Of soup and love the first is the best. -- Spanish proverb
Ordering soup in a restaurant is rare. It's usually baby quiches, duck and walnut salad, cre pes with caviar or salmon pate' that pique our imagination and grab our attention. Unless we cut, fork and chew, it just doesn't seem worth the cost.
Bringing soup to our own tables is becoming even more remote -- especially homemade in this day of the can opener. Soups, it seems, are as passe' as potato chip casseroles and jello molds.
This negligence seems harsh, as soup did begin as our daily sustenance. Once man had discovered fire and created a fire-resistant receptacle, soup topped the menu. In the middle ages, peasants, having no utensils, sopped up their bowls of hot soup with bread. "To sup" meant to eat the evening meal at which soup was traditionally served and the meal itself became "supper." And in that bastion of culinary history, France, "la soupe" still means the hunk of bread with which they eat their soup.
Once dubbed cuisine's kindest course, soup can be elegant, nouveau, hardy or just plain nourishing. And best of all, it can blossom into a complete meal unto itself. Fish soups, pasta-garnished soups and soups gratinee's only need a crusty loaf of bread and green salad to complete.
Most soups are uncomplicated to make and a large portion of them can be prepared several hours in advance, to be reheated or chilled for serving. Homemade stocks help immensely in creating a rich and memorable flavor, so an afternoon spent whipping up a large pot of stock is worth the time and effort. Freeze the stock in cup-size portions for easy access for each soup-making. Although there seems to be a myth circulating declaring that the best vegetables for soups are old leftovers, the best ingredients are as fresh as you can find to create a clear and unwilted flavor.
Garnishes can enhance the visual pleasure as well as add crunch and textural variance. Include chopped vegetables, dumplings, meat fritters, pasta, poached eggs or sieved hard-cooked egg yolks to the liquid and create a sensation. Crisp breads and croutons are very popular. To make bread garnishes, thinly slice a baguette of french bread and toast. Rub a peeled, sliced garlic clove over one side of the slices and dribble a little olive oil over each slice. Or skip the olive oil and garlic and add, instead, butter and grated cheese and broil, or spread with pure'ed vegetables. Croutons are best made by cutting a loaf of french bread into 1/2-inch slices. Cut the slices into strips and the strips into cubes. Fry the cubes in olive oil, vegetable oil or butter.
Of all the soups, those gratine'ed seem the most impressive, topped as they are with a golden dome of broiled melted cheese and filled with a seasoned, savory soup. They are best served in individual crocks or ovenproof soup bowls, rather than a large tureen, so each person can experience the drama of punching into the crusty top.
One of the best known gratins is the onion soup. Traditionally served in Paris in the open-market district of Les Halles, this soup is thought by many to have magical restorative powers after a long night. Here, the bread for sopping has been firmly incorporated into the dish, where it tops the simmering onions and broth and is crowned by a blanket of grated cheese. In soup-making, the bread must be stale enough to soak up the liquid. If you only have fresh bread available, slice the loaf thinly and dry for 5 to 7 minutes in a 325-degree oven.
Below is a recipe for onion soup with a twist. Instead of the usual swiss cheese it has blue cheese for a pungent flavor and brandy for a mellow nuance. Be sure to buy yellow or Spanish onions as they have the sweetest flavor. If you have butter, flour, pepper and salt at home, it will only take a quick trip through the express lane to complete this warm and entertaining soup.
Note: Chill your onions before cutting; they will cause fewer tears than those at room temperature.
EXPRESS LANE: Chicken fat, onions, chicken stock, white wine, roquefort cheese, french bread, swiss cheese and brandy (optional). SOUPE A LA MOUSQUETAIRE (Mousquetaire Onion Soup) (6 to 8 servings)
This gratine'e is named after the musketeers, known for their daring and dandified presentation. Elegant in its presentation, and with ingredients that include roquefort cheese and brandy (optional), it can well qualify as "daring."
5 tablespoons chicken fat or butter
10 onions, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon flour
6 cups chicken stock
3 cups dry white wine
Pepper and salt
1/2 cup brandy (optional)
1/2 cup crumbled roquefort cheese
10 to 12 slices french bread, toasted
1 cup grated swiss cheese
In a kettle, heat the chicken fat and saute' the onion until golden. Sprinkle in flour and stir for a few seconds with a wooden spoon. Gradually pour in stock and wine. Season with pepper and salt. Cover and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Add brandy, if using. Spread roquefort evenly over bread slices. Apportion the contents of the kettle into individual ovenproof bowls, top with toast spread with roquefort. Sprinkle generously with swiss cheese; place dishes in a pan under the broiler until golden crust is formed. Serve. From "Soups," by Jeanette Seaver (Seaver Books, 1978)