Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Soup Story

Like many cooks, I rarely plan my daily meals very far in advance. I got in the habit many years ago while working in grocery stores. Stocking shelves, answering customers' questions and working the checkout area all provided ideas for "what's for dinner" on any given night. It could be a can of chili or a rack of lamb. A fancy chicken dish, or an omelet. Progresso soup, or home made minestrone. But very little was planned ahead, which also means that meals and ingredients are always fresh. I picked this habit up the early 70's, and I'm still shopping and cooking this way today. Although, I very rarely resort to canned soups or chili. And fast food? That's something that I can do in the wok in less than a half hour.

Today is a slightly chilly, early winter Bay Area Sunday. No rain, precious few clouds, no wind, and only the sound of neighbors working in their yards to disturb the otherwise idyllic day. It's a soup day, I decided first thing this morning. Wasn't sure what kind, but I was confident that something would come to mind. I'll commonly start with a couple cookbooks, get some ideas, then make it the way I want. So I browsed The Silver Spoon and the CIA's soup cookbook (Culinary Institure of America ... nothing to do with spys!), settling fairly quickly on a variation of the minestrone style soup that I vary each time I make it.

I love "other people's soups" as well. Home chefs who tackle them gain an immediate "yay" for trying, whether they're restaurant quality or not. They're not a simple task, and it's painfully easy to add too much of any of the dozen(s) of ingredients that are supposed to add up to a great pot of soup. And restaurants that make great soups that aren't contrived by combining a couple pre-cooked, packaged, canned or frozen ingredients, have my total respect.

Joe's of Westlake's minestrone, which I've had with 90% of the 1000 or so meals I've eaten there, is the pinnacle. Always perfect, and if you're hungry (and what are you doing at Joe's if you're NOT?) they bring it immediately. The lobster bisque at the Jackalope Grill in Bend, Or is downright decadent. Legal Seafood's white clam chowder is one of the most consistent ones on the east coast. White clam chowder is way too fattening, but every now and then you owe it to yourself. Any trip to the Boston area HAS to include both a trip to "Legal's" and a jaunt up to Gloucester and Rockport to ferret out a new entry in the world's best chowder. Red or white, love 'em both. Add a glass of chardonnay, some fresh French bread, and it just doesn't get any better.

The best recipes and techniques naturally originate from the best cooks and cookbooks. The afore-mentioned Silver Spoon is the benchmark for Italian cookbooks. Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" has some awesome techniques, including the best way to tackle classic French Onion. The CIA's Book of Soups, New Basics Cookbook (which I've virtually worn out over the past 18 years), and The French Laundry Cookbook are all awesome references. Worth seeking out is Deborah Dinelli's "A Taste of Lucca." We were lucky enough to meet her and get a signed copy while visiting the beautiful Kunde Winery outside of Sonoma a few years ago. Very nice lady, and a uniquely excellent book to have in your library.

Soup is an adventure, an acquired body of knowledge generally consisting of a combination of personal likes and dislikes, fresh ingredients as much as possible, a lot of experimentation and ingenuity, and a couple hours of time.

Tonight's was something resembling a minestrone ... an Italian inspired vegetable soup, with some fresh thyme and proscuitto, plus a handful of farfalline pasta tossed in at the end ... I'll be bold enough to call it:

LSCooks' Minestrone


  • 3 oz. of good quality proscuitto
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, halved up the middle, sliced thin
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 4 medium red potatoes, unpeeled, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Half a head of green or Savoy cabbage, chopped
  • 2-3 pieces of fresh thyme (leave on the stem)
  • 2 cans of petite diced tomatoes, with juice
  • 48 oz (large can) of Swanson's fat-free chicken broth
  • Additional 48 oz of water
  • Tablespoon of concentrated chicken stock (by the jar at the supermarket)
  • Cup of uncooked small pasta
  • Optional - Red kidney, white cannelini beans (or both) makes it a "pasta e fagioli"
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Olive oil and grated parmesan to drizzle and sprinkle

To cook ...

  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 10qt or bigger stockpot
  • Stir in the chopped onions, cover and cook until they're transluscent, stirring occasionally
  • Stir in the proscuitto, cook 5 minutes longer
  • Stir in the celery and garlic, cook 5 minutes longer
  • Add the stock, 2 cans of hot water and the chicken broth concentrate, thyme, and tomatoes with their juice, raise to high and bring to a boil
  • Reduce to medium heat, add the potatoes, cabbage, pasta
  • If using beans, add them now
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring uncovered
  • Taste occasionally, add salt and pepper to taste
  • Cook times will vary, but you can safely serve in 45 minutes, or simmer on low for a couple of hours
  • Remove thyme before ladling into bowls, drizzle olive oil on top, offer parmesan cheese at the table

Serve with a simple salad and bread. I'm doing garlic ciabatta bread tonight, because it was warm on the shelf and smelled phenomenal! See "Keepers" section at for a basic garlic bread recipe.

Experiment with soups. Cook what you like. Add spices carefully ... you can always increase things, but it's much more difficult to compensate for "too much" of many things. Try making your beef , chicken, vegetable and fish stocks from scratch. They could make a big difference in the flavor of your soups, but they also can be too rich for some applications. The concentrated products that come in a jar have gotten very good, last a long time, and they always enhance the flavor. Use fresh herbs, salt and pepper as needed, and never forget to taste, taste, taste as you're cooking. Salt takes awhile to open up - salt your soup, taste, wait a bit, taste again. Herbs take time to add to the flavor. Play around with using "big pieces" of herbs, then removing them. This can sometimes "look" better in the final product, if you don't have bits and pieces of "green" floating around in your red or white soup.

Small things make a big difference in your soups, as well as other dishes. As I was cleaning and preparing the vegetables for tonight's soup, I was constructing what I wanted the final product to look and taste like, and tailored the "cuts" accordingly. It's soup, not a work of art, but the order that you add things will produce different consistencies in the product. Adding the celery right after the onions means they'll likely be soft and not stand out. Making the carrots and potatoes roughly the same size, and adding the carrots first, then the potatoes, means they'll cook correctly and look nice in the bowl. These are little things to do for your food preparation.

I once took a cooking class with the great Chinese chef Larry Chu (Chef Chu's, Los Altos, CA) and he made a very good point: As his sous chef was gently removing the ribs from some snow peas, then cutting them at opposite angles at each end, he said "You do this to show your guests that you went to a little extra trouble to make their meal enjoyable."

1 comment:

sangeeta said...

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