Authors: Lynn Alley
50 Simple Soups for the Slow Cooker
copyright © 2011 by Lynn Alley. Photographs copyright © 2011 by Ben Pieper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of reprints in the context of reviews.
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my favorite folktales is the beloved “Stone Soup”
because it exemplifies just how easy it is to make a delicious soup out of almost nothing at all. A little rice, some tomatoes from the garden, a zucchini run amuck, some fresh spring herbs, some dried beans; anything and everything is fair game in a soup, whether one simple ingredient or a mélange of scavenged odds and ends.
From the proverbial
pot au feu
—bubbling away for days on the back of a French housewife’s stove as scraps from each day’s meals were tossed in, ensuring that nothing edible went to waste—to the creations that I whip up in my kitchen today using a slow cooker and an immersion blender, soups are a surefire way to make comfort, economy, and warmth pervade even the most humble of homes.
Soups are versatile, serving as everything from a first course, to a light lunch, to a hearty, stand-alone meal, to a dessert, and in some cases, even a breakfast. I remember my surprise at finding green salad and miso soup on the breakfast buffet at Honolulu’s beautiful Halekulani Hotel, a traditional offering to the hotel’s Japanese guests. Soups can be casual or formal, creamy or full of texture, light or heavier, hot or cold. They can be loaded with complex flavors and techniques, or made of one ingredient.
Easy on the Planet, the Palate, and the Pocketbook
I wanted to do a slow cooker soups book partly because I love soup so much and partly because I feel that many consumers today are looking for stuff that is easy to make, soul satisfying, and easy on the planet, the palate, and the pocketbook.
There can be no question that soup can be easy on the pocketbook. A great soup can often be put together using nothing more than a bag of beans and some good spices, or a few leftovers with some bright vegetables. And I can usually get several meals out of a good slow cooker full of soup, eating some now and freezing some for another day. A simple bowl of soup will fill a hungry belly for just a few pennies’ worth of ingredients.
As for the planet, a good vegetable-based soup is far easier on the planet than is a juicy beef stew, for reasons that have been well exposed by a number of experts, beginning with
Lappé in 1971 (
Diet for a Small Planet
John Robbins (
Diet for a New America
in 1987. It takes a heck of a lot more resources to put a pound of flesh on a steer than it does to grow an acre of lima beans or corn. Latest statistics show that vast tracts of necessary-to-our-survival
rain forests in South America
have been cleared to feed America’s burger habit, destroying not only our planet’s “lungs” but also the way of life of many indigenous cultures. Add to this the fact that you can often rely upon farmers’ markets for local produce, further reducing the impact on the
made by trucking ingredients over long distances.
The recipes in this book simply focus on fruits, grains, and vegetables, all of which offer a much greater array of colors, flavors, and textures than would meat, and all with minimal impact on the
. When I taught cooking to middle school students many years ago, we talked about how meats basically have one color theme, and not a lot of variation in texture, whereas the plant kingdom offers reds, yellows, blues, purples, greens, and oranges, and all shades in between, and variations in texture that range from very soft like a banana, to hard like an apple, to the seeded insides of brightly colored pomegranates and passion fruits, to carrots and avocados, all kinder to the environment.
I don’t mean to say that if you think you would enjoy one of the recipes more with some of last night’s roast chicken, a leftover ham bone, or a bit of fresh shrimp, that you shouldn’t be encouraged to add it. My neighbor Kathy, who eats every soup I make, sometimes adds chicken (which she loves to grill) to the soups to give her added protein. But I did want to demonstrate that a soup based upon vegetables only can be very rich in flavor and texture without relying upon canned chicken stock and chunks of meat or bone. Quite frankly, some of the best compliments I’ve received have come from people who were just sure you couldn’t make a good soup without meat. What follows are some of the tricks I’ve used to infuse soups with rich flavors without meat.
Much has been written about the value of organic growing methods; however, I think most consumers miss one very important point: synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
were not created with your health in mind
. While they have enabled us to produce large quantities of food and feed a greater number of people worldwide, they have also contributed to destruction of the environment and created havoc with human and animal health.
This is not to say that many hardworking farmers would deliberately harm your health, but it
to say that your health is
the farmer’s bottom line
. Running his or her business is the bottom line. Keep this in mind and support those farmers who are willing to go the extra mile in the interests of keeping both you and the planet healthier for all concerned by using
As for the palate (as well as other senses), I’ll let the recipes speak for themselves.
Bang for Your Buck: Ways to Bump Up the Flavor
Professional chefs use a variety of cooking techniques to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Most of the soups in this book include a limited number of ingredients, but you can build
using some of these techniques.
One of the simplest ways to add flavor to a soup is to brown some or all of the ingredients before committing them to the pot.
can easily be chopped and added to the soup raw, but if you’d like to add an extra dimension of flavor, you can brown them in oil or butter first, anywhere from just softening them to giving them a nice golden hue. If you have a slow cooker with a cast aluminum insert suitable for use on the stovetop, then you won’t even have to use an extra pan for
Better still, brown the vegetables, then cook them in the slow cooker with a little oil
but no water
for anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before you add the water (see
French Onion Soup
). This method gives the vegetables an opportunity to further brown or caramelize, adding yet more flavor to your soup.
is certainly a must-have in building the flavor of any good soup. Soup is one of those foods that cries out for plenty of salt and can taste very bland without it. Salt interferes with bitter taste receptors on your tongue; then you, as a result, taste the sweet or more desirable flavors in the soup instead of its bitter elements. Salt is a flavor enhancer for everything in the soup, not just a means of adding a salty taste.
