By Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Do you remember the children's story "Stone Soup"?
Based on an old French folktale, it has been passed down in several versions, but the idea is always the same: A lone traveler, or three soldiers or perhaps three monks come to a village, where no one wants to feed them. So they put a stone in a big pot, fill the pot with water and tell the villagers that they are making stone soup.
All it needs is a garnish, they say. One villager adds a couple of carrots. Another contributes a potato. Another has a chicken he can part with, and so on. The travelers remove the stone, and everyone in the village enjoys a big pot of delicious soup.
The moral of the story is that good things happen when you share what you have with others. But that wasn't what I took away from the story. What I learned from it, as a child, was how to make soup.
Every time I cook it, I can't help but think about those travelers tricking the greedy villagers.
As it happens, winter is the best time of the year for making soup. It warms you from the inside out, and nothing makes your house smell better and more homey than a big pot of soup simmering slowly on the stove.
For this story, I dove deep into my files, emerging with recipes I have been making since at least 2002, and one of them probably a few years before that. They are among my favorite soups.
Two are so good because of the magic of double-strength stock. You make regular-strength stock, of course, by simmering bones (or meat) and certain vegetables in water. Double-strength stock is what you get when you take that stock and simmer meat in that. With double-strength stock, you get a soup that is heartier, richer and more velvety.
For my first soup using double-strength stock, a chicken soup, I simmered the meat in stock I bought at the store. It would be even better, of course, to simmer it in homemade stock, but that was more effort than even I wanted to make. And the result was just as spectacular, or nearly, as it would have been if I had made the first stock myself.
The recipe comes from J.M. Hirsch, the longtime food editor at Associated Press who is now at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street. At the time, 2007, Hirsch was looking for ways to shorten the time it takes to make chicken soup and still yield delicious results.
Using store-bought broth was one of the shortcuts he used, and so were cooking boneless thighs instead of bone-in, dredging the chicken through flour instead of creating a roux, adding potatoes as a way to help thicken the soup, and thickening it further by cooking noodles in the soup instead of a separate pot.
It takes less than an hour to make this dish, and it is amazing.
My own version of beef soup, which I am calling Beef Stone Soup, makes both the regular-strength stock and the double-strength at the same time.
That is, I put roasted beef bones in a stock pot with water, and I add cut-up chunks of marinated beef and the usual vegetables -- carrots, celery, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Both the bones and the meat combine to make an extra-hearty broth, which I fortify with a little reduced red wine and a couple of unexpected spices: cloves and cinnamon.
I love the heady combination of cloves and cinnamon with beef, especially when mixed with tomatoes. I used canned tomatoes with this recipe because it is winter, but also because you don't need the quick brightness of fresh tomatoes in a soup that simmers for an hour and a half. The light acidic edge that would come from fresh tomatoes is instead replaced by a finishing splash of vinegar.
My original recipe calls for a roux to thicken the soup, but this time I decided to skip the calories and instead use cornstarch. The soup is so blissfully satisfying that no one will ever complain.
The easiest soup to make, Roasted Acorn Squash and Apple Cider Soup, comes from Dale Reitzer, who is one of the top chefs in Richmond, Virginia. When dealing with a great chef, simple is often best.
All you do is split open a couple of acorn squash and drizzle them with honey and dots of butter. Then you cook them in a roasting pan with equal amounts of vegetable stock and apple cider. Puree it all together (except the squash skins) and you have a wholesome and fresh-tasting soup that cannot be improved.
Except it can. Reitzer mixes together cinnamon and crème fraiche (I used sour cream) and divides it among the bowls. The mild tang of the dairy plays beautifully against the earthy squash and the sharpness of the cider, while the hint of cinnamon makes it just right for the winter.
The last soup is the most elegant of them all: Celery Root Soup with Smoked Turkey. How elegant is it? Let's just say the dish, which comes from a restaurant at the storied Culinary Institute of America, is actually supposed to be made with smoked pheasant.
But I'm out of smoked pheasant at the moment, as one sometimes is, so instead I decided to use smoked turkey. But all my store had was massive amounts of turkey that was surprisingly expensive. So I used smoked chicken legs instead.
If you can't find smoked chicken, use turkey instead, or even smoked ham. Or, you know, you could always smoke a pheasant.
The elegance really comes from the main ingredient, celery root, which is also known as celeriac. It is an unusually ugly vegetable, even for a root, but it has the most sublime, subtle flavor. It tastes like a mild form of celery, like celery without the sharp astringency.
