I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I am thinking soup. Soup for lunch and for dinner, too, with the extra portions from each big homemade batch laid into the freezer for a future cold day. Ali Stafford of Alexandra Cooks dot com, and author of “Bread, Toast, Crumbs”–one of my favorite cookbooks of recent years–and I compared notes and offer inspiration for those of us staring a ‘Butternut’ squash in the face, maybe, or even just a can of paste tomatoes, or a bag of onions, and wanting to mix things up a bit from the same-old, same-old soup recipes.
Besides ideas for flavor combinations, we’ve assembled loads of links to specific recipes for soups ranging from winter squash to lentil, onion to tomato, root vegetables and even garlic, here and on her website. Read along as you listen to the Oct. 30, 2017 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).
Plus: enter to win Ali’s book “Bread Toast Crumbs,” which includes ideas for great easy peasant loaves, soup toppers and even some soup recipes, by commenting at the very bottom of the page.
Update: Ali and I also did a whole other vegetable soup episode–from the basic version to recipes with beans, and even mushroom soups, too. It’s here.
soup ideas with ali stafford
Q. I’ve been so looking forward to this conversation about my favorite food.
A. I’m so happy it’s soup season.
Q. Do we call it a food, or a course, or what? What is soup? It’s funny. [Laughter.]
A. It’s definitely a meal. I think there’s really nothing better. Soup, bread, salad; I’m set for the winter.
Q. Yes. So, I should say right from the start, before we get going, to everyone listening that we’re going to cover a lot of ideas, and here and on the companion story on your website, we’re going to have lots of links with the recipes, and techniques, and more details. We can’t cover it all, but we’re going to point listeners to it.
So, let’s make some soup, and I think we could start with what we mentioned in the intro, because I’m staring at a whole cupboard full of them, a pantry full of them, that I grew this year: winter squash.
A. Yes, it’s the best.
Q. It is the best.
A. I always think of it as sort of the inaugural fall or winter sort of soup vegetable.
Q. Yes. So, what do we do with it? I mean, I can tell you, a lot of times, I’ve gotten into this sort of coconut milk thing, and garam masala, sort of a spicy flavor, and just onions, and that’s about all I put in it. I puree it up, and it’s kind of a little South Asian or something, but it’s simple.
A. It’s so nice. Yes, I love that. I have a similar recipe too, that calls for coconut milk, and that one’s in the slow cooker. It’s really easy, just onions, apples, carrots.
A. Yes. Apple is nice. It always adds just a little bit of sweetness. ‘Butternut’ squash is nice because, if you’re feeling lazy, it’s easy to chop in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast, and 45 minutes later, you have a nice flesh that you can puree with other ingredients. But if you’re pressed for time, it’s one of the easier squashes to peel.
I have one recipe that I love this time of year, because it has some apple cider in it, too, which feels very seasonal. It’s from Amanda Hesser, and I think she got it from somewhere else. But you peel the squash, and you—it’s an interesting recipe—you actually start the onions and garlic in water, and you simmer them until the water evaporates. Then you add your peeled, cubed squash with a little bit of stock or water.
I often use water. I think, if you’re adding lots of other flavors to a soup, I think water is fine. I think the simpler the soup, it is nice to have a good vegetable stock, or a good chicken stock on hand. But water works really well in so many soups, and in this Amanda Hesser recipe, in the end, it’s just pureed with some apple cider and sour cream, and it just has this really interesting flavor, sort of sweet and tangy. The comforting-ness of the pureed squash, it’s great.
- RECIPE: Margaret’s Butternut-Coconut Milk soup (above)
- RECIPE: Ali’s Slow-Cooker Butternut Squash Apple Soup with Coconut Milk (below)
Q. It’s interesting, you just said, about doing your onions or your vegetables first in water. I guess the mirepoix, or sofrito, depending on where we are. [Laughter.] The idea, first we would saute our vegetables, our sort of basic background vegetables, it’s a little different.
