You know those parlor-game questions – what historic figure would you invite to dinner, what would you want for your last meal, what’s the one food you’d want if you were stranded on a desert island?
I’m usually terrible at those games. But I can answer the last question easily:
If I were stuck with only one kind of food for the rest of my life, I’d want it to be soup.
Maybe that’s cheating – it’s not one ingredient, it’s one kind of dish. But I love soups so much, I would be happy to live on them. I love making them, I love eating them, I love ordering them. Cold bisques in summer, steaming chowders in winter. Fall soups made from hard-shell squashes. Spring soups of the first fresh peas or asparagus.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Just ask chefs.
“I love making soup,” says Bruce Moffett, chef/owner of Barrington’s. “It’s playing, it’s making something out of nothing. Sometimes we go a little off the track. I tried to do an onion soup backwards once. I did a cheese soup with caramelized onions and croutons.”
At Amélie’s French Bakery on North Davidson Street, soups are a big part of Shaun Carter’s job. Everybody thinks of the bakery’s sweets, but there’s a savory program too, run by Carter, that includes sandwiches and plenty of soups.
Soups are all about being creative, he says.
“You start with absolutely nothing and you get to watch it progress. It’s got a lot of instant gratification to it. You get to watch it blossom into this thing.”
Greg Zanitsch, chef/owner of The Fig Tree, has to get creative with soup. He offers a daily soup, and he rarely repeats them.
“Six years of doing soup every day,” he jokes. “For almost four years, I don’t think we had a repeat soup.”
For Zanitsch, good soup starts with good stock. And not just chicken or vegetable. The restaurant does a game dinner every fall, so he’ll often end up with rabbit or lamb stock.
“With soups, you kind of work less recipe and more ingredients-on-hand. So you can make it how you like it. It’s not as exact as other cooking methods.”
This is one time when the difference between chef-cooking and home-cooking is simplicity. Home-style soups tend to be loaded with lots of stuff. Minestrones and mulligatawneys brim with ingredients.
A great restaurant soup is more often about the elegance of elevating one great ingredient.
“When I read recipes, I’m always astounded by the amount of ingredients,” says Moffett. “With vegetable soups, I want someone to taste that and be like, ‘wow – that’s cauliflower,’ or ‘wow, that’s corn.’ I try to keep it at very few ingredients, get the consistency I want, round out the flavors and call it a day.”
Moffett likes soups based on vegetable purees. He learned that working at restaurants in Boston, when he often got the kitchen duty of making the day’s soup. “When I was left on my own to do them, that’s when it clicked in.
“So many soups you taste are a little muddled. They use chicken stock and celery and leeks. For me, I go all the way with the flavor of the main ingredient.”
Shaun Carter has cooked professionally for 12 years, working at restaurants up and down the East Coast. Along the way, he’s learned a lot about soups – which vegetables will work without breaking down into mush, which bases will hold up for several hours without separating.
“The creation of a soup just comes as an idea, a combination you like. You’ll find something you’re enjoying working with, a spice or a vegetable or even just the desire to be unique.” For instance, he likes spaghetti squash but he finds a lot of people haven’t tried it. So he’ll try to do something with that. Or he’ll make a pasta he likes and decide to get the flavors into a soup.
One of Moffett’s favorite soups is his cauliflower topped with scallops. He calls it “sexy soup.” The cauliflower breaks down and gets a silky texture, but it’s not as rich as you might think.
“None of my soups have a ton of cream in them. I’ll do 1 quart (of cream) to four or five gallons (of soup). That’s the equivalent of 2 tablespoons per bowl.”
At Fig Tree, there’s only one thing Zanitsch tries to avoid: Thin soups.
“Our restaurant has stairs,” he says. “Brothy soups like consommés, I get a lot of angry servers.”
Going out for soup?Barrington’s: 7822 Fairview Road, 704-364-5755. www.barringtonsrestaurant.com. Fig Tree: 1601 E. 7th St., 704-332-3322. www.charlottefigtree.com. Amélie’s French Bakery: 2424 N. Davidson St., 704-376-1781 (main location), www.ameliesfrenchbakery.com. Soup on Sunday If you really love soup, don’t miss the annual Soup on Sunday, a fund-raiser for Hospice & Palliative Care, featuring more than 35 chefs. This year’s event is 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Jan. 30 at Central Piedmont Community College. Details: www.hpccr.org.
Amélie’s Farmhouse Butternut Squash Soup Created by Justin Harris of Amélie’s French Bakery. Serves 6.
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil 4 cloves garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon caraway seed 2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped 2 carrots, peeled and chopped 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped 3 sprigs fresh thyme 1 bay leaf Salt and pepper to taste 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar Shaved pecans, optional garnish
Heat the butter or olive oil in a large pot. Cook the garlic and caraway seed about 3 minutes, until garlic is slightly colored. Add the squash, carrot, apple, thyme, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chicken or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, slightly covered. Remove from heat. Remove thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Puree in a blender, working carefully in batches, or puree in the pot with an immersion blender. Return to pot, add the vinegar and heat through. Serve hot, garnished with pecans if desired.
Warm Cauliflower Soup With Roasted Sea Scallops and Truffle Oil From Bruce Moffett, Barrington’s Restaurant. Serves 8.
1 large head of cauliflower, sliced thin 1 potato, peeled and sliced 1/2 yellow onion, peeled and sliced 1 cup white wine 8 cups water 1 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste Hot sauce, such as Tabasco, to taste Freshly squeezed lemon juice 16 Sea scallops, patted dry Truffle oil
Place the cauliflower, onion and potato in a soup pot with the white wine over medium-high heat. Cover and heat until they begin steaming. Add the water and simmer until the vegetables are soft. Remove from heat and add the cream. Working in batches, puree in a blender until smooth. Return to pot and add salt, pepper, Tabasco and lemon juice to taste. Sear the scallops in a hot pan until golden brown on both sides. Place 2 scallops in each bowl of soup and garnish with a generous splash of truffle oil.
Potato, Sautéed Cabbage and Sausage Soup From Greg Zanitsch of The Fig Tree. Serves 6.
4 large Idaho potatoes 1 cup chicken stock 1 sweet Italian sausage ½ small purple or green cabbage 2 bay leaves 2 cups heavy whipping cream 1 lemon, juiced Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Peel and quarter potatoes. Place in a heavy, 4- to 6-quart pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender. Cut the sausage into bite-size slices and cook in a small skillet. Drain grease. Add the shredded cabbage and cook about 10 minutes, until tender. Drain the potatoes and place in a food processor to puree. Return to pot with the chicken stock and reheat. Add the bay leaves, lemon juice and cabbage/sausage mixture, then add the cream to the desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. NOTE: Janitsch likes to beat the cream until whipped and then fold it into the soup just before serving. The sausage and cabbage mixture also is good added to a bean soup.