Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Winter 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Soup. It’s for lunch. Maybe for dinner. It warms on a cold day. It provides comfort and even — some believe — healing (think chicken).
“Soups are warm and if it’s done right, they have a wonderful flavor,” said Fred Laughlin, recently retired director of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College. “They’re nourishing, and if you’re having a hearty one, they’re very satiating, too.
“It just kind of warms your whole body.”
The thing about soup is that it’s not rocket science. You can follow a recipe, but you don’t necessarily have to. Either way, soup is forgiving.
“You don’t need to be super culinary educated, but you do need to know the process,” said Scott Nitsche, co-owner of The Soup Cup in Traverse City.
Local experts say the best way to start is with homemade stock, as opposed to a soup base or canned chicken broth — though time-strapped home cooks may find the latter to be the best option at times. Laughlin says culinary students make all of the stock at the center’s Lobdell’s restaurant from local poultry and beef bones.
Cooking at home, Laughlin likes to buy local whole free-range chickens to make his chicken stock. He puts the bird in a pot with some onions and peppercorns and covers it with water. After it simmers a few hours, he removes the chicken and takes off the meat, which he saves to use in the soup or in chicken salad or another dish later. Then he reduces the stock by about one-third, boiling it down to increase the flavor. At that point he uses the stock as a base for sauce or soup.
Nitsche also gets beef and chicken bones from a local farmer to make his homemade stocks.
“We start out with good bones, we have our vegetables,” he said, “and believe it or not, something in the water up here makes beautiful stocks.”
From there, the possibilities are endless.
Terri Brinks, one of the soup-makers at Brew in Traverse City, said she and coworker Rolayne Casler don’t always follow recipes. The two used to be cooks at Traverse City West Middle School and started making soups together there. They’re doing the same at Brew, which is owned by Casler’s daughter.
“I think you can customize a lot of soups just on what you have in your fridge or in your pantry,” said Brinks, whose favorites include vegetarian apple squash and vegan vegetable soup that uses stewed tomatoes along with water and vegetables to create the broth, plus “almost every vegetable you can think of.”
One of Laughlin’s favorites is a vegetarian lentil that starts with chicken stock or water over sautéd diced carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms and a lot of garlic (the vegetables should be soft and the carrots slightly caramelized) with a little olive oil. Throw in a handful of barley, dried lentils and crushed tomatoes and simmer for 75 minutes “and you have this wonderful lentil soup that is very easy to make and delicious and very nourishing,” he said.
Nitsche presents a rotation of about eight soups per day from a data base of 875 recipes. He especially enjoys deconstructing a main dish to create a soup that replicates the same flavors, as in beef stroganoff, Hungarian goulash and Coq au Vin.
He also likes experimenting withherbs and spices to create everything from curries and gumbos to Asian and Indian soups. His wife is Lithuanian, and they sometimes serve what her family called a “milk soup” made with milk, peas and potatoes or her grandmother’s sauerkraut soup with vegetable stock and ham.
Classic chicken noodle is the top seller at Mary’s Kitchen Port in Traverse City, and clam chowder is a Friday tradition. Still, co-owner Mike Boudjalis said customers appreciate opportunities to try new, diverse flavors.
“I think people are more adventurous with spices,” he said. “They’re more eager to try something ethnic.
“This town has changed so much. It’s not just your regular potatoes and meat. They want something unusual whether it be a curry or cayenne or something like that.”
When making soup with vegetables, the chefs advise keeping the vegetables uniform in size and sautéing the mirepoix — a mixture of chopped or diced carrots, onion and celery — until the onions and celery are translucent before adding to the broth other or larger pieces of vegetables that may take longer to cook. Brinks likes to roast her vegetables first, cutting them into chunks and sprinkling them with olive oil and spices before they go into the oven.
Pasta must be handled thoughtfully when added to soup. Laughlin recommends cooking it separately, cooling it and just putting it in the bottom of each bowl before ladling the rest of the hot ingredients over the top before serving.
“This way, the pasta is still distinguishable from the other ingredients and doesn’t turn into that pasty overcooked pasta,” he said.
Orzo is one of the soup pastas of choice at Mary’s Kitchen Port, which treats customers to soup that contains homemade spaetzle on Tuesdays.
“We use butter, egg, flour and milk and make that pasta and run it on a spaetzle maker,” says Boudjalis, whose mom and the founder of Mary’s Kitchen Port started doing it that way when the shop opened 37 years ago.
When using dried pasta, he brings the rest of the soup to a boil, turns off the heat, throws in the noodles, puts the lid on the pan and lets it sit for 15 or 20 minutes. That way the pasta doesn’t overcook.
Soups can be thickened by using a roux of flour and butter, or a slurry of cornstarch and water. A healthy option can be to puree some of the beans or veggies used in the soup to create thickness or to add barley.
“I love chicken barley,” Boudjalis said. “I love that creaminess without the fat. The barley makes that really velvety texture.”
Regardless of the soup — thin or creamy, thick with ingredients or pureed smooth — winter creates the best backdrop to enjoy it, steamed windows and all.
“This time of year, soups are just perfect,” Laughlin said. “In the wintertime, people like getting warm and cozy and soup is a big part of that.” ■