Soup, like jazz, is better when you improvise

By Bill Colvard - [email protected]

Soup without a recipe. This time the contents of the pantry, fridge and freezer yielded a vegetable beef soup. Next time, it could go in a totally different direction.

Bill Colvard | The News

The cold weather this past weekend made it clear, if it wasn’t already clear, that soup season is here.

Soup, besides being a superb warmer-upper of the insides, has the benefit of not needing a recipe. Soup can be what you have laying around. And as a Hail Mary for soon-to-be rotten vegetables, soup is without peer.

Dig around in the crisper. Celery not quite salad-worthy? Throw it in the soup. Carrots looking a little worse for wear? Yep, toss them in the soup pot. Check the potato bin for potatoes and grab a few onions while you’re at it. Now, it’s on to the pantry to see what’s lurking about in there. Some canned beans would not go unappreciated, and hopefully, there are a few cans of tomatoes to toss in the pot. Now is the perfect time to use up those dribs and drabs of pasta left over from making recipes requiring less than a whole box.

A look-see in the freezer might yield some frozen hamburger and suddenly what was shaping up to be vegetable soup instantly transforms to vegetable beef. Frozen peas and frozen corn in there? Good. In the pot they go. Now is when you’re glad you went to the trouble to make and freeze that homemade vegetable stock back in the summer. Grab a container of that before you close the freezer door.

That last glass of wine in the bottle that you were planning to sip while you cooked the soup, donate half of it to the soup pot. You’ll be glad you did.

If your larder has different treasures hiding in its depths, your soup will be different, and more likely, more geared to your tastes. If your freezer has frozen lima beans instead of frozen peas, it’s probably because you like lima beans better than peas.

If, instead of hamburger in the freezer, you find some chuck or shoulder that you bought because it was cheap but couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so you froze it to buy yourself some time, and then forgot it was in there, drag it out and defrost it. Now look to see if you have any barley, because what’s not to like about beef barley soup?

No barley in the pantry, but you have rice. Well, chicken and rice soup is good. Why wouldn’t beef and rice soup be just as good? Now’s the time to find out. Soup has no rules.

But there are suggestions. You can fill the soup pot with water after all of your ingredients are in the pot and you’ll probably have a tasty soup. But if you use some more flavorful liquid, like stock or a little wine, your soup is going to taste better. Just remember that purchased stock has a lot of salt in it, even the ones labeled low-sodium. So, if you don’t have homemade stock and use the commercial stuff, go easy on the salt. And if you’re just using water, there’s always bouillon cubes or something like “Better than Bouillon.” You can always adjust the seasoning at the end.

And if you do end up with bland soup, don’t worry. Sometimes, it happens. But that’s what grated Parmesan and hot sauce are for. If you stay flexible in your expectations, you can’t go wrong.

If you’re the kind of cook who is more comfortable with a recipe, here are a few for inspiration. But remember, they’re not blueprints, they’re more like suggestions. Soup is like jazz, it’s better when you improvise.

It’s also better the next day, which means a big pot won’t go to waste.

Tomato Basil Soup

Remember, this is soup. You do not need, or want, pounds and pounds of nasty winter tomatoes. Go for canned. And if you did not have the presence of mind to freeze some pesto back when basil was in season, you can buy a jar and use it wherever you want some basil-y goodness.

1 lb. cherry tomatoes

2 lbs. Roma tomatoes cut in half

1 medium onion, cut into chunks

7 garlic cloves

3 large carrots, cut in half

⅓ cup olive oil

salt and pepper

4 cups vegetables broth (or chicken broth)

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

2-3 tablespoons basil pesto

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375ºF. Place the cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots on one large baking sheet. It’s okay if some of the ingredients are overlapping. Drizzle the olive oil along with a big pinch of salt and pepper and give it a good toss. Place the baking tray in the oven and allow the ingredients to bake for 1 hour. Check on the ingredients every 30 minutes and give it a toss.

