Soup. Is there anything more comforting on a cold day?
Soups can be simple or fancy and are often hearty enough to make a meal. And soup has great flexibility. A good soup can use all the leftovers in the fridge.
"It's a good way to use up a lot of things," said Chef Chris Cox of The Mousetrap in Lansdowne Shoppes. "If you have leftover pot roast, put it in a stew or make a pot roast stew."
Stock vs. broth
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Cox, who serves at least three soups made from scratch daily, said starting with a quality base is the key to a better bowl.
"It's preparation, more than anything. You need to make your stocks," he said. "It starts from the very beginning."
Bone broth, a very trendy ingredient right now, makes rich flavorful stock. But making a good stock "takes three to four hours, minimum," Cox said.
So what do you do if you don't have that kind of time, or the soup impulse strikes suddenly? Cox recommends More Than Gourmet, a line of ready-made stocks that The Mousetrap sells.
Another good choice is the line of condensed starters by Better Than Bouillon, which has low sodium and several vegetarian options, including a "no chicken" chicken soup base.
Cox recommends skipping dried bouillon cubes.
Use quality meat
Almost anything you make is going to be a better alternative to canned soup, he added. And the quality of meats you put in stews is going to affect the quality of your finished product.
"Use ground sirloin instead of ground round," Cox said. Even if it's just chili, that's going to give more flavor.
Spices matter, too
And speaking of flavor ... be sure to add herbs and spices.
"It always comes down to ingredients and how you spice them," he said. "Fresh is always better than canned and frozen." Don't be shy with spices. Just make sure you use them at the end, instead of at the beginning he said.
"I have a very expensive spice shelf at home and at work, and I use it," Cox said.
Thyme, rosemary, sage add a lot of flavor.
"I know a lot of people are scared they will destroy the taste, but you've got to take chances," he said.
And speaking of taking chances, Lynn Garrett, kitchen supervisor at Good Foods Co-op café, said their customers expect to try a lot of exotic flavors, like an orange carrot soup on the menu recently.
"Our patrons are very adventurous, so we try a lot of ethnic soups," Garrett said. "We're going to make it taste fantastic, and maybe they will try some things they wouldn't normally try."
The café typically has at least four soups, including two vegetarian options, daily.
And be healthy
Soup can be a tasty way to eat your vegetables, Garrett said. The café tries to have a range of options from really healthy to more indulgent.
"We are not gonna lie — the stuff that tastes really good probably isn't that healthy," she said.
One of their most popular and healthy is a miso, kale and mushroom soup.
"It's like comfort food," she said.
But for pure comfort, it's hard to beat chicken noodle, and Good Foods almost always has at least one variation on that theme, including a wheat-free version with brown rice.
Which calls to mind Maurice Sendak's children's book: "On January, it's so nice, while slipping on the sliding ice, to sip hot chicken soup with rice. Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice."
Perhaps it's those childhood associations that make soup such a comfort.
"It warms people up, makes them nostalgic for their mother or grandmother," she said.