Lentil ham soup in white bowl

The Healing Properties of Soup

How many times have you had a cold, and someone offered to make you chicken soup? While it may not be approved as a cure by the FDA, I’m pretty sure that soup has healing properties. This week I’m battling a cold, and while I didn’t make chicken soup, I did make two different and very satisfying soups that I’d like to share.

One of my goals this month was to make a really good French onion soup. I’ve had some at restaurants that was really good, and others that were very disappointing. Sometimes it’s too salty or greasy; other times there’s too much or too little cheese.

So I went into this project thinking that French onion was really difficult to make. I found a recipe for Rich and Simple French Onion Soup on AllRecipes.com that I wanted to try, as it seemed fairly straightforward. Some recipes online recommended red onions, but this recipe didn’t specify which kind to use. I like the sweetness of yellow onions the best, so that’s what I chose.

Sliced yellow onions

For a change, I actually had all of the correct ingredients, though I don’t usually have sherry around (which is optional). My boyfriend picked up a small bottle of dry Marsala instead, which was recommended by a sales associate at the liquor store. Once the onions had sufficiently cooked down, I thought the taste of the beef broth seasoned with thyme, plus a little salt and pepper, was absolutely delicious.

We have perfect bowls for French onion soup, and they were just the right size for two side-by-side slices of French bread, and absolutely the right size for the round sliced provolone from the grocery store.

French onion soup in white bowls

First the bread goes atop the broth, then slices of provolone and Swiss, then grated fresh Parmesan

I’m a little scared of my broiler and don’t use it often. After moving the top rack close to the broiler, I set the broiler to low. When I put the cookie tray with the bowls of soup in the oven, it only took about three minutes before it was done (I’m not a fan of overly browned cheese).

Finished meal with french onion soup, salad, wine

I served it with a little fresh tomato and mushroom salad and red wine

The results were very satisfying. Both the taste and the aroma were wonderful. The onions had cooked long enough to be very tender and sweet, and the combination of the three cheeses (provolone, Swiss, freshly grated Parmesan) was soooo good, and just stretchy enough to be enjoyable. The cheese provided the perfect counterpoint to the rich – but not salty! – broth. I just couldn’t get enough of it. Fortunately, we got another three servings out of this batch. The hot, steaming onion broth was so good to smell, and it really eased my sore throat and congestion!

The second soup I tried was one that I could make easily in my crock pot. I had red lentils left over from last week’s Indian Mulligatawny Soup, so I found a recipe using lentils and ham that would cook on low for several hours, also on AllRecipes.com. In fact, the recipe said 11 hours on low, which seemed like an awkwardly long time (I’d have to start cooking pretty early in the morning if I wanted to dine by around 6:00). Many reviewers commented that the cooking time was too long, so I took heart in that, and also prepared to switch it to high if the lentils weren’t cooking enough by the late afternoon.

One other reviewer had commented that her husband didn’t think it had enough flavor, so I kept that in mind as I prepared the first ingredients — carrots, onions, celery, lentils and diced cooked ham. I used a little extra onion and one more clove of garlic, and I also added a bit more basil and oregano than the recipe called for, plus two bay leaves instead of one.

Onions, carrots, celery in a crock pot

I did cook the soup on low in my crock pot for the first five hours, but as the lentils still seemed pretty hard and I didn’t want to wait till much past 7:00 to eat, I turned it to high for the last 2-2 1/2 hours. There was still some texture to some of the vegetables and lentils, but I prefer that to a really mushy bite. The overall flavor was good, though we did add a bit more salt and pepper.

Crock pot

The finished product definitely had the nourishing, hearty quality that you want in a soup, with plenty of good broth. I wouldn’t have minded a little bit more ham, however. I’m glad I still have enough left for the next couple of days, which will hopefully hasten my cold to its end!

Lentil ham soup in white bowl

While my soup blogging adventures are over for now, I will continue to make soup, especially as the colder winter days loom ahead of us here in the Northland.

Stay tuned as I turn my hand to something a bit craftier in December . . .


Bowl of soup with bread

Stone Soup

When I was little we had a record called “Danny Kaye Tells 6 Stories from Faraway Places.” On it he read the tale of “Nail Broth,” otherwise known as Stone Soup. While the story has many versions from all over Europe, this is how I remember it:

A traveler arrives in a village suffering from hard times. They slam their doors, not offering him hospitality. Even when he begs for a crust of bread to eat, they won’t share anything with him.

So he takes a stone (or nail) out of his pocket, telling a passing villager that he has plans to make an incredible magic recipe from it, and all he needs is a large pot and water. The villager is curious and provides what the traveler needs, so he can heat up the water. With some fanfare he plops the stone into the pot.

