Local cooks talk about warmth, simplicity of soups during holidays

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published November 12, 2014

METRO DETROIT — The chill of the season is in the air, but we’re still a few weeks off from the feasting frenzy of the holidays. It’s a culinary condition that calls for something comforting, quick and still nutritious — you guessed it, soup.

Chef Susan Baier, program coordinator and chef instructor at Oakland Community College’s Culinary Studies Institute, teaches students how to execute some of the most complex cooking concepts in the industry. But building a simple but totally satisfying soup is something even a novice home cook can pull off, she said.

“You can use whatever vegetables you have left over in your drawer that need a reason for living, or you can add leftover rice to stock you’ve got on hand, and there are so many resources online that you can add your own personality,” said Baier. “Soups freeze well, too. If you make a big batch, you can eat it for a few days but it’s also nice to freeze in packages in pints or quarts. It’s nice to have on hand.”

The base for any good soup, she tells her students, starts with a good stock. While grocery stores certainly sell premade stocks that you can use as a quick soup base, Baier said the homemade stuff is always best. Store-bought stock can often be extremely high in sodium for preservation purposes, she said.

Besides, when it’s so easy to make a gourmet soup base at home — often with goodies in your refrigerator you were going to toss out anyway, like bones or nearly spoiled veggies — why not make it yourself?

“Start with a bone or bone-in meat. Simmer that with some mirepoix vegetables — which is the standard chopped celery, onions and carrots — and strain that. You’ve got a stock that you can add to or freeze to have on hand when you need it,” she said, adding that vegetarian stocks made by simmering then straining vegetables to extract the flavors is becoming more trendy.

In the fall, as temperatures begin to drop for the first time in months, Baier said people almost instinctively gravitate toward heartier soups. For a soup that eats like a meal instead of an appetizer, the key is to start with the stock base and keep adding until you’ve got a well-rounded entrée.

“Just by adding a little cream or finishing with a little sour cream or pesto or croutons or cheeses, you can make it really hearty. Tortilla soup is a good example. It’s a brothy soup, but by the time you add all the good stuff on top, like the tortillas, cheese, sour cream and all that, it’s a meal,” she said.

Tortilla soup is a crowd favorite over at Wally’s Frozen Custard in St. Clair Shores, according to owner Eliza Ahearn. She said that while the custard store specializes in sweet frosty treats in the summer, customers want her homemade soups in the fall, winter and spring. She features a new variety each week, made from scratch from her own recipes.

“Our tomato basil bisque is popular, our chicken tortilla soup, potato cheddar broccoli,” said Ahearn. “I like soups that are hearty, not all broth. I like soups that are more chunky and thick. They’re more filling, so people will come by for lunch and get soup as a meal.”

Ahearn’s secret to a great soup isn’t anything fancy: It’s finding the best ingredients at just the right time.

“I always start with good, quality ingredients and fresh ingredients. And I do whatever soup is in season. Next week, I’m doing a butternut squash soup because it’s fall. Then, during Lent, I’ll do some vegetarian soups on Fridays,” she said.

Seasonal vegetables and interesting “aromatics,” or herbs as Baier said, can make or break a recipe, as well. But quality fixin’s don’t always mean a hefty price tag.

Soups are especially useful during the holidays, Baier said, when the weather is cold, the schedules are packed and there’s just not enough time in the day to cook a full meal. One of her favorite tips: take some of that homemade stock out of the freezer, combine it with some rotisserie chicken and fresh cut vegetables. Make sure you use new veggies, not the mirepoix mix you overcooked while preparing the stock — you want them to be tender but not mushy. Toss in some pasta at the last minute and you’ve got a fast chicken noodle soup that’s sure to warm any soul.

“It’s pretty darn quick to just add some plain noodles and some herbs, maybe a little garlic, and you have a pretty quick meal. Actually, that’s a go-to in my household to have some soup,” said Baier.