STRANGE BUT TRUE: Though I’ve been following a vegetarian diet for decades already it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I finally mastered a really good version of vegetable soup. Now I’m gradually extending my repertory, with variations on vegetable-based soups, plus ones with beans and even ideas for mushroom soups, too.
Regular listeners and readers will recognize my friend Alexandra Stafford of Alexandra Cooks dot com, author of the “Bread Toast Crumbs” cookbook, and a mad collector of cookbooks and therefore possessor of recipe ideas galore–including that mushroom soup up top (photo also by Alexandra).
Besides recipes, we talked brining beans; about changing up the texture of a soup to suit your preference, and about that “extra” ingredient that can make all the difference: dill with mushroom, orange rind with black beans, and other such flavor surprises.
Plus: We’re each giving away a copy of our favorite soup cookbook, Anna Thomas’s “Love Soup.” Enter by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page (where it will instruct you to click over to Ali’s and enter a second time).
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 5, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
soups and more soups, with alexandra stafford
Q. O.K., so it’s that time of year again. I can’t believe it. It’s like a year probably since we did our soup fest the last time. [Below: the soups Ali and I showcased a year ago; here’s the link to that roundup if you missed it.]
A. I know—yay, soup season. I’m so excited.
Q. Has the kettle been on at your house?
A. Oh my gosh, yes, yes.
Q. I should say before it gets started that those who use Instagram should not miss you at @AlexandraCooks. And because you do these really kind of epic stories, like of your cooking adventures. I assume some soup ones are going to be coming up soon, but they’re great.
A. Definitely. I love doing the stories, the step-by-step process. I think it’s helpful for people to just see how easy and fast things can come together.
Q. And what I love is sometimes the “soundtrack” of your stories includes a small voice of one of your young people in your family, in the background. [Laughter.]
A. They’re always around sticking their finger in, trying to get in there somehow.
Q. Yes, that’s the best. First, I don’t know about you, but when I make vegetable soup I don’t really buy that packaged vegetable broth, do you?
A. No, no. And more and more I realized … And I have a great vegetable stock recipe that I love, but if I haven’t made it, it’s just water is the best substitute. It works just as well and it doesn’t add an odd flavor. Some of those, but I’ve tried them and they just, to me, they just taste artificial.
Q. Yes. It’s very off almost, like it reminds me of when I was a kid and people had bouillon cubes. It doesn’t exactly taste like what it says on the label, you know what I mean?
A. No, it can ruin … It can almost make it taste worse. It doesn’t enhance the flavor.
Q. No. No, no, no. So save the money, folks.
A. Yes, exactly.
Q. Yes. Do you use ever your liquid from cooking beans or anything else a little less formal than a stock that you officially made? Do you ever reuse anything?
A. I will always, whenever I cook beans, I store the beans in the cooking liquid, and if there’s a lot of liquid say for chickpeas or any bean really, I’ll fill the quart container with the beans and make sure I always save the liquid. Then I’ll use that as part of the liquid when I do the soups. But, if I don’t have a ton of cooking liquid left over, I’ll just use water.
Q. Tell me, what’s been on the stove at your house? Where do we want to begin? I have the basic one, that my friend Irene taught me to make, which is basically your chopped-up vegetables, it’s water; it’s chunky but has a thin broth. Where do you go? What do you want to tell us in the class on enhance vegetable soups? [Laughter.]
A. I have a Pinterest board, and so many books bookmarked, and I found at the end of last year I was just making the same soups over and over again. So I promised myself that when soup season arose this year I would not make the same soups again. The first one I made recently is this cream of celery soup [above, photo by Ali] that my mother had told me about from Joshua McFadden’s “Six Seasons” cookbook-
Q. Which thank you for turning me onto that cookbook. He’s a chef out in Portland, Oregon, yes?
A. He is, and I’ve made so many recipes from the book. It’s funny, cream of celery soup is something that I would have just breezed right by; it just wouldn’t catch my attention. But my mom raved about it, and it was so simple and so delicious.
It’s essentially you melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, slowly cook onion and celery together, you can add water or vegetable stock. I just used water. You puree it, you can keep it chunky if you want, but I pureed it pretty smooth.
Add a little bit of cream at the end, but the best part is you make this little salsa with the hearts of the celery leaves. You plump some raisins or currants, some toasted walnuts, a little bit of celery seed, and you have this little fun garnish to eat with the soup. It doesn’t taste super creamy and, in fact, I used about half the cream that he suggests. And celery—how can celery be exciting? And it is.
Q. Interesting, O.K. So that’s one using the onions and the celery. That’s a different kind of vegetable soup, and I guess it has a slightly thicker body, yes?
