this soup so many times in Paris, just smelling the leeks and butter puts me right back in my teensy kitchen. It’s wonderful on its own, but you can make it richer if you want to add cream. I like it just as it is, with a strip of crispy bacon on top and fresh chives. • 2 leeks, chopped • 2 tablespoons butter • 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces • 4 cups vegetable stock • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt • 4 slices bacon, cooked till crispy • Fresh chives 1. Put leeks and butter in a medium saucepan and turn heat to medium. Cook until the leeks soften (but not brown), about 10 minutes. Add potatoes, vegetable stock and sea salt and cook until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. 2. With a hand masher, gently mash the potatoes so there are different size pieces throughout. Serve warm with a slice of bacon per bowl and a few chives. Nutritional analysis per serving: 234 calories, 12 grams fat, 29 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 450 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.
Carrot-apricot soup Makes 4 servings Carrot soup can be so predictable — always with ginger, it seems. This one’s different. It gets an unexpected exotic sweetness from dried apricots, and a kick of heat from cayenne. • 1 tablespoon butter • 1 pound carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces • 3/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice • 4 cups vegetable stock • 5 organic Turkish apricots • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne • 4 tablespoons crushed pistachios, for serving 1. Put butter and carrots in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook until you begin to smell the carrots, about 5 to 10 minutes. 2. Add orange juice, vegetable stock, apricots, salt and cayenne and cook with the lid slightly ajar until the carrots are soft enough to puree. 3. Carefully pour the soup in blender and puree until it’s very smooth. Serve warm with crushed pistachios on top. Nutritional analysis per serving: 188 calories, 10 grams fat, 24 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 341 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber, 36 percent of calories from fat.
Broccoli soup with tomates confites and ricotta Makes 4 to 6 large servings Plain ol’ broccoli gets fancy with slow-cooked tomatoes and a heap of ricotta. • 1 pint cherry tomatoes • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided • Sea salt and pepper • Herbes de Provence • 2 cloves garlic, minced • 1 head of broccoli, florets removed and stalks trimmed and chopped into small pieces • 4 cups vegetable stock • About 16 ounces ricotta 1. Make tomates confites (oven-roasted tomatoes): Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil. Slice tomatoes in half and put them on the cookie sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt, fresh pepper and herbes de Provence. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes, or until soft. 2. Meanwhile, make soup: Put remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan or stockpot along with garlic and cook over medium heat. When you can smell the garlic, add broccoli florets and chopped stems, vegetable stock, and as much additional water as you need to cover the broccoli. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. (The amount of salt and pepper will depend on whether your stock is seasoned, so I season a little now and wait until I blend the soup to adjust further.) 3. Let soup cook until broccoli florets and stalk pieces are all soft enough to blend, then let cool slightly before putting in the blender (you may need to do this in batches) and pureeing until smooth. Return soup to the pot to rewarm if necessary. 4. To dress the soup, put a heaping spoonful of ricotta in each bowl along with 6 or 8 tomato halves, then pour the soup over this at the table. Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 4: 438 calories, 25 grams fat, 37 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams protein, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 858 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.
Chipotle black bean soup Makes 6 to 8 servings Turning a pot of black beans into soup is easy. Deciding what to put on top of them is where the fun comes in. • 1 pound dried black beans • 2 tablespoons olive oil • 1 onion, chopped • 2 cloves garlic, minced • Half a red bell pepper, diced • About 6 cups water, vegetable stock or a mixture of the two • Sea salt and pepper • 1 chipotle (in adobo) • Queso fresco, for serving • Lime wedges, for serving • 1 avocado, chopped, for serving • Chopped cilantro, for serving • Tortillas or tortilla chips, for serving 1. Put dried beans in a large bowl and cover with water to soak for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. 2. Put olive oil, onion and garlic in a large soup pot and turn heat to medium. Let cook for just a few minutes, or until the onions begin to become translucent and you can smell both the onion and garlic cooking. 3. Add bell pepper, let cook for a few more minutes, then add drained and rinsed black beans, water and/or stock mixture, and a big pinch of black pepper — I don’t add the salt until the very end. Make sure you have enough water/stock to cover the beans by a couple of inches. Let beans come to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover (with the lid slightly askew), and let cook for 2 hours, or until the beans have that perfect “pop” of skin when you bite into them, with soft insides. 4. Add salt and taste. Scoop out 4 cups of beans and set aside. Blend the rest in blender (working in batches), along with chipotle, until smooth. Return mixture to the pot, add whole beans, and rewarm if necessary. Serve in shallow bowls with a sprinkle of queso fresco on top, and lime wedges, avocado, cilantro and warmed corn tortillas (or tortilla chips) on the side. Cowgirl tip: Make this soup a day in advance for maximum flavor. Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 379 calories, 12 grams fat, 53 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, no cholesterol, 228 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber, 26 percent of calories from fat.