This attracts the villagers’ attention. They peer at him from behind their shutters or venture out to watch. He declares that, after all, the absolute best Stone Soup becomes even more scrumptious with a bit of salt and pepper. An intrigued villager runs to get salt and pepper, which he uses with aplomb. Then he muses aloud that a little bit of carrot and onion also takes this magnificent soup to the next level. Two other townsfolk begrudgingly share a little of what they have in their pantries.

More people gather to watch this magical soup cook. When he makes a show of stirring the pot, he suggests that a bit of beef actually adds just the right touch to perfect this wondrous soup. Naturally, someone spares a little beef. And so on with potatoes, etc., as you can imagine.

And voila! He makes such great soup (with only a stone! Amazing!) that the villagers are really impressed, and they all share in the wonderful concoction.

I always thought the villagers were really stupid and gullible, and I didn’t understand why they were fooled by this con man who just wanted their food. When I shared the tale with friends, my friend David said it was a great story about community, showing what people can accomplish when they work together.

I must admit, I like the less cynical interpretation!

And it brings me to how much I am enjoying adding a bit of this and that to my soups this week!

A recipe for Indian Mulligatawny Soup from thewanderlustkitchen.com caught my eye. I like lentils, and I thought the Indian flavors sounded great. Mulligatawny is actually a British version of an Indian soup. Mulligatawny recipes I saw online varied a great deal, sometimes including potatoes, sometimes chicken for protein.

The protein in this recipe comes from red lentils, which are not actually red but more pink:

Uncooked red lentils in cup

It’s a vegetarian recipe, and can be vegan if you use olive or canola oil instead of butter, and vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.

As usual, I didn’t have all the right ingredients, but I didn’t want to go to the store. (You are probably wondering why I hate shopping so much!) I used fresh cup-up tomatoes instead of canned tomatoes. I didn’t have ginger root, so I used powdered ginger. I only had one apple, but it was pretty big, and I skipped the jalapeno because I’m a spice wimp. The apple added a nice hint of sweetness.

Overall, the seasonings were rich and varied. Apart from the cooked onion, garlic and ginger, you add curry powder, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, turmeric, ground black pepper, dried thyme and salt to taste. The recipe also asks for cardamom, but I didn’t have any so I used nutmeg instead.  The coconut milk added at the end provided a pleasing richness, making me wish I’d added more.

The results were outstanding. The house smelled so good while it was cooking (and for hours afterward), and the soup was very flavorful without being overly spicy.

Indian Mulligatawny soup in pot

The recipe called for some of the soup to be pureed using an immersion blender or scooping some into a blender (“immersion blender” is now on my holiday wish list) and then pouring back into the soup pot. That way, some chunks of the vegetables and apple were left, which made for a nice texture. I did not have cashews or scallions for garnish so just served it plain. I did really wish I had some naan to eat with it, instead of ordinary wheat bread. I ate it up so fast I almost forgot to take a picture of it in the cup. It was nice and hearty for a cold night!

Indian mulligatawny in cup

It was so good there were no leftovers.

The other soup I made this week was a way of using a lot of the things I had already bought but had no specific plans for. One item was acorn squash.

Whole acorn squashcut up acorn squash

I also had sweet Italian turkey sausage in the freezer, and potatoes. So I searched online for “soup recipes using acorn squash, sausage, and potatoes” (it’s amazing that you can do this — and find a recipe for whatever you’ve got!). I found this Sausage, Potato, and Squash Soup recipe on thenourishinggourmet.com.

One thing I’m learning as I cook more frequently is to do what chefs call (in French, naturally) “mise en place” first. Meaning “set in place,” the idea is to prep and cut up all your ingredients before you begin to cook, so everything’s ready to go.

One advantage of course is that it forces you to read through the recipe carefully. The other is that your vegetables are cut and peeled so that when you suddenly have to add them to a pan in the middle of cooking on your stove top, you don’t risk something burning while you cut up something else!

cut-up garlic, acorn squash, Italian sausage, potatoes and onions

My “mise en place:” Cut-up garlic, acorn squash, Italian sausage, potatoes and onions

I’ve found that it’s much easier to cut up sausage when it’s nearly frozen. Sometimes I freeze it a bit before cutting, or in this case I cut it up before it was fully thawed. I also realize that I have no knife skills, and crap knives as well, so most things don’t end up being cut into very even or regular sizes. Something to work towards!

While I didn’t have any carrots or celery, I did have leftover button mushrooms and cut-up tomatoes, so I added those instead, towards the end of the cooking time. I’d read somewhere that mushrooms have better flavor and texture if you saute them first, so I sauteed them with the sausage before adding to the soup.

Mushrooms sauteed with Italian sausage

The primary seasoning besides the onion, garlic, salt and pepper in this soup is cumin, which I am really getting to like. The recipe uses two teaspoons, and it really makes for a delicious flavor.

