Soups have evolved from a simple, functionally nutritious broth to more complex and refined concoctions.
The master of French cuisine Auguste Escoffier said it best: “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” He recognised what homemakers have known from time immemorial that nothing nourishes and comforts as much as a bowl of steaming hot soup. Every country, every culture has its own signature soup which captures the essence and flavours of the cuisine: Spanish gazpacho, Russian borscht, French onion soup and bouillabaisse, Vietnamese pho, New England clam chowder, Scotch broth and colonial Indian mulligatawny.
As with any dish, a soup will only be as good as the ingredients that go into it. Originally, soups were based on a cereal, a few vegetables perhaps, a liquid – usually water, and a spice or herb or two thrown in for flavour. The resultant broth eaten with or poured over bread made for a hearty meal enjoyed by peasant and potentate alike. Today, soups are often served as the first course of a lavish meal and have evolved from a simple, functionally nutritious broth to more refined concoctions, generating a whole lexicon of terms and classifications.
Put simply, soups are described as being either clear or thick and can actually be served both hot, and in the case of summer soups, cold.
Clear soups are thin and flavourful broths.
Consommés are sparklingly clear and transparent, rich broths with intense flavour, which are the epitome of all soups and perfect at the start of an elegant meal.
Thick soups have a heavier consistency obtained by the addition of thickening agents like flour and cream, or by blending the ingredients into a purée.
Purées are thick blended or processed mixtures of vegetables, lentils or meats cooked with water or stock. Examples are green pea and spinach purées.
Bisques are seafood soups made by puréeing seafood and cooked in a rich stock made of boiling shells of crustaceans. The smooth, aromatic soups are finished with cream. Lobster or prawn bisques are examples.
Chowders are chunky soups usually made with seafood and almost always contain milk and diced potatoes. Clam chowders are particularly famous.
Whichever soup you plan to cook there are a few simple steps to follow:
Stock options – begin with a good stock
While water can be used in most soups, a flavourful stock will often make the difference between an average and a great soup. Vegetable stocks are made by boiling vegetables like carrots, celery, onions and leeks. Avoid adding peas, potatoes and beans as they will make the stock cloudy. Meat, fish or chicken stocks are made by boiling the bones or carcasses with carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper for flavour.
Herbs are also added to enhance the flavour, usually in the form of a bouquet garni – a collection of herbs tied together if fresh, or in a muslin bag if dried or powdered. Bring the mixture to a boil and carefully skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Cook on a low heat for at least 1 hour in the case of meat stock, less for vegetable stock, and then strain without mashing the ingredients. If you are pressed for time use good quality stock cubes diluted in water.
Basic instincts – lay the foundation of the soup
The thick of things – get the right consistency
If preparing a creamy soup, add a tablespoon of plain flour to the vegetables and sauté it together with the other ingredients. To thicken soups with cornflour, arrowroot or potato starch, make a slurry of the flour with water and add at the end and cook till thick.
Stir in the stock or liquid slowly if you have added flour and bring the soup to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer till the ingredients reach the desired consistency. Do not overcook the ingredients if you plan to keep them whole, for nothing is worse than a soup with mushy ingredients. Also be careful not to add too much stock or your soup may become too thin. Add more later if necessary.
Spice it up.
Now is the time to add the appropriate spices, herbs and seasonings to enhance the flavour of the soup. Add some coriander and chilli in Thai soups, garlic and basil in Italian broths, and tarragon in chicken based soups for extra flavour. Add bay leaves and whole peppercorns, but remember to remove them before serving or blending them.
If making a purée or creamy soup, blend or process the ingredients till smooth and return to the pan. If necessary add more stock.
Return the puréed soup to the pan and bring to a boil. Season to taste and stir in the cream or milk just before serving. This is when you should also add coconut cream for Thai or tropical soups. Do not let the soup boil once they have been added, or you will be left with a curdled mess.
Serve it up
Ladle the hot soup into soup bowls or cups and serve with rounded soup spoons. Garnish with chopped meat or vegetables, sprigs of herbs, grated cheese, bread croûtons or swirls of cream or sour cream. Choose garnishes that complement or contrast with the texture of the soup. Accompaniments that go well with soup include dinner rolls, garlic bread, crisp bread sticks, thin Melba toast and various crackers, all served with flavoured butters.
Article and Recipe Provider – Rita D’souza