Soup's On

Eat Warm in Winter

photograph by John Anderson
In cooler climes, where the onset of fall and winter means the changing of colors, the donning of sweaters, and the lighting of chimney fires, another seasonal rite of passage exists -- the transition from light, summery meals to dishes blanketed in warm sauces. Fall and winter mark the return of sinful splashes of cream, luscious layers of cheese, and hearty vegetable purées. Gone are the gazpacho and cool green salads, forgotten the grilled fish and marinades of soy or citrus fruits. What exits most kitchens during the chilling winter months has a mission beyond mere nourishment: Cold weather food soothes the soul and warms the body.

Regardless of where you spend your winter, whether in mild Austin or frigid Philadelphia, one comfort food remains inextricably linked to the falling mercury. Soup. Sure, we boast a number of warm weather favorites here in Texas. But what better punctuates a brisk winter walk or invites you to curl up and hibernate when it's inhospitable outdoors than a steaming bowl of soup?

Pottery vessels revealing traces of boiled liquid enhanced with cultivated grains provide proof that soup, or a close relative such as porridge, fed prehistoric peoples as long ago as 7,000-8,000 B.C. One Biblical reference to soup, the Old Testament story of Esau selling his birthright to his younger brother Jacob in exchange for a pottage of red lentils, illustrates that the piping hot preparation was valued for its comforting properties long before chicken soup was adopted as a universal cure-all. Historians tell us that early Native Americans enjoyed fortifying broths made from hickory nuts and served hearty chestnut gruels. And in ancient Greece, street vendors hawked thick bean, pea, and lentil soups as between-meal snacks, while their counterparts in China perfumed steaming broths with flowers, herbs, fruits, meats, and fish.

As long as it has been around, it is no wonder that soup's variations seem endless. One favorite of Greek antiquity was "black broth," a curious concoction of blood, pork, vinegar, salt, and seasonings. Apicius, Rome's first-century gastronome, shared recipes for grain-and-legume-based soups in his landmark cookbook, but also recorded a rather forward-looking recipe for a purée of lettuce and onions. A 15th-century Venetian cookbook, De Honesta Vouptate, details a recipe for hemp pottage (with an added warning that over-consumption could spark nausea). Generally, however, soup is associated with restorative qualities.

A Yiddish proverb says that worries go down better with soup than without, and as far back as the 12th century, Hebrew scholar, physician, and rabbi Moses Maimonides prescribed chicken soup as a cure for "black humor." In France, Alsatians claim their Weinsuppe, a delicate chicken and egg drop preparation, is a remedy for arthritis. A favored post-natal gift to new mothers in Scandinavia is fruit soup, believed to provide the extra strength needed for nursing. And closer to home, menudo earns top marks as the ideal antidote for a hangover.

Those simply seeking to warm their hearths with winter soup will find that cookbooks detail countless different preparations, beginning with basic stocks and culminating in chunky stews. Great French chef Auguste Escoffier, in his definitive, early 20th-century cookbook of French cuisine, held humble stock in such high esteem that he deemed it "everything in cooking." Indeed, stocks -- themselves numerous in kind -- act as the building blocks for most other soups and while they can be purchased canned and ready-to-use, it is difficult to reproduce the rich, full flavor of the real, homemade thing. Stock isn't difficult to prepare. It's about as easy as tossing some bones -- leftover or fresh from your butcher -- into a pot over low heat with a few standard vegetables and seasonings, covering the mess with water, and then basically, waiting.

Escoffier's book, like classic American cooking guides such as the Joy of Cooking, goes on to divide soups into categories, the most common among them stocks, consommés, purées, veloutés, creams, bisques, chowders, gumbos, and stews. While a local sampling of restaurant menus reveals that soup's defining categories have long since acceptably blurred, purists adhere to the following guide:

Stock: The liquid in which the bones or meat of beef, pork, fowl, or fish have been cooked along with vegetables (typically carrots, onions, and celery) and herbs (typically thyme, bay leaf, black peppercorn, cloves and occasionally garlic), in order to extract the flavor (albumin) which is found within the bones. Vegetable stock is typically derived from onions, celery, carrots, leeks, and herbs and spices as detailed above.