Mushrooms and tomato added to soup

The mushrooms tend to float to the top

I served the finished soup with a little fresh parsley on top. It was even more flavorful when I heated some up for lunch two days later.

I’m excited to try more soup recipes this month — let me know if you have any favorite recipes! Maybe one day I’ll start with a stone and a pot of water, and ask friends to bring things to add . . .


Soup’s On!

While I will continue taking belly dance classes as I blogged about in October, this month I’m back in the kitchen, making soup from scratch for the first time!

I do not consider myself a “soup person.” I’ve always associated soup with being sick (chicken noodle, of course), or being cheap or lazy (canned soup, packaged ramen). The only soup my mother cooked from scratch was split pea with ham, which I sometimes liked and sometimes hated. Soup for me is only desired in winter months, when I might get a sudden craving for tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, or matzoh ball soup from a favorite deli. And I recall having a serious, weird yearning for French onion soup when I was pregnant (why?). But the upshot is, I rarely think of soup as a proper food, preferring things I can eat with a fork.

My foray into soup-making started by accident a few weeks back, when I was looking for recipes to use up ingredients I had in the pantry, including a partial bag of lentils. This vegan recipe for Indian Sweet Potato and Lentil Soup from allrecipes.com is really good, though I made a few adjustments. The day I decided to make it I only had one sweet potato left, and no spinach, so rather than run to the store for those items, I cut up a couple of tomatillos and a tomato I had in the fridge, and added those to the one sweet potato I had. The results were very satisfying! It definitely had those recognizable Indian flavors from the turmeric and garam masala, but not too hot for me (just a bit of red pepper flakes, which you could increase if you like more heat).

I served the soup with Rice Cooker Saffron Rice from justapinch.com, which is unbelievably good, and so easy to make in a rice cooker. The Parmesan cheese tastes incredibly delicious in this rice. I will definitely make it again. The lentil soup and saffron rice also went really well together, causing us to either spoon some soup over the rice or scoop a bit of rice into the soup while eating.

So I decided I would try to learn how to make homemade soup, just in time for Thanksgiving. It turns out that it’s also a great way to add more vegetables into my diet, and a terrific way to use up items I found in the cupboard or the refrigerator!

One of the very few soups that I actually choose if I’m buying cans at the store (again, only in the winter) is beef barley.

Cup of uncooked barley

Since I had a partial bag of barley left in the cupboard, I decided to start there, and I found this recipe for Rich and Hearty Beef Barley Soup on seriouseats.com. I liked the sound of it, and the ingredients looked manageable.

As seems to be the case almost every time I decide to cook something, I forgot to get a couple of ingredients at the store, and I just don’t want to go to the store if I don’t have to. Lacking celery, I decided to throw in some extra carrots, and also some button mushrooms that I wanted to use up from the fridge. With even the little experience I’ve had cooking, I’m no longer fearful of trying substitutions or adding other ingredients when the fancy strikes me.

Soup with added mushrooms, onions

I also ignored the part about the herb sachet, which seemed like a lot of trouble, plus I didn’t have any cheesecloth. So I just threw in the bay leaf and couple of sprigs of fresh thyme (seriously thinking about growing herbs indoors at this point), which I knew would mostly float to the top so I could fetch them out again later, as required in the recipe. I skipped the peppercorns that were supposed to go in the herb sachet, since I didn’t imagine crunching down on an errant peppercorn would be a lot of fun. I did put in some extra fresh ground pepper to make up for it. I also only had two quarts of the required three quarts of chicken stock, so I made some chicken broth using cubed bouillon (I love having bouillon cubes on hand, since stock and broth doesn’t last as long in the fridge).

The soup took a lot longer to cook than I thought. While I didn’t need much more than an hour for the cooking of the beef and stock before the beef became pretty tender, it took more than the allotted half hour in the recipe to soften up the vegetables and fully cook the barley. In fact, it took twice as long for that stage. So be sure you have plenty of time to check your own ingredients and how well they’re cooked, which I imagine varies according to the type of stove, pot being used, etc. Patience is definitely required when making soup, just as it was when I was baking bread. However, the soup was worth the wait.

Close-up of bowl of Beef Barley Soup Bowl of Beef Barley Soup

The flavors were all really good, and it made the house smell amazing. It turns out that I do like just about anything that includes sauteed yellow onions and/or garlic. I did add the optional fish sauce recommended in the recipe, and a little more salt, as I’d used unsalted stock in the recipe. The beef was really tender and yummy. If anything, I would have liked even more of the beef in the soup.  There was plenty of soup for leftovers, which I know I will enjoy in the coming days.

I’ll be looking for new soup recipes to try, and perhaps some unusual ingredients as well, so I’m open to suggestions. It’s already feeling pretty wintry here in Minnesota, so it’s a good time to be cooking up soup!