You’ll notice that I have left the matter of how much salt to add entirely to your taste; since we differ in our taste and tolerance for salt, it seems a good idea. A rule of thumb is to add about a tablespoon of salt to any one of the recipes in this book
as a starting point.
This is a starting point only. If the soup still tastes a little bland to you, try adding a little more salt, a little bit at a time, until you’ve reached optimum flavor. You’ll be amazed at how
the flavors in the soup jump out at you with just a little additional salt.
I use Hain Pure Foods Sea Salt from my local health food store as my all-purpose cooking salt, but I enjoy, from time to time, using specialty salts, another great way to bump up the flavor of my soup. For example, I don’t use smoked meats or fish, but I love a smoky flavor, so one of my favorite tricks is to use a good smoked salt. Specialty salt is rarely cheap, but it is one of the extravagances I allow myself from time to time because I enjoy it so much. Shop around. The last time I visited
Dean & DeLuca
in the Napa Valley, they had a hefty collection of specialty salts sold in bulk, including several types of smoked salt.
Michael Chiarello’s NapaStyle
stores and catalog also offer a number of specialty salts packed in interesting and attractive boxes.
Special ingredients such as
Maggi Seasoning sauce
Bragg Liquid Aminos
can be an inexpensive way to add sodium and flavor to your soups and might be considered good replacements for ingredients such as beef or chicken stock. Maggi Seasoning sauce is a dark, hydrolyzed-vegetable protein-based sauce that is very similar to soy sauce but does not contain soy. It was originally developed in the 1880s as an easy way to improve the nutritional intake of German workers. Maggi is a staple seasoning in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and it can be purchased in many shops here in the United States. Bragg Liquid Aminos was developed by Dr.
in the 1930s as a seasoning with nutritional value. It is a nonfermented soy product, similar to soy sauce, that breaks down the soy proteins so that they are more bioavailable to the body.
Good, thrifty Italian cooks often add the hard
to soups and sauces as they cook. The rinds are just the hardened surface of the cheese, so they will either puff up and get spongy (in which case you can fish them out of the soup before serving) or they will disintegrate into the soup. Either way, they give a wonderful flavor boost to soups. I keep a small plastic bag in the freezer for storing the rinds from Parmesan cheese until I need them. And at last check, my local
store was actually selling the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano (the preeminent style of Parmesan cheese) as well as the cheese itself. Amounts are unspecified in those recipes that call for Parmesan rinds so that you can use what you have on hand. And in general, the more rinds, the more flavor!
When it comes to
, I love to grind mine fresh just before adding them to a dish. This may sound formidable, but it is actually very easy and adds an extra dimension to your soups, since spices quickly lose their flavor when exposed to air, light, and heat. I buy
spices from Penzeys
, a wonderful online source for herbs and spices that has good prices, large volume, and rapid turnover, ensuring that your spices are flavorful and fresh. I store them in the freezer, then take out just the amount needed for any given recipe and grind it in a spice mill or electric coffee grinder just before using. It probably takes me no more than five minutes to gather spices and mill them for a recipe.
I also like to keep a healthy supply of fresh herb plants in my garden so that when I need a nip of rosemary, mint, thyme, or tarragon, I have only to step outside the kitchen door with a pair of scissors in hand.
I generally add at the last minute to retain their color, texture, and flavors.
Many of the recipes in this book call for
. Because all of the milk solids have been removed, ghee can withstand cooking temperatures up to 485°F without smoking, so it is especially useful for sautéing and cooking. Buy it at any health food store or Indian market.
And last but not least, as any good lover of soups or stews knows, soup often tastes better the day after you make it. Somehow, the flavors seem to meld and gain depth when they sit overnight in the refrigerator. It’s almost as if the dish, like a good wine, ripens over time.
A Word about Beans
Although many authors, experts, and cooks soak
before cooking them, I never do.
Soaking them may reduce your cooking time, and it may help rid the soup of the polysaccharides that give some individuals gas, but by and large, soaking beans is not necessary.
Bean cooking times may vary, sometimes greatly, in accordance with the condition of the beans themselves. Beans that have recently been harvested, for instance, are likely to be in good condition and will hydrate fairly quickly; beans that have been sitting on the shelf for a long time may take a very long time to cook (and occasionally, as in the case of very old beans, they may never fully become tender at all). The remedy? Try to purchase beans from a source with a rapid turnover rate, and check the package. If the beans look chipped or there are “crumbs” in the package, chances are the beans have been sitting around for a long time.
Indispensible Tools of the Trade
Choosing the right slow cooker is important. For several years, I have used and recommended the inexpensive slow cookers from
. The big, fancy, very expensive digital models have always seemed superfluous to me. A digital panel is just one more thing that can break, and up until recently, I have been unable to discern any significant difference in the finished product or the ease of cooking between the cheap models and the more expensive ones.
That is to say until I
found an expensive slow cooker that I enjoy very much: the
All-Clad slow cooker
with an anodized aluminum insert. The All-Clad insert can be used directly on top of the stove, so you can brown your ingredients, then lift the insert very carefully into the slow cooker casing so that you never have to use any other pans for your slow cooked meal. It is
easy to clean (unlike some cookware that claims to be easy to clean but really isn’t). It has worked beautifully for me.
I keep several sizes of slow cooker on hand: a simple little
Proctor Silex 1.5-quart oval slow cooker
when I want to cook something for one or two people or melt small quantities of chocolate; a 3-quart round slow cooker for slightly larger quantities of soup, chili, polenta, or oatmeal, or for making fondue; a more conventional 5 or 6-quart oval model for cooking family-size meals that serve 4 to 6 people; and my favorite, the 7-quart All Clad with the anodized aluminum insert.