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Winter Is for Soup

  • Carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup is ready to eat after being warmed on the woodstove. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup is ready to eat after being warmed on the woodstove. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ingredients for a carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup are gathered in the kitchen. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Ingredients for a carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup are gathered in the kitchen. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup is ready to eat after being warmed on the woodstove. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Ingredients for a carrot, sweet potato and ginger soup are gathered in the kitchen. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

If you have vegetables and chicken or vegetable stock on hand, you can have a meal on the table in 45 minutes or less. A filling soup can be made from, to rattle off a brief list, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cauliflower, turnips, broccoli, mushrooms, leeks and celeriac, alone or in combination.

When I’m stuck for an easy meal at dinner, I rely on one basic recipe, which calls for browning onions and the vegetable of choice with spices and some garlic, then adding stock. These recipes are based on a recipe for soup I read some time ago in the USA Today Sunday magazine, and I’ve freely adapted that recipe for my own uses over the years.

What makes this recipe work so well is that any number of vegetables can be combined with happy results. I use one vegetable as the base (carrots, for example) and then add another vegetable as a secondary accent (one parsnip or one sweet potato, perhaps). To those I might add a spice like fresh, grated ginger or cinnamon, or a dash of both. The trick is to add enough spice to flavor the vegetables but not so much that you overwhelm the taste. But don’t be afraid to experiment with seasoning either; making soup is a little like writing music, orchestrating top notes, low notes and unexpected notes into a harmonious whole.

I’ve also learned that the best way to deepen the soup’s flavor is to brown the vegetables, spices, salt and pepper together for five minutes, almost as you would fry the spices if you were making Indian food. I used to throw the vegetables together in a pot, add the stock and cook. No more.

You’ll have a better-tasting soup if you make it in stages, first sauteing an onion, then the base vegetable, then the second vegetable, then adding the spices, then the garlic and then the stock. It sounds laborious but this process takes, at most, 10 minutes and yields large dividends in flavor.

Remember: when you make soup, taste it all the way through the cooking to see whether you need to adjust the seasonings. And be careful to add seasonings one at a time rather than dumping them all in at once. After you add a seasoning, taste the soup, decide whether it’s good as it is or whether you want to add another spice. Once the vegetables are cooked, I puree the soup in a blender, although you could also use an immersion blender or a food processor.

Last but not least, these are economical meals to make, because root vegetables, winter squash and tubers, such as carrots, potatoes, yams, parsnips, celeriac or acorn squash, which are abundant this time of year, are relatively inexpensive to buy. And although soups aren’t always thought of as pretty, in most cases vegetable soups are attractive to look at, particularly when you garnish them with chopped herbs, nuts or seeds.

Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup With Ginger

1 tablespoon olive oil, or other cooking oil

1 tablespoon butter (optional, but butter does help in browning and adding flavor)

1 medium or large onion, peeled and chopped, medium chunks

3 or 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped into three or four chunks

1 sweet potato or yam, peeled and chopped into medium chunks

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger or 1 teaspoon dried, ground ginger

1 teaspoon salt

ground pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thick

1 teaspoon sugar

6-8 cups chicken or vegetable stock. Use more stock if you want more soup.

Add oil and butter to a stock pot and melt butter over low heat. Turn up to medium heat and add onion. Saute until the onion begins to soften. Now add the carrots, sweet potato, ginger, salt and pepper. Let them brown for five to seven minutes, making sure that they don’t burn. Next add the garlic and one teaspoon of sugar, which helps to caramelize the vegetables. Stir so that the garlic and sugar are well distributed, and continue to brown another two minutes or so.

What you should have before you add the stock is a rich, caramelized base of vegetables, as if they’d been roasted. Now add the stock, turn up the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil.

When it’s reached the boiling point, turn the heat back down to low or medium, cover the pot and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender all the way through. Turn off the heat. If you have time, let the liquid cool for a few minutes before blending. Puree in a blender and return to the soup pot. If the liquid seems too thin, reduce it by turning the heat to medium-high for five to 10 minutes. You want a soup neither too thin nor too thick. At this point the soup is ready but if you wish, you can add some cream or milk for sheen and richness.

Here are some variations on the basic recipe:

Celeriac and Parsnip Soup With Fennel Seeds

I love celeriac; the bumpy root vegetable is delicious roasted or mashed. You need to peel off the rough skin before using celeriac in cooking. Then chop into chunks. This is a soup that has a nicely nutty flavor, and its taste is enhanced if you add some cream after it has been pureed.

1/2 large celeriac or 1 medium celeriac

1 parsnip, peeled and cut into chunks

1 medium onion, cut into chunks

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon salt

fresh ground pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thick

1 teaspoon sugar

6-8 cups vegetable or chicken stock

Follow the basic recipe above as far as the process of cooking goes, browning the vegetables, adding the garlic and then the sugar to deepen browning. Add the stock and cook until tender. Puree. Garnish with chopped parsley or celery leaves, or roasted, chopped walnuts.

Butternut Squash and Rosemary Soup

The savory taste of rosemary complements any winter squash or root vegetable.

1 small or medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks

1 onion, peeled and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, optional

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary, fresh or dried

1 teaspoon salt

fresh ground pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thick

1 teaspoon sugar

6-8 cups vegetable or chicken stock

Follow the basic recipe above as far as the process of cooking goes, browning the vegetables, adding the garlic and then the sugar to deepen browning. Add the stock and cook until tender. Puree. This soup also benefits from adding some cream or milk to it.

Cauliflower Soup With Ginger and Cardamom

I’m a cauliflower lover although I know some people detest it, which probably has something to do with the culinary crimes committed in its name. Cauliflower is a vegetable transformed by roasting or browning, as opposed to boiling or even steaming, which makes it too watery, in my view.

I made up this soup the other day and it was even better than I’d hoped, although the post-Thanksgiving turkey stock I had on hand contributed enormously.

1 large head cauliflower, separated into florets

1 medium onion, peeled and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon dried ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dried ground cardamom

1 teaspoon salt

fresh ground pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thick

1 teaspoon sugar

6-8 cups vegetable or chicken stock

Follow the basic recipe above as far as the process of cooking goes, browning the vegetables, adding the garlic and then the sugar to deepen browning. Add the stock and cook until tender. Puree. This soup also benefits from adding some cream or milk to it.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.