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Soups and Stews

A Bowl of History For something as simple as a cooked combination of ingredients in a liquid base, soup contains an almost overwhelming array of variations. Bisque, bouillabaisse, ceviche, chowder, consomme, gumbo, stew, vichyssoise... shall I continue? All these sub-categories and more exist under the broad overhead of "soup" and can be broken down even further when factoring in ingredients, texture, thickness, and the flavor base.

Historically a meal of bread soaked in liquid (known as "sop"), soup as a meal item eventually evolved into the liquid and its ingredients alone, though you will find it is still often served with bread or hearty crackers. Because of the dish's ability to make use of old, leftover, or less-than-quality ingredients, and its capacity for stretching ingredients farther than other preparations would, soup has roots in the poverty of the lower-classes as the foundation for many subsistence diets; a thin soup served with old bread could feed an entire family more inexpensively than other dishes. The name soup kitchen, which was given to charitable establishments who doled out food to the homeless, stems from this history and is still used today. Soup also has a legacy as an excellent food for the ill and invalid, as it can deliver many needed nutrients in one easily consumed sitting.

Do not, however, take these somewhat humble roots as a reference for where soup belongs in the culinary world. At the other end of this spectrum, artfully crafted soups have long been prepared as appetizers and meals for the upper-class and royalty; in France, almost every meal is started with a soup course, regardless of the social standing of the diner. And the French are on to something: recent studies have shown that people who start their meal with a warm, clear-broth soup consume less calories during their meal overall than those who go straight to the entrees. And soup as a "diet-food" or meal can easily deliver a healthful balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates (as well as vitamins and minerals) without providing too many calories in a sitting, so long as you avoid cream and cheese based varieties.

Making Soup

Though the perfection of soups can take experience, basic principles of soup-making aren't rocket science.
Most soup-making begins by preparing a stock (simple broth) by slowly simmering meat, fish, bones, and seasonings (vegetable stock can also be made by slow simmering vegetables with seasonings, then straining the liquid) for several hours. Stock can come in as many variations as there are meats: chicken, beef, turkey, veal, fish, lobster, etc.

The underlying flavors of a broth's foundation ingredients are enhanced by the herbs and seasonings added. In many cases, this flavor base begins by preparing a mixture of flavoring elements cooked in a little fat or oil; because of their gently alluring scent and flavors, most soups begin this phase with a combination of onion, garlic, peppers, carrots, occasionally ham, and spices, the spices used are subject to regional and cultural variation. Generally, this combination is referred to as a bouquet garni, which is literally a bouquet of herbs tied together with string and placed in the stock during preparation (in Western cooking, many recipes include thyme, parsley, and bay leaf; Asian cooking often employs ginger, soy sauce, and/or scallion).

The resulting broth is the foundation of all soups. From this point meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, seasonings, fats like butter or cream, and legumes, like beans, are added in countless variations to create the wealth of soups available today. Health conscious eaters should look for clear broth soups containing vegetables, beans, and lean protein like chicken, fish, or lean beef. Italian Minestrone, bouillabaisse, and Gazpacho are excellent choices, and cream based soups can often be adapted to fit a more healthful menu.

Types of Soups

Soups are as variable as those who cook them. A few terms to help sort out all the information:

Bisque: a very rich soup with a creamy consistency; usually made of lobster or shellfish (crab, shrimp, etc.)

Bouillabaisse: a Mediterranean fish soup/stew, made of multiple types of seafood, olive oil, water, and seasonings like garlic, onions tomato, and parsley

Ceviche: a Latin-American pseudo-soup specialty of made of raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice with olive oil and spices

Chowder: a hearty North American soup, usually of seafood base

Consomme: a definitively clear double or triple broth (broth added to with another broth) with a meat, rather than bone, base; consomme is painstakingly strained to make it clear

Dashi: the Japanese equivalent of consomme; made of giant seaweed, or konbu, dried bonito, and water

Gazpacho: a tomato-vegetable soup served ice cold

Minestrone: an Italian vegetable based soup

Potage: a French term referring to a thick soup

Pureed Soups: a soup of vegetable base that has been pureed in a food mill or blender; typically altered after milling with the addition of broth, cream, butter, sour cream, or coconut milk

Veloute: a velvety French sauce made with stock; synonymous with soup in many cases

Vichyssoise: a simple, flavorful pureed potato and leek soup, thickened with a bit of heavy cream and served cold
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