Making soup that doesn’t suck
Pho Hong noodle soup
Soup is a staple. It’s one of the simplest, cheapest comfort foods, not to mention one of the best ways to use extra vegetables from a garden or farm share. For many of us, it’s the foundation of cold-weather cooking. When leaves turn russet and copper and salads stop seeming like filling meals, soup is where our thoughts turn. So, why is it so hard to get it right?
We’ve all had the experience at a restaurant or dinner party: The cook or server places a crock in front of you. Anticipating a rush of rich flavor, you lift the spoon to your lips and blow away the steam.
All too often, disappointment sets in with the first taste. Perhaps you expected a rich chicken broth and got something that tastes more like chicken water. Or you dreamed of an intense cream of cauliflower, but ended up with what award-winning food writer and cooking teacher Molly Stevens of Williston refers to as “cream of cream.”
What gives? Can something that seems like a simple peasant food really be so difficult?
Yes and no. Making good soup takes time and attention, plus a soupçon of classic culinary technique. Tossing a chicken and the limp vegetables from the depths of your crisper in hot water and walking away isn’t going to cut it. But if you start with flavorful stock and great ingredients, and treat them with care, it’s hard to go wrong.
Below, you’ll find some soup wisdom from two experts, a few recipes and an evaluation of seven store-bought chicken broths. (Everyone needs to take shortcuts sometimes.) Alice Levitt looked into a question many fans of our area’s crop of cheap Vietnamese restaurants may have asked themselves: What makes pho so flavorful?
Happy autumn — and get simmering!
SEVEN DAYS: Would you agree that trying someone’s soup is a good way to test their cooking cred?
MOLLY STEVENS: Sure, much in the way a sauce is a good measure. Good cooks taste as they go. The only way to make a good soup is to pay attention.
MICHAEL KLOETI: Absolutely. Because a soup can be an entire meal in itself, it means that all the components need to be there: texture, flavor, look. You can’t make shortcuts.
SD: What would you say are the biggest mistakes people make in soup cookery?
MS: They underseason. There’s what I call a “cream of cream” soup. It has a lovely texture, but you don’t know what it is — it doesn’t have a defining flavor.
MK: Don’t skimp on the quality of the material you’re using. Soup is looked at as a secondary thing to use up whatever you’ve got [in the fridge], but that’s what stocks are for. [A finished soup] is not necessarily going to taste like rosemary, tarragon or parsley, but a bunch of herbs should go into the soup. Cream of celery is not just celery, broth and cream — there are a lot of other ingredients that went into it.
SD: Can you offer some tips?
MS: [Cook ingredients before adding them to the soup] to get some intensity. If you’re trying to make squash soup [for example], you can roast the squash first to intensify the flavor. Salt at every step … [Salt] draws moisture from the ingredients. It gets the party going in the pot earlier.
Have an idea about what you want [the soup] to be and go for that. Not to say you can’t make a medley, but avoid “garbage soup.”
Don’t be afraid to make a meal out of it. Also, so many soups are better the next day — the flavors get mellow.
MK: You’re basically taking something that’s liquid, and it has to have as much flavor as something that’s solid. Use good ingredients: roasted chicken, mixed herbs, good seasonings.
Soup is not easy; it takes time and patience. Spend all of the effort you would to make a whole meal. And most soups do taste better the next day.
SD: Have you had any particularly memorable soups?
MS: I once had a Thai soup in London that completely blew me away. It was amazing how much flavor there was, and it was playing on all this discord. It made me think of jazz music, in a way. [The different flavors were] all blaring at once, but it was amazing. There was a cream of cauliflower soup in a restaurant outside of Paris that was amazing. It was like the essence of cauliflower.
MK: My mother’s potato-leek soup. She would make an omelette, almost like a crêpe — it’s an old, traditional French garnish. You cook it in a pan until it’s brown on both sides, and then you chiffonade it and put it in.
SD: What are your favorite soup combinations?
MS: It depends on what time of year it is. I like bean soups, lentil soups — I even like carrot and ginger, even though it’s clichéd and has been around forever. I like soups with a little bit of meat … I make a roasted-cauliflower soup with Indian spices; that’s a great one.
