December 5, 2007 | Sarasota, FL
By MARSHA FOTTLER
Soup is never far from the front burner, especially when the calendar says it is time for cooler weather. We use the slightest dip in temperature as an excuse to put ladle to bowl and dip and sip.
There's just something comforting and even therapeutic about soup as a first course or as dinner ladled into generous bowls and enjoyed with crusty bread and salad.
We all have favorites -- chicken noodle, velvety tomato, pea soup, vegetable or maybe hearty black bean. But today's international top chefs are experimenting with new soup flavor combinations and they say that serving an unusual soup may be just the thing to spark appetites and lively conversation.
Spectacular soups with eye-catching garnishes are showstoppers in the culinary world and most of these new soups are easy to make, requiring few ingredients.
Additionally, the popularity of the hand-held electric immersion blender means that almost anyone can turn out rich and creamy concoctions that were once the exclusive preserve of restaurant kitchens.
Especially hot (literally) on menus are Thai soups and Mexican ones such as chipotle vegetable, an assertive vegetarian soup made with a tomato base and then layered with black beans, corn, fresh garlic, cumin, cilantro, scallions, onions. For extra punch, add a few drops of Tabasco sauce and garnish with a slice of lime.
At Simply Gourmet Catering, chef/owner Larry Barrett has been surprising guests at events with soup shooters on passed trays. "We've done shooters for up to 400 guests and they love the concept," he said. "Usually, we'll have four soups, two chilled and two that are warm. Favorites with guests are gazpacho with snipped chives, creamy tomato with bits of crisp andouille sausage on top, and chilled vichyssoise with finely chopped crisp bacon as the garnish. Chilled cream of cucumber is another good one because it's so refreshing."
Soup shooters are roughly three sips -- 21/2 ounces -- just enough for a passed hors d'oeuvre. The presentation is appetizing and soup shooters deliver a little jolt of concentrated flavor.
"And, of course, they are easy to eat -- no spoons, no sticky fingers. People always come back for more," Barrett says. Soup shooters are popular right now on wedding menus too. And they work as an amuse-bouche.
If you make shooters at home, Barrett says to go with a medium-creamy soup that is mostly smooth -- no noodles or chunks of vegetables. And no broth, it's too thin. Sherry, port, sake or regular bar shot glasses all work depending on how formal you want to be. Always garnish the soup, but only a little.
"The garnish should go down with the first sip," Barrett says. "And the smoother the soup, the nicer the experience. If the soup coats the back of a spoon, it's thick enough for a shooter. But make sure the soup has intense flavor. And never serve a hot or ice cold shooter. You want warm or chilled because they are gentle on the mouth."
Barrett says a successful potluck party would be five or six kinds of surprise shooter soups and mini grilled-cheese or Reuben sandwiches along with a tray of bruschetta. "You might do a warm creamy asparagus soup with a tiny drop of white truffle oil on top or lobster bisque," Barrett suggests. "And for dessert any melon soup would work, as well as strawberry cream. The combination of watermelon and feta cheese makes a terrific chilled shooter, but for many it's an acquired taste."
What are his personal favorite soups? "Lately, I really have a craving for roasted fennel soup," Barrett says. "But my all-time favorite soups are classics, creamy tomato topped with crunchy andouille sausage bits and traditional minestrone soup, which I've been making since I was 13 years old. I cook it for my family at least once a month and I top the soup with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. To thicken the soup a bit, I add a handful of chopped spaghetti and let the pasta cook right in the soup. The consistency is perfect. I really do make a great minestrone."
The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota has a winner on its seasonal menu at the Vernona Dining Room. Chef Greg Howe invented popcorn soup and is serving it as part of his stone crab tasting menu. But, of course, you could order it separately and there is every reason to do so. It is both strange and glamorous looking and entirely delicious due to layered flavors.
The chef starts by placing a mound of mango salsa in the bottom of a shallow soup bowl. Next comes a ring of white spice-enhanced popcorn. Then he crowns it with chunks of stone crab. Next, he pours on a hot Asian-style broth. The fragrance of the steamy spicy broth is intoxicating; the popcorn softens and thickens the soup while the stone crab adds texture and rich flavor as it mixes with the salsa and the slightly sweet corn.