A. It is. It’s nice, yes. It’s not super thick. I mean, you can make it as thin or a thick as you’d like. You can add more stock, but it’s a nice consistency.
Q. O.K., so you’ve been making that.
A. I’ve been making that. I’ve been making Melissa Clark seared broccoli soup recipe which she wrote about … I can’t remember if she first posted it … You can use zucchini or you can do broccoli, but it’s from, I think the restaurant was Franny’s in Brooklyn, where the chef seared the broccoli or the zucchini so that it gets caramelized on one side, but the other half is left fresh. When I first read it I thought this is way too fussy. I’m just going to roast it or I’ll going to broil it-
Q. Yes, my head is trying … I’m thinking wait a minute; I’ve seared one side and the other side is raw. O.K., we can visualize that and the idea was the yin-yang of flavor in one, is that it?
A. Yes, exactly. And then in the end, again, you can add stock or water. I just used water, a little bit of potato, and you simmer it for a little bit. You can puree it, you can leave it as chunky—you can leave a little bit of texture if you want, and you finish it with some lemon and Parmesan. I was thinking, in the end, I didn’t really get that what you talked about, the freshness and the cooked and the balance.
Q. Right, the contrast.
A. It basically tasted cooked to me. But it’s not at all like a cream broccoli soup which usually has gobs of cheese and tons of cream. It really tastes fresh because it’s mostly broccoli. And the lemon is so key at the end, a ton of lemon makes all the difference. It really tastes, for a broccoli soup, it’s a hearty bowl but it doesn’t taste super heavy or rich.
Q. You mentioned potato, and that’s an interesting one, because sometimes you see people talking about—both with soups and stews I guess as well—the potato serves more purpose. It’s not like a potato stew or a potato soup, but it thickens and it does … Tell us a little bit.
A. Right, I think it adds some body, and think that’s something that you can do with so many different vegetable soups, is add a little bit of potato so that it doesn’t … This is going to sound silly: You want it to taste like broccoli soup but that it’s not just broccoli. It’s nice to have a little bit of other texture and flavor and body. Potato can really serve that role because it’s so neutral in flavor.
Q. So [with the broccoli] whether it does the trick or not to give both flavors, you thought it tasted more cooked. So the idea of the seared vegetables, as opposed to sauteing your vegetables before, or sauteing just your onions, garlic, carrots, celery and then putting in your other … There’s lots of different protocols, aren’t there, for building a vegetable soup?
A. Right. Exactly. What’s interesting, for this one, you want that caramelized flavor and color, that’s the goal. But in the celery soup, Joshua McFadden leaves a note that, “Do not let the onions and celery brown,” and of course I did by accident-
Q. Oops. [Laughter.]
A. ... but I think his goal of not having you brown the onion or the celery is so that it preserves the bright green flavor.
A. Because my picture did not at all like the picture in the book, which is brilliantly green and pretty and fresh. But the flavor if you brown the onions and the celery a little bit, the flavor’s still going to be good. Yes, but you’re right. You could build flavors by slowing sweating the onions, and carrots, and celery and garlic, or by this other method of really searing them and giving them that caramelized flavor.
Q. One of the things I do with the vegetable soup which, again, has a thinner broth with then chunks of vegetables. It has broccoli as one of the important ingredients. But one of the things that I add, and I often use the water as you were saying before from cooking them, is chickpeas. I put chickpeas into my vegetable soup, and I think it gives it an extra “tooth,” because they are firmer than the vegetables would be once cooked, right? Plus it’s more hearty I guess, more filling.
A. That’s exactly, yes.
Q. Yes, do you use beans, or do you make bean soups? That’s what I do with vegetable soup is always use chickpeas. I have occasionally put white beans in instead, but I’ll have to say, I’ve failed with bean soups a lot of times. I’ve tried a lot, and especially a black bean soup, and it’s kind of gone amiss. [Laughter.] I think I didn’t know if I was making a chili, I didn’t know the flavors—I was lost. I almost wanted to take chips and use it as a dip at the end how the flavor came out. It wasn’t black bean soup, exactly. I don’t know how to explain that.
A. No, I know, I know. Black bean soup, it can be as simple as essentially just cooking black beans with some onion and garlic, and stock or water, and cumin. Black bean soup, I feel like it can be all about the condiments, adding some pickled red onion, and sour cream, and cheese, and scallions and having that with every bite. Or it can be more about the soup, and just garnishing it with a little bit of chopped white onion.
I’ve been making the black bean soup from Cal Peternell’s “Twelve Recipes” [above, photo by Ali] and I made it a long time ago and had forgotten about it, and then went back to it. I think the same thing. I had some make some black bean soup recipe that had lots of chipotles and adobe and it was good, but it was kind of complicated and I had higher hopes for the effort than how it turned out.
