Monday, March 06, 2006

Simple vegetable soup by Christine

In honor of Alex Chen's venture into the uncertain waters of preparing only non-meat dishes for the next 40 days, I will post my personal favorite recipe for vegetable soup. But on top of that, if you're in the mood for something "light" and wholesome, or perhaps it is a cold day and you're feeling a bit under the weather, then this recipe is for you.

I know vegetable soup sounds rather unexciting; do thoughts of a lame, murky minestrone or a bowl of watery broth with bits of lame, diced vegetables come to mind? Throw those thoughts away because vegetable soup is something that can be quite phenomenal. Here's how:

First off, be sure to buy fresh vegetables. They will contain the most flavor. Don't use the limp stalks of celery that have aged in your fridge or the withered bouquet of parsley that you hope to use someday. Go to the store at once and buy them new and alive.

You can use any variety of vegetables, depending on what you fancy. I am quite partial to asparagus, red onion and green beans, so I like to put them in my soup. Leeks (they look like giant scallions) are also known to be an amazing source of flavor. If you're a corn person, or an okra aficionado, then use them.

What will truly make your soup golden however, is the garlic. Mince it fine and be careful not to burn it when cooking it in the butter. The tomatoes will color your soup into a nice, vibrant red and the carrots will sweeten it a bit and take away any extra acidity in your soup.

Another key ingredient is an element of starch, be it rice, beans or potatos. These will add life to your soup, acting as a thickener. Chop or dice according to how you like the "bite" of your veggies. I recommend however, you chop them fairly small. For a basic soup, you will need:

Celery, chopped
Fresh tomatoes, chopped
Diced potatoes (or half a can of black-eyed peas)
Carrots, diced
Half an onion, cut in small bites
1 boullion cube, chicken or vegetable flavor
2-3 tablespoons tomato puree or sauce
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon EVOO
Garlic, finely chopped
Italian or "flat-leaf" parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

In a deep saucepan, melt the butter and heat the oil. Add the garlic and let its magic mingle with the melted grease. Add the vegetables and toss. If using potatoes, cook them first for about 4 minutes before adding the rest of the vegetables, as they take longer to cook. At once, sprinkle about two teaspoons of salt and add the pepper. Adding the salt at this point is important, as it will extract the water -- the flavor, essentially -- from the vegetables. Saute for about 8-10 minutes longer. You should see the vegetables begin to swim in a shallow pool of their own juices. When this happens, add water into the saucepan. Add as much as you like, according to the amount of vegetables you've chopped. I like to use about four bowls of water to make four bowls of soup. The color of the broth should be pale and the flavor not impressive. But don't worry, there's more to do.

Turn the heat up high and allow the soup to boil. Add the chopped parsley and tomato puree. When the soup begins to boil, add the bouillion cube until fully dissolved.

It is important to cook the soup for as long as 20 to 30 minutes depending on how small you cut your vegetables. Be careful not to boil it for too long or else your beautiful vegetables will fall apart. Taste the soup as it cooks. If you think it lacks "depth," all it needs is more simmering. Allow the vegetables to marry inside the pot. Cooking in medium-low heat is what will bring forth the flavors and keep tasting. Refrain from using that awesome spice rack in your kitchen. Adding a bunch of this and a bunch of that will not help you soup, it will only hurt it. Let the beauty of the vegetables show off in this recipe. So stick to salt and pepper. No oregano and thyme and rosemary.

When you're satisfied with the seasoning and flavor of the soup and vegetables are tender, it is ready to serve. Add a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley. You can even say "bam" while doing this, but you don't have to. It will still be good. As a note, this soup will taste even better the next day.

You can jazz-up this recipe up any way you want to. Add slices of avocado on top to give it more richness, or add shitake mushrooms for a more sophisticated flair. I've seen Mario Batali make a heartier version with chunks of eggplant, leading it as a stew. The L.A. Times suggests roasting the vegetables in the oven before making a broth out of them to give it a smoky flavor. These are all ideas you can experiement with to suit your own tastes.

And that is the beauty of vegetable soup. You can be versatile with it. There are no rules! So have faith in'll be amazed.


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