The curative powers of chicken soup are universally acknowledged, as is the classiness of having a small cup of bisque as a starter to an evening meal out. But now that the days are getting shorter, nights are getting colder, and December is officially here, I'm all about a different kind of magic in a bowl: Soups that are a meal unto themselves.
Hearty chowders laced with bacon and potatoes, thick black bean soup with spicy chorizo, rich lentil soup with kale and sausage, Tuscan bean soup swirled with pesto. Soups that don't get garnished with a dainty sprig of parsley, but with a generous amount of Parmesan or a spoonful of sour cream. Soups where the dinner plan is putting bowls out next to a bubbling pot on the stove with a big ladle, heating up some crusty bread or baking a few corn muffins, setting out condiments, and passing around the spoons.
As the spoons dip deep, the goodness in the bowls will slowly spread inside the people around the table, then flow out among them, until the whole room is relaxed and smiling* and basking contentedly in the warmth that has filled up the place**.
With a few notable exceptions***, this kind of soup is best at home. There are recipes that take days and days****, and some that you can make in a Sunday afternoon. Of course, there's takeout that you can warm up in 10 minutes. And then there is this family favorite that's ready to go in about an hour, especially if you have some handy helpers in the kitchen to chop the veggies for you.
Hamburger Soup (aka Weeknight Minestrone)
The original recipe came from our childhood next door neighbor, Mrs. Schneiders. We loved the name because it conjured up images of little cheeseburgers floating around in there somewhere. I modified it to add sausage, because, well...everything tastes better with sausage.
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. each freshly ground black pepper, oregano, and basil
dash of seasoned salt
1 pkg. Lipton onion soup mix
6 c. boiling water
1 small (6 oz.) can of tomato paste
1 15 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes, with their juice
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 c. celery, sliced crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces
1/4 c. celery leaves, chopped
1 c. carrots, sliced
1/2 c. lentils
1 c. elbow macaroni, or other small shaped pasta
2-3 inch piece of the rind of a hunk of Parmesan cheese
Red chili pepper flakes and freshly grated Parmesan or Fontina cheese, for garnish
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, brown the meats in the oil, breaking them up as you go. Drain excess fat. Add the salt, pepper, basil, oregano, seasoned salt and onion soup mix. Stir in water, tomato paste, diced tomatoes and soy sauce. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add celery, celery leaves, carrots and lentils. Bury the rind of Parmesan in the soup. It will add really great rich flavor without melting all over the place. Continue to cook over low heat, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, or until lentils are cooked through but still firm. Every once in a while, take a big spoon and skim of the foam that rises to the top as it cooks.
Meanwhile, separately cook pasta in boiling salted water until just barely done*****. Drain and set aside. About 10 minutes before serving, stir pasta into the soup, taste and adjust seasonings. Before you ladle out the soup, remove the Parmesan rind. Serve with a generous sprinkling of cheese on top, and pass chili flakes around as an option for those who like them.
* Except my son, who has discovered that I have yet again put vegetables in his bowl that need to be fished out individually with dramatic sighs, thereby harshing his buzz.
** This is why meal soups are generally a winter phenomenon. Who wants to bask in extra warmth and glow when it's 105 outside?
*** When I lived in NY, there were two great places where soup was the entire focus of the meal. One was Soup Kitchen International, home of the famous Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. He truly did have an incredible crab bisque. The other, which is still going strong, is Le Bonne Soupe. They make the world's best French onion soup, as far as I am concerned. Lunch there includes a small salad with excellent, garlicky vinaigrette, an utterly fresh portion of a perfect baguette, a bowl of one of their signature soups, and a perfect little serving of chocolate mousse for dessert. Everything is fantastic and it's one of the best deals in town. I make a point of going every time I visit if I possibly can.
**** When my husband and I were still dating, he feel ill one day and asked if I could make him some soup. Of course I said yes, and asked what kind he wanted. He feebly croaked, "minestrone". I pulled out my copy of The Silver Palate cookbook, and looked up the recipe. It began with, "Roast your beef marrow bones for 6 hours to prepare the stock." Fool that I was, I followed every singe step to the letter, and proudly served him a bowl of homemade minestrone soup three days later. He nearly died waiting, but married me anyway.
***** When soup recipes call for pasta, I always cook the pasta separately and add it in at the last minute. Otherwise it will absorb much of the liquid in the soup, upsetting the balance of things.