Souped-up meals to warm up snow days
Every time I've looked out the window this week, I've felt a childlike glee at the sight of all the snow piled up. A whopping 18" dropped in 24 hours last weekend, a few more inches covered that earlier this week, and more is in the forecast.
I really sympathize with the folks further south (south!) who have had twice as much snow and nowhere near the amount of equipment to deal with it all; after five years of living in Atlanta, I know how bad it gets when a snowstorm rolls through and no one knows how to deal with it.
Here in Ohio, though, this is standard fare. Schools might close for the day or just be on a two-hour delay, and an occasional road emergency might be issued at the peak of the storm, but road crews here plan for this kind of weather, and we mostly carry on as normal.
Snowy days bring out the kid in me, and I don't mind occasionally suiting up and heading out to enjoy a bit of the white stuff at my own pace. (Now that I'm working from home, weather has no effect on my 10-foot commute, and walking outside can be a pleasure instead of a forced march.) This recent powdery snowfall has provided a poor ingredient for snowball fights, but it makes for great snow angels.
When I come back inside, though, I want something comforting to warm me up again, inside and out. It's time for wool sweaters and socks, pots of tea, and lots and lots of homemade soup.
I make a lot of soup in the winter, drawing heavily on the vegetables I put up over summer: frozen corn, beans, and peas; dried cabbage, carrots, and greens; canned tomatoes and tomato sauce; potatoes and sweet potatoes from cold storage; plenty of herbs, onions, and garlic. Some days I'll toss everything into the slow cooker and let it do all the work for me, while other days I'll nurse my savory brew with regular stirring and an extra little pinch of something to bring all the flavors together.
For most of my homemade soups, I start with a simple vegetable stock (my recipe at the link) that uses a variety of savory and starchy vegetables. This past year I started saving vegetable trimmings, like chard stems and carrot fronds and onion tops, and tucked them in the freezer for future stock-making. That has proven useful this winter as those added vegetables have contributed to richer, more flavorful broths.
To assemble a soup from scratch, I begin by sauteing the aromatic ingredients first — either a traditional French mirepoix or just onions and garlic, followed by the herbs I think will best suit the soup I have in mind. Once these ingredients are browned and fragrant, I'll toss in the other vegetables for the soup, stir them to coat everything with the oil and herbs, and then add the stock, bringing it all to the boil before turning the heat down. I let the soup simmer for an hour or two, until all the vegetables are tender, and then dish it up for myself or for friends.
It's not always that simple, of course, but you get the idea. From there, you can serve the soup as it is, with a thin broth and lots of chunks of vegetables; you can puree the vegetables for a thicker soup; or you can add milk to either for something more like a chowder or bisque. Some recipes will provide very specific directions for one method or another, but many times I like to throw a pot of soup together based on what I have on hand, what seasonings will best enhance those vegetables, and what kind of a mood I'm in.
I started off the week by making a pot of stock on Sunday, straining it into two quart jars. (The remaining solids make a great steaming addition to a snow-covered compost heap.) If you've never made stock from scratch, I highly recommend it: it's easy, it offers you quality control, and it makes your kitchen smell wonderful. All you need is to stockpile the bones from that tasty pastured meat you're eating: collect a couple of carcasses from whole roasted chickens, say, and you've got the foundation of a fantastic chicken stock. The only thing that beats it is baking bread at the same time as making the stock — if that doesn't whet your appetite and your creative juices, nothing will.
The first quart of stock ended up in a pureed squash soup (above) seasoned with dried sage from the garden and dried thyme from a local farmer; topped with a few herbed croutons, the soup stretched to four servings shared with a friend. Since I have more squash tucked away in storage, I may have to repeat this recipe or explore an Indian-style variation with ginger, cumin, and coriander.
By the time the second snowstorm came along, I had a craving for a Russian-style cabbage soup (recipe), using some of the lovely cabbage I had just bought at Local Roots and half of the remaining quart of stock. I dug a few potatoes out of my storage box, added two of the last carrots from the garden, and crumbled a few dried tomato slices into an onion, dill, and thyme-laced stew for the evening.
As the snow started to return in time for another weekend, I decided to use the last of the stock in a roasted potato and turnip soup (pictured at top). Normally, I like my roasted potato soup blended with milk for a creamy, rich, smooth winter-evening supper, but this time I was in the mood for less fuss and more texture. Combining potatoes from storage, fresh Hakurei turnips from the market, shallots, and garlic with olive oil, homemade parsley salt, and pepper, I let the vegetables roast for about an hour before mashing them coarsely with a pastry blender and whisking them into hot stock. I added some chopped turnip greens for color and let those simmer briefly before ladling some into a bowl and enjoying it with toast.
Beyond stock-based soups, though, you can find other options. One type of easy soup to make is based on tomato juice or sauce. My mother's old standby vegetable soup (recipe) uses this as a base, and I've made chili and curry-spiced soups this way as well. (I won't share my chili recipe: those of you who are die-hard chili fans will likely turn up your noses at it.)
The other is a cream-based soup, starting with a roux to thicken the milk. That’s the route I took this week to make a luscious tomato bisque (recipe below) with a pint of my homemade tomato sauce, some home-dried herbs, and local milk and butter. A soup like this requires constant whisking and other nurturing, but the results are so worth it. When I was a kid I enjoyed canned tomato soup along with grilled cheese sandwiches, but this variation, served up with local Amish cheddar on toasted homemade pain aux noix or walnut bread, was sheer bliss.
Soups can provide the home cook with as much or as little challenge as needed, and they can generally be a forgiving format for tired vegetables, leftover pasta or rice, or other pantry finds. Served with bread, a good sandwich, or a fresh salad, they can stand on their own for a meal, or you can dish up smaller amounts for appetizers. Leftovers make great lunches at work, and if you have way too much left over, you can freeze almost any soup (save for those with a dairy base).
And all that snow that's outside? Who cares? You'll be warm and cozy from the inside out, well-fed and ready for a long winter's nap.
The acidity of tomatoes would ordinarily curdle the milk in this soup, but by adding baking soda, that acidity is neutralized. The roux is not necessary for making tomato soup, but it creates a lovely, sophisticated thickness you just can't get out of a can.
3 T unsalted butter
3 T unbleached flour
2 c milk
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 qt tomato sauce (if homemade, you may need to drain some liquid from the top)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp tamari or soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk until bubbly. Add the milk and continue whisking until milk begins to thicken.
Whisk baking soda into the tomato sauce. The sauce will get foamy on top. Add tomatoes to the thickened milk, whisking gently. Add herbs, tamari, and spices and continue whisking. The soup will continue to thicken; turn to low to allow it the flavors to meld.
Ladle into bowls and serve warm.
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