Fall vegetable soups are in peak form, satisfying souls with homey flavors and flaunting the season’s vibrant color show.
The rich, full-bodied soups are the entry point for the comfort-food scene, but “they still have a semblance of being lighter,” says Ellen Brown, author of “Soup of the Day: 150 Delicious and Comforting Recipes from Our Favorite Restaurants” (Running Press, $20, 240 pages). “We are not at the point of having a big plate of mac and cheese.”
The soups ignore the pale and meek vegetables and instead gravitate toward the bold and deep ones, which have strong, earthy flavors. So while carrots, acorn and butternut squashes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets and mushrooms are in, avocado, sweet peas, asparagus and fresh tomatoes are out.
Gina Nistico, food editor of Taste of Home magazine, says “there also is something anchoring about fall soups, and the falling temperatures cry out for them.”
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For a quintessential, stick-to-the-ribs fall soup, start with the base flavor in the form of onions, scallions, leeks and garlic. Then soften those vegetables by adding butter, ghee, canola oil, olive oil or bacon fat, and sautéing them over low heat. When they are just about tender, add a vegetarian or meat stock and simmer until they are tender. Finally, purée the soup to make it smooth and silky.
Amp the rich and velvety texture of a soup by adding coconut milk, heavy cream, sour cream, half-and-half, or simply whole milk. Or elevate the taste by adding a teaspoon of curry powder, orange juice or maple syrup.
There are no hard-or-fast rules when it comes to transforming soups to be served in fall.
“Potatoes are a wonderful blank canvas that go well with anything,” Brown says. So a plain potato soup can be taken up a notch by adding leeks or mushrooms or bacon. Or convert a tomato-ginger-mint soup to a carrot-ginger soup with a tropical accent by adding coconut milk. For a Southwestern touch, add cumin powder and chipotle chilies to canned black beans and frozen corn kernels and garnish with cilantro instead of parsley.
Give a different spin to a french onion soup by adding dumplings and softened leeks to a beef jus spiked with brandy and finally topping it with Gruyere cheese. Or go with an Italian onion soup, which is an upside-down version of its French cousin. Melt provolone and mozzarella cheeses over croutons with Italian-herb seasoning and pour hot beef broth over them.
When it comes to the broths, long-simmered ones are the way to go, Brown says. But avoid strong-flavored scraps such as cilantro stems, and potato or turnip peels when making it at home. Also stay away from intense colors such as beet peels or old and rotting vegetables. “But if you are buying a store-bought stock, opt for lower sodium ones,” Nistico says. “You could always add more salt as you cook.”
Herbs can be cooked in or added later, Nistico says, but it is better to cook in sturdier herbs such as thyme, rosemary and bay leaves and stir in herbs such as cilantro, chives and parsley at the end. Basil is more loosey-goosey and could be added in the beginning or at the end.
Toppings in a soup gives an opportunity for contrasting textures, and they do not have to be limited to croutons, according to Nistico and Brown. But they should add something to the overall soup. This means you could add grated Parmesan cheese that has been baked, broken bread sticks, diced hard-boiled egg, chopped nuts, chow mein noodles, crushed tortilla chips or nachos, wonton wrappers, or in fact anything that would fit on a soup spoon.
“You could also go in the other direction and add sour cream, fresh cream or a swirl of herb oil,” Brown says. Nistico recommends adding a little browned butter, olive oil or even a balsamic vinegar glaze.
But at the end of it all, it is the vegetables that are the stars; they work well together as a team and yet hold onto their individuality.
Chef Steven Felder of Stagioni in Pittsburgh’s South Side says sweet potatoes, carrots and squashes such as butternut and acorn are the rites of a hearty fall soup. “But just because the soups are hearty it does not mean they are heavy,” he adds. “It is more about the flavor combinations.”
And he should know: His sweet potato soup won the overall soup category and the vegetarian category in last year’s South Side Soup Contest.
▪ Make the soup a day in advance, says Gina Nistico, food editor of Taste of Home magazine, because the flavors deepen when they sit.
▪ In the last 30 seconds, make a little well and add some minced garlic for a pronounced flavor, Nistico says.
▪ Deglaze pan with wine or broth for added flavor.
▪ Watch the heat and don’t rush the cooking time by cooking the soup on high heat. Time and temperature control are important, Nistico says.
▪ Don’t kill your vegetables, says cookbook author Ellen Brown, by overcooking them.
