In the Soup

In the Soup

It is winter, and soup is on the menu. This isn’t a startling statement, except if you are me. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool soup fan. When hunger pangs strike me, they want satisfaction with hard food—crisp edges, crackling crust, caramelized flavor. Give me a fantastic roast chicken from my local market, with its roasted potatoes and onions on the side, or the quignon, the densely crisp end of a freshly baked baguette, torn off in midstride outside the bakery. Rarely do I dream of sipping, slurping, or otherwise enjoying soup.

I’ve examined the psychological underpinnings of this as I observe my French friends eat soup at every meal from September through March and beyond. They attack it with relish, expounding over its wealth of flavor. I’ve determined my lack of interest has something to do with stringy meat and floating tripe in soups of yore, but that’s of little interest now as I greet each bowl with relish. My newfound appreciation may be the influence of my Norman town, too, where the inhabitants are sometimes referred to as maqueux de soupe, or “soup eaters” because in 1591, soldiers of Henry IV’s army surprised them at table as they supped. Whatever it is, I’ve come around.

It may also be the weather that has excited this newfound passion. One day, the temperature is springlike and the tiny buds on every plant in the garden are flexing. The next, the grass is crisp with frost, the landscape frozen in winter’s grip. The extremes call for an extreme which is, in my case, soup.

As this passion bloomed I naturally referred first to potage, the French soup of winter. Usually tethered by leeks for flavor and a potato for texture, it is a combination of any vegetables you’ve got in the larder. Cooked gently, with plenty of fresh thyme and bay, the mixture is puréed and served as a first course. It is delicious, and it’s much more than it looks, for potage is to the French what aspirin is for a headache and cardiac arrest in our culture—a cure and a preventative.

Every cook has a dozen potage recipes up her sleeve, depending on what’s at hand. When I make potage, I usually add an apple for a touch of extra sweetness (and because I live in Normandy where apples are used as both fruit and vegetable). Leeks, as stated, are primordial for flavor as is at least one starchy potato, for texture. Depending on how sweet I want the potage, I’ll add several carrots and an onion, then it’s anyone’s guess. Celery root and parsnip are other sweet vegetables, a Jerusalem artichoke adds earthy character, and turnips fill in flavor. Garlic is a necessity, and rosemary lends romance.

For the simplest potage, all the ingredients go in a pot, are covered with water, and go on the heat to simmer until everything is tender. Then the herbs come out, the wand-mixer goes in and presto! The potage is ready. I serve mine with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (butter would be more typical of Normandy…!), and often a spoonful of hachis—minced parsley and garlic. It makes for a deliciously warming and virtuous dish.

For a more complex, richer potage, the onions, leeks and garlic can be sautéed in butter first, and then cooked in chicken broth instead of water.

In my current soup moment, I’m making more than just potage. I’ve been teaching many poultry classes lately, leaving me with more than the usual number of carcasses at my disposal. Nothing is easier than to pop a chicken or guinea hen carcass in a large pot, cover it with water, add herbs, an onion, a carrot, and some leek greens and let it simmer into a lovely stock. I strain this, take any meat off the carcass and put it in the stock, then add a variety of ingredients which can take us on a virtual flavor tour to Italy, or India, or Thailand.

If Thailand is the destination, I usually add some squash. I always have dried limes on hand—you know, the lime you didn’t use that turned very hard and dry—and one of these goes into the pot. I add cilantro, some powdered and some fresh ginger, a couple of bird’s-eye peppers and a bunch of lemon grass (I’ve got some in the garden). Coconut milk is one of my staples, so I add that, then let everything cook together until the pumpkin (or any squash, really) is tender. The result is exotic, different.

For an Italian savor, I begin with sautéed onions, garlic and pork sausage. To this I add canned tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf and rosemary, fennel seed and fresh fennel if I’ve got it. This simmers for quite a long time, then I serve it with lots of fresh bread.

When India is on the dinner map, curry powder and garbanzo beans make their way into the broth, along with turmeric, some saffron, lemon juice and ample grated carrots.

The beauty of these soups and their ilk is their simplicity, both in ingredients and in cooking. They can be ready in an hour, or they can simmer for a long time on the back of the stove. This is a fundamental advantage to soup, one I have taken to heart this year more than others. Perhaps it’s a busier-than-usual schedule, or the fact that my home is, once again, full of teenagers. Whatever it is, soup is perfect because it’s ready when eaters are. And when served, with its curls of fragrant steam coming up from the bowl, it says so much more than just dinner—it’s comfort, it’s travel, it’s surprise.

As I pursue my soup-making, my pantry is expanding to include ingredients that will keep the pot fun. I’ve made a list so that you, too, can keep the vibrant soups of winter on your table.

Fresh ingredients: leeks, onions, garlic, carrots, lemons, limes, potatoes (starchy), thyme, rosemary.

Other: chicken broth, bay leaves, rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, fennel seed, garbanzo beans, hot pepper, curry powder, coconut milk, lemon grass.


Here’s a basic potage recipe. Enjoy it, expand it!

Winter Soup / Potage d’Hiver

Remember, you may vary the vegetables. Do note that if you add turnips, or any brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) the soup won’t be good the day after it is made.

1 large onion, peeled and diced

3 cloves garlic, peeled, germ removed

5 medium leeks, white part and  1 inch of the green, well rinsed and finely chopped

1 small celery root, trimmed, peeled and finely chopped

1 large or 2 small russet-like potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 parsnip, peeled and cut into small cubes

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 apple, cored, peeled and cut into quarters

20 sprigs fresh thyme

1 fresh (or dried) bay leaf

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Place all ingredients, except one of the garlic cloves and the parsley, into a large pot. Cover by 2 inches with water, and add 1 tsp salt. Set over high heat. When the water boils, reduce heat so the water is simmering merrily, partially cover and cook until vegetables are tender.

2. While soup is cooking, pluck one cup of leaves from the parsley.

3. When soup is cooked, remove the herbs and puree the soup.Taste for seasoning. If it isn’t as thick as you’d like, either add another potato, cook 15 minutes longer and puree, or bring the soup to a boil and reduce it until thick. Taste for seasoning.

4. Just before serving, mince parsley and garlic together.

5. To serve, ladle into soup bowls. Drizzle each bowl with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with the garlic and parsley mixture.

Serves 6 to 8


Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris.

Find her cookbooks in the France Today Bookstore

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of France Today

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  • Diane Lenfest
    2012-03-21 19:34:28
    Diane Lenfest
    This soup is delicious, a very pure taste--I made it several times this winter, great every time!