You think you know vegetable soup? Shakespeare’s Cleopatra with her “infinite variety” had nothing on vegetable soup. It can be thick and chunky, light and delicate, rich and smoky or bright and tangy. Vegetable soup can be a meal in itself or an appetizing first course, a soul-satisfying lunch or a blissfully warming supper.
It starts with stock, of course. But that doesn’t mean you need to use meat, or even poultry or fish. With a few tricks, you can coax enough flavor and body out of just vegetables to be a fabulous foundation for a truly vegetarian soup.
Start with aromatics. Leeks are incredibly flavorful -- just simmer them alone in water, and you’re halfway to a good vegetable stock. Add celery, carrots, garlic and herbs, and you have a versatile light vegan stock. Cutting the vegetables into a small dice and lightly sauteing them helps them quickly release their flavors.
You can use it instead of water to cook rice and grains for a pilaf or for a light risotto. It can be frozen and kept on hand for use in deglazing a saute pan to make a nice little pan sauce for fish or chicken. Or add caramelized onions and sugar and a little white wine and Armagnac, and you’ve got a luscious, rich soup with layers of flavors.
Another terrific stock comes from roasted vegetables. Toss onions, carrots, celery, garlic and celery root with a little olive oil and seasoning and roast them until tender and brown. Simmer them with leeks, herbs, mushrooms and potato peel for less than an hour, and you’ll get a rich, brown stock with deep, earthy flavor.
This stock pairs well with grains such as brown rice or bulgur, and adds wonderful flavor when used as a cooking liquid to poach assertive greens such as cabbage, collards or kale. But perhaps most satisfying is a hearty vegetable soup made with dried small white beans, roasted mushrooms, potato and cabbage.
Or you can go for more pure flavor -- here mushrooms work great. Simmer dried and fresh mushrooms with aromatics to make an appealingly meaty stock that’s even more wonderful when pearl barley is added, thickening the stock and giving it body. It’s the basis for a soup made with sweet turnips and bright chard, a dish that reminds us how intensely flavorful each vegetable can be when handled properly.
Vegetable stocks are quick cooking and achieve maximum flavor, depending on the ingredients, in 30 minutes to an hour after coming to a boil-- just enough time to relax with a glass of wine and consider your next steps. Don’t leave vegetable stock on the burner for hours; you’ll end up with a wilted flavor and a slight bitterness from the aromatics. For the longer simmering stocks cut the vegetables into larger pieces.
Once a vegetable stock has finished cooking, strain it immediately through a fine mesh strainer lined with a cheesecloth. Letting the vegetables stand in the stock after cooking can cause the stock to lose vibrancy. After straining, however, you may refrigerate or freeze as desired.