MK: Anything seasonal. If there’s snow outside and you’re looking at a tomato soup, it doesn’t feel right. Right now we have a roasted-mushroom soup, and we have been foraging for the whole season and keeping some aside to make this soup. Use the same combinations you’d [put together] in a main course.
Broth Basics and Beyond
When a stock is simmering on the stove, two things are happening. The first is that most of the flavor from the ingredients — bones, meat, vegetables, spices and herbs — bleeds into the liquid. (At the end of the process, if you nibble on a carrot or a bit of chicken, it won’t taste like much.) This process takes longer when you’re using bones.
Second, the flavor of the broth intensifies as water from the pot evaporates. Even when all the goodness is gone from the ingredients, the longer you keep the pot on the fire (with or without the leavings), the more flavorful the resulting liquid will be. My rule of thumb: Although vegetable stocks are “done” after an hour or so, I like to cook them for at least two.
Most classic French stock recipes include carrots, celery and onions, and this is not just happenstance. Each of the three contributes something distinctive to the final product: Carrots are sweet and earthy, celery is vegetal with a hint of bitterness, and onions are funky and sharp. If you don’t like or don’t have one of the three, it’s not the end of the world, but think about what you can substitute that will play a role similar to the missing ingredient.
And, depending on what you plan to make with the stock, don’t be afraid to add herbs.
Corncob and Porcini Broth
Whenever I buy corn, I freeze the stripped cobs for stock. Using them instead of tossing them is good, but the rich, sweet flavor the cobs contribute to soups is even better. Porcini mushrooms add a savory quality often missing in meat-free dishes.
Yield: approximately 6 cups 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped 5 carrots, washed but not peeled, roughly chopped 5 celery stalks, washed and roughly chopped 3 teaspoons salt, separated A few grinds of pepper 1 gallon water 10 corncobs, kernels removed 1/2 ounce (0.03 lb.) dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed 25 peppercorns 10 sprigs thyme 2 bay leaves Pepper to taste
Heat a stockpot or large saucepan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the olive oil and tilt to coat. When the oil shimmers (but before it begins to smoke), add the onions, carrots and celery. Sprinkle on about a teaspoon of salt, which will help draw liquid from the vegetables. Then add a few grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally. After a few minutes, the onions and carrots should start to brown. When the vegetables have gotten a good amount of color, turn up the heat and add the water to the pot, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. (This is called deglazing.) Add the corncobs, mushrooms, peppercorns, herbs and remaining 2 teaspoons of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. When the stock is bubbling, remove the lid and adjust the heat so that the mixture simmers instead of boiling furiously. Taste a spoonful every half hour to see how the flavor develops. After about two hours, you should detect plenty of woodsy mushroom and sweet corn, as well as the vegetal backbone of onions, celery and carrots. When you do, the broth is done. Remove it from the heat and, when it has cooled a bit, strain out the vegetables. (If you want the stock to be extra clear, you can strain it through cheesecloth.) Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired. If you plan to use it within a few days, you can store it in the fridge. If not, it’s fine in the freezer.
I prefer the flavor of roasted chicken to poached chicken. So, before I make this broth, I cut the wings off a bird and cook it in a 400-degree oven. When it’s done and cooled, I pull off the meat. The bones and sinew go in the stockpot, along with the raw wings and giblets.
It’s a mistake to throw a whole chicken and some vegetables in a pot and call the soup done when the chicken is. The results will be pallid. But the reverse is just as bad — a bird that’s simmered for three hours will be chewy and tasteless.
Yield: approximately 4 cups Use all the ingredients for the vegetable stock except the corncobs and porcini mushrooms. Replace them with: 1 chicken carcass (raw or cooked) Fresh chicken bits (I use the wings and giblets. The stock will be even better if you throw in a whole package of wings.)
