The air is crisp, fog sits on the lake every morning, leaves are turning to vibrant colors, sweaters come out of hiding, the sun burns off the fog but still leaves a chill in the air, and cooks are busy combining a variety of ingredients for the soup of the day. This is my favorite season on the year. Working in professional kitchens becomes a bit more tolerable since the humidity has dropped and temperatures are manageable and menus have transitioned from lighter preparations of grilling and chilling to most cooks favorite preparations of braises and roasts. Most important is the soup.
Soup is a real test of a professional cooks skills. Yes, many restaurants have standardized recipes, but the “soup du jour” provides an opportunity for cooks to demonstrate their ability to work from a blank slate and build on their palate.
Michael Minor of Minor Foods once told me that when he enters a restaurant for the first time he always orders the soup of the day before he even looks at the menu. If the soup is good then he knows that the kitchen has skill. If the soup is a disappointment, he pays the bill and moves on. It is soup, after all, that provides the opportunity to demonstrate knife skills, understanding of ingredients and how they marry, how well tuned a cooks taste buds are, and an understanding of stocks and broth. These are the foundations of every proper kitchen.
There are very few foods that are more satisfying than flavorful, interesting, hot soups on those crisp fall days. We all have our own soup memories, but few who grew up in America would deny the nostalgia surrounding the greatest comfort meal: Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese. This constitutes one of the first “a ha” food memories that most of us have. We did, after all, grow up as part of the Campbell’s generation. What was unfortunate was the creation of a generation that was less inclined to cook and enjoy the opportunity to test basic skills in the kitchen. Today, that has begun to change as more and more people are finding the process of preparing soup an integral part of life at home.
Soup, through history, was at first a basic source of sustenance. A food product that came from broth and bread and helped the poor survive. Today, the symbolism is not lost on the unfortunate who find it difficult to provide a meal and lean on soup kitchens for foundational nutrition. To others of varying socio-economic groups, soup is a reflection of ethnicity and interest in a cultural food experience. Most regions of the world have their benchmark soup that defines their cuisine: French Onion, Italian Minestrone, Chinese Won Ton, Gazpacho in Spain, Gumbo in New Orleans, Chowder in New England and Borscht in Russia to name a few.
Soup has even become part of our entertainment culture. Even the show Seinfeld is likely most remembered for the “Soup Nazi” who held customers captive with his antagonistic rule: “you-no soup, one year!”
One of my favorite soups is a version of Tuscan Bean and Kale. This recipe takes a little time, but provides tremendous flavor memory and if you have the freezer space, can be a backup dinner when your schedules become too complicated to cook every night.
SORGULE’S TUSCAN BEAN SOUP
Dried Navy Beans 2 cups
Water 2 quarts
Salt 1 tsp.
Onions 1 large (medium dice)
Carrots 2 large (medium dice)
Celery 4 stalks (medium dice)
Garlic 6 cloves (sliced)
Ham 8 oz. (medium dice)
Tomatoes (plum) 5 each (remove seeds- julienne)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chicken Stock 3 quarts
Kale 4 cups (chopped)
Italian Parsley 1/2 cup (coarse chop)
Soak the beans in water and salt overnight.
Strain the beans and combine all ingredients except kale, tomatoes, parsley and salt and pepper.
Simmer until the beans are tender (about 60 minutes).
Add the kale and tomatoes and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
Adjust the seasoning and add the parsley.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese and your favorite hard crusted bread.
This makes enough for 6-8 servings.