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Soup provides a bowlful of warmth for a winter day

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2008

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When inspiration strikes - or when we have a stretch of miserable weather - soup cooks spring into action.

They know what it takes to have a pot simmering at a moment's notice. Their pantry, refrigerator, and freezer are jammed with ingredients to toss into a stockpot. And on an unusual day when the cupboard seems bare, they can make do. A few vegetables, an onion, a carrot, a clove of garlic, a couple of chicken legs, and a sprinkling of spices will turn into a brimming bowl of dinner. Soup expert Marjorie Druker says that "with just a few mainstays, you can always come up with something homemade."

Druker, 43, founder with her husband, Paul Brophy, of the New England Soup Factory, has been at this for over a decade. She and the staff prepare 10 soups daily for Brookline and Newton locations. At home, Druker, co-author of the "New England Soup Factory Cookbook," often whips up her daughter Emily's favorites: lentil, minestrone, and butter bean and barley, "especially on those dead-of-winter days," she says.

Most good bowls start with aromatics and vegetables, so Druker keeps these in ample supply. In her home kitchen in Newton, a large bowl filled with onions, garlic, and sweet and white potatoes sits on a small antique table. Her refrigerator holds carrots, celery, turnips, and parsnips, which last for weeks. Root vegetables can keep for months in a cool, dry basement. Druker recommends keeping homemade stock in the freezer, along with plenty of frozen vegetables, chicken breasts, sausage, bacon, and stew beef.

Then there are the shelf-stable ingredients such as dried white beans, yellow and green split peas, lentils, barley, rice, and tiny pasta shapes, which "should be in every soup-maker's kitchen," says Druker. Ready-made broth, she says, "certainly makes life easy."

Many chefs find inspiration in ordinary roots. Evoo chef and owner Peter McCarthy relies on potatoes, parsnips, celery root, and turnips for making soup, along with winter squashes for thick purees. "With the addition of onion, leeks, stock, and cream, which are all pretty basic ingredients," says the chef, "you can pull something together really quickly."

He has a basic formula for creating some of his favorite soups, such as potato bacon, pear celery root, and Macomber turnip and apple. First, he sweats onion, garlic, and leeks in fat. Sweating means to cook aromatics slowly over low heat until they soften without browning. The choice of fat depends on what's appropriate for the soup, says McCarthy, such as butter for a cream base, olive oil for a hearty bean or tomato soup, and bacon fat for a soup containing the smoky strips.

Next, he adds coarsely chopped root vegetables, fresh or dried herbs, and enough broth to cover them, then simmers the mixture until the vegetables are tender. Home cooks who use canned broths that might be high in sodium, McCarthy says, should season with salt at the end of cooking. For pureeing soup, he recommends a no-frills immersion blender - also called a hand blender - which does the job right in the soup pot.

Typically, a good pot of soup might be fashioned from leftovers. While McCarthy might not scrounge around in his restaurant walk-in for soup ingredients, Druker's home system is to use up what she has on hand. Last night's chicken might be stirred into tonight's vegetable soup; shredded cooked brisket complements bowls of sweet and sour cabbage soup. And that forgotten bag of spinach in your vegetable drawer? It will add color and vitamins to lentil or white bean soup, she says. So will a box of mushrooms past their prime. Sautéed in a little butter, their woodsy-earthy flavor is perfect for barley or potato soup.

An important step that many people neglect is tasting the soup before serving. McCarthy explains that turnips can be bitter, and a few tablespoons of honey will tame that. A teaspoon of lemon juice brightens most vegetable purees. "Hearty meat soups usually benefit from a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which adds sweetness and acidity," he says. Grated Parmesan cheese - or simmering the soup with a chunk of rind the way Italians do - contributes a rich salty-nuttiness that "will take a soup from good to great," he adds.

All pureed soups go to the table with a garnish. "You need to add some texture and flavor," says the chef. That might be a little more of an ingredient used in the soup, such as diced apple, crumbled bacon, or wilted leeks. Or he uses something with crunch and contrast: seasoned homemade croutons, corn tortillas, chopped chives, or fried sage.

At home, that same pureed soup might not get special treatment. Once the mixture is blended and poured into bowls, family members will gather around, looking for warmth and nourishment. The soup offers all that and more.