Soups can be some of the most versatile, crowd-pleasing and profitable items on your menu. They are appropriate all year round, from a spicy, chilled gazpacho in August to a hearty beef-barley soup in January. There are soups for every occasion from elegant truffled cream of asparagus to rustic minestrone.
Even with an “expensive” soup like fennel broth with turbot, scallops and shrimp, it’s not hard to keep your expenses relatively low when you can get away with including only a couple of ounces of the expensive items. Having a soup of the day is a great way to make use of various products in your kitchen that you don’t have in sufficient quantities to use as an entrée or even in a normal appetizer. They’re also great conversation starters for your waiters. Offering large enough portions of soup so that guests can make a main course out of them, or doing soup and sandwich or soup and salad combinations are also handy for customers trying to keep their check average down. And these days, getting half a loaf is better than none.
Soups fall into a few traditional categories. Rather than learn specific recipes, I suggest that you become proficient with the basic technique of each category and then come up with different soups depending on the rest of your menu, the seasons, culinary inspiration or ingredients you might find yourself needing to move.
The first category is clear soups, or broths. These are soups consisting of a clear, flavorful broth garnished with various vegetables, meats, seafood and starches, depending on what kind of soup it is. Once you decide what flavor profile you want your soup to have, the next step is to make a clear, flavorful broth that fits it. You can start with water, but it’s even better to start with a nice stock, like chicken, fish or vegetable, depending on the final product. Basically, you’ll be making a rich stock (or “double stock” if you start the process with stock instead of water) that, unlike a typical stock, will have enough character and flavor to be served on its own. (See RS&G, February 2009 Chef Training for a discussion of how to make stocks.) To make a “soup worthy” broth, use good stock-making technique and take into consideration three factors: using ingredients that will fit in with the soup’s flavor profile, using a good ratio of solids to liquid, and simmering it for the correct time. As for the appropriate ingredients, lean, oven-browned protein or bones are almost always a good call. Avoid overly fishy seafood. Some examples are: using lamb shanks for lamb soup with couscous, shrimp and lobster shells for shellfish-pesto soup, and chicken backs for almost anything. The appropriate aromatic vegetables should also be used. For minestrone use roasted garlic and tomatoes. For tamari soup, use stir-fried ginger, garlic and scallions. For fennel broth, use lots of fennel stalks, which have been sweated. And for just about anything, use roasted or sweated onions, carrots and celery. Experiment and see what you like best. A good basic ratio to use is 8-10 Lbs. of solids to 5-6 quarts of liquid to yield 1 gallon of broth. Simmer beef, veal or chicken for about 3 hours, and seafood for about 30 minutes. Always start with cold liquid, never let it get above a slow simmer, skim often, don’t add salt till you’re finishing the soup, strain twice (coarse and fine), chill rapidly and, generally, follow good basic stock-making practices.
Once you have your broth, you just need to add the garnish. Draw on tradition, but don’t be afraid to use your imagination or available product you have on hand that you can’t figure out how else to use. All garnishes should either fit into the spoon the guest will be using, or be able to be cut through easily with the side of the spoon, like a dumpling. For a Chinese-style shrimp-tamari soup, add shrimp, soy sauce, finely sliced scallions and shitake mushrooms to a ginger-garlic-lemon grass broth. For minestrone, add diced chicken, onions, tomato concassé, tubetti pasta, white beans and escarole to a roasted garlic-tomato broth. Fennel broth with added turbot and pesto makes a very elegant first course. A great soup for the winter is a browned mirepoix broth garnished with beef, barley and carrots. The classic French soupe au pistou and garbure also fall into this category of soups. The garnishes can be added to the whole batch of soup at the beginning of service, or a portion or two at a time at pick-up, depending on how delicate they are in terms of structural integrity and exposure to temperature. They can also be cooked to perfection individually, chilled, and added when needed, or added to the broth sequentially, depending on how much cooking each requires.
Cream and Purée Soups
Traditional cream soups are rich, impressive, luxurious and seldom seen in restaurants any more. They are made by simmering the soup’s main flavoring ingredient in either béchamel sauce (milk flavored with onion and thickened with roux) or velouté sauce (stock thickened with roux) till tender, then strained out, puréed (a good blender works well for this) and then added back in. At service, the soup is finished with a liaison of egg yolks and heavy cream. For each gallon of béchamel or velouté, use about 3 pounds of the basic flavoring and a liaison of one pint of heavy cream and 4 egg yolks. The finished soups should have the consistency of heavy cream. Between the risk of the egg yolks breaking and the inherent calorie/cholesterol count, these soups have grown a little out of fashion. They are, however, a real treat and guests love them, so you should absolutely give them a try. Cream of asparagus is typical of these soups, garnished at service with blanched, slivered asparagus tips. Waterzooi is a classic Belgian velouté soup made with fish, root vegetables and herbs. Cream of chicken, or curried-chicken, garnished with julienne poached chicken breast is elegant and not too expensive to produce. Or how about pulling out all the stops for a special occasion and offering cream of lobster, garnished with diced tail meat sautéed with black truffles?