A. Yes, and I think sauteing in some sort of fat is actually more typical, and a great way to start a soup. Sweating the onions, or the ginger, or any of the aromatics are going to draw out the flavor, mellow the sharpness. If there’s any bite to the garlic or the onions, sauteing will mellow that, and it will permeate the whole soup in the end. So, I think that’s a great way. I think this Amanda Hesser recipe, I think came from, actually, a diet book, and I’m not ever looking for diet recipes…
Q. That makes sense.
A. Yes. So, if you’re looking to cut back on fat, you can sort of simmer the aromatics first in water.
Q. And I mentioned that with ‘Butternut’ I’ve been in this coconut milk binge for a while with it. So, speaking of coconut milk just briefly, I just stocked up on a whole bunch. I don’t know, I was on a binge in the pantry section of the food co-op yesterday. [Laughter.] What else can I do with it, soup-wise? What other soups does it figure into, for you?
A. Oh, I think it’s so great to have on hand. I always have half a dozen, or a dozen cans on hand as well, because when you need something from the pantry, it’s there for you.
One of my favorite recipes is from Julia Turshen‘s “Small Victories” cookbook. It’s not really a soup, but it’s definitely stew-y, so I think it’s worth mentioning. It’s a lentil sort of soup, with coconut milk. She has you saute onions, and garlic, and ginger, and then there’s turmeric, and I think, cumin, and coriander. Then you add the can of coconut milk, then you fill up the can of coconut milk with water, dump that in, and you just simmer it.
I like, with that one, using a mix of lentils. The red lentils that kind of break down and turn to mush, and then the French lentils that hold their texture, because in the end you get some texture with the mush.
Q. With the thickness, right—texture and thickness. Oh, that’s good. Now, see, you’re already over to another flavor, another basic ingredient. You’ve veered to lentils. I always have lentils, lentil soup as one of my freezer soups. I make big pots, and I’ll eat for a couple days what I just made, but then I will put most of it away, so I’ve got four or five soups in the freezer at any time.
The lentil I just do it with celery and onions, and garlic, carrots, tomatoes. I put a lot of my whole tomatoes just in the freezer in freezer bags, instead of using canned tomatoes, and I just dump a bunch of those in. If I want it even more tomato-y, I might use a little tomato paste. Toward the end I put in–oh, and bay leaves, of course, bay leaves—but toward the end I put in balsamic, or you could use red wine, and it just makes it different, right?
A. Definitely. I think lentils really need some vinegar. I like a lot of vinegar. But your recipe sounds very similar to the recipe that my mother has, it’s sort of been our family recipe that’s been passed around.
Q. And me, that’s where I got it, too. It’s not written down anywhere, it’s just that’s what it is. But you just said coconut could go with them, and different spices altogether, so that’s great.
A. Yes. Lentils—I feel like they can take on so many flavors.
Q. Yes. So, before we derailed into the lentil department [laughter], I was going to ask you about tomatoes, because I know, speaking of pantry things like the coconut milk, most people—especially when they’re on sale, the good quality canned paste tomatoes—they’ll stock up on them, because it’s a great thing to have on hand.
I love tomato soup, and I think that’s a vestige of, if I dare to admit it, almost like a childhood memory of that canned Campbell’s cream of tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. I mean …
A. Oh, right, of course.
Q. What could make a kid happier, right, in the good old days? [Laughter.]. And my good old days were a lot older than your days. But how about some ideas for tomato soups that are homemade?
A. What I always think is unfortunate is that in peak tomato season, it’s always still a little too hot to really crave a bowl of tomato soup. But I feel like, late October, you can still get them, or if you, like you, are good about throwing your tomatoes in the freezer. I think this is the first week of our CSA that we actually didn’t get any tomatoes.
Some farmstands are still carrying them, and I love at this time of year just roasting them really slowly. At 300F degrees, or 250 degrees, with some carrots, and onion, and whole unpeeled garlic cloves, until everything kind of … for hours, like three hours. Everything gets really concentrated and sweet. You throw all those vegetables in a pot. This is definitely a soup that water is fine, and I think water is actually preferable, because a chicken stock might kind of overpower the vegetables. Puree it, and then you can serve it like that, or a really classic, old, peasant-y dish would be to add some stale bread and puree it, just to give it some texture.
