Cozy Soups and Stews

December 5, 2019

Soup making has always been a kind of ritual in my world. I can remember the aromas coming from the bubbling pots on my mom’s stove. She had a way of combining the most humble ingredients to make the most delicious soups and stews. See, she understood that the key to really good soup is determined by the quality and freshness of what goes into the pot; never any limp, old veggies for her. I learned well.

Soup creates the atmosphere for the entire meal, complementing the other dishes with its taste, texture, aroma and color. If a meal is hearty and complex, it is always a pleasure to begin the meal with a simple, elegant broth or clear soup. A light and simple meal might be given some substance by beginning with a thick, vegetable, bean or grain stew. A bowl of soup is soothing and relaxing. It stimulates the appetite and relaxes our digestive system in preparation for the meal to come.

Seasonal balance also plays a large role in soup and stew making. In cooler weather, I will most definitely lean more towards warming styles that include a greater portion of root vegetables, richer ingredients and stronger seasoning. During the warmer months of the year, I make more cooling soups, even chilled soups, to complement the weather. Lighter ingredients, like noodles, leafy greens and delicately cut vegetables, along with lighter seasoning and reduced cooking time will actually help to beat the heat, even in a stew.

The variety of soups and stews we can prepare are virtually limitless. There are a few basic, yet essential techniques that, if mastered, will give you the confidence you need to really experience the pleasure of making soup. Remember that repetition is our greatest teacher. Find a few favorite recipes and make them a few times to build your confidence. Then, play! Change ingredients around–vary the beans and vegetables. Add whole or cracked grains. Season with any variety of herbs. Saute the vegetables before adding water. The possibilities of soups and stews are endless. Just scavenging around the fridge, you will come up with enough fresh ingredients to make a wonderfully delicious soup….or comforting stew.

Some Basic Techniques

Soups and stews need to begin with base or foundation flavors. I begin a lot of mine by either sauteing or simmering onions, shallots or leeks and occasionally a bit of garlic. A pinch of sea salt at this point seals the vegetables’ flavors in, while drawing out some vegetables juices, creating a richer flavor.

When seasoning soups and stews, don’t wait until the last minute. Herbs, spices and salty seasonings need time to develop and blend with the other flavors in the dish. You may even want to add seasoning several times during cooking so that the flavors gradually mature until they are exactly as you desire. However, fresh herbs and garnish will serve you best if added just prior to serving.

Soups and stews, built around beans or whole grains can be hearty or incredibly light. It all depends on seasoning and quantities of ingredients. I usually cook bean soups and stews for a long time, unseasoned, adding vegetables gradually so that I can achieve a variety of vegetable textures–some very tender, some just tender, some a bit crispy for lightness. The key to good bean soup or stew is cooking the beans long enough; the softer the better; even mushy is good. A bay leaf or two or some fresh herbs will transform the bean cooking water into a delicious broth. Bean soups and stews are one exception to the seasoning rule. Season towards the end of cooking, so that the beans become very tender. If you salt beans too early in the cooking, they will contract and resist moisture, remaining hard.

Whole grains add hearty flavor and creamy texture to any soup or stew, making them the world’s greatest comfort foods. Pasta, rice, barley and millet add the most delicious flavors as well. I usually cook pasta separately so that my broth doesn’t get too starchy or end up adding too much pasta. Whole grains are added to soups and stews during cooking, depending on the time required of each grain to soften. Their natural starches bind the broth, giving the soup or stew body and a creamy consistency. Remember that grains soak up a lot of moisture, so use them sparingly so that you don’t end up with a pot of soft grain mush instead of a hearty soup or stew.

Lastly, invest in a few really good soup, stew and stock pots. They will come in handy much more than you can imagine. And get a food mill. This simple kitchen gadget will become indispensable. It’s great for smoothing the texture of soups. I use mine all the time in place of a food processor or immersion blender, although these gadgets work well. Soups that come through a food mill are so smoothly elegant.

The best advice for making delicious, comforting winter dishes? Relax and enjoy the process. These wonderful foods are easy to make if you simply master some of the techniques that go into making a great soup or stew. Experiment and play with ingredients. Find your way to your own delicious repertoire of soups and stews.

Cannellini and Escarole Soup

Creamy, richly flavored and satisfying, this soup is almost a meal in itself. I love to serve it with a simple side dish of farro and some crusty bread.

Makes 4-5 servings

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
½ yellow onion, diced        
Sea salt
Generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup thinly sliced crimini mushrooms
1 cup cannellini beans, rinsed well, soaked for 1 hour in hot water
4 cups spring or filtered water
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons sweet white miso
5 to 6 leaves escarole, rinsed very well, hand shredded into bite-size pieces
Fruity extra virgin olive oil, for finishing

Place oil, garlic and onion in a medium pot over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and red pepper flakes and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and a pinch of salt and sauté until just wilted, about 3 minutes.

Drain beans and discard soaking water. Add beans, water and bay leaf to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until beans are quite soft, about 1 hour. Remove and discard bay leaf. Remove a small amount of broth and stir in miso until dissolved. Stir miso mixture and escarole into soup and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes more. Drizzle with olive oil just before serving.