Purée soups, overall, are more rustic in nature than cream soups but, with the use of a high-powered blender, can approach their smoothness and velvety texture with less trouble, expense and calories. First, lets look at some more traditional purée soups. These soups often use dried beans or vegetables, starchy or not, as their base. The ingredients are simmered till done in water or stock (stock is usually preferable), and then either partially or totally puréed. Appropriate aromatic vegetables like onions, carrots, garlic, celery, fennel and shallots are often included. Care should be taken to make sure that that the final product is neither too watery nor too stiff. Start by sweating the aromatics. Then add the main ingredients (white beans, potatoes, split peas, lentils, leeks…), cover with cold stock or water, and simmer till done. Skim as needed. Purée with either an immersion blender or a batch at a time in a regular blender (be very careful if the soup’s still hot!) Depending on the result desired, you may want to only partially purée the ingredients, or make them into liquid velvet with a high-powered blender. A classic purée soup is potato-leek. Sweat the leeks then add peeled, sliced potatoes (about equal amounts.) Cover with stock and simmer until the potatoes are done. Purée till super-smooth in a blender, finish with a little heavy cream and garnish with croutons, diced bacon, fried, julienne leeks or a combination of the above. To make watercress soup, add some puréed, raw watercress just before serving and garnish with watercress leaves. These two soups are great examples of easier, lighter ways to get “cream” soups on your menu. To make Tuscan white bean soup, follow the normal procedure for purée soups using great northern or navy beans (soaked overnight, refrigerated) and lots of chopped onion and garlic, the same amount by volume as the beans. Sweat the onion and garlic, add the drained beans, cover with chicken stock and simmer till the beans are done. Add a bundle of rosemary tied with butcher’s twine for the last hour or so. Partially purée using an immersion blender and season with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For split pea soup, sweat aromatic vegetables, add split peas, cover with cold stock and add smoked ham hocks. Simmer till done. Partially purée with an immersion blender and garnish with the lean, diced meat from the ham hocks. A variation on the preceding two soups can be made with (soaked) black beans and fresh chilies, and garnished with pico de gallo and sour cream. A popular seasonal variation on classic puréed soup is gazpacho. This is a slightly chunky purée of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, jicama, red onions, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, chilies and tomato juice. It’s served cold and garnished with diced avocado.
Bisques and Chowders
Bisques are a decadent, popular, shellfish-based marriage of cream and purée soups. First, the coarsely chopped shells of the lobster, shrimp or crawfish are seared in hot oil till bright red. Add aromatic vegetables and sweat. Add tomato paste and cook till medium brown, then deglaze with brandy. Add fish stock, heavy cream, spices, herbs and simmer. Thicken with roux, and cook for about one hour, stirring and skimming frequently. Strain out the solids and purée, including the shells, till a paste forms. Add the paste back into the soup, simmer briefly and pass through a fine strainer, extracting as much flavor as possible. At service, add the chopped, sautéed shellfish and finish with a little heavy cream and sherry. To make a gallon of bisque, use about 2 pounds of shellfish, 3 quarts of stock and 1 quart of heavy cream. The soup should have the consistency of half and half.
Chowders are hearty, thick, milk-based soups containing potatoes, the exception being Manhattan clam chowder, a tomato based affair. The most well known is New England clam chowder. To make the genuine article, steam washed clams till they open, strain the liquid through cheesecloth and reserve. Remove the clams from their shells and chop coarsely. Render diced salt pork, sweat chopped onions and celery, add the clam juice, milk, bay leaves, fresh thyme and diced potatoes. Cook slowly till the potatoes are done, add the clams and serve. Manhattan clam chowder is made in a similar fashion, but instead of milk, use a combination of fish stock and chopped tomatoes and add garlic and oregano. Corn chowder is also popular. Make it just like New England clam chowder, but leave out the clams and add corn kernels, preferably cut off the cob. The de-kernelled cobs, lightly roasted, can be cooked in the soup to add flavor, and then removed.
First Impressions Last
Remember, if a guest orders soup, it’s probably going to be the first thing he sees and tastes. Make sure it starts him off with a good impression of your restaurant. Serve your hot soups hot and cold soups cold, neither approaching room temperature. It’s a good idea to chill the bowls for cold soups and warm them for hot soups. Depending on the particular soup and your situation, you might try to plate them only after the waiter is at the window. Another option is to have a soup station set up so that the wait staff actually plate the soups themselves; a little training from the cooks will be helpful. Just make sure that everything has been seasoned correctly before it’s put in the waiter’s station, and that kitchen staff periodically check on the amounts, temperature and condition of the garnishes.
Soup, one of the original comfort foods, can be an important part of your menu. Whether as a special that helps you avoid wasting product and gives your waiters a chance to start a dialogue with their guests, or as a signature item that starts your customer’s meals off with a bang, it pays to be fluent in soup making.