Seasonal Pantry: Soup season just around corner
Soup season is closing in faster than most of us anticipated. There is always a bit of surprise as one season exits and another unfurls, but this year has been different from the beginning and looks like it will fade away in the same spirit.
A speeded-up harvest — and nearly every local farmer I’ve spoken with this year confirms that crops began ripening several weeks earlier than normal — doesn’t lead to an extended season. Plants exhaust themselves and begin to sink back into the ground earlier than during a normal or later season. Tomatoes, for example, have had the texture of the end of the season for weeks now. Chiles, too, have the taste of mid fall. Basil seems almost too pungent at this point, and local watermelons can be a bit pithy.
It is time to take a look at our pantries, including our freezers, where it is such a relief to find several bags or jars of homemade stock. If you have just a few staples on hand, you can make delicious soups from scratch, quickly. You can also buy freshly made stocks at several local farmers markets, the best option if you absolutely can’t make your own.
Homemade stock is the best love you can give a soup. If you can take a day or two to make a big batch, or a few different batches, you’ll thank yourself all the way to next year’s harvest. You’ll find all of my stock recipes, including those made in a slow cooker, at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, but one of the most versatile, Strong Stock, is included here.
There are other items you can keep in your freezer that will make your soup life easier. Next time you saute an onion, for example, prepare three or four times more than you need. After using what is necessary, freeze what remains in small containers. Do the same with mixed aromatics — garlic, shallots, onions, leeks — and with sauteed carrots, mushrooms and celery, items that, once cooked, freeze well.
With these items and homemade stock on hand, you’re good to go, even if you get home from work later than usual. You can have a delicious homemade soup ready to go in an hour or under.
It is also helpful to have good potatoes on hand, as they make an excellent base for nearly every kind of vegetable soup. Many soup recipes call for cream and, although I have no objection to using cream, I tend to use it in very few soups, as I find it can eclipse the flavors of other ingredients. For richness, I almost always prefer potatoes.
Finally, make sure your spices are from this century. It is well past time to discard those twentieth century tins and jars you use once a year. If you find spices often pile up in your pantry, consider buying smaller quantities. There are excellent local sources now, including Savory Spice, Local Spicery and Sonoma Spice Company. For the best flavor, avoid the national brands, which tend to focus more on consistency of flavor rather than on quality of flavor.
You need salt and pepper, too, of course. A flake salt, such as Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt and Maldon Salt Flakes, is best as a default salt. For pepper, use whole black peppercorns, not ground pepper, as much of the flavor dissipated into the atmosphere soon after it was ground.