Soup: A Bowl of Comfort
'Tis the season to tuck into a nourishing soup.
Is there any food more soothing than soup? It can alleviate a winter chill, tame a ravenous appetite, and calm a congested nose. Many a grandmother has passed down a recipe for chicken soup that returns color to pallid cheeks, and even though research on the topic is slim, plenty of people follow this time-honored remedy. A 2000 study in the medical journal Chest suggests chicken soup has an anti-inflammatory effect that may ease coughs, sore throats, and stuffy noses. But the researchers hint at another reason the sick-day remedy might be so effective: It's psychologically associated with old-fashioned TLC. To put it another way, "a bowl of soup can be your best friend," says Marjorie Druker, chef and owner of the New England Soup Factory, a Boston-area specialty soup restaurant. "It will warm you. It will comfort you. There's nothing a bowl of soup can't do."
And it may help you eat less. According to a 2007 study in the journal Appetite, participants who ate any type of soup as an appetizer reduced the number of calories they consumed during a meal by 20 percent. "Your stomach is only a little bigger than your fist, so if it's filled up with something with volume, it can really make you full," says Susan Dopart, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in Santa Monica, Calif.
But all soups aren't created equal in this respect. A premeal bowl of thick and rich New England clam chowder won't help weight loss or maintenance; thanks to plenty of cream and butter, a single serving can contain hundreds of calories and more than a dozen grams of fat. Ditto for bisques, which are sometimes thinner than cream soups but heavy with butter nonetheless. On the other hand, broth-based varieties (think chicken noodle) are light and usually contain stock with vegetables and a starch like noodles or rice. Stew, which is hearty and typically eaten as a meal, is packed with vegetables and lots of meat. And purees often incorporate pulverized vegetables for thickness.
Making a Soup
Whether you're creating a multihued vegetable soup or a hearty tomato one, you'll most likely use stock as a base and build from there. You can make your own by cooking vegetables with beef, turkey, or chicken—add leftover bones to the meat to give flavor to the stock—or fish bones for several hours, then straining the liquid. Or, you can buy canned or boxed stocks (go with the low-sodium variety) at the grocery store. "[Premade stock is] on your shelf and ready at any moment, so it's nice," says Druker. "But if you do have the ingredients to make it from scratch, your soup will be a million times richer and deeper." You'll probably add stock to sautéed vegetables—say, celery, carrots, and onions—then cook it with key ingredients like beans, vegetables, meat, herbs, and spices.
Making It Healthier
Eating soup at a restaurant can be tricky, since it is often higher in calories and fat than it appears. "Ask a lot of questions: What goes into it? How was it made?" suggests Dopart. "Tomato bisque could be made with a lot of cream. Even butternut squash soup—a lot of people could add cream to that soup, which would be higher in fat and calories." When in doubt, stick with clear soups like chicken and rice, vegetable, or Japanese miso, and pass on items with the words "cream" or "bisque" in the name. And remember to include any potato, grain, corn, or pasta that's in the soup when counting your meal's carbs.
At home, simple swaps can cut fat and calories from cream-based favorites. To make her soup thicker, Dopart purees part-skim ricotta cheese with garlic-sautéed broccoli and broth. Pureed vegetables add thickness and texture to a soup while keeping it healthy. Druker suggests trying veggies like pumpkins, carrots, potatoes, and squash because they thicken well. You can also diminish fat by using 1 percent milk instead of cream while cooking rich soups like cream of broccoli. If you can't give up cream, at least cut back by only adding a small amount just before serving.
Making It Stand Out
Finishing touches can add zing to an otherwise ordinary soup. "When you want to make your soup pop, you do it at the last 10 minutes" of cooking, says Druker. "When you add fresh herbs in the last 10 minutes, you retain the aroma and flavor of the herbs that you want." (But you'll want to add dried herbs in the beginning; they need plenty of time to rehydrate.) Since soup reduces and its flavor concentrates as it cooks, adding finishing touches—like swirls of vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, or sherry—at the end lets you season based on the final flavor. Pile too many flavors into a pot before it has reduced and you risk overseasoning. Tossed in too much salt? Just dilute the soup with water until it tastes right.
For Druker, standout soup relies on its ingredients. Since fresher is better, in winter that means hearty root vegetables like parsnips, celery root, and rutabaga. She creates a cold-weather soup by putting the humble veggies and sweet potatoes in stock. "When people eat this, they ask, 'Oh, did you put sugar in this?'â" Druker says. "Root vegetables and sweet potatoes are so naturally sweet they just flavor the whole thing. You can have the tastes of sweet without adding sugar."
Making It Personal
Soup spans all cultures, so don't be afraid to take inspiration from various cuisines. If you love Mexican dishes like tacos or enchiladas, try a Southwestern soup that contains chipotle, adobo chilies, or pureed corn tortillas. "I like to represent a lot of ethnicity in my cooking," says Druker, who adds saffron rice, mussels, and clams to Spanish soup and includes lima beans, cabbage, dates, and figs in Eastern European batches.
In many ways, soup's adaptability is part of the reason so many people love it. "Soup has such diversity," says Druker. "It can be brothy; it can be creamy. It can be stuffed with seafood; it can be vegetarian. It can be hearty or it can be healthy. Soup is so versatile." In fact, soup doesn't even have to be hot—think of gazpacho or cool, fruit-filled soups. Really, soup is whatever you want it to be. "That's the whole thing with soup: It's just playing around," she says. "It's like a canvas."