I have always thought of soup as a de-icer. A flavorful way to take the bite out of the winter wind, to loosen up the joints, to thaw the brain.
One recent bitter day when water pipes were bursting, knees were cracking and brains were numbing, I called a sprinkling of chefs and quizzed them on the secrets of soup-making.
Over on the Eastern Shore, Raymond Copper, executive chef of the Tidewater Inn in Easton, said pace was crucial. Soup cannot be hurried, he said. When Copper makes his snapper soup, a dish that takes its name from the snapping turtles that constitute its main ingredient, "it takes anywhere from six to eight hours to do it right," he said.
Much of that time is devoted to making the stock, a process that, when Copper does it, involves devoting long stretches of the day to watching liquids slowly bubble down.
"Some people use those canned stocks," said Copper. "But to get a good soup, I've always thought you gotta work from scratch . . . start with bones and vegetables, and reduce the sauce."
Most of his soups require two to three hours of chopping and watching, Copper said. He added that one notable exception to the idea that more time in the pot translates into more flavor in the bowl, is oyster stew. "People tend to overcook oysters. You don't need to cook them long, just cook them until they curl."
Talking from his restaurant near the Bay Bridge, Mark Henry agreed time is the ally of the soup maker.
Soups should not be rushed and most should be encouraged to spend the night, said Henry, chef and owner since last summer of the Chester River Inn in Chester. He pointed out that many soups taste better on the second day. "Soups with tomatoes and beans and meats do improve overnight," he said. "Their flavors blend."
But soups with green vegetables in them are, he said, pottages of a different color. "Soups with chlorophyll in them . . . broccoli or asparagus . . . taste better when they are fresher." This proves, I guess, that unlike wine, and most of us, green soups do not improve with age.
Henry, who formerly worked at several Baltimore-area restaurants including the Milton Inn, said that one trick he picked up in his soup-making career was putting a double dose of vegetables in vegetable soup. The first batch goes in the soup early, he said. As it cooks, this batch softens, virtually dissolves and releases terrific flavors, he said. The second batch goes in late in soup-making, then the soup is brought to a boil and simmers a few minutes until the newly arrived vegetables get tender. The second helping of vegetables gives the soup a nice texture, he said.
Henry also passed on his thoughts about the ideal shape of a soup pot. Big bottoms are good, he said, but pots with thick bottoms and thick sides are even better. When you turn up the flame under a pot with a thick bottom and sides, the soup isn't likely to burn as the flame licks the edges of the pot.
While Henry makes his own soup stock, he suggests that if home cooks want to buy canned stock, they should buy the low-salt varieties. "If you buy some canned chicken broth, get the kind that has the least salt in it. That way when you reduce it, it won't get too salty.
"If you cook your broth down and you think it needs salt, you can always add it."
Henry praised the practical, one-dish-feeds-all appeal of soup. "If I have a bowl of bean soup or Hungarian goulash, that takes care of lunch," he said.
But the chef also struck a philosophical note as he spoke about how the freewheeling nature of soup-making has always appealed to him.
"If you look at the two extremes of cooking," he said, "on one end there is baking, which is very structured, with a precise order of ingredients and all kinds of chemical reactions. And at the other extreme there is soup-making, which has almost no structure. You put some ingredients in a pot, and their flavors go together and it tastes good.
"For me, a good soup is the essence of what cooking is about. A soup has got to stand on its flavor. If a soup doesn't have the flavor, presentation doesn't matter."
Down in South Baltimore, the soups made by Bill Aydlett chef at Sisson's restaurant, sounded complicated: smoked duck and corn cream soup; gumbo with andouille, which is smoked Cajun sausage; gumbo with tasso, which is seasoned, smoked Cajun ham.
But Aydlett's approach to soup-making is remarkably straightforward. The secret to making a good gumbo, he said, is to make a good roux (a mixture of flour and fat used as a thickener).
And the way you know if you have succeeded in making a good soup, he said, is how you feel after you set down your spoon. Whatever the season, a good soup, he said, "makes you feel warm all over."