Avgolemono, billy bi, bird’s nest, borscht, bourride, caldo verde, callaloo, chlodnik, cock-a-leekie, dashi, gazpacho, menudo, minestra, mulligatawny and pepper pot. Recognize any of these? Do …
Avgolemono, billy bi, bird’s nest, borscht, bourride, caldo verde, callaloo, chlodnik, cock-a-leekie, dashi, gazpacho, menudo, minestra, mulligatawny and pepper pot. Recognize any of these? Do you know what they have in common? They are all soups, from, respectively, Greece, France, China, Russia, the Mediterranean, Portugal, the Caribbean, Poland, Scotland, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Italy, India and the West Indies.
Soup is one of the world’s great dishes, enticing and drawing everyone to the table; it nourishes and comforts and is beloved by people of all ages. There is nothing as seductive as the heady aroma of a caldron of soup gently bubbling on the stove. As Barbara Kafka says in the introduction to her book “Soup, A Way of Life,” “Soup contains the sensations of childhood, the heritage of families, the identities of peoples, the inspiration of land and water, and cooks’ inventions.”
Theoretically, a soup can be any combination of vegetables, meat, or fish cooked in a liquid. It may be thick (like a gumbo), thin (such as a consommé), smooth (like a bisque) or chunky (like chowders or bouillabaisse). Whichever kind you chose, the cold winter months are made cozier by the addition of soups. In upstate New York, the weather can turn cold and snow can fall as early as November, and on some occasions, late October. That is when the stockpot or Dutch oven are pulled out, the fridge is stocked with carrots and celery, and big bowls of red and yellow onions sit on a counter in my kitchen.
Garnishing a soup can complement and heighten the flavors as well as add visual appeal. Generally, the more complex the soup, the simpler the garnish. A nice contrast to the smoothness of pureed soups is a handful of crunchy croutons. Asian and Mexican soups are brightened by a bit of chopped fresh cilantro leaves. Cream soups benefit from a sprinkling of minced, fresh herbs such as chives or parsley, and fish soups are often garnished with fennel fronds or a slice of toasted French baguette (sometimes topped with a dollop of creamy, garlicky aioli). Spicy soups are balanced by a spoonful of cooling sour cream, yogurt, or crème fraiche. Other nice touches are thinly sliced scallions, grated Parmesan, a slice of lemon, a dash of sherry, or a few chunks of whatever vegetable went into a creamy, pureed soup.
This year, I’ve already made cream of cauliflower and cheddar; Gruyere-topped French onion; the Italian spinach and egg soup called stracciatella; cream of broccoli; both lentil and split pea soups, curried and topped with yogurt and chopped fresh cilantro leaves; pureed butternut squash soup, finished off with toasted coconut and slivered almonds; and thick, hearty mushroom and barley soup. This last, fortified with both dried and fresh mushrooms and dense with chewy barley, is one of the easiest soups imaginable. Aside from sautéing the fresh mushrooms, the rest of the ingredients are dumped in a pot with homemade or store-bought chicken broth, where they simmer gently until rendered into a chunky, warming, earthy soup with great depth of flavor.
So, open your cookbooks—or as most people do these days, hop on the internet—and look for recipes that appeal to you and which you’ll find comforting and warming during this season of soup, glorious soup.
This rich, hearty mushroom soup is fortified with pearl barley. The soup miraculously thickens quite a bit in the last few minutes of cooking time as the barley expands. Add a little broth if you like a thinner soup, but remember that the consistency is traditionally more like porridge.
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
6 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms (halved if large), sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
3/4 cup pearl barley
8 (or more) cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place dried porcini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery and barley in a large soup pot. Add chicken broth, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté the fresh, sliced mushrooms in a mixture of the butter and oil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they release their liquid and the liquid is absorbed—about 5 minutes. Set aside. When the soup has cooked for 40 minutes, add the sautéed mushrooms and cook, covered, for an additional 5 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve hot.