Q. So, are you roasting these vegetables—primarily tomatoes but with the other add-ins you mentioned—on a rimmed baking sheet? Are you putting parchment on it, or is it just on the baking sheet? Did you oil it? What went on?
A. Just a rimmed baking sheet. You can use parchment if you want, for an easier clean-up. You don’t have to. With such a long time, they won’t stick, but you will have some more work if you don’t use parchment. Definitely some olive oil; coat the vegetables in olive oil, and salt and pepper, and that’s it.
Q. All right. With the version with the bread, which sounds really good right now [laughter], and after all, you are the “Bread, Toast, Crumbs” lady …
A. Yes. That actually is a recipe in the cookbook.
Q. Yes. So is it bread to taste, or is it a proportion, or do you eyeball it—versus your puree of your vegetables, your tomatoes, how much bread? Lots? Not lots?
A. You can eye it. I’m trying to think. I sort of think of a quarter of a standard-sized boule, but that’s kind of vague, because bread can be so different. Maybe a couple, like, say, 2 cups of stale bread. Start with that. It will swell as it sits, but if you’re looking for a little bit more texture, you can add more.
Q. One of the soups that I think people think, again, because they probably have a memory sort of association, like “we went out and we had onion soup in the restaurant, and they put the melted cheese on,” whatever. They think onion soup is like a big deal, but it turns out it’s not really a big deal to make.
Q. Yes, and I took David Lebovitz‘s recipe—speaking of great bakers like yourself.
A. Oh, I love him.
Q. It’s from his “My Paris Kitchen” book. He does it with, I believe, chicken stock in his. I just took that out, and I think I used water, but I might have used vegetable stock. His has white wine or sherry in it, and that’s kind of what changes it, you know, from just onion-y water?
Q. And it’s just amazing. It’s so delicious. And talk about an easy soup: It freezes great, it’s good for you, it’s not rich. I like to put a little Parmesan in it when I serve it. Maybe I’d do some croutons, or whatever. So, what about onion soup? Do you make onion soup?
A. I do, and I want to try that one, because it sounds good. The one that I make is Michael Ruhlman’s, and it’s simple, but it definitely takes more time, and I’m thinking the David one …
Q. This is easy.
A. Yes. So, he did this great blog post a number of years ago, but he basically talks about how these–I think it’s in Lyon, France–and these little bistros where onion soup is made with nothing more than a ton of onions that you cook down for hours, and then water. So, there’s no beef stock, or chicken stock, necessary. And then he just finishes it with … I think he does use a little sherry too; I forget. There’s a little bit of wine, and there’s a little bit of vinegar, just to kind of balance the sweetness.
Q. David does the same thing. At the end you do—I think it’s toward the end—just a couple of teaspoons of sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar. You’ve already used your white wine or your sherry a little earlier, I think. Yes, Yes.
A. Yes, and I love it. When I have the time to just get into the rhythm of chopping the onions, it moves quickly, and then the rest is really hands-off time, but you have to kind of be home and monitoring the progress of your onions. But David, that sounds … I want to check that one out.
Q. It’s so satisfying. And, as I said, if you don’t want to do the whole big 500 calories of melted cheese on top [laughter], O.K., fine; that’s fine. Like, what I do, is I’ll take two teaspoons of grated Romano or Parmesan and put a little of that in, and put a little bit of toast in it, or whatever, cut it up. And boom, it’s like this whole meal, and it couldn’t be more savory, and rich, and delicious, yet it’s not rich. Do you know what I mean?
A. Right, right, exactly.
- RECIPE: Ali’s version of Michael Ruhlman’s onion soup (above, with cheese topping)
- RECIPE: Margaret’s version of David Lebovitz’s onion soup (above, with croutons)
Q. Root vegetables. [Laughter.] I mean, speaking of people who have CSAs, or have a garden, and they just dug up this funky-looking thing, and they’re like, “What am I going to do with this parsnip, or turnip, or whatever?” What’s the trick to making root vegetables into happy soups?
