Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ladles of Comfort

Winter is underway, which means that the temperatures are dropping to the tune of 'How Low Can You Go?' and snow is falling and winds gusts are calling.  It is that time of year once again, a time for hibernating within the warmth of home theaters and cozy media rooms, and for dining on heavier and heartier fare without guilt because the extra pounds can be concealed under bulky sweaters for the duration.

Nothing warms better than the aroma of a homemade soup simmering on the stove.  While a basic creamy asparagus soup or potato soup really only holds up as a first course, the heartiest soups can stand up as a meal.   A meal's balanced requisite protein, vegetable and carb sources are all offered in that one pot of winter goodness.

All soups begin with a stock as the liquid source.  If spending a Sunday afternoon at home with the family, consider making an extra large pot of stock for use in future soups.  The stock can be divided and frozen for easy retrieval when the cravings for soup abound.  A stock is simply water with added vegetables such as celery, garlic cloves, onions and carrots, seasonings such as sprigs of fresh herbs, whole peppercorns and sea salt, and a protein such as a turkey carcass, chicken wings or shrimp shells.  If you don't happen to have homemade stock available, a good quality stock from the supermarket can work just fine in a pinch.  Read the labels and be sure to choose one that lists only the same basic natural ingredients that you would use at home.  I like Kitchen Basics, but there are a few others.  When using store-bought stock, add salt sparingly to your soup recipe.

Once you have your stock, plan the remaining ingredients.  Stick to a theme or ethnicity and select ingredients accordingly.  Plan for vegetables, meat and carbs in the soup.  Carbs can be pasta, rice, potatoes, corn or beans.  Some vegetables need to simmer longer, such as carrots, while others, such as spinach or escarole, can be stirred in at the last minute until wilted.  Many soups begin by sautéing onions, garlic or shallots in olive oil or butter before adding the stock and remaining ingredients.

Whether preparing a soup or chowder, little is needed to accompany this one dish entree.  A simple green salad and an interesting bread, such as garlic toasts or cheesy rolls or Italian bakery bread studded with olives and rosemary are all you need.  Sorry, Atkins worshippers, soup demands bread with dinner like peanut butter demands jelly.

Try the recipes for my Mediterranean Roasted Eggplant Soup and Chicken corn chowder Here are three more recipes to try, starting with a first-course soup.  Once you make them and experience the big rewards from minimal labor, you'll abandon the mass-produced packaged soups in the cans.  So stock up on stock, and with a quick trip through the express lane of your supermarket you'll heat things up on those blustery days ahead.

Pot of Gold Potato Leek Soup

2 leeks, thoroughly rinsed to remove sand, chopped
4 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons butter
4-5 cups chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
4 teaspoon snipped fresh chives
butter for garnish

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a stock pot over medium heat.  Add the leeks and saute for about five minutes.  Stir in the potatoes.  Add 4 cups of the stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender.  Transfer the mixture to a blender container and puree until thick and smooth.  Return the soup to the pot and warm through, gradually adding more stock only if the soup is too thick and seasoning to taste with the salt and pepper.  Ladle into four bowls, top each serving with generous pat of butter and a teaspoon of the chives.  Makes four first-course servings.

Italian Wedding Soup
¾ pound ground beef
1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 large egg
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
½ cup acini pepe pasta
2 small heads escarole, coarsely torn

Combine beef, 1/3 cup of the cheese, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl until thoroughly blended.  Lightly oil your hands with olive oil, then roll the meat mixture, a tablespoon at a time, into small meatballs. 

In a large stockpot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and sauté for a minute.  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a low boil and add meatballs.  Allow to cook for approximately ten minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer.  Add pasta and escarole and simmer for another five minutes until the pasta is cooked and the escarole is wilted.  When serving, sprinkle the top of each serving with additional grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and serve with warmed crusty Italian bread or focaccia on the side.  Makes four main-dish servings.

Five Bean Soup with Ham
1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, sliced crosswise
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
8 cups vegetable broth
½ of 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can black-eyed peas, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can dark kidney beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can light red kidney beans, drained, rinsed
½ of 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound fully cooked ham steak, diced
Freshly cracked black pepper

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, sauté onion for about five minutes.  Add all remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for about one hour.   Makes 6 main-dish servings.

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