February 24, 2009

soup night: a weekly hit

I never used to buy bacon regularly. For the most part, the deli drawer in our refrigerator had a big, bacon-less void in it. But ever since the lentil-bacon soup success, the thick slices of salty pork have been a mainstay on the grocery list.

And soup night, this time around, has stuck. I've stopped worrying so much about exactly what kind of soup to make, and have instead been relying mainly on my own intuition. So far, my intuition has done pretty well. And what's made these weekly soup adventures all the better is the homemade chicken stock that's stockpiled in our freezer. I must say that making my own stock has opened up the culinary world to me. The flavor of homemade stock is unmistakable; not to mention the boatloads of money I'm saving by making my own organic stock rather than chunking down $2 or $4 for a quart of the store-bought stuff. Of course, there's also the healthy upside of missing out on all the preservatives and excess sodium... What's not to like?

But I digress... I'll tell you more about stock very soon. The real story here is that I want you to understand how simple it is to make delicious soup every week, on the cheap, on the whim, and just on time for dinner.

I've taken many cues from my beloved Bittman and various cooking blogs, but my "recipe" is not so much a recipe as a method. Without further ado, my soup method. (W.I.P.)

The first step is to create a base for your soup. Lately, my base has been bacon. I like to crisp about 4 slices, roughly chopped into 1-inch pieces, in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Turn the heat on before you toss the bacon in the pot; throw one small piece in there and when it sizzles, add the rest. If you're not using bacon, create a base with cooking oil or butter.

Once the bacon is almost crispy, add about half of a chopped onion, and 2-3 cloves crushed garlic. Don't add any liquid yet unless the bacon is browning too much on the pan; if you need to deglaze, add just 1/8 cup of your stock. Deglaze if desired, let the liquid evaporate, and continue sauteing the onion and garlic--about 5 minutes total. The trick is to keep the bacon crisp; this will add to the overall texture (and flavor) of your soup. (The last time I made soup, Ryan had to "soupervise" to make sure I didn't undercook the bacon.)Once the bacon is crispy, and the onions and garlic are translucent, it's time to deglaze. This time, add about 1/4 cup of stock and scrape all the delicious little bits off the bottom of the pot. Once most of that liquid has evaporated, just about 1-2 minutes later, dump in your other vegetables. We really enjoy carrots, celery, and potatoes. Generally I use three carrots, three stalks of celery, and two small potatoes (peeled or not, whatever you like). Be sure to save your scraps to make stock. Dump the cut veggies into the pot, and add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to give a boost of flavor. Cook just about 5-7 minutes, until the potatoes gain a little color. Once you're happy with the texture of your veggies, and can smell all the flavors meshing together and complimenting one another, it's time to add the stock.

I generally use 4 cups or more per pot of soup, but once we eat two bowls from the pot, there's hardly any stock leftover. So maybe 6 cups is a better approximation. It's really up to you, though... how soupy do you like your soup? 

Once you add the stock, you can also add lentils (these take about 40 minutes to cook), brown rice (takes 20 minutes to cook), or pasta (about 10 minutes to cook). You want your soup to simmer for about 40 minutes, so add your legumes or grains accordingly.

For this pot, since I used plenty of potatoes, I didn't want to add any other type of starch. Instead, I dumped in a can of chopped tomatoes with green chiles (not drained), and added a few dashes of tabasco sauce and white wine vinegar for a kick. I'll admit, this was 100% improvisation; the last time I used tomatoes the soup did not fly over so well.

But this was different. The kick with the green chiles and tabasco sauce made the soup almost like a vegetable gumbo... A healthy sprinkle of salt and pepper, and this pot was ready to go. That's why it's important to take chances and get creative with soup night: because when you try something risky, chances are it will turn out delicious.

I made two-ingredient biscuits to go with our soup, and they were fantastic (and easy). Instead of buttermilk, though, I used dried buttermilk and water. Next time I think I'll go with just regular milk, but these biscuits were fluffy and slightly sweet and even better heated up the next morning and topped with butter and jelly. What's so satisfying is that they're quick to make and easy to gobble up right out of the oven. If you don't have self-rising flour, just add 1 1/4 tsp of baking powder per cup of all-purpose flour. Good luck! Feel free to share your soup successes and tips, too. I hope from here I'm able to branch out into egg-drop soups, or even curries. But I'm not ready just yet. 


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