Sometimes your vegetarian customers just feel like having a bowl of soup for lunch or dinner—and it’s your challenge to make that bowl of soup really count. Fortunately, soups are amenable to lots of additions that can improve their flavor and increase their nutrient content.
Start with the stock. Making your own stock does take some time and planning, but you’ll get a flavorful stock that’s low in fat and salt and suits all your customers. Vegetable stocks are getting more popular and can be used wherever chicken or beef stocks are used.
If you have the time and the room on the stove, you can make your own stock. In place of traditional chicken or beef bones, use sliced fresh mushrooms. Cook mushrooms with carrots, onions, celery and a sachet of whole peppercorns, parsley stems and dried thyme. Cook the stock until it is flavorful. Strain, cool properly and store in the refrigerator or the freezer.
To make a heartier vegetable stock, sear the mushrooms before you add them to the stock in the oven topped with a small amount of tomato puree and vegetable oil until very brown, along with carrots, onions, celery, chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and a sachet. Allow to cook until very flavorful. Cool and refrigerate or freeze.
If you are purchasing vegetarian stock bases, become a label reader. Be sure the main ingredients are vegetables and spices, not fat and salt. You may have to pay a bit more for the higher quality base, but it’s worth it for the flavor and the reduced salt and fat content. If you purchase reduced fat and/or low-sodium stock bases, be sure to add herbs and spices to replace the flavor lost by the reduction. Reduced-fat and reduced-salt bases are very helpful. Just remember that fat and salt add flavor to soups, so their absence must be accounted for.
The thick of things: Soups need to be thickened. Traditionally, soups were thickened with whole milk, cream, sour cream or pastes made with equal parts flour and fat. Using nonfat milk doesn’t work well, as it does not yield a desirable texture. There are lots of thickening options that offer flavor and texture while remaining vegetarian:
Remember that vegetables add vitamins. You can add carrots, celery, onions, peppers, tomatoes, green and wax beans, and peas to simmer in the soup. Remember to puree vegetables and use as part of the liquid portion of the soup. Vegetable juice cocktail is a bouquet of vegetables in a bottle and is a flavor and nutrient enhancer for soups, as is shredded spinach or cabbage used as a garnish.
Don’t fall flat: Vegetarian soups may benefit from lots of extras, but not from extra salt or fat. We’ve heard the complaint that food tastes “flat” without salt and has no texture without fat. That only happens if nothing is done to replace what is taken out.
Salt won’t be missed in a vegetable soup that is flavored with browned garlic and onion, minced oregano and thyme, and a reduction of pureed carrots, peppers and tomatoes. Fat won’t be missed in a minestrone soup that is packed with white and red beans, fresh basil, spinach and tomato pasta, and white and black pepper. You can avoid the fat and salt by selecting lower-fat stock bases, choosing reduced fat, using fresh or frozen ingredients rather than canned when possible, and sautéing soup ingredients with vegetable oil spray or stock rather than large amounts of oil. But don’t take out the fat and salt without adding something just as tasty.
Thickened or vegetable soups are easy to pack full of flavor, but broth-type soups are no excuse for weak tastes. Mushroom powders can be used to fortify the stock. Using a coffee or spice grinder, grind dried mushrooms into a powder that can be beaten into hot broth. Instead of egg drop soup, drop silken tofu into boiling stock and garnish with shredded spinach and green peas.
Just can it: We don’t always have time to start from scratch—so canned or frozen soups can be an effective soup-starter. Tomato soup and cream soups can be reconstituted with milk, yogurt, soft tofu or creamed cottage cheese. Add mini-ravioli, tortellini or chunks of smoked or flavored tofu and top with shredded cheese (soy cheese for vegans), soy bacon crumbles and shredded fresh spinach. Add extra beans and pasta to minestrone and vegetable soups.
Puree extra portions of vegetables, such as carrots, celery and mushrooms, and add to vegetable, split pea and bean soups. Add cooked, diced potatoes and carrots to vegetable soups. For extra fiber, add cut corn, beans and tomatoes to vegetable soups and chowders. Make a fast vegetable chowder by combining canned tomato soup with canned, chopped tomatoes, canned or frozen cut corn, cooked, diced potatoes, sliced mushrooms and diced frozen or canned carrots. Thicken with tofu or yogurt or mashed potato mix.