LONDON, Ont. - Most chefs agree the best soups use homemade stock.
"There's nothing better," says Jill Wilcox, cookbook author, cooking instructor and owner of Jill's Table, a specialty foods and kitchen store in downtown London.
"They're inexpensive to make. They taste fantastic and you have control" over what's in them.
Wilcox always keeps a supply of homemade stock in her freezer to use as a base for soups and sauces, but admits she usually has some commercial stock on hand for emergencies.
She says chicken stock has a "very flexible flavour profile" and is the most versatile, but she's using more and more vegetable stock these days as people move away from consuming meat. The two are often interchangeable in recipes.
Beef stock is heartier and is good in some vegetable soups, such as mushroom and French onion, but is best for beef soups or "anything that you would normally have with beef."
Seafood soups generally require a fish stock.
Wilcox recommends making a large quantity at once, using a 12-litre (12-quart) heavy-bottomed stock pot made of stainless steel or enamel-covered cast iron, rather than aluminum, which can react with acidic ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice.
At this time of year, she often has a stock pot simmering on the stove at her store. She uses it in her cooking classes but says a kitchen store that smells like a kitchen is also good for business.
Wilcox says soup-making is "very creative and very thrifty because you can take lots of little odds and ends and if you've got stock in the freezer, then you've got soup." She likes all kinds but generally reserves cream soups for special occasions and serves them in smaller portions because they're so rich.
Among her soup-making tips are: Use unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil; use white pepper for pale soups; if soup tastes a little flat add vinegar or lemon juice to perk it up; leftover soup may need to be reseasoned before serving; warm soup bowls in the oven prior to filling them.
The difference between stock and broth is probably not one most home cooks have to worry about, since the two terms are so often used interchangeably. In the gastronomic world, the consensus (although not universal) is that stock is usually made with bones and broth with only meat.
Chef Caroline Dumas knows more than a little about soup. She and her staff make about 400 litres of it a day at a central kitchen to service all eight locations of SoupeSoup, her chain of soup and sandwich restaurants in Montreal.
But she almost never uses soup stock, a development born of necessity.
She likes stock-based soup and in the beginning she always made her own stock.
"Soup at home, it's not a lot of chicken. But if you make it for 300 people, you need a lot of bones and I was always picking up like 60 kilos of bones" and then having to lift heavy stock pots.
After developing a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, she started looking for options to save the strain on her wrists.
The method she developed involves caramelizing her ingredients in a little oil in a pan, starting with those that take the longest to cook. As she gradually adds each ingredient, she also adds a little water.
"I start with the onions and I'm very patient and cook them for five to 10 minutes on medium heat. You can even add the cumin or spices at that moment. Then you put your celery, wait again five minutes. Then you think about which vegetables will take the longest time to cook. Carrots take a long time. Then you wait again five minutes. You add a little bit of water all the time, one cup (250 ml) each time. At the end, when the vegetables are cooked, they're just a little bit tender and it's full of flavour.
"You never evaporate your soup. That's why you control the amount of water you add. It really works. And when you want to add fresh herbs, you only add at the end. So it's very fresh."
Besides being much easier physically, Dumas says this method gives her soup the full-bodied taste of the ingredients and it takes a fraction of the time compared to cooking stock for hours before starting to make the actual soup.
The only problem is, "I smell of onions all the time."
Her restaurants serve four soups each day and the menu changes daily without repeating a soup for a month. She says she feels very protective of her customers' tastes but also wants to introduce them to new flavours. Vegetable and pea soups are constant favourites, but they now enjoy a diverse variety, including Indian and Indonesian selections.
In 2010, Dumas, who is also host of a cooking show, "Pour le plaisir," on Radio-Canada, put close to 70 of her soup recipes, along with sandwich and dessert recipes, in her first cookbook, called "SoupeSoup." It was released in English last year.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.
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