Soup is still America's comfort food. Soup remains a hot—even cold—item in many cuisines. Steeped in tradition and ancestral heritage, soup is a versatile food. Tinkering with age-old recipes has become a standard practice, whether to satisfy a more diverse market, to address dietary needs or to use up whatever is available. At the end of the day, though, soup is still the time-honored comfort food where everything fits on a spoon.
“Soup is a comfort item that every customer will buy at one time or another,” says Kevin Johnson, executive chef, Eurest Dining Services at Johnson & Johnson Group of Consumer Companies, Skillman, N.J.. “It is important that soups be made from the freshest available local ingredients and reflect seasonality. Customers appreciate knowing where their food was grown, caught or harvested and will often take an interest in supporting local farmers and sustainable seafood providers. The secret to all good soups is freshness, from vegetables and herbs to the main ingredient.”
“Soup is a quick, inexpensive comfort food our customers gravitate to as the weather turns colder, but the key to a successful corporate food program is variety,” says Kimberly Pelt, foodservice liaison at Johnson & Johnson. “In order to retain our customers, we have to entice them with new food choices daily.”
Recently, Pelt served lobster bisque with cracked crab, served in acorn squash, on a chef’s table in the middle of the cafeteria.
“By placing the soup in an unfamiliar location and presenting the soup in a unique container, such as the acorn squash, customers were visually attracted to the station. It generated a buzz—everyone wanted to check out what was happening in the middle of the café. Once we got them to the station, the aroma of the soup and the free tasting signed the deal. Customers enjoyed interacting with our chef and asking questions about the ingredients and preparation. By combining the soup with a side salad and cornbread, we were able to offer our employees a delicious meal at a great value.”
Pushing the envelope: “Soup is sometimes familiar and sometimes pushes the envelope. Today, with more ethnic diversity on campuses, people are willing to try different things and go beyond clam chowder and chicken noodle soup,” says Patrick Browne, residential chef at the University of Montana in Missoula. “We make a Thai pumpkin curry that is really nice in the fall. It has exotic flavors like coconut milk and curry, but it’s not completely off the wall. It’s still comfortable, but something new to experience.”
Browne also makes a Cold Smoke caramelized onion and sage soup.
“We make that unique by adding a local beer, Cold Smoke from Kettlehouse,” he explained. “We’ll make our own croutons for soup, using our own baked bread from our bakery. Also, we’ll use flavored oils on soups like a cauliflower bisque with a hot curried oil drizzled on top to give it a crispness.”
Serving three or four soups per week and a soup du jour every day, Browne relies heavily on the traditional tried and true soup standards like clam chowder with oyster crackers, broccoli cheddar, French onion and chili every day.
“There are even variations on the chili. Sometimes it’s with chicken or chili blanco or vegetarian chili. For special events, we serve bison chili. It’s very good. Sometimes you get a deal on a food and you have to act on the spot. It’s nice to have that flexibility.”
Sometimes the “deal” means going with a premade soup because ingredients may be costly in certain regions. Premades are also consistent, a concern with serving the same population on a daily basis.
“We make some of our soups and we buy some,” says Shawn Lively, general manager with Metz &Associates at RiverWoods, a retirement community in Lewisburg, Pa. “When you buy you always have that consistency. When you make it, every cook is slightly different and some soups are just more difficult to make. We like to be consistent and our people appreciate it.”
The chefs at RiverWoods make their own chili, New England clam chowder, chicken and dumpling, cream of broccoli, French onion, garden vegetable and lobster bisque.
“We buy our other seafood bisques and other cream soups like cream of celery, cream of mushroom and a mushroom brie chowder,” Lively says. “We also buy gumbo, ham and bean and a tomato Florentine because tomatoes are expensive on our end. We buy these soups to offer a variety that we can’t always duplicate in our kitchen.”
Another way to ensure consistency and to cut back on costs is to make bigger batches of soup, like at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, where Operations Manager Michael DeFilippo touts his cook-chill facility.
“We mass produce our soups in hundred gallon batches,” DeFilippo says. “We place the soup in three-gallon bags at 185 degrees, according to the health code. Then we tumble chill the bags to get the temperature down to below 41 degrees very quickly. We put it all in our refrigerator. This gives us a 21-day shelf life with consistency of flavor while cutting back on labor. It’s the same profile and I don’t need a chef on it.”
While large batches are fine for the masses, DeFilippo also investigates other avenues for niche soups.
“We run specials for the holidays like pumpkin soup and seafood bisque,” he says. “We’re also exploring the possibility of doing an organic chicken soup with no preservatives, insecticides, antibiotics or steroids. The trend is making food part of the healing process. Everyone has a story of when you were a child and you were sick and your mother or grandmother brought you chicken soup. It’s comfort food, a healing soup. This is healthcare and we’re nourishing with as little processing as possible. Everyone knows keeping it more natural is the way to go.”
