Food & Wine


Five surefire steps to soup-making success

Bowl of sweet potato and red pepper soup with garnish and side of bread.
Bowl of sweet potato and red pepper soup with garnish and side of bread.
Sweet potato and red pepper soup (photo credit: Michael Whalen)

No one really knows when soup was invented. Historians claim that boiling food dates back to 5000 BC, and evidence of soup-making has been found in Egyptian tombs. Our early ancestors must have seen the advantages of boiling, which, unlike fire, provides efficient “full contact” cooking at a relatively low, steady and repeatable temperature. Surely it wasn’t long before someone noticed the aromatic broth resulting from boiling meats, grains, herbs and veggies and said, “Hey, that looks good!”

It’s no wonder that soup has since been a culinary mainstay around the globe. Soup is simple to make and serve and can be made year-round from local ingredients. Soup extracts flavor and valuable nutrients from otherwise inedible plants and animal parts like bones, and it makes economical use of excess or leftover food so everyone from thrifty homemaker to five-star chef profits.

One doesn’t have to be a food historian or dietitian
to know soup nourishes the mind, body and soul.

Nutritious, filling and easy to digest, soup is beneficial to the sick as well as the healthy. In fact, the restorative nature of soup is credited with the invention of the restaurant. In 1765, when a Frenchman named Boulanger began selling soup to combat exhaustion, he called his shop a restaurant, after the French word “restaurer”, meaning to restore.

Early versions were simple broths, served with a piece of bread — called a sop — to soak up the liquid, giving birth to the term soup. As soup-making diversified, it was Antoine Carême, architect of French haute cuisine, and later, Auguste Escoffier, father of classic French cuisine, who divided soups into modern day categories like bouillon, consommé, purée, bisque, cream and velouté.

One doesn’t have to be a food historian or dietitian, however, to know soup nourishes the mind, body and soul. More importantly, it doesn’t take a superstar chef to whip up a flavorful bowl of homemade goodness — without can opener assistance.

There are five basic steps to making great soup:
1 — onion/garlic
2 — wine
3 — vegetable/spice
4 — blend/strain
5 — cream/garnish

The variations are endless, but the process is constant. To demonstrate, here’s a recipe for sweet potato and red pepper soup.

In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, gently sauté 1 onion, 2 shallots and 4 garlic cloves (all finely chopped) in 3T (T=tablespoon) olive oil and 3T butter until softened and translucent (~5 min).

Add 1 cup white wine, and simmer over medium-high heat until almost all the wine has evaporated, burning off the alcohol while leaving its delicious flavors behind.

Add 2–3 red bell peppers and 1 pasilla pepper (each cored, seeded and chopped, ~1 pound total), 3 large sweet potatoes (peeled and chopped, ~2½ pounds), and enough good quality, low sodium vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables (~1½ quarts). Stir in the spices, in this case a couple large pinches of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of cumin, a little cayenne pepper, cinnamon, paprika, curry powder, sage and brown sugar. When the soup begins to boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer until the vegetables are very soft.

Although the soup could be served at this point, the final two steps make the difference between ordinary soup and the extraordinarily rich and creamy variety of fine dining establishments.

Turn off the heat and let the soup cool slightly. In small batches, purée an equal amount of stock and vegetable solids in a blender for ~3 minutes (fill only halfway and cover with a kitchen towel because hot liquids can be explosive when blended). Add more liquid from the pot (or extra stock/water) if the mixture doesn’t blend freely. Pour the puréed soup through a fine metal mesh strainer/sieve, using the backside of the ladle to gently push it through to a clean saucepan, leaving behind any undesirable solids and fibrous materials.

To finish, stir in ½ cup heavy cream, 2T butter, and for true mouth velvet,
½ cup crème fraîche and/or ½ cup mascarpone cheese. Mix in a tiny splash of balsamic vinegar and 1T white truffle oil (if available), and taste for salt and pepper. Gently reheat the soup to serving temperature, ladle into pre-warmed bowls (2 min in the microwave), and garnish with bacon bits, paprika and crushed almonds. Enjoy with fresh crusty bread and a glass of wine!

This single recipe holds the key to a multitude of soups. Simply repeat the five-step process with different vegetable, spice and garnish combinations.

For example, replace the sweet potatoes/peppers with butternut squash/parsnips, and garnish instead with chive oil, crushed almonds and crispy fried sage leaves. Same procedure, new version of yum.

How about celery root, potato and leeks, gently spiced with salt, white pepper and freshly ground nutmeg, and then garnished with toasted pine nuts, celery leaves and chives? Same process, another delicious outcome.

Want creamy cauliflower and potato soup with salt and white pepper, garnished with chopped walnuts, paprika and blue cheese? You already know how.

With this general soup-making process to safely guarantee base flavors and silky texture, you’re free to experiment and let your taste buds take you to new destinations.

Thank you for reading. Adapted from an article originally published in the Monterey County Weekly.

Michael Whalen was formerly chef de partie at several high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants in California, including RN74 in San Francisco and The Plumed Horse in Saratoga. He was executive chef of his own restaurant in Monterey, CA and created the underground dining experience known as Sunday Supper Club. He worked on the Pebble Beach Food & Wine management team and was also a food/wine writer and restaurant critic for the Monterey County Weekly.

Observer. Thinker. Mindful Human.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store