Of course, as I sit down to write this ode to a comfort food for cold, blustery days, the sun is shining and it appears the weather may be warming up. No matter. In the café where I’m sitting, people are still spooning soup, proving there’s more to a bowl than just warmth. At its best, soup is so much more than the sum of its parts. Whether composed of merely a few ingredients or a pantry-ful, it’s a distillation and harmonizing of flavors. Stocks and soups are some of the first things a cook learns in culinary school and one of the first tests in a professional kitchen; they’re building blocks for mastering technique as well as flavor and balance. Auguste Escoffier, whose ideas have been the foundation for the past century of restaurant cooking, said, “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” Sounds like soups should be integrated into day spas. Until then, here are a few places to seek solace.
French Onion Soup at Apartment3
My favorite soup in the world might be French onion soup. My introduction to its flavors came from the version my dad used to make–powdered soup packets topped with sliced Swiss cheese–and I eventually found the sublime in a late-night crock ordered in a Paris brasserie (where it’s just “onion soup”). In the best of renditions, pounds of onions are reduced and caramelized for hours, resulting in an intense, sweet flavor, then rounded out with a rich, long-simmered beef broth. It’s topped with toasted baguette slices and Gruyere, broiled until browned and bubbly. Apartment3’s execution of French onion soup ($7) is perfect. From breaking through the crust of pungent cheese to scraping the last drops out of the bowl, it’s an experience that warms me to the marrow of my bones.
Soup du jour at Cafe Panini
Tucked away at Airport Industrial Park, this small soup and sandwich shop ladles out terrific soups ($4.95) with flavor profiles that span the globe–from Morocco to West Africa to Turkey to Ireland (for corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s Day, of course) as well as more familiar favorites like corn chowder. Soup maker Jolynn Spinelli at Cafe Panini gets asked, “What’s the soup?” so often that she’s written a cookbook by that title, full of ideas to help you get your own soup on.
Oxtail Soup at ‘Aiea Bowl
In my mind, ‘Aiea Bowl isn’t about bowling balls and pins; rather, it’s a different kind of bowl that draws me here–one filled with oxtail soup ($12.95). A generous portion of oxtail is bathed in a five-spice broth that’s silky with gelatin rendered from the bones. Shiitake mushrooms, boiled peanuts, Chinese red dates and bok choy keep the bowl interesting and a side of ponzu, grated ginger and cilantro help cut the richness of the tender pieces of meat barely clinging on the bone. I may never bowl a turkey, but at least satisfaction in this bowling alley can be found in an oxtail soup.
Lobster bisque at Michel’s
Wandering into Michel’s and having just soup isn’t as intimidating as it seems. There’s a small bar where you can park yourself out of the way of date-night couples, and where servers are still friendly even after they’ve learned what you’re ordering. At Michel’s, the menu is so classically French, with most of it devoted to tableside preparations, that it makes me laugh out loud, and yet both the menu and dining room are a wonderful change of scenery from today’s minimalism. Tuxedoed waiters, gilded curves and chandeliers exude old luxury, as does the lobster bisque ($12). It’s ladled table-side and pieces of lobster are flamed with cognac, a spectacle that elicits child-like delight. The soup is over-the-top rich, like the dining room, and tastes like warm, melted lobster ice cream. With the generous splash of cognac, this is my version of a comforting drink at the bar.
Soup du jour at Covenant Books and Coffee
Among the secular, Covenant Books and Coffee, a Christian bookstore, is most popular for its ever-changing soup of the day. From chicken tortilla soup (lots of chicken pieces in a slightly spicy tomato broth, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and crispy corn tortilla strips) to split pea soup (thick and smoky with ham), the soups are just $3.95 a bowl. Find the monthly schedule of soups online (http://[www.covenantbooksandcoffee.com]) and find warmth for your tummy and literature for your soul, if that’s your thing.
A chez vous
If driving in the rain keeps you from venturing out for soup, create warm deliciousness at home. While great soups can come from long-simmered stocks, they don’t have to be. Here’s a hearty soup with just a few ingredients and a little bit of time:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups green lentils, picked and rinsed
1 teaspoon salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
8 cups water
1 bunch dark, leafy greens (kale, collards or other community-supported agriculture veggies in abundance), washed and chopped
lime or lemon
Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat, add the onion and sauté until translucent (a few minutes.) Add the lentils, tomatoes, water and stir to combine. Simmer until the lentils are tender, about half an hour. Add the chopped greens, and cook until wilted. Add a squeeze of citrus and taste for salt at the end.
This recipe serves as a blank canvas for additional seasoning with whatever you have on hand. While the soup is simmering, add cumin and/or chipotle in adobo for a smoky, spicy kick and finish with a drizzle of cilantro pesto (cilantro blended with a little oil and lime juice). Or top with a basil pesto and goat cheese or feta. Try it with some Indian curry spices or saute a spoonful of Thai curry paste in the beginning. If you want more protein, add chunks of Italian sausage or bacon when cooking the onions. The variations are endlessly tasty.