“The soup is to a meal as the doorway is to a monument or building" -- Escoffier
The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery by Escoffier was first published in 1903. Often touted as the first official cookbook, it lays out the fundamentals of classic French technique that are still taught in culinary schools all over the world. Escoffier’s first chapter is on sauces, which makes sense for the complex and intricate sauces that distinguish French cuisine. However, his second chapter “Soups” makes for a bit more substantial fare.
There are two main types of soups: clear soups and thick soups. Clear soups include broth-based soups and consommé. To your consommé (or flavorful stock) you can add cooked vegetables, noodles, potatoes, rice, etc. Clear soups include everything from Chicken Noodle to Minestrone to Vegetable Bouillon. Thick soups include purees, bisques, veloutes, and all sorts of “cream of” blended soup. Contrary to what might you might think implicit, “Cream of X” soup doesn’t not necessarily refer to using dairy cream. For a chef “creaming” is a technique, to get smooth, velvety texture. We “cream” mashed potatoes, parsnip puree, and even baby carrots. The thickening agent in these soups historically depended on what was available -- in many parts of the world, mushy rice was more available than cow’s milk. So pureed soups could be thickened with rice, potatoes, root vegetables (like pumpkin and fall squash), lentils, or old bread. In fact, adding dairy cream can water down and cool off a soup – two things that chefs must account for to avoid watery, cold soup.
In the hundred years since Escoffier wrote these guidelines, our ingredient selection has exploded with diversity. Not only can you thicken a soup with rice, I can thicken it with bamboo rice, purple sticky rice, ginger red rice, or black wild rice – depending on the color and flavors you want. This diversity presents endless possibilities for experimentation. A well-seasoned “Cream of X” soup will help you savor an ingredient in its most heightened form, with developed, concentrated flavor. Pureed soups are also a great way to use up an abundance of produce. End-of-the-summer creamed soups might feature the garden’s last harvest of zucchini and asparagus. Heading into winter, it’s a great time for some squash bisque to stock the freezer.
I like to think of creating a good soup like creating a huge scene in an epic action film. Imagine you are the director, trying to coordinate all of the technicalities of the scene: the starring characters, the support roles, the extras and background scenery. While you could try the improvisational method of just throwing everything together into a blender and hitting “puree”, this might a lackluster scene or a cloudy telling of the story. Rather, layer each component to heighten the experience to create an aesthetically balanced creation. Just follow these steps for your best pureed soup recipes:
1) Choose your “star”: This is the “X” in your “Cream of X”. This is the vegetable that will create the bulk flavor of your soup. You want this vegetable to truly be the “star” and always be the dominating character in the soup. Sometimes it might be the ingredient that’s on sale at the grocery or just what you’re craving to taste.
Take into account the color and starchiness of this vegetable. With something like a sweet potato, you’ve already got a great base for a thick, creamy soup so you’ll likely need more liquid when cooking. Something like carrots are a bit more watery so you’ll want to use less liquid. Both of these have gorgeous orange color that you’ll want to preserve so you’ll want to avoid browning any of the aromatics while making your soup.
2) Add in the supporting roles…and make them sweat: These supporting roles are your aromatics. Just like humans, when aromatics sweat, they get stinky. Unlike humans, we like stinky aromatics.
Aromatics add flavor. They help tell the story of the lead character, by highlighting some of the nuances of flavor. Just as Han Solo’s wisdom is needed to balance Luke Skywalker’s youthful naiveté, aromatics help enrich the final scene. They can include:
Vegetables: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, fennel, ginger, mushrooms
Spices: black pepper, cumin, cardamom, coriander, and curry powder
Dried herbs: marjoram, tarragon, oregano, basil, dill, bay leaf, and thyme
Dried chilies and chili powder: chili powder, smoked paprika, cayenne, chipotle powder, guajillo peppers, Thai bird chilis, ancho peppers, annatto
Chef’s Tip: When sweating the aromatics, you usually want to avoid getting any brown color as this will give your final puree a brownish tinge. Three things will help you with this: Keep the heat just at medium, keep the lid on the pot while the aromatics sweat, and add a dash of salt to help draw out some of the moisture.
Remember color: Always take into account the color of the leading star and the final soup. When making a Cream of Cauliflower, for example, swap out orange carrots and green celery for white parsnips and white celery root.
