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December 13, 2009 - Jenn Lucas
With the holidays coming up quickly, some even fully underway, who has time to worry about dinner? Most are knee-deep in wrapping paper or scrambling to score those last-minute gifts. When people are thinking about food, it’s usually a big holiday dinner with all the trimmings coming down the pipeline, not that mundane dish you’re planning on serving your family somewhere between watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and putting the final decorations in place.
With the ultimate comfort food, soup, you can feed your family a healthy, wholesome meal that won’t take more than a few minutes of prep time before you’re back to curling ribbons and spraying fake snow.
There are countless types of soups from stews and cream soups to chowders to gumbos to choose from; we will just look at broth-based soups, like chicken noodle or beef barley, this week.
There are five parts that make up most soups: broth, meat, vegetables, starch and flavor. Following that idea, the possibilities are almost endless.
All soups start with some type of stock. I make my own by boiling off a package of chicken wings with some celery, carrots, onion and herbs and or using any carcass, like the one from my Thanksgiving turkey. If making your own, the key is time. Put all your items in a pot, fill with water and slap a lid on it. It’s done when the bones start to fall apart. You can’t overcook it – the longer it simmers, the more flavor it gains. Be sure to strain it through cheesecloth or a sieve before using.
If you want a beef stock, replace the chicken with some form of beef with bones, like ox tails. Need a seafood base? Boil up some shrimp shells and an onion. Going for a ham base? You don’t even need to buy the whole ham, most stores sell just the bones.
If you don’t want to make your own, there are wonderful products on the market. Most companies offer a stock and broth. Stocks are richer and more flavorful; broths are cheaper and don’t bring as much flavor to the party. I like to use these for soups where the broth itself won’t be the star, like for a cream of vegetable. Also, buy low sodium versions; you can always add salt later.
Whether cooked, raw or frozen, soups offer versatility when it comes to meats, as long as the stock is pre-made or pre-bought. If working from frozen meat, boil and simmer it thoroughly before adding anything else. If the meat is raw, add it after you have started your hard vegetables and if it’s cooked, wait until close to the end. Make sure to cube or shred your meat before serving.
Good soup meats include any form of chicken, except boneless, skinless breasts. They tend to get too rubbery. For beef, use a cut up chuck roast or any cut that’s labeled “for braising.” Stay away from expensive ones like strip steaks, they’re not made to withstand such a long cooking process. If using pork, like for a spicy pork pozole, try to use a picnic cut or country ribs. Loin chops and tenderloins can be used if they’re pre-cooked leftovers. You can buy smoked ham from the deli if you’re making a bean soup and don’t have extra ham around. Sausage can make a tasty soup, too.
I’m not going to go into too much detail here. Literally any vegetable, except lettuce, will work well in a soup -- just remember to add them in based on similar densities. Carrots, onions, celery, turnips and fennel take the longest. Zucchini, squashes, beans and the likes take slightly less time. If your recipe calls for tomatoes, add them in sooner than later, you want to give them time to break down. Add in leafy greens like kale, collard greens, Swiss chard or spinach last. Frozen peas should also be held out until the last minute.
Starch and beans
Noodles, rice or barley add substance and heartiness to soups. They’re not necessary but they turn a soup into a well-rounded meal. Add these ingredients in about 20 minutes before anyone will be eating --- if you add them too early they will get soggy and absorb your broth. Rice may take longer depending on the type you use. It can also use twice as much broth, so make sure to have extra on hand and read the package.
Potatoes are a starch, not really a vegetable, and they will break down and thicken your soup, so keep an eye on your broth level. You may need to just turn off the soup and heat it in a microwave if it begins to just get too thick.
For beans or hominy, the canned versions are just fine. Just be sure to rinse them before using. Dried beans are just a hassle and they take longer, so if you must use then, make sure to add them in early. Add in canned beans more toward the end.
I never make any soup, regardless of the recipe, without salt, pepper, garlic, bay leaf and thyme. I almost always add in a dash of cayenne pepper, not enough to make it spicy but enough to add another layer of flavor. Other than that follow your heart or your recipe, because you can’t really go wrong with soup.
As long as the soup simmers over low heat once it gets going, it can be left on the stovetop all day, making it a welcoming sight for those coming in from the cold. Or, since it’s Florida, you can make a cold soup for people to come in from the warmth, but that’s a whole other blog. So go get your soup on and bring some much needed nutrition and comfort to your family during a time when our everyday cooking takes a back seat to entertaining and chaos.
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