Millet Cauliflower Soup

Warming and sunny yellow in color, this simple soup is said, in Chinese medicine, to balance our ‘middle organs,’ the spleen, pancreas and stomach, helping us to feel centered, warm and grounded. Its sweet taste makes it comfort in a cup.

Makes 4-5 servings

1 yellow onion, diced
1-2 stalks celery, diced
½ head cauliflower, broken into florets
½ cup yellow millet, rinsed well
4-5 cups spring or filtered water
2 tablespoons white miso
2-3 sprigs fresh flatleaf parsley, coarsely chopped for garnish

Place veggies in a soup pot with millet on top. Add water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until millet is creamy, about 30 minutes. Remove a small amount of hot broth and dissolve miso. Stir back into soup and simmer 2-3 minutes more. Serve garnished with parsley.

Cauliflower Bisque with Roasted Red Peppers

Creamy, smooth soups are the perfect first course when a meal is more like a feast, with lots of flavors and textures to come. This soup is eye  candy as well as being richly flavored and loaded with the cancer-fighting compounds we know come from cruciferous vegetables.

Makes 4–5 servings

3 tablespoons avocado oil
1 yellow onion, diced
Sea salt
⅛ teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in 2 tablespoons water
2 new potatoes, unpeeled, diced
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
3 cups spring or filtered water
Cracked black pepper
2 roasted red bell peppers, diced
2–3 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Place oil and onion in a soup pot over medium heat. When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for 2–3 minutes. Add saffron (and soaking water) and potatoes, and a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Add cauliflower and stir well. Add milk and water; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook until cauliflower is quite soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for 5 minutes more.

Transfer soup to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return to the soup pot and keep soup on low heat until ready to serve. You may also use an immersion blender to puree the soup.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Mix roasted peppers and parsley together and use to garnish soup.

Cinnamon- Scented Butternut Squash Soup

When the weather outside is frightful, there is nothing more delightful than winter squash. It’s sweet, comforting, warming, centering, and loaded with antioxidants to ward off colds and flu. In this soup, I add cinnamon to up the ante on the warmth, increase sweetness, and help to stabilize blood sugar.

Makes 4–5 servings

Avocado oil
1 yellow onion, diced
Sea salt
3 cups diced, unpeeled butternut squash
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
3 cups spring or filtered water
Whole nutmeg, to be grated for garnish

Place oil and onion in a soup pot over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for 2–3 minutes. Stir in squash and cinnamon to taste. Add milk and water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 35 minutes or until squash is tender.

Transfer soup to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return to the soup pot and keep soup on low heat until ready to serve. You may also use an immersion blender to puree the soup.

To serve, ladle soup into individual bowls and garnish with a few grates of nutmeg.

Zuppa di Cipolle

Traditional onion soup in Tuscany comes loaded with pancetta and is made with beef broth with all the accompanying artery-clogging fat and calories. Mine is made with onions, onions, and more onions and so is loaded with flavonoids and polyphenols, chromium and vitamin C so it lands lightly on our hearts and our hips.

Makes 4–5 servings

Extra- virgin olive oil
5 large yellow onions, thinly sliced into half moons cut into thin half moons
½ cup red wine
2 tablespoons brown rice syrup
4–5 cups spring or filtered water
Sea salt
Cracked black pepper
5 slices thickly sliced whole- grain bread
2–3 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed, coarsely chopped

Place about 5 tablespoons oil and onions in a large soup pot over medium heat. When the onions begin to sizzle, add red wine and syrup and sauté until the onions just wilt. Cover the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes.

Pour in water and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and bring return to the boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 30 minutes.

While the soup cooks, heat a small amount of oil in a flat-bottomed skillet over medium heat and quickly toast the bread on both sides.

To serve, lay a slice of bread in 4–5 individual bowls and ladle soup over top. Serve garnished with fresh basil.

Seitan and Root Vegetable Stew

This meatless stew will satisfy the most discriminating tastes. Nestled among hearty winter veggies, the meaty seitan is the star of the show, a great low-fat source of plant protein to keep you strong and warm.

Makes 5-6 servings

olive or avocado oil
yellow cornmeal
sea salt
1 pound seitan, cut into bite-size pieces
2 yellow onions, thick wedges
2 carrots, large irregular chunks
2 parsnips, large irregular chunks
2 cups 1-inch cubes winter squash
1/4 cup white wine
spring or filtered water
2 small handfuls green beans, tips trimmed, left whole
1-2 tablespoons arrowroot
small handful fresh parsley, finely minced, for garnish

Heat about 2 inches oil in a deep sauce pan, over medium heat.  While the oil heats, combine cornmeal with a generous pinch of salt and cut the seitan.  Dredge the seitan in cornmeal.  When the oil is hot, fry the seitan until it is golden and crispy.  Drain on paper and set aside while preparing the vegetables.

