The Secrets Of A Flavorful Soup: A Good Stock, Thorough Saute Of Vegetables

Posted: April 03, 1994

Soups seem deceptively simple to make, but creating a truly flavorful pot is a test of any cook's skill. I'm often surprised how few people really know how to do it. Most take a pot of water, throw in some spare vegetables and simmer an hour or so - then desperately try to bring some flavor to the soup with salt and pepper.

It gets worse when you try to slim the recipe down. Low-fat soups can't hide lack of flavor behind the mask of cream, butter and oil that traditional soups use. Often they just taste bland.

Real flavor in soup comes from two elements: a good stock and a thorough saute of flavorful vegetables. Then soup can be more than just an apologetic prelude to a meal; it becomes the meal itself.

I learned stock-making from a chef in Arizona, back in the 1970s. He collected vegetable trimmings all week in a self-sealing freezer bag. Cleaned ends of carrots, celery leaves, mushroom stems, potato peelings, and onion and garlic skins became the base for his weekly stock pot. When he had four cups, he combined them in a large kettle with 16 cups of water, simmered the mixture slowly for one hour, then strained it.

His vegetable stock was pale golden and a delicious base for homemade soups, so I took to simmering up a batch about once a month. I freeze stock in ice-cube trays. When the cubes are frozen, I store them in self-sealing freezer bags, all ready to thaw quickly in whatever amount I need. You can also freeze your cooled stock in heavy-duty, self-sealing plastic bags, making sure the stock freezes flat as a plate so you can stack the bags in the freezer.

After stock, a saute of soup vegetables is the most important contributor to a low-fat soup's flavor. This step separates the full-bodied soup from the weak and puny. Intensely flavored vegetables, such as onion and garlic, release their sweeter side only when cooked over the direct heat of a saute, which is much hotter than the slow heat of a simmering pot.

What goes in the pot first in a soup saute? Being a gardener, I mentally look at a cross-section of my summer garden to determine the saute order. Vegetables that grow below ground - onions, root vegetables - are the toughest and take the longest to cook, so I saute them first. When they are tender, I add vegetables that grow at ground level - celery, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower. Finally, the vine vegetables go in - tomatoes, peas, beans.

Spices and herbs, whether fresh or dried, enhance this flavor base. Because they continue to release flavor as the soup stands, I often make the soup the day before I serve it. A night in the fridge often doubles a soup's richness.

This delicious sweet beet soup was adapted from a recipe by Brenda Langton, owner of Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis and co-author of The Cafe Brenda Cookbook.


1 teaspoon canola oil

1/4 cup apple juice

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, pressed

2 pounds fresh beets, scrubbed, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)

4 cups rich-tasting vegetable stock

1 1/3 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

White pepper

Nonfat plain yogurt, for garnish

Grated orange peel for garnish

Heat oil and apple juice until bubbling in large soup pot. Add onions and garlic, and saute until soft but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add beets and stock. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and cook, covered, until beets are tender, 30 minutes. Let cool.

Puree mixture in batches in food processor or blender. Return pureed soup to pot along with orange juice, honey and vinegar. Heat through. Season to taste with white pepper. Garnish with dollop of yogurt and sprinkle of grated orange peel. Makes four to six servings.

Nutritional data per serving: 250 calories; 180 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 13 percent calories from fat; 48 grams carbohydrate; 9 grams protein; 9 grams fiber.


A mixture of wild and domestic mushrooms gives this soup its rich and satisfying flavor.


2 cups peeled and diced red potatoes

1/2 cup uncooked barley

4 1/2 cups rich-tasting vegetable stock

1 cup white wine or apple cider

1/3 cup dry Sherry, optional

2 cups thinly sliced onions

3 cups sliced wild mushrooms (such as chanterelle or oyster)

3 cups sliced domestic white mushrooms

2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic

1 teaspoon dried basil

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine potatoes, barley and stock in large stock pot. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, until potatoes are very soft and barley is cooked, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat wine and Sherry in heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute 10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid browning. Add both kinds of mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, 10 minutes. Add potato-barley mixture and heat through. Add basil, parsley, cayenne and salt and pepper. Soup is best refrigerated overnight to let flavors blend. Reheat before serving. Makes six to eight servings.

Nutritional data per serving: 226 calories; 265 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 8 percent calories from fat; 38 grams carbohydrate; 8 grams protein; 5 grams fiber.

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