I will bow to no one in my affection for holiday cooking. For our Christmas open house every year, I make gallons of posole and black beans. One family holiday tradition is spending a day decorating hundreds of cookies. There is no Christmas Eve without all-you-can eat Dungeness crab nor Christmas morning without a breakfast with migas and julekake. The month of December seems to be one solid buffet of parties, dinners and an almost constant barrage of cookies, tamales and big hunks of roasted meat.
I love it all, but every once in a while, I need a break. Maybe a quiet dinner in front of the fire with “Foyle’s War” or “Longmire.” After a long workday, you won’t believe how reassuring a baked sweet potato with good butter and lots of black pepper can be.
If I’ve got a little more time and feel like puttering, I usually find myself turning to different kinds of vegetable soups or stews. Honestly, I sometimes think you could throw an almost random selection of vegetables in a pot and bring them to a boil and wind up with something pretty tasty — if you know what you’re doing. Here are a few guidelines.
Choose carefully: Let me start by apologizing for that word “random.” In cooking — or at least good cooking — nothing is truly random. But you’d be surprised how far you can get by sticking with that old local-and-seasonal thing. Potatoes, fennel, winter squash and greens? I can think of half a dozen dishes without even trying.
You need starch: It gives soup heft. If you’re using pasta, rice or grains, cook them first and add them at the end so they don’t muddy the broth or overcook. If you’re using potatoes, use smooth-skinned boilers and add them early, so they have time to absorb flavors.
When in doubt, add greens: And then if you’re still uncertain, add more greens. I don’t know a cook who doesn’t have a few bags of odd scraps of lettuce, kale and chard in the crisper drawer. Soup is a great way to get the most out of them, and the more (and the more kinds), the merrier.
Water’s fine: Sure, you can use a vegetable broth if you want, but don’t overlook simply adding water — that way, you also can control the amount of salt more accurately. If you’ve got the right blend of vegetables, you won’t need any added flavors.
Season assertively: If there is one common fault with vegetable soups, it’s timidity in seasoning, particularly salt. As always, you don’t want the food to taste salty, but the right amount awakens all the other flavors. This is especially true if you’ve added starches — they suck salt out of a soup like nobody’s business.
Acidity is a seasoning too. This is overlooked by too many cooks, but if a soup or stew tastes a little flat, and you’ve seasoned it correctly with salt, try adding some vinegar or lemon juice to finish. As little as a teaspoon can make a big difference, giving the flavors a strong backbone to hang from.
Don’t fear fat: You’ve salted correctly and added just the right dash of lemon juice, but the dish still lacks something? A drizzle of olive oil, a dollop of herb paste or a shaving of hard cheese such as Parmigiano or ricotta salata can provide a final lift. Because the rest of the soup is basically nothing but vegetables and water, you can liven it up a little.
Here are a couple of very different but equally delicious examples from two of my favorite cookbooks of 2014 — “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts” by Aglaia Kremezi and “Persiana” from Sabrina Ghayour. One is the essence of Greek family cooking — homely in appearance but with a depth of flavor that comes only from careful, long cooking. The other is simple to make but striking enough to be the centerpiece of a holiday dinner. But even given its gorgeous looks, Ghayour promises “there are no rules for making it; the simple truth is that this soup should contain whatever you might find lying around the house and in your fridge.”