Spicy Potato Chickpea Soup. The secret? Good ingredients, smart technique.
A customer recently told us our Potato Leek Soup was so good she wanted to "pour it over my head and bathe in it."
It’s not a beauty tip we’d recommend, but Mary Frances (whom we adore) has a point: A bowl of Grand Central Bakery soup is hard to beat, especially on a drizzly Northwest day. Cream of Tomato, Cream of Mushroom, Split Pea & Ham, Moroccan Lentil With Chicken, Sri Lankan Corn – just thinking about the possibilities for the day’s menu gets us excited about lunch.
Local leeks: the starting point for luxuriously creamy soup - or a bath.
So what makes that soup so special? Great ingredients, for starters – we use only seasonal vegetables from local farms, fresh herbs and pasture raised meats. And every drop of the 45-some gallons served daily is made from scratch, including our house-made chicken stock (all those carcasses from our whole, pasture-raised chickens do come in handy).
As much as all that, it’s cooking technique. And because we’re always looking for ways to improve our soup making at home, we asked Robb Hengerer, the soup master in our Portland commissary kitchen, to share his secrets for delicious, perhaps even bath-worthy, soup.
Think low and slow when cooking onions.
Slow it down. Deep flavor starts with a slow caramelization of aromatics – onions, celery and carrots. Robb says it’s essential, especially with vegetarian soups, to cook onions over low heat for as long as it takes until they’re very soft and sweet. If you rush things, the onions will burn at the edges or only caramelize on the outside. Take your time with simmering as well: the longer you simmer the soup, the more flavor it will have, especially vegetable soups that use water as the liquid.
Salt as you go. Salt the onions as they sauté. Add a bit more salt when the chunks of vegetables go into the pot. And finally, taste and salt the soup as it simmers, to add a layer of seasoning to the broth. If you wait until the end, you will have well-seasoned broth, but the other ingredients will taste bland.
Make soup ahead of time. At the bakery’s central kitchen we make all the soups a day ahead so they can be delivered on schedule to the cafes, but we believe it makes them taste better as well, allowing the flavors to meld and mellow. Robb's tip: When you reheat a soup made ahead of time, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Use your flavor arsenal. Look for flavor powerhouses in your home pantry. Got some pan drippings from a roast chicken? Freeze and add to your next kettle of soup. That leftover parmesan rind? Simmer it in vegetable soup or minestrone, then fish it out before serving. In our kitchen, we like to use bits of slab bacon (chunkier than regular bacon) to add a smoky, salty note to chowders, and pan juices leftover from smoking meat in our beef chili.
Add green things at the very last minute. Ribbons of chard, bits of kale, chunks of broccoli and cauliflower – these winter-season gems want to be crisp-tender, not soft and gray. Our soup chefs stir these into the kettle after it comes off the burner and the soup is cooling - they cook a bit then, and a bit more when the soup is reheated, so when they arrive in your bowl the texture is perfect.
Robb says: Don't overcook the chard!
Don’t forget the garnish. When the garnish makes the soup, use the good stuff. Think shredded Parmigiano Reggiano (served over every bowl of Root Soup Riot), salty feta and fresh mint (a revelation on GCB’s Mediterranean Lentil), or a drizzle of nice, fruity olive oil.
Separate the starch. Pasta and barley tend to soak up broth and break down once a soup sits for awhile. Best to cook it separately al dente, and add it just before serving.
Practice makes perfect. “The more you make a soup,” says Robb, “the more little things you realize you can change for the better.” So if you have a favorite soup recipe, make it often. That’s how GCB's Root Soup Riot came to be, after Robb started playing around with an Italian vegetable soup recipe at home. “I love parsnips, so I subbed out some of the other things for parsnips and rutabaga. I took out the pasta and added barley because it felt more earthy.” Once the basics were in place, he kept making it until it was just right.