But the Cal Peternell recipe, what I love about it is there’s an orange rind in it. [Note: Cal Peternell was the longtime chef at Chez Panisse.] And it’s so subtle, and you wouldn’t think that just a few strips of orange zest could come through in the end with all the other strong flavors, the onion, the garlic, the cumin, but you really taste it in the end. It’s a fairly simple recipe. He has you cook the black beans ahead of time, and then you saute … If you have your black beans cooked on hand, the soup will come together in 35 to 45 minutes.
But the things I’ve learned about black beans recently, which was really funny, was through this J. Kenji Lopez article on Serious Eats, which is about not soaking black beans.
Q. The endless debate, yes?
A. Yes, no exactly. And I’m a soaker; I love to soak beans. I like to brine them overnight, and I have my method of cooking them. But I saw in his site that you should not soak black beans. He had written some article, and then Russ Parsons from “The Los Angeles Times” emails him and said, “Don’t soak your black beans.” So he did this very scientific comparison and it was really interesting.
Basically the conclusion is, you don’t have to soak beans, and he found that both flavor, texture were improved by not soaking the beans, and that the cooking time was only marginally improved by soaking the beans. That was encouraging, in terms of if you want to make black bean soup and you haven’t soaked your beans, you can probably put it together more quickly than you think.
Q. Yes. You said you brine the beans overnight. What does that mean? [Above, chickpeas being brined before cooking at Ali’s.]
A. I do. I love the “Cook’s Illustrated” method, and I do it not necessarily for to quicken the cooking time. You soak the beans in water and salt. About 3 tablespoons for, I forget how much water, but just fill a large bowl of water, the beans, and 3 tablespoons of salt, and then drain it, rinse it, and then cook the beans again in more salt. I find that the beans just cook so nicely, it’s more for me the process helps the texture of beans. They hold their shape better and I find them to be very flavorful as well.
But for something like a black bean soup, and even this Cal Peternell recipe, I’ll always puree just a little bit with the immersion blender to give it a little bit of texture and body, and you don’t need your beans to be perfectly intact for a black bean soup, or really any bean soup. [How Ali brines her beans before cooking.]
Q. It brings up … and I want to make sure to get back to that orange rind because that’s really good-sounding, too … But it brings up even if you follow the same recipe for any one of these soups that we’re talking about, you then have this choice once it’s mostly cooked or cooked, is that you could puree some of it, you could puree all of it [laughter], you could leave it plus a broth plus the solids—you can almost have it in three different ways, can’t you?
A. Right. No, absolutely. It’s really your preference. If you like having a little bit of texture, just puree partially; if you like it super smooth and creamy, put it in the food processor and get it as smooth as possible.
Q. Right. Is it your mother who despairs about pureed soups? Is it your mother?
A. Yes. [Laughter.]
A. She says it’s like baby food to her, which is so funny because she is the one who recommended the cream of celery soup, but I think that the salsa with that takes away the baby food texture. [Laughter.]
Q. Do you put beans in other soups? Do you add them an extra ingredient or whatever?
A. I do, and it’s funny you saying how you add chickpeas to soup [above, Margaret’s basic vegetable soup]. When I had the broccoli soup, when I had made it the other night, I had cooked some rice for the kids. The rice was just on the table and my husband and I found ourselves just spooning the rice into the soup, and it was really good with the rice. It makes it, again, just gives it more body and makes it more of a meal.
Q. Actually, a lot of the soups that I do make I end up eating them as almost a bowl, a veggie bowl, over rice.
A. Right, yes, yes.
Q. It makes it more of a meal sometimes, yes.
You said a thing about the orange rind, which I never would have thought of in that black bean soup recipe that we’ll tell people about in more detail. But that’s an unusual contrast-y flavor. It reminds me: I know we wanted to talk about mushroom soup, and it reminds me of the only mushroom soup I’ve ever made is the recipe from Mrs. Kostyra, a.k.a. Big Martha, even though she was quite petite, but my ex-boss Martha Stewart’s mother-
A. [Laughter.] Oh, I love it.
Q. … who was a wonderful woman and I spent many good times with her and she was a great cook, like her daughter, of course, as well. But they were a Polish family and she had a Polish mushroom soup recipe that was a real treat, we always loved, the staff and friends, that was really delicious. So we all adopted, whether we were Polish or not [laughter], we all adopted Martha’s mother’s, Mrs. Kostyra’s mushroom soup recipe. [From “Martha Stewart Living,” Polish mushroom soup recipe.]
And the thing about it, why that orange rind thing makes me think of it, is because it was several kinds of mushrooms, and vegetables, and so forth…but it was dill. It was lots of fresh dill that changed the whole thing from the earthy, mushroom-y dominant taste, it was at the end you put in all this fresh, chopped dill and it just was like, “Wow.”
