Soup's On  

Stockpots are simmering in restaurant kitchens across the West, charged with new ingredients and fresh twists on old favourites.


WHEN VANCOUVER CHEF Andrey Durbach finally decided to write a cookbook after 15 years as a successful restaurateur, he eschewed glossy photos and intimidating recipes in favour of getting back to essentials: soup. In the charming Delicious Chicken Soup (quirkily illustrated by its publisher, artist Robert Chaplin), Durbach explains in language a child could understand how to make a deep, rich, brothy version of this elemental potion.

"When times are good, people are willing to spend money experimenting," says Durbach, who is the executive chef of Vancouver neighbourhood hotspots La Buca, Pied à Terre and L’Altro Buca and a former consulting chef for a company called Soup Doctor. "When economic times are bad, people turn back to things that are inexpensive and warm and comforting. And soup definitely fits into that category."
As your grandmother has always known, soup is a delicious, nutritious meal in a bowl. And it’s more fashionable than ever. In soup pots across Western Canada, you’ll find the traditions of the immigrant cultures that came here-though what were once exotic ethnic specialties are now cross-cultural comfort foods, modernized with fresh flavours and lighter, sophisticated cooking techniques.

At Edmonton’s Culina Highlands, for instance, the "modern Ukrainian cuisine" of chef-owner Cindy Lazarenko is a healthier version of the food she enjoyed growing up. "When I think of traditional Ukrainian food, it’s so heavy. I want to get away from that," she says. Lately, Lazarenko has been experimenting with borscht. She already makes a deep, ruby-coloured vegetarian version with earthy beets and sweet, caramelized cabbage (see page 60). Now she’s experimenting with a white borscht made with potatoes. "There’s beef borscht and rye borscht… I always thought borscht meant beets, but it doesn’t mean that at all."

That’s part of the appeal of soup: it all starts with the same basic process, one that’s fairly forgiving of mistakes. Yet many home cooks are intimidated by the thought of preparing any soup that doesn’t come in a can. "I think it’s the simplicity of soup which scares people off," says Ali Ryan, chef at Spinnakers Gastro Brew Pub in Victoria, B.C. "You can’t hide a bad soup behind a sauce. It is what it is." Ryan notes that soup is a food that often has intense olfactory memories attached to it. With that in mind, she has crafted a lusciously fragrant halibut and salmon chowder, which might just rival the tomato-based clam chowder on B.C. Ferries for Islanders’ favourite soup.

What often frightens novices is making stock. This broth of vegetables and herbs (simmered, typically, with chicken, ham, beef or fish bones) is the base of almost every soup, be it clear or creamy, hot or cold, puréed or chunky. Too often, though, what should be a limpid, clear broth becomes a grey, murky mess.

To avoid that fate, start with quality, fresh ingredients (not scraps or leftovers) in large enough quantities to produce deep flavour. Mind your times and temperatures: cooking the bones too long or too hot emulsifies the fats and proteins and produces a cloudy broth; better to gently extract the flavours by keeping the pot at a bare simmer. Skim off the grey foam that rises to the top or, for an even clearer broth, chill the stock so congealed fat can easily be spooned off. Whipping egg whites into cold stock and heating it to just a simmer will produce the kind of crystalline broth adored by purists. (The egg whites gather the impurities as they harden.)

These techniques are not particularly difficult but they take time, which is often in short supply for the home cook. Fortunately, there are now good quality pre-made stocks available, everywhere from the grocery store to your local gourmet shop. Start with those, says Shelley Adams, author of Whitewater Cooks and Whitewater Cooks at Home (Whitecap), the best-selling cookbooks from the beloved ski resort near Nelson, B.C. Then focus on adding ingredients and flavours.

Adams, the former chef-owner of Fresh Tracks Café near Whitewater Ski Resort, says that she always had a big pot or two of fragrant soup bubbling away for guests. "As you can imagine, with a lodge full of hungry, freezing cold skiers, we sold a lot of soup. Litres and litres of soup. Soup is one of my favourite things to eat in the world."
Soups like Adams’s Curried Lamb and Lentil (page 62) feature exotic flavours-kaffir lime leaves, cumin, chilies, lemongrass-that sparked the globetrotting palates of her mountain community. "These recipes appeal to them because they’ve been to Thailand, they’ve been to India and they’ve been to Mexico."

Similarly, in Calgary, a vibrant Vietnamese community has created a citywide familiarity with and fondness for the soothingly simple soup called pho. In the hands of a creative chef, its delicate chicken or beef broth can become an exotic journey of flavours.
At the Orchid Room in Calgary’s Bankers Hall, head chef Nguyen Bui and her sister-in-law Huong Hong prepare Vietnamese-fusion soups that are fragrant with fresh flavourings: tart tamarind, herbal lemongrass, sweet coconut and hot curry. Unlike hearty Eastern European fare, modern Asian soups like the Orchid Room’s Spicy Tamarind Seafood Soup are not long-simmered for flavour, but rely on fresh vegetables and barely cooked seafood. They are light in body, but complex in taste and texture.
Today, as some eateries struggle and customers are hungry for comfort foods, chefs are reinventing affordable basics. Take tangy tomato soup, recently reimagined by Cactus Club food concept architect Rob Feenie with fragrant Hendrick’s gin-a combination so winning it might soon be on menus across the West. Or homey red lentil, made sophisticated with saffron at Vancouver’s Stock Up fresh market. Classic chicken soup is enriched with the earthy complexity of wild mushrooms at Saskatoon’s 2nd Avenue Grill and peasanty French onion soup goes haute with the addition of white truffle essence at Winnipeg’s popular Sydney’s at the Forks.

"Making delicious chicken soup is an art, which provides comfort and good feelings to everyone we know, from the youngest child to the oldest Michelin chef," Durbach wrote in his book. The legendary chef Escoffier agrees: "Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite."

To that, we say: mmm, mmm good. wl