Do you ever wonder why your soup is a little blah or just doesn’t seem to be flavorful enough? Or maybe the flavor just seems out of balance. I’ve eaten soup at almost every restaurant in town and I’m usually disappointed, there is always something missing. Dang it! What could it be? I finally got the answer from one of my greatest culinary inspirations (my little brother) and it was so easy and has proven over the last three years to work every single time. I’ve been saving this for when we’re in the dead of winter, nothing is going very well, and all we have is a few onions and root vegetables to cling to. It’s at this time; when we wake up crying and we hide inside, that we need the nourishing warm hug of a damn good cup of soup.
This is more of an art then a science but if you get the basic principle you can apply it to whatever you have.
1. Start with a large pot without a lid. Then start cooking very slowly on low heat 4-6 cups of onions with a few tablespoons of oil and butter (coconut oil is the most stable for heating). If you have lots of onions do more, the more the merrier really. Lots of fat is good too. Don’t skimp, this is where the over arching goodness will come from. Add some mushrooms if you have them, lots is fine, however optional. Sprinkle with about a tsp. of sea salt. Let the onions and mushrooms cook ever so slowly so they become sweet and tender. When they are translucent add about ½ – 1c of good white wine and let it cook until the alcohol evaporates completely.
This is the basic flavor foundation to make your soup taste awesome; sweet, salt, fat and zing. If you add the mushrooms you get a little natural MSG too, which in this form is fine. When you add the wine, the oil emulsifies and everything becomes creamy rather than oily. The alcohol breaks up the fat particles and disperses them evenly, while at the same time adding a little tartness or zing. You need this to balance the sweetness, (which by the way comes from the slow cooked onions). In a pinch you can use beer or a small amount of vinegar. Over time you’ll find some great combinations. Once you have this base, puree it with an emersion blender or transfer it to a blender or food processor.
2. Next add whatever kind of pureed vegetables and seasoning that you have. Here are a few suggestions:
- Squash, sweet potato or carrots with chipotle, cumin and lime
- Beets with tarragon, thyme and white pepper
- Sweet potato with orange rind, cinnamon, cumin, curry and peanuts
- Potato with coconut cream, green curry paste and lime
Technically you can puree the base and then just add the cooked vegetables and puree it all together. To get the desired consistency use coconut milk, a vegetable broth, or if you want to take it to the next level, a homemade chicken or beef stock. Now you should have a nice creamy super flavorful base.
Here are some hints on seasoning. You need a balance between salty, sweet and tart, in addition to the herbs and spices of choice. It’s really easy to over do salty and tart so add these flavors carefully. Most local vegetables have enough sweetness on their own. Here are some salt and tart suggestions.
Salt options: tamari, fish sauce, sea salt, umeboshi vinegar, dulse, kelp
Tart options: lemon, lime, umeboshi vinegar, apple cider vinegar (be very judicious with vinegar, it can ruin the whole thing), sorrel, tamarind, reduced wine, lemon grass, tomatoes
To give the base an extra kick, add fresh grated ginger or garlic at the end. A little goes a long way. I never understand why so many recipes ask for garlic and ginger at the beginning, it basically kills all of the flavor and you end up using so much. Of course, only use ginger if it goes with the seasoning, garlic usually fits most places.
To give the soup a warm and spicy appeal without making it too hot, add ground toasted cumin seeds; they have a way of really balancing the flavor.
3. Once you have a super flavorful pureed soup you can eat it as is, or you can make it extra awesome by adding some chunks of cooked vegetables or meat. Then when the flavors have mingled nicely, add fresh herbs or greens and let them wilt in the hot soup, no need to really cook them.
Here are some combination suggestions:
Coconut Seafood Chowder
Base: Potatoes, coconut milk, green tai curry paste
Add ins: chunks of cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, chives, red pepper (not in season right now but gives it a Thai flavor) and haddock or other good local seafood.
Greens: cilantro, basil and bok choi
Base: beets with tarragon, thyme and white pepper (optional: homemade beef broth)
Add ins: lightly sautéed purple cabbage and leeks, cooked carrots, brussel sprouts
Greens: Russian kale
North African Stew
Base: sweet potatoes, squash, diced tomatoes and/or chicken broth, turmeric, cinnamon, orange rind and juice, star anise, clove, cumin, curry, garlic, cardimon, organic peanut butter
Add ins: Cooked chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, chicken, lentils or chick peas, whole roasted garlic cloves,
Leek and Potato Soup
Base: leeks and potatoes, white wine or ale, cumin (small amount) sage and thyme
Add ins: Chunks of roasted fingerling potatoes, leeks
The Three Sisters Soup (ie. squash, corn and bean)
Base: Squash and or sweet potato (add sweet potato if the squash is a little bland) with chipotle, cumin and lime
Add Ins: Black beans or adzuki beans, frozen organic corn
Hopefully this will help you on your way and keep you experimenting in the kitchen until the snow melts and we can all emerge from our little hovels. Feel free to post if you find some great combinations.
Some purposeful music to get you going: