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Feb 07

Meatless stew or vegetable soup? – The choice is yours!

With the coldest days of winter upon us, nothing goes down better that a steaming bowl of soup or stew. It is just one of those comfort foods that has the ability to warm up the frostiest of times and climes. Recently, whilst visiting Christa, our daughter in Saverne, France, she said that she had a hankering for some vegetable soup and would I please make her some. It turns out, for no good reason that I can think of, I had never in my life before concocted such a dish. You therefore, will not find this recipe in the pages of our Un-Cookbook!

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Something prevalent in both France and the United Kingdom, is to receive a weekly basket of organic, locally-grown vegetables. You never know exactly what you are going to get. It was the remnants of recent weeks’ supply that I was to use as my starting point. This was, in fact, exactly the kind of challenge that the Un-Chef enjoys. 

Although I may never have made vegetable soup before, I was no stranger to soups and stews in general and knew that other than the vegetables themselves, I would need three basic ingredients: liquid, flavour enhancers and thickening agent. Now when put in those particular terms, they may not constitute a particularly enticing-sounding recipe but the proof of the pudding would be in the eating!

As for the vegetables themselves, the only preparation needed is to wash and/or peel as required or desired and then to dice or cut them into appropriate sized chunks. For me, the main difference between soups and stews is the size of the chunks! You can use just about anything that you have on hand, taking care to moderate quantities of particularly strongly flavoured ones so that they do not dominate. I do not recall exactly what Christa and Mik had on hand but do recognise potato, carrot, onion and celery root. I also added an apple just to mix things up a little, although some (Mik), found that a little strange! (It’s that French ‘salée/sucrée’ thing again, I suppose).

One of the secrets to good soups or stews is to try, wherever possible, to avoid adding mere water as liquid. I learned very early on in my culinary adventures that you can add almost anything as stock. Some of the things that I might recommend are: milk, wine, tea or coffee in limited quantities, vinegar, tomato or fruit juice, ketchup, steak sauce etc. You are limited only by your imagination. Once again, the trick is to achieve the right balance and to not allow any unwanted flavour to dominate but rather to achieve a harmonious blend. In this area, there is no substitute for experience derived from trial and error.

When we mentioned flavour enhancers above, we were careful not just to say herbs, spices and/or seasonings. This is because to restrict yourself too narrowly here is again to miss out. One of the secrets of the Un-Chef method of cooking is to be able to make do with whatever happens to be on hand. Obviously, chicken or vegetable stock in liquid, powder or cube format is a good starting point. Once again, I cannot give you full chapter and verse on everything that I put into this particular version. Some of the potential candidates other than normal seasonings would be: mustards, hot sauces, pizza sauce, Lea & Perrins and soy sauce. The only watchword here is moderation.

If you are intending to make a consommé-style soup, you will not need any thickening agent. If you do want a thicker consistency, try to avoid the standard ones of flour or cornstarch. These add very little in terms of nutritive value. Personally, I would use wild rice, oat flakes, oat or wheat bran, flax, pearl barley etc. In this particular instance, I found some quinoa in the cupboard and added about 2/3 cup of this.

The one difference that I would stress about how my personal methods would differ from most others is that I pre-cook the vegetables using the minimum-moisture method, essentially without water, before finally adding the liquids, seasonings and thickener. This has two main benefits:

  1. The cooking time is considerably reduced
  2. The vegetables will retain more of their individual flavours which will gradually wash out the longer they are boiled or simmered in liquid.

There is an entire section of our Un-Cookbook devoted to minimum-moisture cooking and its advantages and benefits.

As mentioned before, the proof of the pudding or in this case soup, is in the eating. Unless the family was merely being polite, which would not be the norm, the final product was enjoyed by all. In fact, since I made a large batch, we froze the remainder and ate it a week later.

I can’t think of anything better after a day of skating on the Rideau Canal taking part in Ottawa’s Winterlude (except maybe Beavertails) 😉

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