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Seasonal Pantry: Soup season just around corner

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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.

Strong stock, also known as superior stock, is an all-purpose stock used in Chinese homes and restaurants. It is a good all-purpose stock. If you cook a lot of Asian dishes, use the ginger. If you prefer Mediterranean, Mexican or other cuisines, omit the ginger for a more neutral stock. You’ll notice there is no garlic in this recipe and that is because I prefer adding it at the time I make a soup.

Strong Stock

Makes 12 to 14 cups

3 pounds pork ribs, preferably local

3 pounds pork shoulder, preferably local, cut into chunks

3 pounds pastured chicken, preferably thighs

¼ cup kosher salt, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons mild olive oil

1 yellow or white onion, thinly sliced

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced

1 medium carrot, diced

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

3 ounces ginger root, crushed, optional

1 or 2 ham hocks

2 teaspoons black peppercorns

Put the pork, chicken and ¼ cup kosher salt in a large pot, add water to cover, and set aside for 30 to 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive in a wok or saute pan set over medium heat. Add the onion, shallots and leek and saute, stirring frequently, until limp, about 7 minutes. Set aside.

Drain the pork and chicken, rinse the pot and return the pork and chicken to the pot. Add the cooked vegetables, vinegar, ginger root, if using, and ham hocks. Add water to cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Skim off foam that forms on top and reduce the heat to low. Simmer very slowly for 8 to 10 hours, until the stock is rich and flavorful, adding more water as necessary to keep the ingredients submerged.

Cool slightly and strain through a colander set over a large container. Strain a second time through a fine sieve or several layers of cheesecloth. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Remove and discard the congealed fat on top of the stock.

Use within 3 days or freeze in 2-cup portions for up to 12 months.

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Potato soup is excellent on its own but also makes a great template for other, more complex soups, such as those listed as variations at the end of this recipe.

Basic Potato Soup

Serves 6 to 8

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, minced

1 small carrot, peeled and minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

3 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced

2 to 3 cups chicken stock

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

Heat the olive oil in a large pot set over medium heat. Add the onions and carrots, lower the heat, and sauté until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Stir now and then to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté two minutes more. Season with salt and pepper. Add the potatoes to the pot, stir, add the chicken stock and enough water to completely cover the potatoes by about an inch.

Increase the heat, bring the liquid to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are completely tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve simply, or use to make one of the following variations.

For a smooth rather than chunky soup, puree with an immersion blender.

Variations

With greens: Sauté a mix of sliced or chopped spinach, sorrel, kale, chard and Italian parsley in a little olive oil until the greens are wilted. Add 3 or 4 garlic cloves, put through a press. Stir, season with salt and pepper and, if you like, a bit of grated nutmeg. Add to the potato soup, cook for 2 or 3 minutes, taste, correct for salt and pepper and serve. Or puree with an immersion blender and then serve.

With tomatoes: Sauté 2 or 3 serrranos and 3 garlic cloves in a little olive oil, season with salt, add 2 cups tomato concasse (peeled, seeded and drained tomatoes) or 2 14-ounce cans of diced tomatoes. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes and puree with an immersion blender. Taste, correct for salt and stir in ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro. Puree with an immersion blender and serve with lime wedges alongside.

With broccoli: Steam one head of trimmed and chopped garlic over a little boiling water until it is just tender, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, add to the potato soup along with a very generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, cook 2 or 3 minutes and puree with an immersion blender. Taste, correct for salt and pepper and serve.

With sweet potatoes: Replace 1½ pounds of the potatoes with sweet potatoes and continue as instructed in the main directions. Add plenty of freshly grated nutmeg and puree before serving the soup.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 17 books, including 'Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings.' You’ll find her blog, 'Eat This Now,' at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. Email her at michele@saladdresser.com.

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