Soup is especially well suited to this “shoulder season,” the drippy, muddy months between winter and spring. We can’t predict the weather, but we can rely on the homey comforts of soup. It’s just the thing to make with our weary local vegetables.
Unlike those who implore cooks to use only what’s perfectly fresh, I make soup with the imperfect, leftover odds and ends scrounged from freezer and fridge. Take those carrots and celeriac that are getting soft, the sprouting potatoes, tired onions and mushrooms, that wilted parsley.
You don’t need much to build a beautiful soup. While I’d like to crow about my homemade stock, the truth is that, in a pinch, I’ll rely on stock from a box. Alternatively, the cooking water from rice, potatoes and, especially, wild rice makes a wonderful broth.
What’s paramount to texture and flavor is the relatively slow “sweating” of aromatics and vegetables before doing anything else. This step draws forth their natural sweetness and creates nubby brown bits that stick to the pot and add color and richness to the soup. Butter is the key to this step and I’m willing to pay a bit more for a good local brand. You only need enough to film the bottom of the pan. While olive oil works, too, butter contributes to a fuller, silkier body.
Take the advice of Estelle Woods Wilcox, one of our first cookbook authors, who wrote in the 1850s, “A good soup maker must be a good taster.”
Once you’ve sweated the vegetables, added the stock and additional ingredients (meat, beans, etc.), you must taste, taste, taste. If the flavors seem flat, the soup may need acid (lemon, wine or vinegar); or a little heat (red pepper flakes; a shot of hot sauce). If it’s thin, add a splash of cream, a nob of butter, or a scoop of mashed potatoes.
Don’t hold back on garnishes, they add a pop of color and hint at the flavors in the bowl. Nothing fancy, just a few chopped herbs, shredded fresh vegetables, or a grating of cheese.
Wild rice is my go-to soup. I’ll cook a big batch, use some in a hearty pilaf, some in a salad, and I’ll save the cooking water for a quick, satisfying wild rice soup. Both the wild rice broth and the wild rice freeze beautifully to be at the ready for a surefire comforting meal.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.