Chef's Blog

January 11, 2017

Comfort in a Bowl

from Chef Gregg Nelson

Come early January, when it’s 4 degrees in Chicago, -6 in Bismarck, and mid 30’s here in Northern California (no snickering now, that’s cold for us!) it’s time to break out your stock pot and make one of my favorite menu items— soup. Certainly one of the most comforting meals you can have. Remembering those cold winter days growing up (I grew up in New Jersey) and thinking about my mom or grandmother making a big pot of chicken noodle soup, or a rich minestrone, or a pot of clam “chowda” (the New England version) and thinking there could be no other meal as satisfying as this.

But before I go on, let’s take a look at the foundation of soup and its classifications. Soup is primarily liquid food, made usually with poultry, meat, seafood or vegetable broth and served hot. It may be served cool or cold, but that’s for another season— it’s cold outside. Traditionally, soups are classified into two main groups: clear soups and thick soups. The established French classifications of clear soups are bouillon and consommé. Thick soups are classified depending upon the type of thickening agent or roux used (i.e. classic roux with butter & flour; Cajun roux with oil & flour; or a slurry with cornstarch & water). Bisques are made from puréed shellfish or vegetables thickened with cream. Cream soups can be thickened with a butter & flour roux or with a béchamel sauce or velouté. Other ingredients used to thicken soups and broths are rice, lentils, and grains. Some soups are even thickened with root vegetables or cauliflower. Another wintertime favorite, stews, are similar to soups in terms of ingredient composition but much thicker in consistency.

Soup has a home in nearly every culture’s cuisine. Vietnamese Pho (pronounced ‘Fa’), is a hearty soup that usually is served as an entrée. Traditional pho consists of a meat or seafood, rich broth, noodles, and array of vegetables. It’s customarily topped with fresh mint leaves—absolutely sensational and one of my favorites. Travel to Mexico and you’ll likely find chicken tortilla soup, pozole (stew-like), and menudo— another favorite of mine which includes pork, tripe, potatoes and vegetables. Japan has its famous ramen and miso, both served in rich broth. The ramen broth includes pork fat for that extra richness, while miso is simply water, tofu and scallions. And one can’t forget France with the supreme bouillabaisse— that fantastic concoction of saffron, seafood broth, and the bounty from the sea.

Here in the United States we have many regional soup specialties. New Orleans has incredible gumbo, made with a roux of oil and flour that’s cooked down until golden brown. New England has its famed clam “chowda” made with clam broth, clams and cream. In San Francisco we have our own version of the bouillabaisse, cioppino while Maryland has its crab soup, a regional favorite. So in all this you have many choices on cold winter days to have your own “comfort in a bowl”.

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