Soup: The ultimate winter meal | Food and cooking

Soup: The ultimate winter meal | Food and cooking

Do you remember the children’s story “Stone Soup”?

Based on an old French folktale, it has been passed down in several versions, but the idea is always the same: A lone traveler, or three soldiers or perhaps three monks come to a village, where no one wants to feed them. So they put a stone in a big pot, fill the pot with water and tell the villagers that they are making stone soup.

All it needs is a garnish, they say. One villager adds a couple of carrots. Another contributes a potato. Another has a chicken he can part with, and so on. The travelers remove the stone, and everyone in the village enjoys a big pot of delicious soup.

The moral of the story is that good things happen when you share what you have with others. But that wasn’t what I took away from the story. What I learned from it, as a child, was how to make soup.

Every time I cook it, I can’t help but think about those travelers tricking the greedy villagers.

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As it happens, winter is the best time of the year for making soup. It warms you from the inside out, and nothing makes your house smell better and more homey than a big pot of soup simmering slowly on the stove.

For this story, I dove deep into my files, emerging with recipes I have been making since at least 2002, and one of them probably a few years before that. They are among my favorite soups.

Two are so good because of the magic of double-strength stock. You make regular-strength stock, of course, by simmering bones (or meat) and certain vegetables in water. Double-strength stock is what you get when you take that stock and simmer meat in that. With double-strength stock, you get a soup that is heartier, richer and more velvety.

Chicken Soup

For my first soup using double-strength stock, a chicken soup, I simmered the meat in stock I bought at the store. It would be even better, of course, to simmer it in homemade stock, but that was more effort than even I wanted to make. And the result was just as spectacular, or nearly, as it would have been if I had made the first stock myself.

The recipe comes from J.M. Hirsch, the longtime food editor at Associated Press who is now at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. At the time, 2007, Hirsch was looking for ways to shorten the time it takes to make chicken soup and still yield delicious results.

Using store-bought broth was one of the shortcuts he used, and so were cooking boneless thighs instead of bone-in, dredging the chicken through flour instead of creating a roux, adding potatoes as a way to help thicken the soup, and thickening it further by cooking noodles in the soup instead of a separate pot.

It takes less than an hour to make this dish, and it is amazing.

My own version of beef soup, which I am calling Beef Stone Soup, makes both the regular-strength stock and the double-strength at the same time.

Beef Stone Soup

That is, I put roasted beef bones in a stock pot with water, and I add cut-up chunks of marinated beef and the usual vegetables — carrots, celery, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Both the bones and the meat combine to make an extra-hearty broth, which I fortify with a little reduced red wine and a couple of unexpected spices: cloves and cinnamon.

I love the heady combination of cloves and cinnamon with beef, especially when mixed with tomatoes. I used canned tomatoes with this recipe because it is winter, but also because you don’t need the quick brightness of fresh tomatoes in a soup that simmers for an hour and a half. The light acidic edge that would come from fresh tomatoes is instead replaced by a finishing splash of vinegar.

My original recipe calls for a roux to thicken the soup, but this time I decided to skip the calories and instead use cornstarch. The soup is so blissfully satisfying that no one will ever complain.

The easiest soup to make, Roasted Acorn Squash and Apple Cider Soup, comes from Dale Reitzer, who is one of the top chefs in Richmond, Virginia. When dealing with a great chef, simple is often best.

Roasted Acorn Squash and Apple Cider Soup

All you do is split open a couple of acorn squash and drizzle them with honey and dots of butter. Then you cook them in a roasting pan with equal amounts of vegetable stock and apple cider. Puree it all together (except the squash skins) and you have a wholesome and fresh-tasting soup that cannot be improved.

Except it can. Reitzer mixes together cinnamon and crème fraiche (I used sour cream) and divides it among the bowls. The mild tang of the dairy plays beautifully against the earthy squash and the sharpness of the cider, while the hint of cinnamon makes it just right for the winter.

The last soup is the most elegant of them all: Celery Root Soup with Smoked Turkey. How elegant is it? Let’s just say the dish, which comes from a restaurant at the storied Culinary Institute of America, is actually supposed to be made with smoked pheasant.

Celery Root Soup With Smoked Turkey or Chicken

But I’m out of smoked pheasant at the moment, as one sometimes is, so instead I decided to use smoked turkey. But all my store had was massive amounts of turkey that was surprisingly expensive. So I used smoked chicken legs instead.

If you can’t find smoked chicken, use turkey instead, or even smoked ham. Or, you know, you could always smoke a pheasant.

The elegance really comes from the main ingredient, celery root, which is also known as celeriac. It is an unusually ugly vegetable, even for a root, but it has the most sublime, subtle flavor. It tastes like a mild form of celery, like celery without the sharp astringency.

As good as cream of celery soup is, cream of celery root soup is that much better — and it doesn’t even need all that much cream. The celery root is almost smooth and rich enough by itself, when it is simmered with chicken stock and onions and, OK, a lot of butter.

It is simply magnificent. But it can be made even better with a little smoked chicken. Or turkey. Or pheasant.

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