No matter how much time I spend over a hot stockpot, I'm always open to learning a new soup technique or two. I love taking cooking classes because I almost always walk out with a new trick up my sleeve.
A friend and I recently took a class at Flavour Cooking School in Forest Park. The class focused on vegan Italian cooking, but I was particularly intrigued by the Tuscan Bean Soup with kale.
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Kale is, without question, the J-Lo of the vegetable world. This "queen of greens" is a powerhouse whose popularity is back on the upswing. Chock full of antioxidants and carotenes, kale really is a superstar and I wanted to see what it could do with soup.
First thing I learned was that while most of the nutrients are in the leaves, the sturdy stems are full of fiber. The stems can be chopped and added to the mirepoix (the fancy French term for onions, carrots and celery) to boost flavor and fiber content of the soup.
I picked up a few other tips at that class and while some of these may sound obvious, I think they're good reminders nonetheless.
Add seasoning with each new ingredient. My taste runs too hot and spicy so it's a wee bit ironic that I tend to under-season the soup. (Watching dinner guests nearly choke from intense spiciness of a dish tends to make you pull back a bit!) Adding salt and pepper as you add other ingredients gives you more play with the spices and incorporates the seasoning into the dish, rather than having it lay on top.
Spend more time sauteing vegetables and less time simmering them. When I think about all the times I've wound up with mushy pasta or overcooked beans while making sure the vegetables are cooked through, I'm not sure why I never thought of this. Sauteing the vegetables thoroughly before adding them to the pot gives you more flexibility.
Freeze soup in plastic bags. This, of course, seems obvious. What wasn't so obvious was the placement of the plastic bag around the rim of a bowl. Pour the soup into the bowl and seal it up. When I think of the messes I've made trying to spoon soup into a freezer bag, it's embarrassing I didn't come up with this one on my own.
Ingredients should be smaller than the spoon. Well, duh! Yet, how many times have I had to eat soup with a spoon and a knife? This simple suggestion was a perfect reminder to chop my veggies a bit smaller.
Warm the soup bowls. If you really want to impress your guests, preheat your oven to 150 degrees and pop the bowls in for a few minutes. It's such a simple thing to do and it really adds to the pleasure of eating the soup.
Just be careful when taking the dishes out of the oven.
• M. Eileen Brown is the director of strategic marketing and innovation for the Daily Herald and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.