Now, I know you didn’t do as much with the orange rind, but it’s those contrasts that make something exciting.
A. No, yes. No, exactly. Have you been watching “Salt Fat Acid Heat”?
Q. No, and you know, I saw about it—have you been enjoying it?
A. I’ve watched it all. You can quickly binge on it because it’s four episodes, but she made me really think about … If you ever feel bad about how much salt you add to something, watch this because you will realize you’re probably not adding enough salt. I find myself thinking about the acid a lot, especially when I’m tasting the soups. It will definitely taste salty enough, and it will taste fatty and rich enough, but sometimes it’s just missing that brightness, or the acid, or the freshness. I could see how that dill with something like a mushroom soup makes so much sense, because mushroom soup can be hearty and rich.
Q. And at the end, also on the side in a little pot, you’d make a roux, a flour mixture to thicken it, but just before you put that in at the very end, you’d into the cooked soup with three kinds of mushrooms and the vegetables and so forth (and obviously the liquid from soaking the mushrooms and so forth) you’d put orzo. And that’s something, I forget to have a box of orzo in the cupboard because that’s a great way to add pasta that doesn’t get all flabby and mushy like egg noodles, or macaroni elbows can get kind of mushy, especially if you reheat the soup. And the orzo keeps its texture.
A. That sounds so good, I’m going to try that one.
Q. Yes, do you have a mushroom soup?
A. Well, I made … Deb Perelman, from Smitten Kitchen, posted on her Instagram recently that one of her favorite mushroom soup is from “The Balthazar Cookbook,” which I have, again just a recipe that I skipped over. But I made it recently, and it was also another one of those recipes … When I see things like “buy dried mushrooms and soak them,” they can be a page-turner for me because I think, “Oh gosh, that’s too much work,” but it’s so easy-
Q. Yes, it is.
A. … you just soak them. You also puree the soup so you don’t even have to chop the dried mushrooms afterwards—you just throw them in, and it was really good. I really liked it. I found you need to add just a little bit again, that acid. I added a little bit of vinegar at the end just to balance out the richness. But it’s mostly mushrooms, there’s a little bit of cream, it’s not a super rich soup, but those dried mushrooms, they make it so mushroom-y. [The recipe, via Smitten Kitchen.]
Q. They do, they really do. It’s amazing the color of the broth that comes off them after you soak them.
Q. We only have a couple of minutes and what I want to say is, should we take a vote between the two of us? I guess it could be a tie, but I bet it will be 2-0, of one of our favorite, if not our favorite soup cookbook? Maybe we’ll do a giveaway of that. Do you know what I’m talking about? [Laughter.]
A. I do, I do. You introduced me to it. It’s such a good one, and I am so grateful for you introducing me to that sweet potato and greens soup with sage, because that’s safe to be with my winter CSA of delivery of many, many pounds of sweet potatoes.
Q. So “yay” to Anna Thomas and her “Love Soup” cookbook. Like I said, I think we should do a giveaway.
A. Definitely, I would love to do a giveaway.
Q. What are you tackling next in the last minute? What are you tackling next? Any soup on the counter about to be prepped?
A. No, I don’t have one in the works at the moment, but I’ve never really mastered the pasta e fagioli, the beans and pasta. And I saw one recently and I forget where, I’ll have to look at my Pinterest board, but it has lots of kale and I just look really, really good.
Q. Talking about soups that are a meal.
A. Yes, totally, yes.
Q. Yes. Well, Ali, Alexandra Stafford–I’m sorry, I always call you Ali. [Laughter.] Alexandra Stafford, I’m so glad to talk to you as always. Thank you very much for some soup inspiration.
all the soup links
- Ali’s latest soup roundup
- Our soup roundup from a year ago (different recipes!)
- Black bean soup over at Ali’s
- Cream of celery at Ali’s
- Ali’s vegetable stock
- Anna Thomas’s sage-sweet potato-greens soup
- Margaret’s friend Irene’s vegetable soup
2 chances to enter to win the ‘love soup’ cookbook
ALI STAFFORD AND I will each buy a copy of “Love Soup” by Anna Thomas for one of our lucky readers–so you have two chances to win. Simply comment here by answering the question below (then click over to Ali’s story and comment there to double your luck):
Is there a soup that is your longtime go-to, and is there also a “new” one that you are trying? (I’m devoted to my basic vegetable and to Anna Thomas’s sage-greens-sweet potato one, plus lentil and split pea, of course, but I am determined to get black bean soup right with Ali’s help.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. Don’t forget: go over to Ali’s story to enter there, too. Good luck to all; US or Canada winners only, chosen randomly after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 13, 2018.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Nov. 5, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).