Some meat eaters contend that if a dish doesn’t have meat in it, it needs meat. They haven’t tried my vegetable soup.
When I was 6, I stopped eating meat and asked my dad to write a letter to President Carter objecting to the killing of animals. My dad said OK, and that’s when I made the acquaintance of tofu. Dad isn’t bad in the kitchen. He has some all-star dishes. But none of them contain tofu. His attempted tofu was enough to make me reconsider my moral stance. Years later—and back on the omnivore plan—as I became aware that I am Chef Boy Ari, one of my first endeavors was to master the art of tofu.
It was a good start. A well-cooked piece of tofu is an important building block in many meals. But making a good soup, on the other hand, entails a whole new level of complexity, like building a house.
I’m not talking about the soup you build to dispose of your neighbor’s garden veggies, now soggy after lurking in the back of your fridge for a month. I’m talking about soup with a plan, a soup of fresh ingredients culminating in a symphony of parts coming together on schedule; a soup that reheats nicely, too.
If soup is like a house, stock is the foundation. In veggie soup stock, you are up against the standard set by the greasy undertones that fatty pieces of meat can provide, the unbelievable richness of melted animal fat. And there is the rich concentrate of musty, gamey, earthblood flavor of all those gathered herbs and grains, processed into muscle meat.
Mushrooms have that earthblood flavor too, if you treat them right. Aromatic vegetables, like celery and carrot, can add to it.
As for fat in vegetable soup…that’s kind of a personal choice. A little olive oil, chicken stock, bone marrow or bacon grease would of course make it richer. But sometimes you want something a little thinner. If you are a vegetarian at heart, then sans the animal grease is thick enough. If you have been eating pretty much nothing but antelope fried in bacon grease for days on end and you want the carnivore’s equivalent of a juice fast…light feels right. Either way, you can always adjust with mayo.
I learned a valuable soup tip from a Cook’s Illustrated article titled “The Ultimate Vegetable Soup,” by Rebecca Hays. Her breakthrough is roasting the vegetables before making the stock. The warm, almost burnt bitter flavor adds something crucial. I start with:
3 heads of garlic, outer wrappers removed and broken into unpeeled cloves.
1 chunked onion.
3 carrots, 1/2 inch rounds.
2 portobello mushrooms, thickly sliced.
Other wild mushrooms, like chantrelles, morels or oysters. Sliced.
1 or 2 chopped celery stalks.
Toss in salt, olive oil and tomato paste. Spread in an even layer and place in the oven at 450. Roast, stirring occasionally, until brown and fragrant. Remove from the oven, smash the garlic (don’t worry about the peel) and boil it in a gallon of water with some bay leaves and fresh parsley.
Meanwhile, I added a few cubes of Rapunzel brand organic vegan vegetable bouillon cubes. The ingredients include palm oil, the fattiest, most saturated non-animal fat there is, as well as basilic, curcuma and lovage—three tools not currently in my chest.
After all this had simmered for about an hour, I poured it through a colander into another pot. I pressed the mess into the colander and squeezed all the broth out. I had my stock.
(Reserve the mushy stock veggies, which resemble stuffing, in the colander for supreme leftovers. Fry a little chopped bacon in grapeseed oil. Add sliced antelope hearts or other meat. After the meat is browned, pour in some leftover veggie soup. Let it cook off until the pan is dry. Deglaze with cognac or marsala, add more soup, stir in cheese curds. Serve drizzled with a crostini dressing of olive oil, crumbled feta, red wine, and minced garlic.)
Once you have your stock, you can store it a few days in the fridge, or proceed directly to soup by adding four chunked potatoes, one chunked celeriac root, more bay leaves, chopped leek, a chopped tomato, and crumbled dried porcini mushrooms. Cook slowly until thick. One half-hour before it’s done, add some light leafy stuff, like escarole or chard, and salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare crostinis by slicing a baguette or other worthy loaf into spears, lightly toasted in the oven on a baking pan, then tossed in the hot skillet with aforementioned crostini dressing, and then re-toast on the baking pan.
I placed the finished crostinis at the bottom of the bowl, and ladled in the soup over the crostinis. Then I added a fat plop of mayo.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org