3) Fill in the scenery…with water: Once the star and the supporting character are in line, time to pour in the scenery, literally by pouring in the liquid. Often, I find clear, natural water to be my preferred liquid for pureed soups. Essentially, you are making a vegetable broth (which you will puree into the soup) so it is unnecessary to add vegetable broth (unless you just have some laying around). I find many of the canned and boxed vegetable broths to have off-putting flavors and colors, plus they are often really high in sodium. There should be enough flavor with the aromatics and star ingredient to get a delicious final soup*. Let this simmer away for a while to give you a good sense of the picture. It can take 50-60 minutes for some hard root vegetables to soften and just 10-12 minutes for tender zucchini.
4) Blend it up and evaluate: Once everything in the pot is soft enough to puree, it’s time to blend. Remove anything you might not want in the final scene – like bay leaves, rosemary stems, and the full habanero peppers – and puree your soup. I love using a quick-and-easy Immersion Blender so I don’t have to transfer hot liquids, but you can also use a stand blender.
5) Add in some “extras”: These are your garnishes. They are totally optional, depending on the budget and scope of the scene soup you are creating. No matter your assortment of extras, they should never detract from the star ingredient. In fact, they should highlight his role. Have a batch of pumpkin soup? Pumpkin seeds make sense. Asparagus Tarragon Soup? How about asparagus tips or fresh tarragon? Beet Borscht calls for fresh dill, while Indian curries and Mexican bean soups both can be topped with fresh cilantro.
If it’s a Wednesday night, and your epic film is dwindling more into an independent production, you can cut the extras altogether. I like to keep a few seeds and nuts on hand, but you can also make a quick, crunch topper by toasting up some bread or corn tortillas and cutting them into croutons or tortilla strips.
Adapting Escoffier’s ratios for a modern vegan chef’s use, here are some handy thickening measurements to remember:
Star Ingredient: 1 pound, 2 oz OR 4-6 cups
1 pound of carrots comes out to about 4 cups of peeled and sliced carrots. Something like zucchini is about 6 cups.
Supporting Roles: No more than ¼
4 cups of carrots? Limit yourself to just 1 cup of onion, celery, ginger, fennel, etc.
For the dried spices and herbs, choose 1 to be your feature flavor and just do 1 tsp. of that. You can add nuances with just 1/4-1/2 tsp. of other dried spices, etc.
Water Fill-in: Start small, 2-4 cups
I tend to start on a smaller side. It is easy to add water to thin out a soup. It takes much longer to steam out water when the soup is too watery.
Extras: 2-4 tablespoons is plenty.
Salt: ½ teaspoon usually works. For a batch of soup that feeds 6, this gives you a little under 200mg sodium/serving (1150 mg in total/6 servings)
Thickening and Nutrition: Thickening agents also double-up as nutrition in the plant-based kitchen. Not only do these help make creamier soup, they can also help you sneak in extra protein, fiber, and key nutrients like iron, B vitamins, and folate:
½ cup cooked rice
1 cup mashed potatoes (any variety)
2 ½ -3 cups cooked beans or lentils (about 1 cup raw)
In summary: 6 cups Star + 1.5 cups Supporting + 3 cups water + 2-4 tbsp. garnish + 1/2 tsp. salt
Or for algebra fans, when the Star ingredient is x: 1x (star) + 1/4x (supporting) + 1/2x (water) + 1/24x (garnish) + 288x (salt) = Infinite Flavor
Uses: Not Just Soup!
Creamy Soups are not just for soup! Even as Escoffier mentions, they can also work as sauces, salad dressings, or the base for stew. PB African Curry soup is great over microwaved red potatoes or as a base for stir-fry. I love adding frozen spinach and peas to my Smoky Split Pea Soup for a chunky stew. Spiced Carrot Fennel Soup is one of my favorite secret salad dressings. So always make a big batch and freeze extras in smaller portions for some quick weeknight reinventions.
Ready to get cooking? Here are some inspirations to get you started:
Quoting Escoffier himself “Soup should be served boiling hot in plates which are as hot as possible”
Chef’s tip: Preheat your serving bowls in a warm oven or a warm spot in the kitchen so that soup stays warm as long as it can
* For other creamy soup ideas for Spring, check out this excellent post at Epicurious: Modern Spring Soups
*For a more testing of vegetable broths, check out the results from America’s Test Kitchen. They tested 10 brands and they had such disappointing results that they could only recommend one vegetable broth.