In the Northeast, as winter creeps upon us and the weather seems to only get colder and brisker, one food seems to continually pop into my appetite: soup. As a self-proclaimed soup aficionado, I frequently find myself preparing new soup recipes, testing them out at Shabbat meals. Since my lentil soup proved a pre-fast hit on Yom Kippur, I’ve been searching for the perfect winter soup to serve to my Shabbat meal guests. Perhaps most strikingly, chicken soup will be absent from my winter soup repertoire. I inherited my mother’s excellent knack for making chicken soup, always adding the most important ingredient of love, but this skill is all for naught since I began eating vegetarian this past summer. Sure, I can make vegetarian chicken soup, but I’d rather take advantage of the wonderful, seasonal offerings to make a winter soup.
One of the many wonderful things I learned last year had nothing to do with my studies in school, and more to do with cooking. I learned that soup, much like any other dish, didn’t need a recipe to turn out delicious. I had to trust my instincts, and my taste buds, to prepare creative meals. I loved the idea of cooking without recipes, as I have always been one to throw away instruction manuals and directions, and through a joint effort, my roommate and I began an almost weekly tradition of soup and homemade artisan bread. Our soups nursed us through our winter midterms, and a great pot of soup would last us a week, meaning less time we had to spend preparing meals as we got increasingly busy. Below are a few guidelines that will help you to prepare the perfect seasonal soup, leaving plenty of flexibility to make the soup uniquely yours.
My roommate taught me that as long as there were fresh vegetables available, any soup had the potential to be great. The basis to any great soup, whether it is vegetarian or not, and many will agree with me, is the soup base itself. Though soup stock is readily available to purchase, it’s just as easy to make your own, especially a vegetable stock. Simply throw together a random assortment of vegetables (like carrots, celery, parsnips and onions) into a pot with water and allow it to boil for about half an hour. Either keep the stock and discard the vegetables, or leave the vegetables in as part of the soup. Also, for a twist, try a winter squash soup, by pureeing various types of winter squash to make a base for the soup.
Once you have a unique stock ready to go, it is time to add great vegetables. In the winter, nothing is tastier than a root vegetable soup. Vegetables like potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnip, beets, mushrooms, and onion make a flavorful soup that fits the seasonal offerings of the Northeast during the winter months. These days, my favorite root vegetable is parsnip, which makes a great addition to any soup. When my mother traditionally prepared her chicken soup, she always discarded the parsnip after cooking them in her soup, finding the taste too overwhelming alone. But last winter, I fell in love with parsnips, which were readily available at my local farmer’s market throughout the winter. I added them to as many dishes as I could, finding their flavor surprising and exciting. I found that they instantly perked up any soup, not just as part of the base, but as one of the main highlights of the soup.
Another soup tip, especially for vegetarians: No matter the season, I love the addition of dried lentils and dried barley into soup. Lentils are full of protein and can make any soup instantly heartier. When my roommate and I prepared a winter vegetable soup last year, it tasted just like traditional chicken soup, but was a great vegetarian alternative. In fact, we even put matzah balls in our soup to allow it to perfectly mimic the classic.
Of course, these are just the beginnings of a great soup. Any soup can be made unique by adding different assortments of vegetables, pasta, or even, your favorite matzah balls. Using fresh or dried herbs and spices adds even more flavor and limits the need for too much salt. By using what is available seasonally, you will find that your soups become increasingly creative and even surprisingly delicious. Hopefully, this winter, I will make the perfect winter vegetable soup to feature at my Shabbat meals, in order to keep my guests warm throughout the cold winter months.
Alyssa Berkowitz is a senior in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the Food Programs Intern at Hazon.