Sunday, October 31, 2010

Soup Season

Middle stage of Curried Carrot Parsnip soup preparation

Happy Hallowe'en! Another beautiful, colourful autumn day on the south coast, sunny and relatively warm. I hope the rain holds off for tonight! The only trick-or-treaters that visit my apartment are crows, gulls, starlings and sparrows with an occasional junco in the mix (no chickadees yet this fall). They are currently enjoying some very stale Shreddies. One of the crows played a Hallowe'en prank by crapping on my Dad's truck yesterday while he stood next to it. Sigh. Better than spray-paint, I suppose.
Foreground: bottom shelf where the cheapies are! (New Apple Farm Market)
Desperately in need of a quiet and relaxing weekend (see previous post for why that is), I held my own private soup making party yesterday for me, myself and I. Three soups in one day, and another tonight (maybe two)! Tonight: Valle d'Aosta Cabbage Soup from Moosewood's 'New Classics', the best cookbook I've ever owned (just edging out The ReBar Cookbook and Moosewood's 'Low Fat Favourites').
I have heard that the Cantonese slang for ladies engaged in idle conversation is "making soup", in reference to the long process of making soup from scratch. When I hear "making soup", I think of Creed Bratton from the US version of "The Office".
Well, I am going to differ when I say that it doesn't take long to make soup (provided you're not making stock as well, which is easily avoidable), and your house will smell nice, not as though someone's dropped a deuce on your carpet.
I am also happy to share my tips for making an economical meal even more affordable!

Ugly veggies - mark-downs at New Apple Farm Market
Tip 1: Buy a bag of discounted, ugly vegetables. For $0.99 per bag, I bought about 2 lbs of carrots and parsnips, and a bag of portobello mushrooms (4, although 2 admittedly had to be tossed due to mold) from New Apple Farm Market on 4th at Vine. The carrots and parsnips were then subjected to scrubbing and slicing followed by boiling, and finally pureed - you would never know they were ugly root vegetables beforehand! The mushrooms were, alas, less of a success story, but the two large mushrooms that were still usable would have likely cost me 3 or 4 times as much in pristine condition. They made a delicious soup when combined with some dried chanterelles! Another tip - when buying dried mushrooms, carefully read the weight in grams. I found 3 different brands of the same type of mushroom that at first seemed similarly priced but actually varied widely in net weight!
If your grocer doesn't have a 'ugly vegetable' shelf, don't despair - go here to find out what's in season in Vancouver, or alternatively buy what's cheap and then find a recipe to match. A quick Google search will come to your rescue if your cookbooks let you down.

Tip 2: Store soup in 'single serving sized' containers. Freezing soup ahead of time is great for a quick meal, assuming you don't have to quickly thaw a cubic litre of solid soup. I'm pretty sure there's nothing more annoying than trying to evenly reheat a Mason jar of frozen soup or spaghetti sauce in a time-dependent manner! If you're a planner, thawing a frozen tub of soup overnight in the fridge for dinner the next day may be convenient. Then again, my idea of convenient is throwing open the freezer door and grabbing a masking-tape labelled yogurt container full of soup that will happily defrost under my desk from 9am until noon when it's ready to get nuked (note that this probably isn't "Food Safe", but when you're vegetarian you feel it's easier to take small risks). Single serving containers makes lunches and dinners on the fly much easier, and it also means that you don't have to eat the same thawed soup 3 meals in a row.

Dried Mushoom soup with Barley - low fat but delicious!
Tip 3: Make multiple soups in succession. Cabbage is a great reason to make more than one soup in a day, and you'll know why if you've ever cooked with it. The tightly folded crinkly leaves of your average green or red cabbage come perfectly compacted by nature, but once you start shredding it, the virtual volume of cabbage increases seemingly exponentially. I'm not sure exactly how many cups of shredded cabbage come from an average head of cabbage, but I do know that it's a lot more than I expect! I always end up with an enormous quantity of leftover cabbage that I do not want to waste, and so I've learned to make successive soups and/or meals containing cabbage - leftovers are carried over and used up right away! Tonight I'm making an Italian cabbage soup with nearly stale bread leftover from accompanying last night's soup (and lunch today, too). Later this week (Monday or Tuesday), I'm going to make a Basque white bean soup that also contains cabbage. If there's still cabbage leftover, there's an Italian bean soup recipe that will do it in! It's not just cabbage that gets leftover - squash, skimmed evaporated milk or light cream, spuds, fresh parsley, spare carrots and celery are often left as remainders. Cabbage, at least, is relatively inexpensive, though I really do feel it's an ethical and environmental sin to waste food (hence the birds eating my stale Shreddies!).
Single-serving containers, and soup ingredients waiting to be used up in round 4!

