Staring down into a pot of potatoes, onions and simmering broth, it dawned on me that quite a few of my favorite autumn recipes begin with those three basic ingredients.
There’s the family specialty, Potato, Cheese and Beer Soup — so great to bring along for autumn picnics and hikes. My psyche-soothing clam chowder, loaded with clams, bacon, celery and cream. And our Italian Vegetable-Sausage Soup, a hit-the-spot offering that travels well in a Thermos and tastes particularly delightful on a brisk autumn day in the outdoors.
All incorporate what I now refer to as the Pacific Northwest Trilogy for cold-weather feasting.
From there, of course, each recipe veers off into becoming its own thing. Which is what soups, chowders and stews always do, based on a cook’s inclination and ingredients. More times than I can count, that’s exactly how a meal takes shape.
A while back, for instance, after a week on the road, we arrived home to a relatively empty refrigerator and pantry. At least that’s what I thought when first setting foot in the kitchen. But once I’d arranged a pot of the aforementioned Pacific Northwest Trilogy on the burner, I began adding to it by culling a respectable pile of weary-looking vegetables from the produce bin, including some shavings from miniature carrots that were a day away from that great salad bowl in the sky. So things were looking up. It appeared that my culinary instincts were leading me toward a big ol’ pot of soup.
In no time at all, the mouth-watering aroma filling the house was a savory potpourri of leeks, yellow onions, celery, potatoes, chicken broth, shreds of carrot, dry sherry, freshly ground white peppercorns, tomatoes and black beans. And so, while the soup simmered its way toward perfection, I poured the cook a glass of pinot and headed to another part of the house to unpack.
Outside, the weather had become a ferocious tirade, which bolstered my satisfaction regarding the choice of meal. You see, in my estimation, this is Soup Season. And because homemade soups are as much a nourishment for the soul as the body, they’re worth the effort. If a great deal of effort is required, that is. In many cases, as I proved with that pot of desperation chowder, you can still throw together a powerful pot of soul soup with only a few cooperative ingredients, and in very little time.
You can also control the nutritional aspects of a homemade soup. Less sodium and fat, more vegetables and flavor. And while following a formal recipe right down to the garnish can yield one specifically fabulous result, who’s to say another approach won’t produce an equally amazing concoction?
These are all aspects of soup cookery I’m primed to explore through the rest of the chilly season: trimming the calories and fat to sustain this month’s resolution to eat as well and as pure as I do in the summer, while keeping the meals interesting and lively.
My husband’s take on the situation?
“You know,” he said between slurps, “I think some of your best meals occur when there’s no food in the house.”
Potato, Cheese and Beer Soup
Makes 8 servings.
1 quart chicken broth (homemade or canned)
2-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, coarsely chopped
2 cups chopped green onions, whites and about half the green stalks
1 quart half-and-half or milk
1/4 cup soy sauce (or Kikkoman’s Ponzu sauce or Tempura sauce)
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
6 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup good-quality craft beer (I generally use an Amber ale)
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Add the green onions and remove the pot from the heat. Add the half-and-half or milk to the pot.
Puree the potato-broth mixture in an immersion blender, or in your blender or food processor. Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the soy sauce and pepper and slowly bring the soup back to a simmer.
NOTE: the soup can be prepared to this point up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated, or prepared and frozen for 3 months.
When ready to serve or pack into a thermos, proceed with the recipe by placing the pot back on the burner, over medium heat. When the soup begins to simmer, stir in the grated cheeses gradually, a handful at a time, then gently whisk in the beer.
Rita’s Clam Chowder
Makes 8 servings
8 slices bacon
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 cups finely chopped celery
4 cups cubed pared potatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1 dash pepper
4 cans (10-1/2 ounce) chopped clams
4 cups half-and-half
1/4 cup butter
About 1 tablespoon each: cornstarch and cold water (if desired for a thicker soup)
Chop bacon coarsely and saute in pot over medium high heat until crisp. Reduce heat to medium, add onions and celery and cook about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt, pepper and enough water to barely cover the ingredients (if you add too much water it turns out too soupy). Bring to boil and simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Meanwhile, drain clams (reserve clam liquid). Add clams and 1/2 cup of clam liquid to the pot, along with the half-and-half and the butter. Gently heat for about 3 minutes.
At this point, if you desire a slightly thicker chowder, combine equal portions of cornstarch and water and stir into the soup. Simmer until thickened. The soup can be prepared earlier in the day and kept hot until soup time, or prepared ahead, refrigerated, then reheated when ready to serve.
Italian Vegetable-Sausage Soup
Makes about 8 servings
3/4 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from its casing and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (16-ounce) can Italian tomatoes, undrained
6 cups homemade or canned beef broth
1-1/2 cups dry red wine
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 white new potatoes, cubed
2 cups cooked and drained macaroni pasta
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large pot, brown the sausage and drain the fat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are limp, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon. Add the broth, wine, celery, bell pepper and potatoes and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add the pasta, basil, thyme, salt and pepper, and continue simmering, covered, for another 25 minutes or so.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at email@example.com, or see her blog at www.janrd.com.