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Secrets to Great Soup

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Fall is here, and for those who love soup, it’s a great time of year! There are so many things to love about soup. It’s an easy make-ahead, one-dish meal, simple to heat up for families on the go who have all different schedules. It’s also the most forgiving food ever, capable of turning almost anything in your fridge into a new meal. Whatever you were planning to put in your soup (and don’t have) there’s nearly always an easy substitute.

Our first rule of thumb with soup is “never canned.” Standard canned soup contains huge amounts of sodium (probably both for taste and preservation), not to mention vegetables that have almost turned to mush. When dealing with heart disease, we usually have to manage sodium, and making homemade soup is a delicious way to do that. In addition, it’s easy to control saturated fat when using your own ingredients.

Speaking of sodium, the one and only reason to use salt is taste, right? With all the ways we have to keep food fresh, we don’t need it so much for preservation (except in the commercially processed food business). So, if you can create soup with an amazing flavor, you won’t need (or miss) salt. The tips below are designed to give you lots of ways to do that.

The basic formula for diabetic and heart health (i.e., where we are trying to manage added sugars, saturated fat, sodium and refined carbs, like pasta) is a rich, deeply flavored broth, a variety of vegetables, and some cooked meat. Once in a while we do throw in a small amount of potato, or a bit of noodles, but that’s not the centerpiece.

Beyond the basics, there are several ways to take your soup from average to spectacular, creating deeper, more complex flavor and substance.

  • Start with homemade stock. If at all possible, create a supply of stock sometime when you’re rained in for the weekend, or have a bunch of rotisserie chicken leftovers in your freezer. Our homemade chicken broth recipe tells you how, but there are many variations. If you don’t have any frozen homemade broth (and no time to make any), you can definitely use a commercial variety, but watch sodium content carefully. Even the “reduced sodium” types have a lot of it. Look for “no salt added,” types, and when you find them, buy several so you have them in a pinch.
  • Enrich your broth. If you thought the only authentic way to enrich your stock is with hours of simmering, a splash of wine, and lots of roasted bones and sauteed shallots, take a tip from the late chef, Anthony Bourdain, in Kitchen Confidential, page 38. He confessed to adding a bit of chicken base to his broth, mystifying his colleagues as to how he managed to coax so much flavor out of the same ingredients they were using. Take it a step further and mix in a couple of flavors: a little chicken and a little beef (or whatever combination you like) for a deeper, more complex flavor profile. But again, be careful of sodium content! Look for ultra-low sodium bouillon, like some of the types from Herb Ox.
  • Use fresh vegetables. We know that frozen vegetables save you time, and that’s not a bad idea in a pinch (they’re way better than calling out for a pizza). And we definitely hope you’ve already sworn off most canned vegetables, due to their sodium content. But if at all possible, open your produce drawer and trim a few vegetables. Even if your celery and carrots have been in there for a couple of weeks and are no longer crisp enough to eat fresh, they’ll do fine simmered in broth. Virtually any fresh vegetables will work.
  • Sautee your vegetables first. Your vegetables, particularly onions, celery, and root vegetables, like carrots, will hold their flavor and texture much better if you throw them in a pan to sautee for a few minutes before adding them to the soup. Add some minced garlic too, for a deeper, aromatic flavor. The mix of onions, celery and carrots is also known as mirepoix. You can buy this frozen, so in a pinch it’s a time saver, but we like the texture and flavor more with fresh ingredients.
  • Blend for a rich base. Once your amazing broth and your fresh vegetables have simmered for awhile, take an immersion blender and run it for just a few seconds. This will blend some of the vegetables into the broth, making it thicker and enriching your soup. Generally you’ll want to do this before you add the meat. If you don’t have an immersion blender, put about a quarter of your soup into a blender or food processor. Your family will wonder how you took a basic broth and turned it into a rich soup base, without flour, cream or butter.

  • Use fresh herbs. If you have ever made the incomparable country vegetable soup from chef Jacques Pepin’s Everyday Cooking With Jacques Pepin, you know that he enriches what is already a wonderful soup with pistou, a French take on pesto. His pistou is a blend of basil, parsley, garlic, olive oil and freshly grated parmesan cheese. It doesn’t take much of the parmesan cheese, and you could leave it out if you wish (it does have a lot of sodium, so you’ll want to balance that with your other sodium for the day). This combination takes his soup from great to amazing, and requires only that you have the fresh herbs on hand. If your soup isn’t conducive to a pistou flavor profile (e.g., if you’re making a chicken vegetable soup), just incorporate some fresh herbs, like sage, rosemary and thyme, into your recipe and garnish it with some chives right before serving.
  • Hold the noodles. We already recommend limiting your use of noodles and other pasta, due to their effect on blood sugar, but if you do use them (either for other family members, or as a careful use of your limited starchy carbs), don’t add them until right before you serve the soup. If you expect to have leftovers, or your diabetic family member needs to avoid them, cook the noodles separately and add only to those family members eating noodles. However, if everyone is going to eat them and there won’t be much in the way of leftovers, go ahead and mix them in while simmering. The problem with noodles in leftovers is that they become mushy as they sit, and the soup loses much of its fresh texture.
  • Splash a dab of balsamic vinegar. For heart patients, balsamic vinegar should be one of your BFFs, because it adds tremendous flavor without sodium or added sugar. Look for “real” balsamic, the best you can afford, rather than those with added sugar. Real balsamic vinegar has a natural sweetness derived from the aging process. When you’re watching sodium, balsamic vinegar is one of the great ways to add flavor without salt. Do not substitute plain vinegar for balsamic; you might ruin your soup and never want to read this blog again.

When you master these homemade soup tips, you’ll never be tempted to go back to canned soup again. Your family will love the leftovers for quick, convenient meals, and your diabetic heart patient will be another step closer to his or her best food lifestyle ever!

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