Winter in Iowa: love it or hate it?
I love it … as long as it’s not below 20 degrees, at least 6 inches of snow is on the ground, the wind stays below 10 mph, and ice doesn’t cause problems with the tread of my shoes or my tires.
Yep, I love it alright … about 3 days a year.
I have no right to complain as I sit in my warm house, looking out on a frigid, but stunning, snow-covered yard. It’s a beautiful day but the sun is straining to keep us above zero. It’s cold out there and no one knows that better than those who work outside: police officers and firemen; construction crews; farmers caring for livestock; even kids working hard to add just one more layer to that snow fort.
Is there anything more comforting to a body subjected to winter’s fury than a hot, hearty bowl of soup? (Cue the crackle of the fireplace.) Whether you crave a bowl of tomato soup in which to dunk your grilled cheese sandwich, a big thick bowl of chili sprinkled with onions and cheese, or a bowl of broth-y chicken-noodle with oyster crackers floating on top, just thinking about it begins to warm those cold toes.
January is National Soup Month. We’ve already established that the weather makes January an appropriate month to celebrate this food category. As I thought about it a little more, another reason soup became so popular in the winter came to mind: practicality. Growing up on a farm, I worked with my mom in our garden. As we harvested, canned, froze, and stored produce, she would share stories and lessons of food preservation. Our freezer, cupboards, and cold room were full of vegetables and fruits that we would use all winter. As the winter months passed, some of the cold room vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, etc.) would start to spoil. The answer to the question, “Should I throw this one out?”, was always, “No. It’s good for soup.” We’d cut off and discard the spoiled portion and a pot of soup would soon be simmering. Waste Not. Want Not.
Trade secrets learned on the farm apply directly to making soup (among other important life skills).
1. Waste Not Want Not
So much of what we throw away on a daily basis could best be used to make homemade broth or stock for soup. We buy a rotisserie chicken and throw away the bones. We peel potatoes and carrots and throw the peelings away (vitamin packed, you know). Mushroom stems, celery ends, lemon rinds, and even the rind of hard cheeses like Parmesan are all items that end up in the trash when they could be simmered low and slow (say hello to my friend the crock pot) with herbs and spices to make amazing broth. Ever dumped potato or pasta water down the drain? There went a great start to a hearty broth.
Clarification: I do buy broth/stock. I try to make broth whenever possible and freeze it for later use but life doesn’t always allow for it. When buying broth, take a few minutes to look at the ingredients and nutritional information. Avoid broths high in sodium, full of additives/preservatives and artificial colors/flavors. Who needs that?
For more instructions on making chicken broth, check out this post: Chicken Stock.
2. Good Things Are Worth Waiting For
If there is one soup tip that is above all other tips, it is this: make the soup at least one day in advance. Even simple soups are complex combinations of ingredients and flavors. Dumping everything together and expecting it to taste balanced is sure to disappoint.
3. Figure It Out As You Go
My dad was an expert at “figure it out as you go”. He would never have said that about himself but having witnessed it first-hand, time after time, it was true. He would work to fix a piece of farm machinery starting with what he knew and looking for clues. It’s a stretch to compare farm machinery and soup but the advice holds true.
Taste as you go.
Texture and seasoning are the clues to “figuring out” soup. Taste as you go to ensure proper seasoning, especially when it comes to salt. It is important to season the layers and still end up with a soup that is not overly salty. Adding more or less salt to the soup is highly dependent on your choice of broth, canned verses fresh vegetables, meat types (prepared sausages will contain salt while fresh ground meat will not), and other ingredients like soy or Worcestershire sauce that may be added later in the recipe.
Taste the vegetables to see if they are properly cooked. A recipe gives guidelines for the amount of time it will take to cook vegetables properly but they only way to tell if they are properly cooked, and not overcooked, is to taste them.
4. Be Consistent
No need to break out a ruler, but chopping ingredients uniformly is important for uniform cooking. Bigger pieces will take longer than smaller pieces to cook. No shock there. If the pieces are not cut the same size, some will be overcooked and some will be undercooked.
5. Timing is Everything
Use the broth and herbs to their full potential. Whenever a recipe calls for browning of meat, make sure to brown the meat. Let it caramelize in the pan (stir it less often) so the pan has a nice layer of meat “bits” stuck on it. Remove the excess fat from the pan (as directed) and, while the pan is hot, add the dry herbs and spices. “Toasting” the herbs/spices for even a minute will release their flavors and oils. Add the broth to deglaze the pan. (Be careful as, of course, adding liquid to a hot pan will produce steam.) All the richness of the caramelized “bits” and the herbs/spices will infuse the broth with more flavor.
6. Little Things are big things
Bay leaves and apples.
These are two very simple ingredients that I’ve learned not to ignore when making soup.
Putting into words the effect of a single bay leaf on the flavor of soup is impossible. All I know is when I leave it out, I regret it. Some websites compare the flavor of bay leaves to mint, eucalyptus, menthol, or pine. What? Why would I recommend adding that to soup?
If I concentrate really hard while smelling a bay leaf, I MIGHT get a hint of eucalyptus. I think the only word I can use to describe the scent is “fresh”. There is a balance that comes to soup when a bay leaf is allowed to simmer and even rest in the broth.
Bay leaves are not to be eaten, so make sure to remove them before serving.
Apples? In soup? Well, when it comes to Ham & Bean Soup, turns out a few apple slices make or break the finished product. I discovered this when trying to replicate my mom’s amazing soup using leftover ham bone. You can read the whole story here, but suffice it to say, the addition of a few slices of apple in the cooking process was all I needed to get as close as I can to my mom’s specialty.
It’s the “little things” that show their power when the people around your table taste your creation, close their eyes and say “mmmmmm”.
Here are a few of my favorite soup recipes. I wish they all had better/pictures (working on it)… I’ve learned A LOT about food photography in the last year! I can say the recipes are true and, as always, I would love your feedback (positive/negative/question-filled) on any and all of my posts. It’s the only way I can get them JUST RIGHT!
I may have a love/hate relationship with winter in Iowa, but a good bowl of soup on a cold, January day can make me optimistic for February and March (maybe even April).
Soup … a glass of wine … and a pair of footie pajamas!