Comfort Food in a Bowl
I would be perfectly content to eat a bowl of soup every night for the rest of my life – at least in the winter. It’s the perfect comfort food. Depending on the whims of the chef, it can be light or hearty. Simple or complicated. It can be a main dish or it can be an appetizer. In my opinion, it should always be accompanied by a chunk of good crusty bread.
Spring may be right around the corner; but, where I’m sitting, it’s still cold. I want comfort food and I want it now. I want a steamy hot bowl of soup. I want a hearty bowl of stew. I want a spicy bowl of chili. Whatever you call it and however you make it, it’ll be delicious.
Let’s talk for a moment about the differences between soup, stew, and chili.
- Soup is a pretty generic term for a dish created by boiling various ingredients to create a broth based dish or vegetables, meats, or grains.
- Stew is created by boiling hearty ingredients, like meat or vegetables, and allowing the liquid to reduce into a thick consistency resembling slightly watery gravy. Oftentimes stew is thickened with grains like rice, barley, or quinoa.
- Chili is a thick stew that utilizes chili powder as its main spice. Chili generally has a meat, beans, and tomato base. (Although chili recipes vary greatly depending on location. Check out Bon Appetit’s article on regional chilis.) Don’t have chili powder on hand? Don’t worry, you can make your own.
Now that we’re all on the same track, let’s discuss some simple cooking techniques.
- Browning Meat – If you are using meat (not poultry) in your dish, brown it first to bring out extra flavor. Heat a little olive oil to your pot over medium heat. Add the meat in small batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pot. Cook for a few minutes on each side. Remove to a clean plate and return to pot when called for by the recipe.
- Sautéing Vegetables – Bring out the texture and flavor of certain vegetables by sautéing them for 5-10 minutes prior to adding them to your soup, stew, or chili. Try this with garlic, onions, carrots, celery, parsnips, eggplant, squashes, and other common soup vegetables.
- Roasting Root Vegetables – Roasting root vegetables for 30-45 minutes before adding to soup, stew, or chili will bring out their sweetness. This technique works great with potatoes, beets, carrots, and parsnips.
- Slow Cooking over Low Flame – Once you have all your ingredients in the pot, bring it to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat to low. The longer you allow it to simmer, the more the flavors will meld together. I recommend allowing vegetable soups 2-3 hours. If you are worried about certain ingredients (e.g. pasta and delicate squashes) falling apart, add them towards the end of cooking. The longer most cuts of meat cook, the more tender they’ll become. You can even try adding all your ingredients to a crockpot in the morning and letting it cook while you are at work.
- Thickening Broth – When making a stew or chili, you want the broth to be thick. Try adding rice, pasta, barley, quinoa, couscous, or other grains. You can also thicken it with a slurry. To make one, simple mix 2 tablespoons of flour or cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of water. Stir well and then pour into the broth, stirring vigorously for a minute to avoid lumps.
- Wine – Okay, so it’s not really a cooking technique. But, it’s a great way to add more depth of flavor to a broth. Rule of thumb, use white wine in clear broths and red wine in meat or tomato based broths. I generally stick to dry wines; but, experiment. I love oaky wines with hints of spice. Remember, when you add wine, you’ll need less salt. Also remember that even though some of the alcohol will burn out during cooking, there will still be some alcohol in the dish. (Here’s a handy guide from my blog on what happens to alcohol when cooked.)
- Using Spices – Life is boring without a little flavor. So is food. Whether you are using fresh herbs or dried spices, don’t be afraid to try new combinations. Salt and pepper are a must. After that, be creative.
Ready to start cooking? To get you started, here are a few of my favorite soup, stew, and chili recipes. Some are from my blog. Some are not. All are delicious.