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I have a crazy collection of soup bowls. Dozens of deep café au lait bowls I picked up at flea markets and brocantes across France. Terracotta ones from a family-owned pottery in Gascony. Shallow, more elegant bowls, hand-painted in blue and white, all of them a century old at least. Plus oversize vintage French spoons and smaller, rounder English ones, and a more modern set from Italy that I use every day.

There are certain bowls and spoons for certain soups. I often put orange soups in blue bowls because I like how the colors look together, and I always serve chili or anything chunky in the deepest bowl I’ve got. But these aren’t rules. They’re just my ways of celebrating soup, of making it even more special.

There’s a special kind of alchemy in soup-making, from the moment the onion begins to soften in the butter or oil. In that instant, you already know something wonderful is happening, because your nose will tell you. The key is to take your time and not just dump everything in the pot. A soup’s flavor must be coaxed out a bit. Add a vegetable or two at a time, let them cook, then add some more. And so on.

Soups have a built-in wait time, and are often better the next day.

Soups are great any time of year, but in my world, fall is the official kickoff of soup season, which is something I learned in France. (Soup nerd alert: The French are crazy about soups — first known as restoratifs, bowls of broth served to weary travelers in the 18th century, which is how restaurants came to be.) As the weather turns cooler and the leaves begin to turn, there are mushrooms to be gathered in nearby forests and made into a creamy, earthy soup. Potimarrons, the small red-orange pumpkins that taste like chestnuts, make the best soup (and fine-tasting tartelettes, too). And if I’m feeling too lazy to even go into the kitchen, there’s the best soup of all, available at most any brasserie — soupe a l’oignon, or French onion soup — but it must be made with the richest of broths and have the right kind of bread (a crusty, thick country-style piece) on top.

Soup is all about the details.

There are thin, brothy soups and consommés. Soups with cream called veloutés. Blended soups with or without cream, sometimes thickened with a starchy potato, beans or bread. Or chunky vegetable soups, called potages in France. Here in the U.S., we have stews, thick soups usually with chunks of meat added.

All of them are healthy, filling and usually not very expensive to make.

How to go from making so-so soups to spectacular ones? First, make your own stock. (Yes, really. It’s not hard at all.) Save carcasses, and make a great chicken stock from the bones — or start from scratch and make an even richer-tasting one with a whole chicken or parts (I’ve been making mine lately from packages of legs because they’re super-cheap, about $2.50 for eight).

Ditto on the veggie stock. Use scraps — carrot tops, ends of onions, celery leaves, parsley stems — and let your stock simmer while you’re doing something else. Stock does take time, but once it’s on its way, it doesn’t need a babysitter.

If you want a super-smooth soup, the blender is the way to go. It’ll give you the most velvety and elegant texture; otherwise, a hand blender will puree just fine. I often reserve some of the soup, like in the chipotle black bean soup (recipe follows), blend most of it, then add a bit of chunky back in. It’s prettier this way, and it lets you know what you’re eating (hello, little black beans).

Sure, you can thicken soups with cream or a flour-water mixture, but I like to keep soups light and use a starchy potato, beans (such as cannellini) or lentils to give them added texture or thickness.

Whatever you do, don’t serve soup naked. Whether you’re making a chunky veggie soup or a smooth one, remember to dress up your soup when you serve it, even if it’s as simple as crushed pistachios, as I use in the carrot-apricot soup.

Think texture and color. Imagine what’ll be a nice contrast and what might complement the soup and its flavors. The broccoli soup is a straight-up blended veggie soup — but it’s anything but boring when you add a spoonful of ricotta to each bowl, along with tomates confites. The soup isn’t creamy on its own, but the ricotta added at the end makes it so, and the little roasted tomatoes give the soup a nice sweetness and pop of color. Pretty!

But not fancy. I’m not suggesting that. No matter what kind of soup we’re talking about, soups are by nature comforting things, and they make you feel at right home no matter where you happen to be. I don’t know of anything else that’s as transformative as soup.

Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent” (Running Press, $25). Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on cowgirlchef.com.

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