Transfer the ingredients along with any juices from the baking tray to a blender and blend the veggies until they are completely smooth. If you’ve got a super powerful blender it will go in one batch and be super quick. If you’ve got a regular blender, you may need to add a little broth to help it along. For super smooth soup, run the puree through a strainer to get rid of any larger pieces.

Transfer the puree into a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add the chicken broth and allow the soup to heat all the way through, about 5-7 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar, red pepper flakes. Add two tablespoons of the pesto and give the soup a taste. If desired, add the third tablespoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cheese toasts.

To make the cheese toasts: On slices of baguette, place sliced provolone cheese, top with a sprinkle of salt, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning. Bake in a 400°F. oven for 4-5 minutes or until the cheese bubbles and starts to brown.

Chicken, Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup

Here’s a nice recipe that’s just screaming for a little improvisation. Nobody has all this stuff on hand, but you know you don’t need it all.

1 tbsp. olive oil

3 medium-sized mushrooms, sliced

2 tbsp. butter

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 stick of celery, sliced

2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/3 cup milk

1 cup basmati and wild rice blend (or long grain and wild rice blend)

½ cup white wine

4 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock (water plus a couple of stock cubes is fine)

1 tsp. dried thyme

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

Juice of half a lemon

1/3 cup heavy cream

½ packed cup shredded gruyere cheese

2 cups leftover cooked, shredded chicken

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large sauce, and fry the mushrooms on a medium heat until browned. Remove from the pan.

Melt the butter in the same pan, and fry the onions and celery for 4-5 minutes until softened. Add the flour to the pan, and stir together using a whisk, until the flour is incorporated with the vegetables and butter. Turn the heat up to high, and pour in the milk in a slow stream, whilst stirring with the whisk, until the milk is completely mixed in.

Add the rice and white wine, and stir. Then add in the stock and dried thyme and stir again. Bring to gentle bubble and simmer for 20 minutes – stirring 2 or 3 times during cooking. Test the rice – it should be cooked at this point (give it a couple more minutes if it needs it).

Add in the salt, pepper, lemon juice, cream, cheese, cooked chicken and the mushrooms. Stir together and test for seasoning. If you prefer your soup a little thinner, you can stir in a splash of milk.

Heat until the chicken is warmed through, then serve topped with fresh parsley.

Rosemary Chicken Noodle Soup

The point of this recipe is to jazz up a basic soup like chicken noodle by adding an aromatic herb. As experienced soup makers, you now know that herb doesn’t have to be rosemary. It could be another one you have on hand or another one that you like better. It could also be dried rather than fresh.

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 small white onion, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 stalks celery, ends trimmed and diced

3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

8 cups (64 ounces) chicken stock

3-4 stalks fresh rosemary (or more/less to taste)

6 ounces wide egg noodles

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

salt and pepper

(optional: chopped fresh parsley for garnish)

Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add carrots and celery and saute for another 3-4 minutes, or until the carrots are softened a bit. Add garlic and saute for an additional 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add chicken stock and stir until combined. Gently stir the rosemary into the soup, then continue cooking until the soup reaches a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer for an additional 5 minutes until the broth has your desired level of rosemary flavor. (You can add in more rosemary if needed.)

Once the broth is ready, remove the rosemary, and stir in the egg noodles and chicken. Continue cooking for 8-10 minutes or until the egg noodles are al dente. (The longer they cook, the more broth they will soak up. Feel free to add more chicken stock if desired.) Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve warm, garnished with extra black pepper and fresh parsley if desired.

Soup without a recipe. This time the contents of the pantry, fridge and freezer yielded a vegetable beef soup. Next time, it could go in a totally different direction. without a recipe. This time the contents of the pantry, fridge and freezer yielded a vegetable beef soup. Next time, it could go in a totally different direction. Bill Colvard | The News

By Bill Colvard

[email protected]

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

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