A. I think there are a few simple things to do. We sort of mentioned it earlier: pairing it with a fruit, adding an apple, will just make it … you don’t want it to taste like you’re eating just thinned mashed potatoes. Adding an apple or a pear will just give it, one, a sweetness, but also, it’s very subtle.
I have this parsnip and pear soup recipe from the “I Love New York” cookbook, and whenever I make it, people are constantly guessing, “What is that flavor?” And I think in addition to the parsnip, there’s rutabaga in that one. I just got a huge rutabaga in our CSA. [Laughter.]
Q. Well, that’s what I’m saying, and people are like, they look at it, and it’s like, they’re like, “Whoa, what am I going to do with this thing?” But it would make a great soup, but just not 100 percent rutabaga.
A. Right, exactly. I think mixing it up with different vegetables. I think, also, just playing around with seasonings, looking at other soups that have curry, or as you mentioned before, the garam masala. They’re just sort of simple things you can do.
My mom always, she’s never been a huge fan of pureed soups. She always says she feels like she’s eating baby food. I love them; I think they’re fine. But I think adding some spice, or adding a garnish, at the end swirling in some sort of chili oil, or a harissa, or some sort of salsa, or pesto could kind of brighten the soup and give it another dimension of flavor.
Q. Well, then you just brought up, there’s sort of finishing touches, too, with any kind of soup. I love, and we should talk … You’ve mentioned a number of chefs whose recipes you’ve found inspiration in. I love the Anna Thomas “Love Soup” book.
A. Oh, I don’t have that one.
Q. Oh, you’re kidding. You have to. It’s wonderful.
A. Okay. [Laughter.]
Q. And she really does, she has a whole section of “green soups.” They’re soups that the predominant thing is a green vegetable, but she purees them. There’s one that’s sweet potatoes, sage, onions, and garlic, and they’re cooked in water, but not too much. And toward the end, you add all these greens—I think it’s half chard and half kale—and then once it’s cooked, you puree the whole thing up with your immersion blender, or whatever. It was funny because I had interviewed her and met her years ago, and I said, “I made your soup,” and I showed her a picture of it, and she said, “I make it greener than you do.”
Q. I made it more orange, more sweet potato-y. I was heavier on the sweet potato. But that’s what’s so brilliant about the blended soups, each one can be a little different. So, you can go sweeter, you can go greener.
But she said, “Don’t forget, always finish the bowl with some really high-quality olive oil, and maybe even a little wedge of lemon, that you squeeze the lemon juice on. Don’t skip that step,” that’s what she was saying. Do you do things like that, too?
A. I do. I mean, if I don’t have the time to make a garnish, just a swirl of olive oil, a shaving of Parmesan, lots of pepper, the lemon, just a drop of lemon or vinegar. It really, all those little things, they make such a difference.
Q. I freeze pesto cubes. You probably do the same thing, in the summertime when it’s inexpensive to have basil, or I have it in the garden, or whatever. And so I tend to use that as another little garnish as well, sometimes, on soups.
A. Yes. Pesto is so nice. Just the swirl; it makes all the difference. I’m trying to think. Around the holidays, my mom always does a ‘Butternut’ squash soup that’s really simple, with just rosemary, which I think is really the only sort of additional seasoning. Then she makes a cranberry coulis and swirls that in, and it looks so pretty, the orange against the cranberry, and then just a little drop of, I think, sour cream, too, and it looks really festive.
A. Yes. And the cranberry is a nice flavor, too.
Q. I just wanted to ask you. I love garlic, and this year I had a bumper crop. Have you ever made a garlic soup? Because I know it exists, but I’ve never made it.
A. I have, actually. I went through a period last winter where I was making it all the time.
A. David Tanis has in his … he just had a cookbook that came out, but in his cookbook that is called “One Good Dish,” he calls it “Save Your Life Garlic Soup.” You basically chop up two heads of garlic, and you sweat them first in some oil with some sage leaves. Then you add water, and you only simmer it for 15 minutes, but in those 15 minutes, the garlic and the sage really permeate the water and transform the flavor. There’s a fair amount of salt, too. It doesn’t taste salty, but you definitely need the salt to bring out the flavors.
