Food & Drink

Soup: It's what's for dinner

Tortilla soup with chunks of chicken, tomato, flavored with chili, and topped with avocado and cheese. Cioppino stew with tomato broth, squid, muscles and fennel. Cream of asparagus with onions, garlic, shallots, butter and cream. Sound fancy?

Soup isn’t just a starter. Elegant, comforting and exotic soups can star as the main course at elegant dinner parties. “Soups are a very trendy type of entertainment right now because of the economy,” said Doug Alley, an adjunct culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.

Soup dinner parties require some cooking skill as well as a touch of savvy when it comes to pairing beverages and side dishes. For hosts considering a soup-centered meal, here is a menu with helpful basics, recipe ideas, side dish suggestions and beverage pairings.

STARTERS

Many soups can be made in advance and reheated the day of the party. “Soups really taste better if you let them cool down and reheat them the next day. Exceptions are cheese soups,” said chef Katherine Polenz, an associate professor at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Cold soups should be served at 45 to 50 degrees. Hot soups can be served around 180 degrees unless the soup contains egg yolks or cheese, then 175 degrees or less is more appropriate. “These soups can curdle or break if it’s too hot,” Polenz said.

MAIN COURSE

Hosts should first consider their guests’ palates before selecting a soup. Gourmand guests may enjoy ethnic soups, seafood stews, or exotic vegetable creams. Less adventurous guests will prefer more simple, familiar recipes such as chicken and dumplings or chili, Alley said.

Next, consider the type of gathering. A simple, comforting soup such as cheddar potato or bean soup will satisfy a family dinner. A more formal affair should lean toward a soup which uses special occasion ingredients such as squid, mussels or clams, Polenz said.

Hosts on a budget can avoid meat- or seafood-based soups and opt for an inexpensive bean, creamy broccoli or split-pea. However, it’s important to pick a hearty soup that will satisfy guests. “If it’s the center of attention, I wouldn’t serve a light, brothy, soup,” Polenz said.

Finally, hosts must consider their skill level before selecting a recipe. Beginners should pick a comforting, hearty broth-based soup such as chicken noodle with dumplings or beef stew.

“Have good quality products and let it cook slow,” Alley said.

Beginners should avoid soups that require thickening agents. This is primarily because these soups require a sense of timing, such as understanding when to add certain ingredients. Cream of asparagus, for example, is a soup that requires proper timing or the color will change from a light green to a deep, unappetizing army green, Alley said.

Intermediate cooks with a comfortable understanding of timing can advance to cream- based soups such as crab bisque, lobster bisque, clam chowder or classic potato and leek. Cooks will need to understand the process and timing of seafood and its cooking times to ensure a soup with tender, not rubbery, seafood.

Advanced cooks can test their abilities with international recipes. “When you’re advanced, you’re getting into more ethnic soups,” Alley said. “Thai coconut soups, Vietnamese style noodle soups, getting adventurous and understanding the balance of seasoning.”

Many advanced soups also require the proper kitchen tools such as a mortar and pestle. Lemongrass, for example, needs to be smashed to release the perfumes and teas. “You need to break it up a little and bruise it,” Alley said.

ON THE SIDE

Side dishes for soup-centered meals should be simple and complimentary. Both Alley and Polenz recommend a warm, crusty bread served with olive oil or butter. “Pick breads that are crusty and chewy, such as multi-grain, country white, foccacia,” Polenz said. “Always a baguette, can’t go wrong with a baguette.”

Small, simple sandwiches may also work well. For a creamy, tomato soup, Polenz recommends a grilled cheese or an open-face parmesan that is sliced open and toasted with parmesan cheese.

Salads also can be incorporated into the meal but hosts should stay within the same flavor profile. “If I was making tortilla soup, which is made with corn tortillas, chicken, tomatoes, garnished with avocado and jack cheese and has the flavors of dried chili, I would serve it with a salad with complementary flavors,” Polenz said.

An example of complimentary flavors is a bitter green salad with a sherry vinegarette, red onions, corn and a crumbly Mexican cheese such as anejo or cotija, Polenz said.

FROM THE BAR

Tie the meal together with the appropriate beverage. One idea: match the ethnicity of the soup and the spirit. For tortilla soup, Polenz recommended tequila or a cold Mexican beer.

Tuscan white bean soups with sausage can be served with a hearty red wine such as a Borolo. In contrast, spicy soups such as Thai curry work well with crisp whites, Polenz said. Sweet wines are another option, and Rieslings are commonly found on the wine list at upscale Asian restaurants.

A pinot noir works well with beef stew as does an American microbrew beer, Polenz said.

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