Rooting for Soup

Stir up a satisfying meal with a bounty of autumn vegetables.

October 20, 2004|By Elinor Klivans | Elinor Klivans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I always feel like the Good Witch of the North when I'm making soup.

As I stir the pot, I know that I am going to end up with something good.

It is OK to cook soup for a few minutes more or less and it will still turn out fine. Out of an ingredient? That seldom makes a difference.

Make it a day ahead and reheat it or maybe even serve it cold. If someone suddenly shows up for dinner, stretch it by just adding an extra cup of broth. This is about as relaxed a meal as you can plan, yet a big bowl of soup served with bread makes a most satisfying meal.

As the cool weather arrives and the flood of summer vegetables ends, there is a group of soup-perfect vegetables that is just coming into season. Planted last spring, these are the root crops that quietly grew out of sight, below ground and away from the summer heat. Once the fall harvest begins, they can fill the soup pot right up until spring.

Strictly speaking, root crops include vegetables that are grown for their large, edible roots. That list of common root vegetables includes carrots, rutabagas (also known as swedes), turnips, beets, celery root (celeriac), parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, salsify, parsley root and horseradish.

But just as there is no hard and fast rule as to what you put in your soup, I choose the more flexible definition of root crop. That category includes any crop whose edible portion is taken from under the ground and includes onions of all sorts (bulbs), garlic bulbs and potatoes (tubers).

Carrots, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes are familiar soup ingredients. But the less familiar parsnips, rutabagas, turnips and celery root are readily available in supermarkets and make a good addition to the pot.

Parsnips, a member of the parsley family, look like creamy white carrots and have a mild, sweet, nutty flavor. They become sweeter after the cold temperatures of the first frost turn their starches to sugar.

Celery root is another member of the parsley family. Similar in looks to a knobby rutabaga, but with a rather thick brown skin, it has a mild taste akin to celery.

Rutabagas have a white or yellow flesh, as do turnips. Both have a similar, slightly sharp cabbagelike flavor, which contrasts nicely with milder sweet vegetables, but they are best used sparingly.

Root vegetables store well but, as with all fresh vegetables, it is always a good idea to look for signs that they are in good condition when you buy them. They should feel firm with no mold or bruising, and no soft, mushy or shriveled spots. Check that root vegetables in sealed plastic bags look dry inside the bag. Moisture trapped inside a plastic bag causes rotting.

Once you bring root vegetables home, refrigerate them in a clean plastic bag for one to two weeks. I wrap paper towels loosely around the vegetables in the bag to help absorb any moisture and keep them dry. Store potatoes and sweet potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place, but not the refrigerator.

Making these vegetables ready for the soup pot is easy. Simply peel them, then cut, chop or shred the vegetables. Any skins too thick to peel easily with a vegetable peeler can be cut away with a small, sharp knife. Celery root is an example of a root vegetable with a peel that needs to be cut off with a knife.

Soups made with root vegetables can range from the hearty dinner of a Hungarian chicken-and-vegetable soup to the smooth, golden puree of an autumn harvest soup to the light and brightly colored, quick-cooking beet borscht.

Sweet Hungarian paprika is the secret to the rich red-orange color and elusive flavor of the chicken-and-vegetable soup. The water from cooking the chicken breast does double duty as liquid for the soup. Deep-red borscht is guaranteed to brighten up a fall evening and takes about 10 minutes to cook. The vegetables in an autumn harvest soup are pureed in a food processor or put through a food mill to make a sophisticated, yet hearty, soup choice.

Serving sizes for soup are approximate and refer to the number of bowls the soup provides. When served for dinner, two bowls per person are often the norm.

For an instant homemade soup, double any of the soup ingredients and freeze leftovers for another evening. Put half of your soup into a plastic freezer container, loosely cover it and refrigerate it until it is cold. Seal the container tightly and freeze it for up to one month. Defrost the soup in the refrigerator (overnight works well) and have dinner from the freezer whenever you need it.

Any mixed vegetable soup can have the specific vegetables adjusted to fit personal taste and what is on hand. Soup recipes are really more of a general guideline than a matter of following strict measurements. If you like onions, be generous with them. If you don't like turnips, forget them.

As you cook soup, taste it often and adjust the seasonings and salt to your preference.

Make it your soup, and think of yourself as the "good witch."

Autumn Harvest Soup

Makes 5 to 6 servings

4 tablespoons butter (divided use)

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