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.
Roasted vegetable stock
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss together the onion, carrots, celery, garlic and celery root with the olive oil, salt and pepper in a large baking pan. Roast 35 to 45 minutes or until vegetables are lightly browned, stirring occasionally.
Place the roasted vegetables in a tall 8-quart stockpot. Cut the leeks into quarter-inch slices and add them to the pot. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme, parsley and dried mushrooms. Peel the potatoes and add the peels to the pot. Cut the peeled potatoes into half-inch dice, cover them with cold water, and set aside to use in the soup. Add 10 cups cold water to the stockpot.
Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Simmer 45 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat. Strain the stock through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, lightly pressing the vegetables with the back of a spoon to extract juices. Discard the vegetables. You will have about 8 cups of stock.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the sliced mushrooms in a bowl with 4 teaspoons olive oil, one-eighth teaspoon salt and a pinch of white pepper. Place in a baking pan and roast for about 13 minutes, until tender and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let stand.
Saute the onion, celery and carrot in 2 tablespoons olive oil in a tall 8-quart stockpot until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute.
Add the white beans, vegetable stock, cabbage and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add the drained potatoes and the mushrooms during the last 30 minutes of cooking.
Add the green and yellow beans during the last 15 minutes of cooking and simmer until the beans are crisp-tender. Season to taste with salt. Serve the soup with toasted French bread brushed with good olive oil.
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