Culinary legend and best-selling cookbook author Bernard Clayton Jr. had his first bowl of Senate bean soup in 1940 as a guest of Oregon senator Charles L. McNary. At the time, Clayton was a brand-new LIFE magazine correspondent and McNary was running for vice president. "I don't recall even the gist of our conversation, but I do remember the bean soup—spoonful after spoonful," says Clayton, whose definitive cookbook The Complete Book of Soups and Stews (Simon & Schuster) recently hit bookstores in an updated version.
Good soups and stews, the ultimate comfort foods, have the inherentability to create warm and lasting memories. Even in today's rush-rush world, soups find a place at almost any meal, from helping to open up your appetite to providing a sweet ending.
"I love soups because they are instantly versatile: gently simmering broths that easily lend themselves to invention," says James Peterson, author of Splendid Soups (Wiley, 2000). "All you need to learn is the basics—sweating vegetables and adding broth and herbs or other flavor enhancers."
Whether you're making a simple shrimp chowder or a hearty chicken gumbo, follow these guidelines to make your soup pot sing.
Both Peterson and Clayton insist that fresh vegetables—not canned or frozen ones—make the difference between a good soup and a great one. Fresh vegetables are high in nutrients, and sweating them—sautéing them in butter or oil until they're tender but not brown—adds terrific flavor.
Try making your own chicken stock by boiling 1½ pounds bone-in chicken parts in 6 cups of water with 1 chopped carrot, 3 chopped celery stalks, 1 chopped red onion, 2 bay leaves, 1½ teaspoons salt, 3 peeled garlic cloves, and 5 peppercorns. Simmer for about 1 hour, then discard the chicken and vegetable pieces, cool, skim the fat off the top, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. No time for that? Improve the taste of store-bought broth by combining each quart of broth with a coarsely chopped small onion, half a carrot, and half a celery rib, then adding a bouquet garni (a bunch of herbs—the classic trio being parsley, thyme, and bay leaf—that are either tied together or placed in a cheesecloth bag) and simmering all ingredients slowly, partially covered, for 45 minutes.
Go full fat
Peterson makes no apologies for his insistence on using heavy cream in cream soups. "Milk, evaporated milk, and half-and-half contain too much protein, which causes them to curdle when exposed to heat," he says. If you're concerned about calories or cholesterol, simply use less cream."You can make a very satisfying cream soup using a fourth of the amount called for in traditional recipes," Peterson says. If cream is totally off-limits, give soups a creamy texture by substituting purées prepared with potatoes or other root vegetables, such as turnips.
Get a good pot
Invest in a heavy soup pot, one made of stainless steel or aluminum, with a thick base that will retain the heat. Figure that a modest serving of soup or stew is about 1½ cups per person, "so to make a stew for a party of eight would require a 4-quart pot at the very least, "Clayton says. A 6- or 8-quart pot is even better.
Time it right
Clayton says that serious soup enthusiasts should buy a thermometer. "A watched pot does boil, but if you're not watching, a simmer one moment can become a raging volcano the next. Is it a simmer? A hard boil? To make this determination by sight comes with experience, but a thermometer can really help in deciding what's what in the meantime."(A simmer is generally 185°F, while a hard boil is 212°F.)
Think beyond your geographic boundaries to bring new flavors to your soup bowl: Indian curry powder, coconut milk, and even saké can enliven soups. Whisked in just before serving, they add intense flavors.
To turn a consommé into a real meal, toss in leftover chicken or vegetables, add a few tablespoons of butter or cream, and top with flavored croutons or a slice of cheese. Garnish with fresh herbs, such as chopped chives, tarragon, thyme, chervil, or parsley. Even a dash of Tabasco sauce can add zip to an otherwise ordinary can of soup.