As good as cream of celery soup is, cream of celery root soup is that much better -- and it doesn't even need all that much cream. The celery root is almost smooth and rich enough by itself, when it is simmered with chicken stock and onions and, OK, a lot of butter.
It is simply magnificent. But it can be made even better with a little smoked chicken. Or turkey. Or pheasant.
Or even just a stone.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped, or scant 1/2 teaspoon dried
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
6 ounces crimini or portobello mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup frozen peas
2 carrots, cut into thin rounds
1 cup small pasta, such as elbows or shells
2 celery ribs, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Cut each chicken thigh in two. Dredge each piece of chicken through the flour to coat lightly on all sides. Set aside.
2. In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, combine the butter and olive oil. When it begins to sizzle, add the chicken and cook, turning as needed, until lightly browned on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion, garlic, thyme, basil and rosemary. Sauté until onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
4. Increase heat to high and add broth and water. Bring to a simmer. Meanwhile cut meat into bite-size pieces.
5. When the broth is simmering, lower heat to medium and add the meat, mushrooms, peas and carrots. Return to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes.
6. Add the pasta and celery and cook for as long as directed on the package of pasta. Stir in the parsley and lemon juice, then season to taste with salt and pepper
Per serving (based on 6): 340 calories; 11 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 102 mg cholesterol; 26 g protein; 34 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 783 mg sodium; 55 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by J.M. Hirsch of the Associated Press
Beef Stone Soup
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 pounds beef soup bones
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons salt, divided
Black pepper, to taste
1 1/4 pounds stewing beef
1/2 cup dry red wine
4 quarts water
3 ribs of celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, diced
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 red potatoes, diced
4 whole cloves
1 small stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Place bones in roasting pan and brown in oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Meanwhile, mix together oil, 1 tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste, and pour it over the beef in a medium bowl. Stir to coat meat. Marinate 30 minutes.
3. Add meat and marinade to a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat, and brown on all sides. This may take two batches. Remove the meat and add the wine, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot as it boils.
4. When wine has reduced by about half, add water, bones, meat, celery, carrots, onion, tomatoes, potatoes, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaf. Bring to a very gentle simmer, skimming off all scum that forms on top of the soup with a strainer or spoon. Cook until meat is tender, about 11/2 hours.
5. Remove all bones, cinnamon stick, bay leaf and cloves, if you can find them. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, remaining 11/2 teaspoons of salt and pepper to taste. Add slurry of cornstarch and water, bring to a boil and cook until it reaches desired thickness.
Per serving (based on 6): 560 calories; 37 g fat; 21 g saturated fat; 251 mg cholesterol; 62 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 971 mg sodium; 99 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman
Roasted Acorn Squash And Apple Cider Soup
Yield: 6 servings
2 acorn squash
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
4 teaspoons (1 1/3 tablespoons) butter
4 cups apple cider
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup crème fraiche or sour cream
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Cut each acorn squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Place squash, cut-side up, in a 13-by-9-inch roasting pan. Drizzle honey over the halves and place 1 teaspoon of butter in each one.
3. Pour apple cider and vegetable stock around squash. Cover tightly with foil and cook for 11/2 hours or until tender.
4. When cool, scoop out the flesh into a blender. Add cooking broth and puree until smooth; this may need to be done in two batches. Strain into a serving bowl, and season with salt and pepper.
5. In a small bowl, mix together crème fraiche and cinnamon. Serve soup in bowls with a dollop of the crème fraiche-cinnamon mixture in each one.
Per serving: 187 calories; 10 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 33 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 777 mg sodium; 53 mg calcium
Recipe by Dale Reitzer
Celery Root Soup With Smoked Turkey Or Chicken
Yield: 6 servings
6 tablespoons butter
2 onions, sliced
3 pounds celery root, peeled, rinsed and diced
8 ounces meat from smoked turkey or chicken legs, diced, plus the bones
10 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1. In large pot or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add onions and sweat until translucent (do not let onions brown).
2. Add celery root and smoked leg bone or bones. Sweat for 5 minutes.
3. Add stock and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, bring cream to a boil and reduce by half.
4. Remove soup from heat and check that the celery root is thoroughly cooked. If it is, remove the bones and bay leaf. Puree soup with a hand mixer or, in batches, in the blender. Stir in reduced cream, and season with salt and pepper.
5. To serve, place diced meat in a bowl. Ladle soup on top.
Per serving: 470 calories; 26 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 99 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 39 g carbohydrate; 12 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 876 mg sodium; 140 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by the Culinary Institute of America