Years ago, when I first worked at Chez Panisse, I was surprised to discover that some staff set aside the month of January to take a serious break from wine, among other things. Since I didn’t eat meat except at work in those days, I never took up this particular regime, perhaps because I didn’t feel sufficiently overindulged.
But come January, I always remember it. After the body’s hard holiday workout, it clearly deserves a break. And I find myself thinking that this might be a good time to lighten up, leave the wine bottles on the shelf, and give the liver a rest.
For relief from dietary richness and, for that matter, the post-holiday stressed wallet, I turn to soup. What’s not to like about soup? It’s not just that soup is warming, comforting, and all those things we associate with this liquid meal; it’s also that soup is generally wholesome, mostly uncomplicated, and easily made “clean” if you wish — that is, free of meat, cream, and super-caloric fats.
Soup is also very affordable, often vegetable or legume-centric, and mostly straightforward to execute. It’s not by chance that soup has traditionally been a food for both invalids and the poor. When a soup is costly, rich, and exquisite, it’s typically served at the start of an elegant meal; it never serves as the meal itself.
The word “soup,” writes Alan Davidson, the author of The Oxford Companion to Food, is derived from the same German root that produced the English “sup.” It’s not too hard to see that from “sup” we get “supper,” and supper, like soup, is a cozy-sounding word.
For some, “supper” still refers to a meal that’s served at a particular time of the day, but I suspect that for most, supper is a meal colored with ease and simplicity, like soup itself. It’s a meal that excludes guests, circling together just the immediate family.
From soup to stew is an easy slide. To me, a stew implies big chunks of things, offering a variety of texture and substance. A stew calls for time spent at the stove marrying diverse flavors and tenderizing foods, with little in the way of broth.
For years, I’ve endeavored to come up with vegetarian stews that offer the kind of substantial nourishment and satisfaction that meaty stews provide. Some good stews for winter might be based on green chiles and potatoes; pumpkin; posole; or potatoes, fennel, and tomatoes, with a hint of saffron thrown in.
Another dish that could be classified as a winter stew is chowder. My Winter Vegetable Chowder involves setting the aristocratic celery root in an herb-infused milk broth with the more plebeian potatoes, turnips, and rutabagas. It’s served over a substantial piece of toast covered (lightly) with Gruyère cheese. The toast starts out crisp, then softens in the milky broth, while the cheese gives just the feel of richness and the vegetables show their shades of cream, yellow, and orange. It’s a beautiful supper.
Puréed soups are the easiest of all to make, especially for harried cooks; the vegetables can be chopped coarsely and quickly, as they’ll all end up puréed into smoothness in the final dish. If time allows, roast the vegetables first for a more deep and concentrated flavor.
While a diet consisting of puréed soups alone would quickly become tiresome, you can add other things to them for texture — croutons, of course, but also pasta, diced vegetables, rice or other grains, and beans. For my Roasted Squash, Pear, and Ginger Soup, I garnish each serving with chunks of caramelized pears and a tad of sour cream.
When I wrote Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, I purposely put a beautiful spring soup on the cover, with peas, asparagus, a sliver of radish, and chive blossoms floating in a clear broth. I had hoped to convey the idea that soups are good in every season, which I firmly believe they are and know them to be.
Still, people consistently look at the book and then say how much they like soups as a winter food. And yes, soups are superb for winter, the season when we all need warmth inside and out (especially if you’ve turned down the heat in your house!). In the winter, I have soup every day for lunch, and one of the things I love most is the warmth I get from simply cradling the bowl of hot soup in my hands.
If I’m taking on a winter regime, I’ll have soup again for dinner. You might, too.
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