Follow the directions for the vegetable stock. But after the carrots, celery and onions have been cooked and you’ve added the water, put in the chicken bones and bits in place of the cobs and mushrooms. Add one teaspoon of salt instead of two. Simmer for at least three hours, until the liquid is golden and has a rich chicken taste. The yield will be lower than that of the other recipe because of the lengthy cooking time. Toward the end, if the water level in the pot is getting too low, you can add a couple cups of water. If you want to wring every bit of flavor from your chicken, you can simmer the stock for six or even eight hours. But you’ll need to start with quite a bit more water. Creamy Cauliflower- Leek Soup Yield: 6 servings 2 tablespoons butter 2 medium leeks, slit in half and washed, then chopped 1 medium head cauliflower, washed and chopped Salt Pepper 6 cups corncob and porcini broth, or other good-quality stock 2 medium starchy potatoes (the kind you’d use for baking), washed and chopped 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 1/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
In a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the butter over medium heat. When it has melted, add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have begun to tenderize. Add the cauliflower, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and turn up the heat a bit. Cook, stirring, until the cauliflower has some browned patches. (You could also roast the vegetables.) Add the broth and stir up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan (deglazing). Throw in the chopped potatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the pot at a simmer. Cook until the potatoes and the cauliflower are tender. Purée the soup. If you have an immersion blender, you can do this in the pot. If not, use a blender or food processor, and then return the soup to the pot. Over low heat, stir the heavy cream into the purée. (You can use more than a half-cup if you’d like a richer soup.) Add the sherry vinegar and taste the soup for seasoning. Mine needed an additional half teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.
Chicken Soup Yield: 4 servings 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 medium carrots, washed but not peeled, cut into half moons 1 small celeriac, peeled, trimmed and chopped Salt Pepper 1 quart good chicken broth 3 medium potatoes, washed and chopped Cooked meat from half a chicken, chopped 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice Salt to taste Pepper to taste
In a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering but not smoking, add the carrots and celeriac and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have some browned patches. Add the broth and deglaze (stir up browned bits). Add the chopped potatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the pot at a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender. Add the chicken and cook until the meat is heated through, just another minute or two. Add the lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. A sprinkling of herbs makes a nice garnish.
Dem Bones: Discovering the secret of Pho Hong’s rich broth
The staff of Pho Hong in Burlington have agreed to take a reporter through the steps of making their famous noodle soup. But not everyone is comfortable with the idea.
“It’s a family recipe,” says one young server, blocking the door to the kitchen. “There’s so much competition around here. We can’t let that out.”
Luckily, chef Lan Hong is more accommodating. The petite lady offers a tour of the workspace she shares with owner and cook Dao Le and one other line cook. Le arrives each morning by eight to start the process that brings in Burlingtonians by the busload for their favorite pho.
Le begins by roasting beef bones in a pot so large it warrants its own small stove in the corner of the kitchen. Every bowl of beef pho served at the restaurant that day will come from the one enormous batch of stock.
Next, Le adds water, and the stewing commences. The rich, sweet flavor of the soup comes from the very marrow of these mostly leg bones. But it’s a pair of small packages that give the broth personality.
Hong holds out a seasoning packet from a company called Elephant World. Star anise and cinnamon stand out visually among the spices, just as they do on the tongue when one tastes the warm broth. Hong reveals that additional flavor comes from a small box of bouillon made in Vietnam especially for pho.
Pho Hong also serves noodle soups in chicken and vegetable broths. The former involves stewing poultry bones for two hours before service. The mixed veggies in the latter take only an hour. The comparatively small pots share space on a single large range, where the kitchen team also prepares stir-fries, curries and Vietnamese crêpes called banh xeo.
By noon, the dining room of the restaurant, housed in a former bus station, is packed. As each order comes into the kitchen, Hong portions out the mix ins, resting them in the bowl before adding the flavorful broth. In the deluxe pho dac biet, Technicolor-pink slices of raw beef share space with precooked meat, as well as dense meatballs and fanlike fronds of tendon.
Most bowls are also filled with a nest of rice noodles. Some, such as the chicken-broth, beef-meatball and pork-filled hu tieu bo vien, include yellow egg noodles, too. Before each bowl leaves the kitchen, Hong showers it in green — scallions and cilantro enhance the flavor of the soup as they mix with the broth. A handful of fried onions gives a hint of sweetness and crunchy texture.
Steaming bowls of pho arrive at the table accompanied by plates filled with raw bean sprouts, lime slices and fresh basil, all from Thai Phat Market on North Street.
