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R&IEditorial Archives2001September 1 — Food

Soulful Soups
Playing off the familiar, chefs are ladling more substance into a bowl.

Chef Chris Floyd looks at a bowl of soup with the same discerning eye he casts on a complex entrée made up of multiple components.

The soup's backbone typically is a seasonal vegetable. From there he builds depth and nuance, contemplating supporting parts, just as he does for a main course. Consider Floyd's asparagus soup with morel custard and sautéed morels or his oven-roasted tomato soup topped with a miniature grilled cheese-and-basil sandwich.

"Today you have to look at soup more like a plated dish. It has to have the elements of texture contrast, flavor contrast and color contrast," says Floyd, chef de cuisine of Silks in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in San Francisco. "The little grilled-cheese sandwich is made of brioche, something your mom used to make but a little more exciting."

While classics like chicken noodle and broccoli cheese will endure, the overall attitude toward soup is changing. Playing off the familiar, chefs are ladling more refined flavors into the bowl. By way of small bites, such as seafood or other protein, fried garnishes, baby herb salads or crisp pickled vegetables, soups are accented with contrasting and complementary textures and tastes. Though a smaller player in the course of a meal, soup has the potential to strut its stuff.

Consider lobster bisque with lobster ceviche and lobster roe at Tru, or gazpacho with king crab at Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis. At Nell's in Seattle, kohlrabi soup is puréed and accompanied by a wild prawn and chives. Chilled pea soup at Equus restaurant in The Castle at Tarrytown, N.Y., is garnished with cannelloni of lobster and goat cheese.


These days, the "soup of the day" is less likely to be the result of cleaning out the walk-in. Increasingly, soups reflect the bounty of local farms or whatever is growing in the warmer regions of the country. Cooking down vegetables, chefs say, provides the body and substance that give soup its muscle.

During warmer months, tomatoes, corn and asparagus are the most common seasonal ingredients, while pumpkin, squash, celery root, cauliflower and chestnuts are ubiquitous during colder times of the year.

"I see soup as a means to highlight what is fresh for the season," says Jeff Shively, executive chef of Sea Catch in Washington, D.C. "That's where you begin and then you build from there."

When corn becomes plentiful in summer, Shively sautés leeks with carrots, and adds the milk from the corn and chicken stock. A bit of cumin "highlights the fresh taste of corn." After the mixture cooks down, it is puréed with a small amount of cream (1 quart to 6 gallons), passed through a sieve and garnished with blanched asparagus and blue crab.

In winter, Ken Vedrinski of the Woodlands Resort and Inn in Summerville, S.C., homes in on mushrooms for their hearty attributes. He sautés trumpet mushrooms with shallots then adds Madeira and sturdy beef stock. After puréeing the mixture, Vedrinski puts it through a sieve and adds a garnish of crme fraîche and foie gras lasagna.


Chunky soup has its place, chefs say, but a smooth purée garnished with complementary elements provides a more interesting experience-each bite is not always the same.

"When you think about adding a garnish, you can approach it from so many different angles," says Shively. "Just by adding an interesting garnish, you can take an ordinary soup and turn it into something people will talk about and come back for." Oyster soup, for example, may be smooth and creamy but it is also topped with fried or poached oysters and garnished with frizzled leeks.

Andrew Engle, executive chef of the Laundry Restaurant in East Hampton, N.Y., relies on various garnishes to give soup added personality and particularly enjoys the versatility offered by profiteroles. In the fall, he pipes foie gras mousse into tiny Choux pastry puffs that top pumpkin soup.

Anthony Calamari, executive chef at V Bistro & Bar in San Francisco's Orchard Hotel, tops Peruvian asparagus soup with tempura crayfish and a drizzle of carrot oil. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Museum Restaurant, operated by New York-based Restaurant Associates, smoked salmon vichyssoise is garnished with a dollop of mousse made with smoked salmon and cream cheese, and then topped with a dab of caviar.

Stewart Woodman, executive chef at Zoë in New York, can't imagine soup without a garnish. Vary the choices, he says, depending on ingredients-they need to be lighter or more assertive, as determined by their role. For cauliflower-and-almond soup, Woodman uses seared scallops. He believes the sweetness of the bivalves complements the cauliflower. Toasted almonds add crunch while parsley oil brings the elements of the dish together. "What I look for in a soup is similar to what I look for in a wine-stages of flavor," he says.


Operationally, soup appeals on two levels: It has a relatively low food cost and is easy to prepare and serve. It also fits nicely in banquet settings, though chefs caution that guests don't want the ordinary.

Whn planning a sit-down gala dinner for 1,600 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef Shannon Shaffer considers presentation to be important. Golden tomato soup is served in a large square plate with enough of a well to contain the soup. The tomatoes' brilliant yellow-orange hue provides eye-catching contrast to the garnish of poached shrimp topped with deep-purple micro-cabbage and vibrant green herbs.

"It's like creating an appetizer versus just a soup," says Shaffer of Restaurant Associates' Roof Terrace Restaurant in the Kennedy Center. "You add a twist to the old standard."

Adding variation also can mean playing up presentation. Rick Tramonto, executive chef at Tru in Chicago, serves velvety smooth soup in elegant, Italian-designed cups. Carrot-ginger soup comes with a spoon filled with carrot salad consisting of a brunoise of carrot, dill and ginger, while porcini soup is topped with frothy steamed milk, shaved black truffle and a few drops of extra virgin olive oil.

Increasingly, soup is ladled into the serving vessel at tableside. The bowl arrives at the table garnished and then soup is added in front of the guests. For example, Shaffer puts a lobster and chive dumpling in a bowl and then ladles roasted pumpkin and lobster bisque around it in front of the guests.

"Soup is one of those dishes that people don't expect to be fancy," he says. "So when you tinker with it just a little, you can get a lot of mileage without a lot of effort."

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