▪ Use proteins that can stand up to a longer cooking time such as beef and boneless, country-style pork ribs along with mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion).
▪ When freezing leftover soup, fill a plastic bag with one serving and place the bag flat, Nistico says, because it is easier to thaw them. Also remember that sour cream, pasta, rice and fresh potatoes don’t freeze well.
Coconut carrot soup
Serves 8 to 10
Cookbook author Ellen Brown (“Soup of the Day”) had adapted this recipe from the restaurant Binkley’s, in Cave Creek, Ariz. I in turn substituted water for white wine, and light cream for heavy cream to cut the richness of the soup and make it friendly for all ages. The soup can be prepared up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered. Reheat over low heat, stirring occasionally.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds carrots, sliced
2 celery ribs, sliced
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup water or white wine
5 cups vegetable stock
3/4 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 cup light cream or heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon desiccated unsweetened coconut
Heat the butter in a 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add carrots, celery, onion and ginger; cook until the vegetables are soft.
Add water, and cook for 3 more minutes. Add the stock, coconut milk and maple syrup. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat and puree soup with a hand blender. Add cream. Then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Bring soup back to a simmer. Garnish with dry coconut before serving.
This lentil soup, with an Indian accent, is a model of simplicity and complementary flavors. If you are cooking the lentils in a pot, soak them for 30 minutes first. Recipe by Arthi Subramaniam.
1 cup chickpea lentils, dried (channa dhal)
1 cup yellow split-pea lentils, dried (thoor dhal)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 jalapeño, finely chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
Wash the lentils, and then place them in a pressure cooker or a medium-size pot. Add enough water to cover the lentils, plus 1/2 cup extra. If cooking in a pressure cooker, follow cooker’s instructions. If cooking in a pot, stir constantly and add more water as necessary so that the lentils don’t stick to bottom of the pot. Cook over medium heat for about 40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.
Meanwhile, heat oil in pot. Add cumin seeds and cook until they splutter and are lightly brown. Add onion, garlic and jalapeño, and cook for about 3 minutes. Once cooked, add lentils to vegetable mixture, and then the turmeric.
Using a hand (immersion) blender, purée dhal until lentils are smoothly blended. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Add more water if necessary to thin the dhal.
Add butter and cilantro. Mix gently and serve.
The sharp cheddar cheese and half-and-half amp the velvety texture in this luscious soup, which is robust and refined at the same time. Recipe adapted from Food Network magazine, October 2011.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups half-and-half
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
Freshly ground pepper
2 cups chopped broccoli florets
1 1/2 cups sharp yellow cheddar cheese, shredded
Croutons, for topping
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and celery; cook, stirring until softened, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, half-and-half, potatoes, bay leaf, 2 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, season broccoli with salt, cover, and microwave until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. When potatoes are tender, turn off the heat and remove the bay leaf from the soup. Puree soup with a hand blender until smooth. Thin with water if necessary. Return soup to a simmer over medium-low heat. Stir in broccoli and season with salt and pepper.
Add cheese and stir until melted. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with croutons.
Butternut squash bisque
Don’t be deceived; the silky bisque has a bite to it. But if you want to reduce the heat, remove the seeds and devein the chilies. Recipe by Arthi Subramaniam.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped carrot
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons green chilies, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup half-and-half
Fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the cubed squash. Bake for 40 minutes or until cubes are very tender. Let them cool.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots. Saute for 10 minutes or until vegetables are just tender.
Add the garlic and chilies; sauté for 2 minutes. Add squash cubes and stir. Then add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat, and while soup is still hot, puree with a hand blender. Stir in half-and-half. Season with black pepper and add more salt if needed. Transfer bisque to individual bowls, and top each serving with a dollop of sour cream.
Leek and potato soup
The leeks and potatoes assert themselves here without shouting at each other in this rustic soup. Recipe from “The Kitchen Garden Cookbook,” by Caroline Bretherton.
2 1/2 pounds small russet potatoes peeled, but left whole
1 pound leeks, trimmed and chopped
1 large onion
6 cups vegetable stock
4 tablespoon butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Place potatoes, leeks, onion in a pot with stock. Season lightly. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, lift the potatoes out of the pot and mash with the butter. Return the mashed potatoes to the pot, stir thoroughly, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes further, stirring occasionally.
If the soup gets too thick, add a little water to thin to the required consistency.
Taste and season with salt if necessary. Ladle into bowls and add a good grinding of black pepper.