Many chefs sing the praises of simplicity and focus on using just a few ingredients per dish. Pho doesn’t benefit from that approach. While the smooth, golden broth gets its slightly musky odor from beef, it turns out to be more complex. A second sniff is dominated by the astringent aroma of cilantro. The first taste is sweet and comforting, but grows into an intricate web of tastes as the anise and cinnamon bloom on the palate. Cloves, cardamom and coriander blend in for a hint of subcontinental warmth. The marbled meat has a distinctive crunch as teeth tear flesh. A squeeze of lime and a hint of peppery Sriracha (Thai hot sauce) bring acid and heat.
Phooey to simplicity. If the devil is in the details, then this potage is a welcome dip into Hades. Whether you’re warming up on these shortening days or feeding a cold, Pho Hong’s busy broth is the one to beat.
Making chicken broth takes time, so even the most motivated cook sometimes reaches for store-bought stuff. Seven Days circulation manager (and foodie) Steve Hadeka joined me in a blind tasting of seven brands of commercial broth — all warmed in the microwave — to determine which are worth buying.
The answer: You don’t have many options on the grocery shelves. Most of these bordered on unpleasant, and a few went all the way to nasty land.
Shelton’s All Natural Chicken Broth With Salt & Spices (canned)
Steve: This one has such a slick on it that it looks as though it may have been ladled from the Gulf last June. Lemonade-ish in color, with the smell of last night’s beer can. The taste is slightly better than the smell, but not by much. Cheap tasting.
Suzanne: Lemon yellow in color, with an off-putting aroma and lots of grease on top. The broth is clearly canned and very weak.
College Inn Chicken Broth (canned)
Steve: This one has a creepy, not-quite-clear appearance punctuated by a slimy slick of grease. If this broth were a movie, it would be Saw IV.
Suzanne: If I didn’t know that I was tasting chicken broth, I wouldn’t be sure what this pallid stuff is supposed to be. Tastes mostly of salt, with a hint of metal can on the finish.
Herb-Ox Chicken Flavor Bouillon Cubes
Steve: Medium-yellow color, the first broth with green flecks of herbs, most likely parsley. This tastes exactly like the powdered microwave-soup packets I used to make when I was a latchkey kid. Thanks for reminding me of that phase of my life, broth! Top that off with a hint of “genuine urine” aftertaste. Yum!
Suzanne: This appealing-looking gold liquid flecked with green is clearly made from a bouillon cube and has a strong, meaty taste with some off notes, and a mouth-drying dose of sodium.
Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base (jarred)
Steve: Electric yellow! Nice and cloudy (with a chance of bouillon cubes). Nice celery flavor. Reminds me a bit of my mom’s mulligatawny, minus the curry. Great salt!
Suzanne: This one is vibrant yellow and smells like celery (although a later check shows no celery among the ingredients; maybe it’s one of the “natural flavors”?). It’s the most savory and intense product of the bunch, but tastes highly processed.
Kitchen Basics Original Chicken Cooking Stock (boxed)
Steve: The color of this one makes me wish we had one of those “Friday afternoon beer” offices. It’s the color of Switchback! The scent reminds me of a barnyard: old wood and hay. Slightly sour, not a comforting flavor.
Suzanne: The brownish color makes this look like it would be packed with roasty, meaty taste, but it’s actually got an unpleasant sour flavor.
Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken Broth (boxed)
Steve: Slightly darker than some of the others. The aroma reminds me of fried chicken, as if I were standing under the exhaust vent of a KFC. Not particularly chicken-y in flavor.
Suzanne: A completely inoffensive product, with the aroma of chicken and potatoes and a mild taste. Passable, yet oddly boring.
Imagine Organic Free Range Chicken Broth (boxed)
Steve: A nice, cloudy appearance with lots of little flecks. The most natural looking of the group. Reminds me of a mid-grade canned chicken soup along the lines of Progresso. Better than Campbell’s, but not like Mom’s.
Suzanne: This actually borders on good. It’s cloudy with real meat particles, and smells and tastes like chicken. If I have to buy chicken broth, I’ll buy this one.
--Suzanne Podhaizer and Steve Hadeka