Tip 4: Make your own stock OR dilute store-bought stock. Making your own stock, which I didn't do this time around, is preferrable - it's usually more economical and it's definitely better for you if you watch your sodium intake (which we all should do, regardless of age). I didn't have the energy to make a huge batch of stock this time, so I bought some Pacific Foods vegetable stock and cut it in half - most of my recipes called for "stock or water" anyway. By diluting the stock, I not only got twice as much working volume out of the package, I also cut the sodium content by half. Another great reason to make your own stock is that you can customize it - avoid the flavours you don't want or avoid allergens (in my case, alas, garlic, shallot and red onion... curses!). If you do make your own soup base, DO NOT add the following vegetables as they will completely overpower your soup*: asparagus, Brussels sprouts (evil!) and other cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages), eggplants/aubergine, and perhaps surprisingly, tomatoes and bell peppers. *obviously, if you're making a 'Cream of Asparagus' soup, it's perfectly reasonable to put asparagus in your stock.

Label everything - a practice that's as good in the lab as it is at home
Tip 5: Inventory your spice rack. Even taking into account that I have acquired several of my partner's spices (he 'never cooks', so I inherit things from time-to-time), I'm positive that my failing memory is at least partially responsible for there being 3 different ground cumin packages open in my kitchen. Not only will taking stock of what you have potentially save you money (spices are not inexpensive!), it will also help you avoid accidents - unlabelled jars can occasionally lead to costly mistakes, and in some cases lead to injury! Take last night for example; I decided to amalgamate the 3 different ground cumins (2, actually - I threw out the oldest) and the 2 dill weeds with my own dried dill, and the two ground cinnamons.... I came across a ziploc bag containing what was either paprika or chilli powder. The smart thing to do would be to taste the spices, but because I had been sniffing my way through the jars and packages identifying fennel seeds from cumin seeds and ground cloves from allspice, I kept to the status quo. Unfortunately, it wasn't paprika in that bag, and apparently the teensiest whiff of chilli powder is enough to cause catastrophic inflammation of the mucous membranes. I sneezed, I burned, I watered and choked for much longer than I would have expected! A warning to the wise: although "I accidentally snorted chilli powder" makes for an amusing and popular Facebook status, I would still very much recommend labelling your spices!

You'd be amazed at the spices you forgot you had!
Tip 6: Use a single burner/element. The electricity required to heat a resistor (like a metal coil element) is staggering, so why get two going when you can use just one? If you're in a big hurry, you might want to sautee the mushrooms in a saucepan while you sweat the garlic, onions and carrots in a stock pot on another element. But I can honestly tell you that by spending about 5 minutes longer, you get away with using only one element and save electricity (and therefore money and your impact on the environment). I actually find I burn far fewer onions this way, too. In cooking soup, you're constantly "simmer, then remove from heat"-ing, so why not just switch pots on and off the one element? Another important (perhaps obvious) point is to use the element that is the same size (diameter) of your pots and pans. Don't use the little element for your big stock pot, and don't put your small sauce pot in the centre of the big element. Think back to kindergarten - match the shapes!

Transfer your pots and pans on and off the element in use.
This really is the perfect time of year for soup making - squashes are abundant (and cheap!), the nights are getting chilly, and it's a lovely thing to do on a rainy weekend (or on a sunny weekend if you walk to and from the shops).
This is the season that I crave ruby red borscht (a point of contention with my fiancee - his family's traditional borscht is orange and has chicken in it!) with Pumpernickel bread and herbed butter. I also like a dollop of sour cream in my borscht (an even bigger point of contention! I ask you - how can you NOT like sour cream?!). The ReBar Cookbook has a fantastic vegetarian borscht recipe with porcini mushrooms taking the place of the usual ham bone.
Of the soups I made yesterday, the "Dried Mushroom Soup with Barley" was by far the best (Moosewood - Low Fat Favourites, page 94). I also made "Curried Carrot Parsnip Soup" (page 100) which could've been better and less citrusy, and "New England Squash Soup" (page 96) which positively sucked compared to Burgoo's. Oh, how I love Burgoo! Tonight's soup(s) will originate from the full-fat (but still quite healthy and safe!) pages of Moosewood's "New Classics". I suspect that my butternut squash soup could've used a little lipid.
My cookbook podium - Gold to New Classics, Silver to ReBar and Bronze to Low Fat Fav's

I think the moral of the story is to not try to compete with Burgoo in the field of soup-making. If you feel like a soup tonight and have run out of time, why not meander down to Main Street (or up to 10th Ave, or across to Lonsdale) and treat yourself to virtually anything on their menu - you really can't go wrong. There's even an allergy menu available for people like me with special needs in the digestion department! Make sure you order a side of biscuits to go with it - mmm mmmm mmmmmmm!
Homemade soup you've made yourself is still a satisfying and cheap meal and perfect for a chilly fall or winter evening. A full pot will typically feed two for dinner as a main course and leave you with leftovers for lunches - many soups freeze well, too, so you don't have to eat the same soup all week. Pick up a baguette and cut yourself off a portion - much more economical than hitting up Quizno's on your lunchbreak!

Bonus material:
I just stumbled across FREE Moosewood recipes, including the following soups:
Black Bean and Chipotle
Roasted Red Pepper Coconut 
Very Creamy Potato-Cheese Soup
Spicy Carrot Peanut
Savannah Bisque
Oaxacan Potato

and my absolute, all-time favourite fish recipe, Pecan Crusted Fish. Try it - it's awesome!


  1. I found my way here via the Ravelry pattern for the Perrier Bottle Bud Vase - great blog!!