Expert chef Chris Kimball, the founder of Cooks' Illustrated, will answer your questions.
About The Author
T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
Fall was whipping around the stone corners of the high-rise when my boyfriend, who had a cold, flew in for a visit. I had just moved to the city, and among the things I did not know were: how to save enough for rent, how to survive a long-distance relationship and how to cook. But Andrew's sniffling appearance at the doorstep of my sublet awoke in me a primal caretaker's urge. Within the hour, I was attempting — in the most unschooled and haphazard fashion — to make my first curative soup.
It was a lentil soup with vegetables, very rough and plain. I'm sure I didn't let the lentils simmer long enough to really soften, and the chicken broth was canned. The bread was from the store (it would be years before I'd learn to bake). Still, it smelled divine. As I brought the steaming bowl to the invalid, I felt a warm rush of pride and affection. This, I later realized, was inspired more by the soup than the invalid.
The next fall and those following, I got a little better at making lentil soup. I learned to add a ham bone, if I had one, and to give the lentils the time they needed to relent and yield up their earthy goodness. I learned to hold off on adding the carrots until the end, so they'd retain a little firmness. I made it for the next boyfriend, and the next. But mostly I made it for myself, especially if I had the sniffles.
Lentil soup was my first fall soup, but certainly not my last. A year or so later, I learned my Russian-American brother-in-law's recipe for wild mushroom soup, afloat with potato chunks and barley, and festooned with dill and sour cream. Every October, I'd debate whether I ought to splurge on the dried porcini needed to make the soup. The answer was always a cash-strapped "no," but I inevitably did it anyway. Eventually, I even learned to bake the challah that went so well with it. For years, lentil soup and mushroom soup were the twin, invariable staples of my autumn soup repertoire.
Then came the white bean and escarole soup in Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Cucina del Sole (Morrow 2007), the one I came to think of as "$5 soup." It was a classic cucina povera ("cooking of the poor") soup — a bunch of escarole, a handful of dried beans, a few cherry tomatoes. Bitter escarole has a secret, irresistible sweetness that shyly emerges after a low simmer. Nothing's better for restoring confidence in your household economy than eating $5 soup, particularly when it tastes so good.
The newest arrival on the soup scene for me has been squash soup. Although I love squash, the rest of my household is an informal anti-orange-vegetable lobbying organization, which routinely puts the kibosh on the kabocha (a Japanese winter squash). So I was shocked when my 7-year-old son declared Jamie Oliver's squash soup to be his "second favorite," after chicken soup. Was it the fried sage leaves or the Parmesan croutons that sealed the deal? I don't know. But hey, when the kid reaches across the aisle, you don't question his motives.
What is it that makes us feel such nostalgia for the fruits of a harvest few of us actually experience? It isn't as though most of us gathered the mushrooms ourselves, or grew the squash or picked the lentils. Maybe something inside us recognizes the ancient symbolism hidden in fall's produce. To sum up very roughly:
• Mushrooms: prosperity (Asia)
• Lentils and beans: coins, wealth (Europe, South America)
• Greens: paper money (American South, China)
• Squash: abundance (Europe), health (Asia)
I don't know about you, but I'm detecting a theme here: When we're feeling thin, weak, poor or sick, fall soups are there to build up the treasury of our strength, strengthen the currency of our resolve and shore up the markets of our spirit.
On the other hand, it turned out that no amount of soup could restore my sputtering relationship with the unlucky Andrew. I was a faithless and feckless 20, and I ditched him about a week later.
But the feeling that had been kindled when I served him the soup was real. For the first time, with my own hands, I had made something meant to comfort and heal. It embodied the compassion I longed to feel. In the years that followed, I would discover that soup is good for large and small disasters, from failures of empathy to global financial crises. It's almost impossible to feel impoverished or hopeless when you have a warm bellyful of soup.
If you're blessed to have someone you love, soup gives you a way to show it. If you're not, soup is the love you give yourself. So this fall, as the cost of fuel rises and the mercury drops, when the world seems full of dry leaves and cold shoulders, hold out your bowl for fall's abundance. For a moment, you can taste what it means to be truly rich, one soupy sip at a time.
Sasha was my first introduction to that fanatical species, the mushroom hunter. As a child, he hunted for porcini (Boletus edulis) with his family, while vacationing in Lithuania. I went hunting with him a few times on Cape Cod, but never could find a single bolete, despite the bagfuls he inevitably snagged. I'm convinced it's the basil that makes this soup so good. I never would have thought to add it if he hadn't specifically told me to.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Handful dried porcini
1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh mushrooms of any sort, chopped, quartered or sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh basil leaves
Pinch of sugar
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch dice
1 or 2 medium carrots, sliced 1/4- inch to 1/2-inch thick
6 to 8 cups chicken stock or water
5 to 6 tablespoons oats or barley
Fresh dill, chopped
In a medium saucepan, add the dried porcini to about a quart of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes and strain over a bowl, reserving the mushroom liquid. Chop the strained and soaked porcini and add them to the other chopped, fresh mushrooms. Set aside.
In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, saute the onion over low to medium heat until just starting to color. Then add the mushrooms and increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are reduced by half. Tear the basil leaves and add to the mushrooms with a pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. If using barley, add it now.