In a heavy pot, layer the onion, carrot and parsnips.  Add a generous pinch of salt and about a half-cup of water.  Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and cook until the parsnips are just tender, not soft.  Add squash, wine and another generous pinch of salt.  Cover and cook until squash is tender, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the fried seitan, but do not stir.  Add green beans, season to taste with salt, cover and cook until the green beans are bright green and tender.  Dissolve arrowroot in a small amount of cold water, stir in and continue to stir gently until the liquid thickens and clears, forming a shiny glaze over the stew.  (The amount of arrowroot needed will depend on the amount of liquid left in the stew–more liquid, more arrowroot; less liquid, less arrowroot.)

If cooking in a clay pot, the stew can go from stove top to table.  Simply stir in some parsley.  If cooked in a heavy pot, transfer stew to a serving bowl and garnish with parsley.  Makes 5-6 servings. 

Note: Heat the oil over medium-low heat to insure it is hot through and through.  You know the oil is ready when patterns appear on the bottom of the pan or if you submerge chopsticks in the oil, bubbles gather.

Veggie Ragout of Artichokes, Greens and Chickpeas

Growing up, this yummy Italian stew was the centerpiece dish on many a winter’s night in my house. It was the one dish my mother knew we would all eat, assuring we all got our veggies. Your family will feel the same way!

Makes 4-5 servings

extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
2 red onions, thick wedges
sea salt
2 tablespoons honey
generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes
scant pinch cinnamon
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 carrot, 1-inch irregular cut chunks
1 parsnip, 1-inch irregular chunks
2 globe artichokes, trimmed, cut into quarters
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup dry white wine
1 small bunch broccoli rabe, rinsed well, finely cut

Preheat oven to 325o.

Using a deep pot that can move from stovetop to oven, place it over medium heat.  Spoon 3-4 tablespoons oil in the pot with garlic and onions.  When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt, honey, crushed red pepper flakes, cinnamon, lemon zest and sauté for 2-3 minutes.  Stir in carrots and parsnips, a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes.  Arrange vegetables evenly on the bottom of the pot and lay artichokes on top, with chickpeas on top of the artichokes.  Add wine and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Cover tightly and bake for 25-30 minutes.  Remove cover, return to oven and bake until any remaining liquid has reduced and been absorbed into the dish.  Remove from oven and stir in finely cut broccoli rabe until it wilts. Stir gently so as not to break the artichokes.  Serve immediately. 

Tanjun’na Gomoku (Simple Rice Stew)

This stewed rice dish will warm you on the chilliest of days. Most definitely a cool weather dish, it is also used in Chinese medicine when someone is feeling weak or sickly. So imagine how powerful you’ll feel eating it just because it’s delicious.

Makes 3–4 servings

3–5 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in 2 cups spring or filtered water
Avocado oil
1 yellow onion, diced
4–5 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 small fresh lotus root, diced
1 small burdock, diced
2 tablespoons mirin
1 cup short grain brown rice
2 squares dried tofu, soaked till soft, cubed
Soy sauce
3–4 fresh whole green onions, green and white parts, minced, including green part

Soak shiitake in water until soft. Drain, reserving soaking water and squeeze excess liquid from shiitakes. Dice the mushrooms.

In a heavy pot, place oil, onion, and ginger over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in carrot, lotus root, and burdock and sauté for 2 minutes. Add mirin, rice, dried tofu, and soaking water. Bring to a boil. Season lightly with soy sauce and cook, covered over low heat for 45–50 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed into the rice and it has become creamy. Stir in green onions and serve.

Curried Chickpeas and Potatoes

A quick and tasty main course, this will leave you with no excuses to order take out. This spicy stew will satisfy you on many levels, but don’t let the ingredient list scare you. It’s lots of little pinches of spices and you can omit any that you wish and still have a great nutrient-dense stew.

Makes 3–4 servings

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 red onion, diced
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Sea salt
1-inch piece fresh ginger, finely minced
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon chipotle powder
2 cups diced new or fingerling potatoes, unpeeled
1 cup canned organic chickpeas, rinsed well
1 cup spring or filtered water
Fresh lemon juice to taste
2–3 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Place oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and ginger and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in spices to coat the onions. Add potatoes and cook, stirring, until the potatoes are browned at the edges and tender, about 6 minutes. Add chickpeas and water. Season to taste with salt. Bring to a boil, cover; reduce heat to low and cook until all liquid has been absorbed, about 7–10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and parsley and serve.

Good- for- What- Ails- You Stew

This stew brings together Mother Nature’s finest cleansing veggies. I love this stew during cold and flu season because not only can it help prevent sniffles, aches, and pains, but the ingredients can also help you feel better faster.

Makes 3–4 servings

1-inch piece kombu*
2 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked until tender
1 cup diced fresh daikon
1 cup diced burdock
1 cup diced winter squash
1 cup diced carrot
Soy sauce
Juice of ¼ fresh lemon
3–4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Layer the veggies in a heavy pot in the order listed. Add ⅓ cup spring or filtered water and a splash of soy sauce and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook until carrot is soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with soy sauce and simmer, uncovered until any remaining liquid cooks away. Stir gently to incorporate lemon juice and parsley and serve hot.

*Kombu is a sea vegetable that can be purchased at natural food stores.