Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mama Deborah's vegetable soup (stew, really)

As is my wont, usually when it's cold or rainy--obviously, it was the latter this week--I get in the mood to make soup.

Soup is a wonderful, forgiving foodstuff. Unlike baking, where you have to pay close attention to the precisely-measured amounts (of most ingredients, anyway), soup-making allows you to customize like mad. If you adore thyme, go ahead and throw in some more; if you're trying to cut back on sodium, eliminate most of the salt; if you've got a surplus of carrots lying around in the fridge, well, no-one is going to argue with the sweet, carroty flavor and extra dose of vitamin A this week's soup is offering. You can be totally creative and health-conscious while thriftily using up leftover vegetables from your last supermarket run or CSA delivery. There really aren't too many rules.

I made the soup in the photograph above this week, and a few people asked me for the recipe. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I don't really have a recipe, per se, but I hope they'll like what I'm offering instead: a general guideline for making one's own fabulous vegetable soup. Do it once, and you'll love the results (and process!) so much, it will become a habit, especially as fall draws near.

This was an enormous amount, as I have a big and hungry family. You should feel free to divide the quantities and add or eliminate ingredients as you see fit.

Start with a big stock pot. My beloved All-Clad pot, above, which is going on 10 years old, is actually part of gigantic shellfish steaming set. Any good, heavy-bottomed stock pot will do--you want to be able to simmer your soup without scorching it, something that can happen if you use potatoes and/or fava beans (I used both this week).

Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil. Add a pinch of sea salt and a dash (or two or five, depending) of crushed red pepper.

Turn on the flame to low/medium and add your "mirepoix". A classic mirepoix is a mix of diced onions, celery, and carrot slices. I prefer minced garlic to onions, and there were tons of fat fennel bulbs at the market this week, so instead of celery, I cut the fennel into 1" dice (don't worry if you get a few of the leafy fronds in there, they're edible and tasty) and used those. If you can get your hands on fresh fennel, I wholeheartedly recommend using it--it imparts a delicious, sweet, faintly licorice-y flavor to the soup, and I adore that. It's also fun to nibble on raw while you're doing prep.

So, to recap, for this big batch (so far) I've used:

  • Olive oil to coat the pan
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Dash(es) of crushed red pepper to taste
  • 3 bulbs of fennel, woody stems and hearts removed, cut into 1" pieces
  • About 20 medium-ish organic carrots, sliced (however you like to slice carrots--fat, thin, French...your choice).

Sauté those until they're beginning to get soft, then turn down the heat to low and add:

  • 1 head of garlic, peeled, with the woody ends nipped off, then minced

Stir well, put the lid on the pot and let it all cook for a bit, checking on it and stirring every so often. The moisture from the carrots and fennel (or celery, if you're using that) will steam up and help soften everything, and it will also keep things from sticking. (But you still need a little oil to start with.)

While this is going on, you can prep your other vegetables. Meaning, it's serious wash-and-chop time.

The only real rule here is that you're going to add the harder, crisper vegetables first; softer, leafier stuff (like spinach) can wait until the end.

You'll need to have handy, at this point:

  • 3 cartons of organic vegetable broth (if you've got your own homemade stuff, use that--lucky you!)
  • 1/2 bottle of inexpensive semi-sweet white wine (like Reisling)
  • Some boiling water in the kettle, standing by alongside the soup pot: if your creation seems too thick at any point, you can splash a little in

Once the mirepoix is softening up nicely, pour in the wine. Turn up the heat a bit to bring things to a boil. Then pour in the vegetable broth. Get it all nice and bubbly.

Now add to the pot, more-or-less in this order, waiting until the bubbling resumes between each addition:

  • 2-3 tablespoons of dried sage or fistful or two of fresh sage that you've chopped
  • 1 pound, give-or-take, of new (baby) potatoes, preferably Yukon gold or other firm-fleshed potatoes, cut in half or even quarters if necessary (not red potatoes though, because they are best for mashing and you'll find they disintegrate rather quickly in soup)
  • 1  15-oz. can of organic Marzano plum tomatoes, which you've squashed in the can with your bare hands (or cut up into smallish chunks if you're squeamish), juice included
  • 1 large can of fava beans, rinsed a few times and drained (or a cup or two of fresh favas, if you can find them, again, lucky you)
  • 1-2 heads of organic broccoli, cut into reasonable-sized chunks
  • 3 large zucchini, sliced
  • 3 large yellow squash, sliced
  • 1-2 cans of organic baby peas, or a bag or two of frozen, or a pound or so of fresh petit pois if they're available (sigh)

And get all that boiling nicely. After about 20-30 minutes, once the potatoes are softening, you can add:

  • 1-2 bags (or more) of washed baby spinach.

And when that is cooking down and swirling around the other vegetables, take a big fistful of:

  • fresh thyme

...wash it well, and stir it into your soup.

(I'm trying to remember if I left anything out....)

You'll want to simmer your soup on low for a good hour or so after this; put the lid on it, but askew, so some steam escapes and it can continue to cook down. Me, I love the way this tastes the next day, when flavors have blended together nicely and the potatoes have thickened everything up. Given that your kitchen will be smelling mighty fine, though, you'll probably have to serve this soup tonight, and it will be raved about. When you're ready to do that, taste a bit and see if it needs more salt; bear in mind, you'll want to use little-to-no additional salt if you're serving your soup with an Italian hard cheese.

Yes, you can shave some pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) on top. Certain family members of mine insist on it.

And yes, you can cook some tiny soup pasta (like acini di pepe) in a separate pot, spoon some in bowls, and then ladle your wonderful vegetable soup over it--and then top with cheese (or not), too. Totally up to you and/or your crowd.

Having a hot, crusty loaf of bread and a full bottle of wine on the table though? That's pretty much mandatory.