Add the porcini liquid to the pot, followed by the chicken stock or water, and the potatoes and carrots. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the potatoes and carrots are tender. If using oats, add them 15 minutes before the end.
Serve hot, with dill and sour cream on the side.
For a thicker consistency, use 2 tablespoons more oil when sauteing the onions and mushrooms. Then sift 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour over the mushrooms and stir rapidly as you cook them down. Proceed with the rest of the recipe as written.
This recipe is from Cucina del Sole by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Morrow 2007). Any white bean will do — navy, great northern, canellini. I think the canellini tend to be the most tender, while the navy beans hold their shape nicely.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup dried white beans, soaked for 6 hours or overnight
1 large bunch escarole (about 1 pound)
1 or 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 crisp green celery stalk, coarsely chopped
5 or 6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive, plus oil for serving
12 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 dried red chili (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toasted slices of bread (sliced ciabatta or other rustic, open-crumb bread is particularly nice), for serving
Drain the beans, put them in a saucepan and add fresh water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover and cook 40 to 60 minutes, or until beans are tender. Drain the beans, reserving the bean liquid. Measure the bean liquid and add enough water to make 2 1/2 cups.
Rinse and core the escarole. Chop the leaves into pieces about 1 inch long. Add them to the saucepan in which you cooked the beans, cover the pan and cook the escarole over gentle heat in the water clinging to its leaves until it is tender. Be careful not to let it scorch, adding a little boiling water to the pan if it starts to burn. When it is tender, set it aside with any liquid remaining in the pan.
Chop together the garlic, celery and parsley to make about 1/2 cup finely minced aromatics. In a small skillet, cook the aromatics gently in the olive oil for about 10 minutes or until they give off fragrance but are not brown. Stir in the halved tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes have shriveled somewhat and have given off a lot of juice.
Add the vegetable mixture to the escarole in the saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Break up the chili and add it, then stir in the beans, plus the bean juice and water. Bring to a simmer and season with sea salt and pepper. Let all the ingredients simmer together very gently while you toast the bread.
To serve, place a toasted bread slice in the bottom of each soup plate, then spoon the hot soup over. Serve with additional olive oil and grated pecorino or caciocavallo cheese.
Superb Squash Soup With The Best Parmesan Croutons
This recipe is from Jamie At Home by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion 2008). Oliver recommends butternut squash, but I bet you could use acorn, delicata or the velvety kabocha with equally fine effects. Even a sugar pumpkin would work, as long as you're careful to puree thoroughly, not leaving any strings or fibers behind.
Makes 8 servings
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
16 fresh sage leaves
2 red onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, trimmed and chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked
1/2 to 1 fresh red chili, to taste, deseeded
Salt and pepper
4 1/4 pounds butternut squash, halved, deseeded and cut into chunks
2 quarts chicken stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
16 slices ciabatta bread
Parmesan cheese, for grating
In a very large saucepan over medium heat, pour in 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil and fry the sage leaves for about 30 seconds, or until dark green and crisp. Quickly remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl lined with paper towels — you'll use them at the end.
In the pan, you'll be left with a beautifully flavored oil; put it back on the heat and throw in the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, rosemary leaves, chili and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Cook gently for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are sweet and soft. Add the squash and the stock to the pan, bring to a boil and simmer for about a half-hour.
When the squash is soft and cooked through, whiz the soup with an immersion blender or pour it into a standard blender and pulse until you have a smooth purée (or leave it slightly chunky if you like). Most importantly, remember to taste and season until it's perfect.
For the croutons, drizzle a little olive oil over the ciabatta slices, pat it in and press some grated Parmesan onto each side. Place in a nonstick pan without any oil, and fry until golden on both sides.
This is hearty, filling soup. If you like a thicker soup, you can puree a quarter or a third of the finished soup and return it to the pot for 5 minutes of simmering. If you decide to use the ham (and it's a fine addition if you do), get good-quality Virginia ham and be sure to have it cut at least 1/4 inch thick — fine shreds of ham don't hold up in flavor the way thick chunks do.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 meaty ham bone (optional)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 pound green lentils (they're brownish green)
1/4 cup tomato paste or 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes (fire-roasted tomatoes are particularly good if you can get them)
4 cups chicken stock
4 to 6 cups water
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 thick slice of Virginia ham (1/4 inch to 1/2 inch), finely diced (optional)
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions, celery and ham bone (if using) with a bit of salt. Cook over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent, about 8 minutes.
Add the rosemary, lentils, tomato paste or chopped tomatoes and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until well-combined and aromatic.
Add chicken stock and 2 or 3 cups of water (enough so the soup can boil freely around the lentils). Simmer the soup, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, adding water as necessary. Finally, add the carrots and simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the carrots are just tender and the lentils are falling apart. Add the diced ham, if using, and taste for seasoning. Serve.
If you're using the diced ham, you may wish to caramelize it to boost its flavor before adding. To do so, coat a skillet (large enough to accommodate the ham without crowding) with a thin layer of olive oil, and place it over high heat. When very hot, add the ham and saute briefly until browned on all sides.