"This soup started out as an experiment in what to do with the knuckle meat of the stone crab," explains the chef. "We had the ingredients in the kitchen and began trying one thing and another. Since I love crunch -- I've got a recipe that pairs Rice Krispies and sole -- I came up with the spiced popcorn. The soup has been so popular that we've moved it to the regular seasonal menu and we've noticed that it now rivals our classic French onion soup."
The Ritz also does a seasonal white asparagus bisque with poached oysters, Banyuls vinegar and toasted almonds that sounds like a train wreck of colliding flavors but turns out to be a smooth and luxurious ride.
When he is cooking at home, Howe says his soups have to be kid-friendly. "I've got two young sons and they want chicken noodle so that's what I make," he says. "For myself and my wife, we love all kinds of vegetable soups and we're also fond of chilled tomato bisque made with heirloom tomatoes."
Roasted pumpkin bisque lavender marshmallow soup might sound like a train wreck, too, although it begins to make sense when Derek Barnes of Derek's Culinary Casual explains "nostalgia meets modern. The classic holiday combination of sweet potato, pumpkin and marshmallows melds well with the savory and elegant taste of the lavender.
The thrill of the chill
At The Bijou Caf�, where the food is continental, there are always soups on the menu, both hot and chilled.
A rotating cavalcade of seasonal soups has been a signature flourish at J.P. Knaggs' downtown Sarasota establishment for 22 years. He is especially inventive with chilled soups and a star of the menu currently is a light and delicate raspberry champagne soup he makes with both frozen and fresh raspberries, pureed, a little yogurt and heavy cream and an infusion of champagne folded in right before serving.
Knaggs says most people order it as a starter, but you could save it for dessert, it is so light and refreshing. "The wonderful thing about chilled soups is that they take few ingredients and are easy to make," he says. "And yet they make a big impression. People always think they're special."
Another rotating favorite at The Bijou is Senegalese chilled soup made with curried chicken, apples and spices. And Knaggs recently garnered raves with a chilled pumpkin and ginger soup he served as the first course for a wine dinner. "But our all-time menu classic chilled soup is vichyssoise," Knaggs says. "It's our only soup that has its own day of the week. I serve it every Friday and part of the reason is that it's my wife, Shay's, favorite. She counts on having it once a week so I make it here at the restaurant instead of at home.
"Most of our regulars know that Friday is vichyssoise day and we sell a lot of it. In fact, all of our chilled soups have been popular right from day one."
� Three flavors guaranteed to polarize guests are fennel, cilantro and cumin. Half the crowd will hate them and the other half will rave. If you serve a soup with one of these ingredients, have another option as a back up; you will need it.
� Instead of using cornstarch, which can make soup gluey, make a blond roux of flour and butter and add it to the soup about 15 minutes before it is finished.
� Skim your soup every 15 minutes. Removing the film from the surface eliminates bitterness and improves flavor. Do all your skimming before you add the roux.
� For vegetable soup, saut� ingredients in oil and then a bit of water before adding broth and seasonings. This releases and intensifies flavors, especially important in soup shooters.
� For cream soup, always add cream or milk last.
� Never put hot soup in the refrigerator, it is bad for the appliance. Put the hot pot in the sink filled with cold water and let the soup cool down.
� Most soups, hot or cold, are better made the day before. Time and cool temperatures allow the flavors to meld.
-- Larry Barrett,
Simply Gourmet Catering
When you don't have the time to make soup, use prepared soups and add your own touches.
To lentil or minestrone, add:
� a few drops of fragrant olive oil and a grind of black pepper
� thin slices of Parmesan cheese toast rubbed with garlic and torn into small pieces
To hot tomato soup, add:
� cream or milk
� buttered toast cut into squares
� toasted bread crumbs or croutons
� minced tarragon, basil, chives or dill
� curry powder
� whole wheat toast with melted cheddar cheese
� croutons spread with goat cheese, sprinkled with thyme and broiled
-- Deborah Madison,