Consommé: Stock that has been clarified and enhanced with the addition of lean meat, egg whites, and vegetables. Consommé came into being when King Louis XIV of France requested that his chef prepare a soup so clear that he could see his reflection in it.

Purée: A thick soup traditionally made of starchy and/or mealy vegetables such as beans and/or potatoes and blended until smooth. Purées made from vegetables or herbs with a low starch content are often thickened by the addition of rice, potatoes, or bread cubes.

Velouté: A puréed soup thickened by a white sauce made of roux (melted fat and flour) and stock-based white sauce. Veloutés are then bound with eggs and cream, and finished with butter.

Cream: Cream soups vary from veloutés in that they are thickened by a bechamel sauce, not by eggs.

Bisque: While bisque has become the common term for a thick, slightly gelatinous soup, purists define bisque as a purée of shellfish that may be thickened by grains, a roux and fish stock, or bread cubes.

Chowder: A traditional American favorite made from fish or clams, salt pork, potatoes and usually onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. New Englanders claim authentic chowder is made with milk or cream while Manhattan chowder features a base of tomatoes.

Gumbo: The defining soup of the South, gumbo gets its name from an African word for okra. Gumbo is a stew thickened by a roux, as well as okra and/or filé -- powdered sassafrass leaves.

Stew: A hearty preparation in which chunks of meat, seafood, and/or vegetables have been cooked down in stock, milk, or cream.

Not up for putting the soup pot on at home? (Beethoven did say that "only the pure in heart can make a good soup.") Head to any of Austin's favorite soup spots and indulge.

Chez Zee: Everyone knows to stop in to Chez Zee for dessert, but it's worth popping into the festive cafe for a quick bowl of their signature Corn and Aztec Shrimp Bisque, packed plum full of popcorn shrimp and fresh kernel corn.
5406 Balcones Dr., 454-2666

Cook's Night Out Deli & Catering: Pick up a pint of the homemade chicken-and-sausage gumbo or another soup of the day and serve it in the comfort of your own home.
1221 West Lynn, 477-3945

Eastside Cafe: The soups at Eastside are nearly as famous as the garden. Pollo tortilla is always on the menu, along with a vegetarian soup and a special soup du jour. Home cooks will find inspiration in Eastside's Soup Yourself cookbook, available in the restaurant's gift shop.
2113 Manor Rd., 476-5858

Fresh Choice: One of the rare spots in town to cop a bowl of homemade New England Clam Chowder. The restaurant's soups -- 2 soup du jour selections (one always low-fat or non-fat) and the other menu standard, a low-fat Fettuccine Chicken Noodle -- are made fresh daily on the premises.
9761 Great Hills Tr., 795-9200

Hudson's Grill: This casual spot's soups took top honors in the Reader's Poll.
8440 Burnet, 458-5117; 13376 Research, 219-1902

Hyde Park Bar & Grill: Lentil soup has been a late-night favorite at this neighborhood haunt for years. Hyde Park also offers a homemade soup of the day.
4206 Duval, 458-3168

Kerbey Lane Cafe: Soup's on at any time of the day or night, and the selection is forever changing. Vegetarian preparations win rave reviews.
12602 Research, 258-7757; 2700 S. Lamar, 445-4451; 3704 Kerbey Ln., 451-1436

La Madeleine: The creamy tomato-basil soup has made many an addict, and the French Onion claims its fair share of fans as well. (Note: Tomato-basil soup is now available in jars at the bakery.)
3418 N. Lamar, 302-1458

Little Mexico Mexican Food: Menudo is on the menu at the South Austin institution every single day.
2304 S. First, 462-2188

Mother's Cafe and Garden: The choices are constantly changing, but if you hit the tomato/artichoke bisque day, you're sure to be pleased. Mother's always features a dairy and non-dairy soup.
4215 Duval, 451-3994

Fortune Pho 75: Pho's pho -- aromatic broths afloat with noodles and herbs -- provide an inexpensive (and filling) taste of the exotic.
5501 N. Lamar, 458-1792

Red River Cafe: The cafe's soup maker, Charlie, turns out home-style favorites such as potato or broccoli and cheese daily and prepares a stick-to-your-ribs black bean soup on weekends.
2912 Medical Arts St, 472-0385

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