The composer Giuseppe Verdi once said that soup was the source of his inspiration. If such a homey, simple food could be the magic behind such magnificent operas as Aida and Rigoletto, think what it can do in your household! I know that when my family is not in the mood for the usual meat-and-potatoes dinner or we’re bored with whatever we’ve been eating, we turn to soup and everyone feels a little bit better, particularly when it’s cold outside. A good, thick, chunky soup has an uncanny ability to fill us up and warm us from within.
Fortunately, soup is also one of the easiest dishes to cook and the recipes are forgiving, so you can be as inspired as Verdi, and substitute and innovate as your palate and pantry dictate. If I’m making a vegetable soup, for example, and don’t have corn or zucchini, I use green beans or broccoli instead. When I have no fresh tomatoes in the house I use the canned kind. Sometimes I add leftover cooked meat, vegetables, rice, beans, lentils or pasta if they seem like a good fit for any particular soup that I’m cooking. Canned black beans or garbanzo beans sometimes fill in for white beans, dried herbs for fresh, meat stock replaces vegetable stock for the appropriate meat dinners.
Several hearty soups have become my family’s wintertime go-to dinners. Borscht is one. If you think of Borscht as a thin, red liquid that comes in a jar, that’s only partly true. The authentic Old World version does contain beets, but it’s also loaded with other sturdy winter vegetables including cabbage, potatoes, carrots and parsnips. I usually make it with vegetable stock, as indicated by the recipe, because we like Borscht with sour cream on top (although I “cheat” these days and offer Greek-style non-fat yogurt instead) and I serve it with dark pumpernickel bread and cold, unsalted butter. But you can make Borscht a meat dinner too, without the dairy garnish: prepare your own stock using meaty soup bones (remove the meat from the bones and put it into the soup) or use packaged beef or chicken stock.
Minestrone is frequently on our menu during the cold months too. Another substantial dish, the recipe I make includes rice and beans, so there’s plenty of good protein, plus a variety of vegetables. Minestrone is fine if you serve it plain, but we prefer it loaded with shavings of fresh Parmesan on top to give the dish a nice tangy quality. I serve Minestrone with hot, crusty Italian style bread and if I have the time and the right ingredients I give the bread a layer of cheese (cut the loaf in half, spread the cut sides with butter and sprinkle with minced fresh garlic and some grated Parmesan; top with shredded mozzarella cheese and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for a few minutes until the cheese melts).
Beef-Vegetable-Barley Soup is always a winner at my house. It takes longer to cook than Borscht or Minestrone because the meat needs time to soften. I usually make it with short ribs or flanken but chuck or meaty soup bones are fine too, and if I have shin meat I’ll use that (and cook it about 45-60 minutes longer because this cut is always more gristly). The dried mushrooms give this soup an intense, earthy, almost woodsy flavor, but the addition of fresh dill counters with a refreshing, almost spring-like quality. This is a good soup for freezing. I make a double recipe and put portions in quart containers to take out for dinner on nights when I have no time to cook. We love this soup with old fashioned Jewish rye bread with seeds; if you can buy it unsliced I recommend it. A fresh chunk of rye is terrific for dunking into the soup.
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.