Then you poach eggs directly in the broth, and you just put a slice of thick, crusty bread in a bowl, and ladle this garlicky broth. You can add scallions. I know people have taken this soup a step farther and just thrown in some spinach or peas, or something to up the vegetable content, and then the poached egg over the bread, and it’s so good. It’s kind of one of those deep-winter soups, where you have, really, nothing in the pantry, and you can throw this together pretty quickly, and it’s really good.
Q. “Save Your Life Garlic Soup?” I love that. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, I know.
Q. You started out by talking about how one recipe that you have tried for ‘Butternut’ squash soup peels the ‘Butternut,’ and since they’re not lumpy, bumpy, or ridged, they’re an easier winter squash to peel.
Q. Do you have a favorite peeler? Because I like the ones with the short handles. Do you know what I mean? Wider head, but short handle.
A. I think so. Is it sort of Y-shaped?
A. Yes, that’s exactly the kind I use. When we were in the restaurant, this is what we used. It’s called Kuhn Rikon, is the brand [above]. They’re colorful, and they usually come in pack of three, and I always buy a ton, just to have on hand. They’re kind of fun to give as gifts for people, because they make peeling so easy. With soup season, from the carrot, to the parsnips, to the squashes, there’s a lot of peeling ahead of us.
Q. I just bought another case of … I use pint straight-sided Ball jars, because it’s exactly the right amount for a bowl. It’s like a one-person portion, and it’s so beautiful in a freezer, and they fit in a freezer door–in those straps of your freezer door, the two shelves. They fit perfectly there, so boom! You can have a row of all these different kinds of soups. I love those. What do you freeze in? You have a bigger family. [Laughter.]
A. Those sound so nice, and I love the straight-sided Ball jars. They’re so nice. I use–they’re not pretty to look at, I have to say–but they’re deli quart containers. I just find them to be so handy for stocks, for soups, and they also store well. Maybe not as easily as the pint-sized, because they’re a little bit larger, but they’re relatively straight. I use them for everything. They’re sort of my only “Tupperware,” even if I’m not freezing, for leftovers on a daily basis.
- RECIPE: Ali’s Chicken Stock
- RECIPE: Ali’s Vegetable stock
- RECIPE: Margaret’s impromptu vegetable stock from trimmings and more
Q. So, it’s your un-fancy Tupperware. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. It’s really not pretty at all, but they’re very functional. [Laughter.]
Q. Well, maybe just to end, we should both say, “Thank you, thank you,” to our immersion blenders, because I do think, even though your mom says it’s baby food, I do think I couldn’t live without it.
Q. At this time of year, I get it out. I do my applesauce, a year’s worth of applesauce, and on to the ‘Butternut’ squash sort of purees and soups. I think it’s such an important tool.
A. It’s an amazing tool, and it’s so handy to not have to transfer your soup to the food processor or the blender.
A. It’s so easy to clean. Yes. I love it.
Q. I’m so glad to share all these recipes; I’m so glad to talk about soup, and I want to run home now and make that Save Your Life Garlic Soup for dinner. Good idea.
A. It’s so good. I hope you do.
Q. Thank you so much. I’ll speak to you again soon. You’re going to come back, and we’re going to talk Christmas gift choices for cookbooks, right, soon?
A. Oh, yes, yes. I can’t wait.
more soup, and more from ali stafford
- Our interview when “Bread Toast Crumbs” came out, and her amazing peasant bread
- Ali’s companion piece to this latest interview, with loads of soup ideas and recipes
- Browse all the soup ideas on Ali’s website, Alexandra Cooks
- Browse all the soup ideas on A Way to Garden
enter to win a copy of ‘bread toast crumbs’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Ali Stafford’s cookbook “Bread Toast Crumbs,” which includes lots of toppers and breads to accompany any soup, plus some favorite soup recipes, for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (scroll down past the last reader comment):
What’s your ultimate comfort soup (and if you recall, tell us where the recipe came from)?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “Count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, Nov. 7. Good luck to all; U.S. and Canada only.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. 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 the Oct. 30, 2017 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).
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