AND now we enter the soup season. In the face of such recent challenges as being buffeted by freezing temperatures, battling the flu or simply recovering from the lingering effects of holiday overeating, there is nothing quite so restorative as a bowl of soup.
And there are few things that are easier to fix than a soup made just from vegetables. No long simmering of meaty bones or tough cuts, no complicated stocks. Build a vegetable base and then add water. That’s basically it. You don’t even need to use broth -- as the vegetables simmer they’ll release their own.
A well-made vegetable soup has just about everything you could want in a winter dish -- a balanced complexity of flavors, a soothing warmth, just enough heft to sustain, and a surprising lightness despite its big taste.
These soups are a pleasure, not a penance. Serve them with good bread and cheese, and maybe some tangerines and cookies for dessert, and you’ve got an incredibly satisfying meal.
Still, though they can be assembled with a fairly free hand, nothing about the preparation of these soups should be haphazard. Like all good cooking, a pot of soup needs to be carefully thought out.
For meat-eaters, the hardest part of making vegetarian soups is coming up with a combination of ingredients that has enough substance to make you feel like you’ve eaten.
Throw a bunch of root vegetables in a pot and you’ll get something that tastes pretty good -- think of first-course soups made from pureed potatoes or carrots. But it will lack the body that can let a soup be the center of a meal.
Finding a substitute that doesn’t involve meat takes some creativity. The best solution is beans. Because they’re naturally high in protein and have a dense, meaty texture, beans fill in nicely, giving the vegetables the balance they need.
Generally, the best soups are made by starting from scratch with dried beans. As the beans soften during cooking, they release starch that thickens the broth, giving it body and savor.
And starting with dried beans is not as much bother as you might think. You don’t need to soak them in advance; in fact, the texture of the broth will be infinitely better if you don’t. They do take a little longer to cook this way, but usually less than three hours -- and for almost all that time the pot is sitting by itself, bubbling merrily away in the oven or on the stovetop.
Lentils are even easier. They’ll cook in less than an hour and have a pleasantly peppery, meaty flavor.
The most notable exception to the whole from-scratch thing is dried garbanzo beans or chickpeas, which really do need to be soaked to get the cooking time down from days to hours. Canned chickpeas are a boon for soup and stew makers. Rinse them well to get rid of the tinny-tasting canning liquid, and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell them apart from beans you took a couple of days preparing.
AFTER that, though, vegetable soups are a breeze. The actual preparation isn’t terribly demanding and it’s leisurely paced. A half-hour’s worth of chopping and slicing is usually plenty. That’s just enough to make you feel like you’re actually cooking without coming close to crossing over into drudgery.
For the most part, you don’t even need to pay that close attention. Exact shapes and sizes of cuts aren’t critical. No perfectly cubed mirepoix here; chop the vegetables as neatly or as sloppily as you wish. Just make sure that things with similar textures are cut in similar sizes so they’ll cook evenly.
And almost all of the actual cooking is done over low enough heat that you’d have to take a mighty long nap to risk burning anything.
The white bean and fennel soup has a thick, rich-flavored broth that comes mostly from the cooking liquid from the beans. What really makes the soup sing, though, is three levels of fennel flavor -- silky sweet from the stewed bulbs, aromatic and herbaceous from the chopped fronds, and nutty and caramelized from the quickly fried wedges that are added as a garnish.
In the soup with winter greens and chickpeas, it’s the braised greens that give the dish its savor. The more kinds you use, the better the broth will be. Prop a couple of toasted baguette slices in the bottom of each soup bowl to soak it all up. A finishing grace note of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano ties the whole thing together.
If you’ve ever wondered just how sweet cabbages and root vegetables can be, try the minestra. Without the peppery flavor of the lentils, it would be over the top. But along with a healthy swig of vinegar cooked off at the end, they provide just the right balance.
Ladle it into a warm bowl. Sliver some good Gruyere onto slices of bread and toast them until the cheese is browned and bubbling. Then settle in to watch a Lakers game on television. It’s winter in Southern California.