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
Adapted from THE BOOK Delicious
Chicken Soup (ROBERT CHAPLIN) by CHEF Andrey Durbach
1, 2 1/2-3 lb chicken, rinsed inside and out (substitute: 3 lbs uncooked chicken bones)
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
2 large carrots, peeled and halved
2 large celery ribs, halved
1 turnip (optional), peeled and quartered
1 leek (optional), split and washed well
3 tbsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
5 sprigs thyme
1 piece fresh ginger (size of an adult thumb)
Place all ingredients in a large stockpot and cover well with cold water. Bring to boil over high heat, removing grey scum and foam as it rises to the top. Turn heat down to a gentle simmer and continue removing foam until it’s all gone.
Let simmer about 2 hours. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Skim off fat that rises to top of broth. Strain solids out of soup and reserve; discard herbs. For basic chicken soup, chop up meat and vegetables and return to pot with liquid.
The basic broth is a building block for countless soups and sauces. Makes about 4 litres, depending on the volume of water used.
By chef Ali Ryan, Spinnakers, Victoria
1 1/2 lbs clams
3 1/3 cups water
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
1 Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
1/2 lb halibut, cut into chunks
1/4 lb salmon, cut into chunks
1 cup milk
2/3 cups light cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tbsp fresh dill, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Boil 2 cups of water in a large saucepan. Add clams to boiling water, cover and steam for
2 minutes, until clams open. Remove clams, reserving the clam nectar. Remove meat from shells and set aside. Discard shells.
Place clam nectar in a large pot. Add remaining 1 1/3 cups water and bring to a boil. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook until half-done. Add potato and cook until just tender. Gently stir in halibut and salmon and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, until fish is cooked through and vegetables are soft. Remove fish and vegetables with slotted spoon and set aside.
Add milk and creams to hot clam nectar. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Mix flour and butter together into a smooth mixture (a roux). Whisk roux into simmering chowder and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in dill and carefully add fish, vegetables and clams into chowder. Bring to a boil, taste and season with salt and pepper. Makes 6 servings.
Cactus Club Tomato Gin Soup
By Cactus Club food concept
architect Rob Feenie
4 lbs roma tomatoes
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 tsp fresh oregano, minced
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 1/2 tbsp fresh sage leaves, minced
1 1/2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 tbsp butter
1 cup gin (preferably Hendrick’s)
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
3 tbsp fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup crème fraîche (purchased, or recipe below)
8 pieces parmesan tuille (recipe below)
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Centre a rack in oven and preheat to 250º F. Wash tomatoes, cut in half and place in large bowl. Generously season with salt, pepper, oregano and thyme and toss until all ingredients are well combined. Lay tomatoes cut-side up on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for approximately 3 hours or until most of the moisture is gone. (Tomatoes will shrink in size and look wrinkly.)
Transfer roasted tomatoes to a large soup pot and add vegetable or chicken stock. Bring soup to a boil and add sage and thyme. Reduce heat, cover and simmer gently for approximately 1 hour.
In a separate pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add gin and heat together. Very carefully flame the gin mixture, allowing all the alcohol to evaporate. Once flames have died out, add gin mixture to soup. Season.
Bring soup to a boil again and add basil leaves. Remove from heat and blend soup in batches until smooth. Transfer soup back into a large saucepan, taste and adjust seasoning to taste.
To serve, divide soup into bowls and top with a dollop of crème fraîche and a parmesan tuille. Drizzle lightly with extra-virgin olive oil and serve. Makes 8 servings.
Instructions for crème fraîche:
Place 1 cup of buttermilk and 1 cup of whipping cream in a pot over medium-high heat and bring almost to a boil. Remove from heat right before the boiling point and leave at room temperature for 24 hours. After 24 hours it should have a sour cream-like texture. Refrigerate until needed, up to two weeks.
Instructions for parmesan tuille:
Preheat oven to 350º F. Spread
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese in circles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in oven for approximately 5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Snap into small pieces. Store in an airtight container up to 3 days.
By chef Cindy Lazarenko, Culina Highlands, Edmonton
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 large onion, diced
1/2 head green or purple cabbage, sliced into thin pieces
6 beets, peeled and diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, diced
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup milk
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
Salt and freshy ground black
pepper, to taste
Sour cream, to garnish
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt oil and butter together. Add onion and cabbage and cook, stirring, until vegetables are caramelized. While cabbage is cooking, dice one potato and set aside.
Add diced potato, beets, carrots and pepper to pot. Stir well and season with salt and pepper. Add enough water to just cover vegetables. Add tomatoes, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender.
Boil second potato until tender. Drain and mash with milk. Stir potato mixture and vinegar into soup. Simmer 5 minutes.
Stir dill into soup and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with sour cream. Makes 8 servings.
Curried Lamb and Lentil Soup
From Whitewater Cooks at Home by Shelley Adams
3/4 cup whole green lentils
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb boneless lamb leg or shoulder,
trimmed and cubed
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1/2 tsp red chili flakes
1 tsp turmeric
8 cups water
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp fenugreek
1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1 large onion, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
4 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, diced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp salt
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Rinse lentils several times in cold water. Heat oil in large, heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium-high heat. Add lamb, ginger, chili flakes and turmeric. Cook, browning meat on all sides. Add lentils and water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender (45 minutes).
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add fenugreek and mustard seeds and cook until they pop. Add onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and caramelized (about 10 minutes). Add garlic, carrots and red pepper. Cook for 3 minutes. Add cumin, coriander, garam masala and salt. Cook for about 10 minutes or until carrots are tender. Add tomatoes, bring to a simmer and remove from heat.
Test lentils for tenderness, then add vegetables to soup. Bring to boil then reduce heat to low; cook for 30 to 45 minutes. Season to taste. Stir in cilantro just before serving. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Thanks to Whole Foods Market for supplying recipe ingredients
(510 8th Ave., Vancouver, 778-370-4210, wholefoodsmarket.com)
and to the Cookworks Test Kitchen for recipe testing (1548 West Broadway, Vancouver, 604-731-1148, cookworks.ca).