Winter Comfort: Soups & Stews
Photography: Timothy Thimmes
All over the world, soup speaks to our basic yearnings for warmth and comfort. The very act of leaning over a steaming hot soup or a hearty stew, breathing in the aromas, dipping a big spoon into the bowl and sipping from it can transport us back to the simple life, to uncomplicated dining, where all we crave is a slice of good bread to complete the most down-to-earth and satisfying of meals.
The origins of soup hark back to ancient times, soon after man figured out how to boil water. Historians say that the word soup came from “sop,” as it referred to broth poured over a piece of bread in a bowl, with the bread “sopping” up broth. From Japanese miso and Chinese egg drop to grandma’s chicken soup or Mexican menudo, almost every culture boasts a soup that restores and strengthens. “Restoratifs,” or easily digested soups, such as broth, bouillon or consommé, were among the first dishes served in restaurants in 18th-century Paris. In fact, the word restaurant derives from “restaurer,” the French word meaning “to restore.”
While all of this is intriguing to know — baby, it’s cold outside! So we’ll talk about soups and stews for now — this very season — when you’re in the mood to make your own, or to sample some of what Park City’s chefs are ladling up.
Dedicated cooks, with the patience to make stock from scratch — be it vegetable, fish, chicken or beef — we bow down to you. Your family and friends probably salivate at the thought of your lobster bisque and beat a path to your door on a regular basis. But homemade soups don’t always have to be complicated, as 350 Main chef Michael Le Clerc’s recipe for winter vegetable and white bean soup shows (see recipe, below). It makes two gallons of hearty soup, so you can serve it as a main course for a dinner party, complete with a flourish of easy-to-make sun dried tomato pesto, and still have plenty to stash in the freezer. Serve with slices of olive-oil-brushed, toasted baguette and your favorite green salad. A nice red Burgundy would complete the picture.
As long as you’re making soup, make a lot. Double the recipe if it’s not already a generous amount. That way, you can freeze the extra for later. Plus, soups usually taste better after they’ve mellowed for a day or two. Flavors meld, magic happens, and all you have to do is warm it up.
Soup recipes are generally made to be improvised. You don’t have to follow the directions exactly. If you don’t have great fresh tomatoes, substitute canned. If you have extra vegetables, chop and toss them in if you think they’ll taste good. Use vegetable broth instead of chicken or beef broth if you prefer.
Brown meats and vegetables before adding to your soup base for a richer flavor. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to the fat (oil or butter), let it sizzle and caramelize and then stir your vegetables and meat in for sautéing. Add fresh herbs at the end of cooking. If you don’t have fresh, dried are fine. Dress your soup up with a dollop of sour cream, crème fraîche or pesto on top.
Full-flavored beers, wines or sherries add a nice character to some soups and stews. Think dark beer in your chili and a splash of Madeira in a butternut squash soup. If it sounds good to you, it will probably taste good, too. Start with a small amount and sample as you go.
Pasta can get mushy if cooked or left in the broth for too long. Good cooks recommend small, compact shapes made with 100 percent semolina flour. Orzo, radiatori or rotini are all preferable to noodles … although, when it comes to chicken noodle, nothing beats those big, thick noodles.
Treat yourself to some fun new soup bowls — some shallow and delicate for rich bisques, some thick and deep for stews and hearty soups.
Soup on the Menu: Local Favorites
Though by no means a complete sampling, here are some tempting local favorites —soups to warm up winter chills with style.
Chef Michael Le Clerc’s Thai coconut lobster bisque is reason enough to pay a visit to 350 Main to savor every spoonful of that brilliant concoction. Or, if it’s on the menu, give Le Clerc’s roasted corn and forest mushroom ragout a whirl. Chef Jerry Garcia of Chez Betty says his creamy potato and horseradish soup with crispy leeks, smoky bacon and chive oil is a favorite, with the silkiness of puréed new red potatoes, slight zing of horseradish and the savory flavor of bacon. He also serves a totally delightful tomato-basil soup with cracked black pepper, topped with a miniature grilled cheese sandwich. Garcia says it’s one of his favorites to make, and his guests always love it. You can always count on the Stew Pot for a bowl of satisfying beef stew or jambalaya or one of lots of other daily fresh offerings. At Cisero’s, the fresh minestrone is always a winner. If it’s high-end soup you seek, try the classic French onion or the purée of mushroom and truffle at Chenez, preferably with a glass of chic champagne. And don’t let the season go by without indulging in a bowl of green chili pork stew with buttered tortillas at the Purple Sage. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds. After a day of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing around the Heber Valley, stop in at the Blue Boar Inn for one of Chris Sheehan’s special soups, such as wild mushroom and fresh tarragon or his creamy, brandy-spiked butternut squash soup with red pepper purée. Over at Simon’s at The Homestead, Chef Eric May serves a satisfying, homestyle fish, leek and potato chowder on occasion. Other local signature favorites: The turkey chili at Deer Valley, Arturo’s tortilla soup at Chimayo and Adolph’s rich Swiss onion.