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Cooking articles

Sensational Soup

Soups are nourishing, economical, and easy to make. And — whether you're using fresh produce or this week's leftovers — spices can make any soup sensational, too!

Ask someone about his or her favorite food when the temperatures drop and the flurries threaten to fly, and chances are good that a lot of them are going to say soup. When you're chilled to the bone (and if you live in a snowy climate, you know what that phrase means), there's nothing like a bowl of hot soup to warm the body and spirit. Ditto any time you're feeling under the weather. In fact, the first restaurants — located in Paris — were so called because they sold hearty soups to restaurer (restore) patrons.

A pot of soup or stew simmering on top of the stove brings a steamy warmth to the kitchen, disperses delicious aromas throughout the house, and provides a splash of color to a season that can often get a little dreary.

Many of us include soups in our weekly menus, with recipes reflecting personal tastes and preferences, nutritional values, and even family culture and heritage. We all have our favorites, but when it comes to these stovetop concoctions, there's great advice to be followed in the classic children's French folktale, "Stone Soup." In this story, a hungry traveler tells a village of peasants (who have related that there is nothing to eat) that he will make a delicious soup from nothing but stones and share it with them. Water is added to a kettle with a stone, and then, one by one, the villagers make seemingly insignificant contributions — a carrot, a little meat, and other ingredients — in response to the traveler's comments that the items will make this Stone Soup the best ever. In the end, of course, they all share a delicious pot of soup. There are two great lessons about cooking soup to take from this story: one, that when it comes to soup-making, anything goes—and two, soup always seems to taste better when enjoyed with others.

But we're not only talking a delicious potpourri of leftovers on a cold night. There's a soup for every occasion and every taste. Whether it's a light consommé served as the first course of a special meal, a refreshing fruit soup on a warm afternoon, or a hearty stew in the midst of a snowstorm, soup fits the bill. And when you make your own soup you can customize—chunky or smooth, spicy or mild, light on onions, heavy on garlic, hot or cold, and, of course, seasoned to perfection.

Soups offer a tasty meal packed with nutrition for all members of the family. For the younger set, vegetables are often more palatable in soup or stew than when served by themselves on a dinner plate. Soups are also easy to concoct for special diets, such as vegetarians or vegans, or those watching their salt intake. Decreasing—or even eliminating — salt is easy with the help of herbs and spices.

Affordable fare

Soup's wealth of nutrition and flavor comes without a lot of expense, too. A beef roast that would typically feed the family for one or two meals can be stretched to provide several meals when used as an ingredient in soup. The grains, beans, pasta and vegetables in your soup recipes are relatively inexpensive ingredients that help you create healthy meals, even on a tight budget. And, of course, soup is the perfect solution for myriad leftovers, such as turkey, cooked rice, and any assortment of vegetables.

Be sure to make more than you'll need, while you're at it, and freeze the rest for a quick meal at a later date. First chill the soup in the refrigerator, and then place in freezer containers. (Because liquids expand when they freeze, you'll want to leave about 1/4-inch headspace at the top.) Though many will last a few months, most soups are best when served within a month of freezing. When ready to serve, thaw soup in the refrigerator and then reheat. If your cream soup has separated during freezing, simply whisk after defrosting.

Soup vocabulary

With so many culinary influences from around the world, it's no wonder we have such a wide glossary of terms when it comes to soup. What are the differences between soup and stew, broth and bisque, purée and potage?

Basically, soup is a combination of foods (meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, etc.) that are cooked in water or broth. By definition, soups contain more liquid than stews contain. While a stew may feature the same basic ingredients as a soup, it differs in that it's usually cooked in a covered pot for a much longer period of time and at a lower, simmering temperature. In stew, the cooking liquid and the natural juices of the other foods are combined during the boiling-down process, and a thicker end product is the result.

Soups are generally classified as clear soups or thick soups. Clear soups include broth (also sometimes called stock or bouillon), which is made by simmering meat, fish, grains, or vegetables in water and then skimming off the fat and straining out the ingredients. Broth can be enjoyed on its own, or as the base for other soups, sauces, or gravies. Consommé is a more refined broth that is clarified through additional strainings and cooked down for a more concentrated flavor.

Stocks are defined by their color. White stock is made from poultry, veal, or fish, while brown stock comes from beef, beef bones, or a combination of beef and veal. While the terms broth and stock are often used interchangeably, some cooks claim that stock is actually made from just water and bones.

Thick soups include cream soups, purées, and bisques. Cream soups rely on a combination of milk (or cream) and flour for the base, while a purée is thickened with pulp or starch, typically from a vegetable source. A thick soup made with puréed shellfish and milk or cream is called bisque.

And potage? Apparently, it was a staple in the peasant diet in Medieval and Early Modern Europe and consisted of meat and vegetables that were boiled in water until they formed a thick soup. Hmmm. Sounds like stew to us!

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