Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Early Fall Soup

I’m planner, a list-maker, a freeze-ahead-er, but somehow what I most often need when it comes to dinner time is something that can be thrown together in twenty minutes or less from whatever happens to be on hand. And in order to make the family dinner fit in with the busy and totally irregular schedules of my family, it also has to be able to be set aside for an hour or two once it’s done. That’s why my fall and winter staple is soup. If my twenty free minutes are in the morning, I use the crock pot; if they’re later on, I use the stovetop. But then comes the issue of variety. If you’re using seasonal vegetables, availability will dictate change for you from early to late fall and from late fall to winter, but what about within a single week? If we’re having soup two or three nights a week, especially if those nights happen to be in a row, I want to avoid the “Agai-a-ain”? look (I recognize it, even if everyone over three is much too polite to say it out loud).

On kids and soup: I have a rather particular three-year-old eater. He seems quite adventurous about taste, but texture, color, and consumption style can be sticking points. So I am (mostly) thankful to my friend Liz who introduced Lucca to the Chinese art of soup-slurping. This works best with one of those large Chinese soup spoons, and with creamed soups or a bowl of mostly broth.

On freezing soup: The minestrone soup freezes wonderfully. The spinach and potato leek soups also can be frozen, but it’s best to freeze them before adding the dairy (cream and cheese, respectively). If you do freeze the spinach or potato leek soup after it’s fully made, you’ll want to reheat it quite slowly as the dairy can easily make it boil over or burn.

EARLY FALL MINESTRONE

Prep time: 20 min Cook time: 30 min-8 hrs. Serves: 4-6

Bottom-of-the-barrel vegetables are wonderful in this soup: tomatoes that are starting to get mushy, corn, carrots, and green beans that have been in the fridge for a week already. Of course, the whole point of this soup is that it works without any two or three of the veggies or the chicken. But in early fall, all of these are abundant at farmers’ markets and in back yards. The two early fall veggies I don’t usually put in are potatoes because I want to distinguish this from the potato leek soup, and summer squash because it can overcook.

Ingredients
4-6 cups chicken broth (See recipe below)
2 cups shredded or cubed chicken, ideally from leftovers (leftover chicken can be shredded or cubed and then frozen just for this)
2-3 carrots, chopped
1-2 celery ribs, chopped
Kernels cut from 1-3 ears of corn
1-2 cups chopped greens (chard, kale, bok choy, spinach…)
1-2 cups chopped green beans
2-4 tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole (remove before serving)

Crock pot method: toss all ingredients into the crock pot, cook on high 4-5 hours or low 6-8 hours.

Stovetop method: toss all ingredients into a large pot, bring to a boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes. Can continue to cook on very low heat for much longer.

CREAM OF SPINACH SOUP
Prep time: 15 minutes Cook time: 20 minutes Serves: 2 (double, triple, etc. as needed)

I’ve been making this for years with packaged frozen spinach, but this whole experiment is about trying what’s out there now, and figuring out how to freeze it myself for later. In the Fall fresh spinach returns to the farmers’ markets. It turns out there’s a catch: fresh spinach in farmers’ markets come on stems, very fibrous stems. Good for your digestion, but not so good for a smooth cream soup. I didn’t realize this until after I had tossed the spinach and chicken broth into the blender. Thus the strainer method. It also works to cut off all of the stems and use them for chicken or vegetable stock. Then you’d have to strain the stock, but you wouldn’t have to strain the spinach soup.

Ingredients
4 cups chicken broth (see recipe below)
2 bunches fresh spinach, roughly chopped
4 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup cream (or ½&½ or milk)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

  • Be sure to wash the spinach well, but don’t worry about drying it.
  • Bring the chicken broth just to a boil, then add the chopped spinach. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
  • Pour into a blender, in batches if necessary. Remember that when you turn the blender on, the liquid will suddenly bounce upwards. Be sure not to overfill the blender. I always hold the lid down gently with a folded kitchen towel.
  • In a different pot, melt the butter, then whisk in the flour and stir for 1-2 minutes.
  • Pour the blended spinach and broth through a strainer into the butter and flour mixture. Do this in small batches, stirring well in between. Use a wooden spoon to press all of the juice out of the spinach-stem-fiber ball that will form in the strainer.
  • Simmer, stirring, for about 5 minutes.
  • Add the lemon juice, cream, salt and pepper and stir.
  • Serve immediately or let cool and reheat.

POTATO LEEK SOUP

Preparation time: 15 mintues Cook time: 30 minutes Serves: 4

Potato leek soup might be similar in consistency to cream of spinach, but not this way. Any variety of potato works, each varying the flavor slightly. But because of the labor involved in peeling them, fingerling or baby potatoes are not recommended. Most leek recipes call for the white part only. The green part adds a wonderful, umm, green flavor. At a certain point, though, the green part turns quite tough: that’s where you should stop. The other thing about the green part is that it sometimes has sand in it. Always wash leeks carefully. One of the benefits of farmers’ market leeks, though, is that they are often grown in dirt and are easier to clean.
A few years ago, my friend Diane gave me an immersion blender. You can submerge it right into your soup, right on the stove. Not only does it eliminate the extra step, and the extra dishes, involved in using a regular blender, it also allows you to monitor more carefully the creamy to lumpy ratio. If you don’t have one of these magic tools, a standing blender can work but a ricer (aka a potato masher) requires only a little elbow grease and has the same benefits as the immersion blender.

Ingredients
Olive oil
4 large or 8 small leeks, sliced
4-6 cups chicken broth
4 large or 6 medium potatoes, sliced
1 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
Salt and pepper

Preparation
Heat the olive oil, then sauté the leeks until they just start to turn brown, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken broth and potatoes. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes (as long as you keep the heat very low, you can extend that for up to about an hour).
Turn off the heat, and blend or rice until about 2/3 of the potatoes are smoothed out. The idea is to create a thick and chunky soup. If you want your soup thinner, add milk; if you want it thicker, cook it, uncovered, for another 10 minutes.
Add the grated cheese, salt, and pepper.
Serve immediately or cool and reheat.

CHICKEN BROTH
Any time you cook chicken with bones, make broth! A list of ingredients might make it sound like you need something in particular to make a good chicken broth. Besides chicken bones, you don’t. Throw the unused chicken bones or carcass into a pot—a crock pot works perfectly as does a pot on the stove. Add as many of the following as you have on hand: onion, celery, carrots, veggie tops or bottoms (carrot tops, with stems, spinach stems, etc.). You’re going to strain the broth at the end, so you really can put in all sorts of pieces of veggies that you really wouldn’t quite want to eat. But those parts often have excellent nutrients and great flavor. Do be sure to wash whatever you throw in, as dirt and sand will get through the strainer and make your broth uncomfortably gritty. Season with any of the following: garlic, bay leaf, oregano, thyme. Add more salt than you think you’ll need, and pepper ground or whole. Simmer, low, for at least an hour. Cool and strain. Keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week, and in the freezer 3-6 months.