Ever since I learned how to make soup while cooking in France, this straightforward, fail-proof soupe au pistou has been a mainstay on my Friday night menus. And just about every time I serve it, someone asks me for the recipe. But when it comes to soup, I rarely follow a recipe. Instead, I go by a few guidelines, courtesy of two of my mentors, Michelin 3-star chefs Georges Blanc and Michel Guèrard.
Building up layers of flavor is essential for a heady and complex brew. This starts at the bottom of your pot with a mire poix of onions, carrots and celery (the ratio is usually 2 parts onion to 1 part carrots and celery). For a rustic outdoor lunch, I will chop the vegetables roughly; for an elegant dinner party, only small dice will do. Sauté them in olive oil, butter, or a combination of both (my preference for optimal flavor and browning) until they are quite soft. Then add the next building block, an assortment of diced vegetables, whatever is colorful and in season.
And now comes my favorite trick…you must add cold liquid (I use half water and half broth) to the hot solids to draw out the flavors into the soup. Once it all comes to a full boil, drop in a sachet of aromatics (for this, I use a coffee filter tied with string to hold bay leaves, peppercorns, dried thyme or Herbes de Provence, chopped lemon grass…you decide). Now lower the heat and simmer your soup until the vegetables are soft (about an hour). Season gently as you go, keeping in mind that as the liquid evaporates, the salt intensifies. I find that adding a couple broth cubes will enhance the savory notes of sweeter vegetables. Serve the soup with a dollop of pesto (fresh basil in the summer, arugula or broccoli rabe in the winter), along with extra Parmesan cheese on the side.
And voila! By adhering to some basic principles of soup-making, you will end up with an amalgam of flavors from nature’s bounty that will deeply satisfy and restore. Use this recipe only as a template from which to create…after all, it’s your brew.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
1 leek, white and light green parts, chopped
1 turnip or potato, peeled and diced
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into tiny florettes
1/2 winter squash, diced
2 quarts vegetable stock, cold
1.5 liter bottled or tap water, cold
Bouquet garni (assorted herbs, peppercorns, bay leaf)
Kosher salt or vegetable stock cubes
Add at the last minute (optional):
1 can cannellini or garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 bag frozen petite peas
Fresh or store-bought pesto
1. In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat.
2. Add the onions, carrot, and celery and sauté until soft (about 10 minutes) but not browned, stirring occasionally.
3. Add the remaining vegetables and cook for a few minutes until slightly softened.
4. Pour in the cold stock and water and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil.
5. Reduce the heat so the soup simmers gently. Add the bouquet garni and cook for about an hour, until the flavors have developed and the broth is a rich color, seasoning with salt and stock cubes towards the beginning, middle and end of the cooking process.
6. Remove the bouquet garni and add the beans and peas. Simmer a few minutes to warm through.
7. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with a tablespoon of pesto. Serve with Parmesan cheese on the side.
This soup will keep well in the fridge for one week or in the freezer for a few months. To store, cool down the soup before putting in a plastic container.
For a luscious ending to a comforting fall meal, try baking a French Apple or Blueberry Pie.
Photo credit: MarthaStewart.com