Soup has always been one of the most important parts of the meal, being the first course served, and right off the bat it must be perfect to make the occasion memorable, setting the mood of the meal in the right direction. Auguste Escoffier was once quoted as saying, “Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.”
The basic foundation is having good stock or broth, which is the soul of the soup. Stock comes from leftover bones or vegetables mixed with water and reduced for a period of time until you get a rich flavor. The foam that floats up while boiling is removed with a strainer, ensuring purity. Broth comes from simmering inexpensive meat or vegetables over a low flame. This takes patience and preparation, and good broth can take hours to make. If time is of the essence, I encourage my students to use the readymade cubes or stock in cans which often produce excellent results without too much hassle. In these fast-paced times and with the high cost of electricity and LPG, practicality is a consideration.
There are many types of soups served in restaurants. These include bisque, a French soup that is puréed in a blender or food processor to boost the taste and produce a thick, creamy soup. Chowder is derived from the French word chaudiere for the iron cookware used to make this chunky, hearty soup that is mixed with shellfish and vegetables. The most popular is New England chowder, which is milk-based and thickened with flour and butter or what the French call roux. The other version is Manhattan chowder, exactly the same except it is tomato-based. Consommé is French for “clear broth,” the by-product of all that reduction and clarified with eggshells then strained to become crystal clear. Another popular dish is gumbo. Introduced by French settlers in the southern portion of the United States it is the most notable Cajun dish. A mixture of various meats, vegetables and thickened by a combination of roux, okra and file (ground sassafras leaves), this spicy dish is a favorite all over the world.
Stocks and broth can be stored in the freezer for up to a month and reheated when ready to use. All soups except those that contain eggs, yogurt or cream can be kept in the freezer for weeks or refrigerated for three days. The dairy products mentioned above tend to curdle when reheated.
One of my favorite soups is minestrone, the well-loved soup from Genoa, a northern region in Italy that is also famous for inventing pesto. A vegetable soup that uses meat broth, pasta or rice or potato is added to make it thick. The term minestra in Italian means soup, or the first course of the meal. Hearty and extremely delicious, it is sometimes a meal in itself with pesto sprinkled on top to make it complete. Minestrone is often the first recipe that Italian mothers teach their children to cook at home because it teaches them to chop properly, it is easy to prepare and cook, and is a rich source of nutrients.