Skip the meat
Vegetarians and vegans love their soup options.
A treasured staple in the industry, the traditional bowl of soup has taken on many revisions through the years to address various dietary needs. Vegetarian soups have become dense and rich. Vegan soups have also become popular by using soy products and processed legumes to substitute for cream without sacrificing texture and richness. Vegetarian and vegan soups are surging in popularity, directors say, constituting opportunities for creativity with a healthy slant.
“We sell out of the vegetarian and vegan soups faster than the traditional soups with meat,” says Lisa Kurth, executive chef and general manager for Bon Appétit at TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising agency in Los Angeles. “We use a lot of great northern white beans puréed, which are high in protein and low in calories. People ask, ‘are you sure there’s no cream in here?’”
Kurth makes a spicy roasted butternut squash and white bean purée with maple thyme croutons that profiles like a cream soup.
“It’s really rich, hearty and heavy duty,” she says.
Kurth also makes a quinoa chili with bread sticks or sometimes with crispy leeks.
“Quinoa is the only grain that is a full protein, so this is full of protein without any meat whatsoever,” she says. “It has roasted tomatoes and several different beans. It’s a meal by itself.”
Anna Y. Bullett, R.D., culinary development and nutrition specialist for CulinArt Inc., Plainview, N.Y., says vegetarian soups paired with a multi-grain bread can be a complete meal. She makes a Caribbean black bean, a split pea and sweet potato and a garden bean, all vegan and gluten free.
“With winter coming, it’s one of the best things you can offer now. I’m in a soup mood,” Bullett says. “Soups made with housemade stock taste best.”
Bullet makes her homemade vegan stock with vegetables, carrot peelings, rinds and onions to keep costs down.
“I don’t use cabbage or broccoli, because those will give an off flavor,” she says. “You have to reduce homemade stock longer because it doesn’t have the depth or meatiness to it.
Reaching new heights
Beni Velazquez is the executive chef at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, Palo Alto, Calif., which has begun an organic program with an emphasis on soup as an option for patients. Velazquez, who joined SHC in December 2008, is a certified chef instructor with the Culinary Institute of America and a former hotel chef who also previously owned restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The Stanford Hospital & Clinics Farm Fresh program was developed in collaboration with Jesse Cool, a nationally recognized northern California chef, restaurateur and food writer.
“Right now we’re doing a whole organic and farm-fresh type concept with our soups for our patients. We just started this in July of this year. From their rooms, the patients can either order off the regular menu or they can order off the organic menu, which features sustainable, locally grown produce from local farms.
We take care of people and nourish them. Soup is what people want when they are not feeling well and chicken noodle soup is the classic choice. We offer it every day along with the soup of the day. We make everything from scratch, from our own broth to the chopping of the vegetables. We use organic chickens and noodles as well as the herbs. Everything in it is from nearby farms in about a 150-mile radius of the hospital. For the broth, we take the entire chicken, put it in a pot, add water, herbs and our mirepoix of onion, celery and carrots. We slow cook it for about six hours, probably making about 50 gallons at a time.
The other soups are based on a seven-day cycle according to season. We’re looking at a roasted tomato soup with herbs where we cut the tomatoes in half and toss them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven for about a half hour, then we sauté them in a larger pot with some butter, onion, carrots and a little fennel. We cook them off until everything starts getting soft, then we throw in some basil, rosemary, some thyme and we let that simmer for a while. Once all the flavors become incorporated, we go ahead and purée it. We also do the same idea with a sweet pepper and goat cheese soup. With our vegetable soups, everything is roasted first so that we can get the flavors out of that vegetable. Then they are thrown in the pot with either butter or olive oil. The cheeses and creams that we use are always added at the end. After we purée, then we blend everything in.
We do a curry carrot ginger soup, also a purée. We do a cream of spinach soup, a purée with a hint of nutmeg. We do a cauliflower soup with rosemary. We do a corn soup with basil, a purée with a smoked cheddar cheese blended in.
We change our rotation according to the season. So we’ll be introducing our winter soups in this month. We haven’t unveiled them yet and are still working out some of the details, but it’s more of what’s in season in the winter. We’ll have a butternut squash soup, red beet soup and an onion soup, among others.
These are all vegetarian choices except for the chicken noodle. If someone orders the soup of the day, like the carrot ginger, that will be vegetarian. If they want to add protein to it we have a choice of a smoked tofu, if they want to keep it vegetarian, or they can have diced chicken or meatballs, which we make in house as well. We use grass-fed beef and then we add other things to it like mushrooms, carrots, onion, garlic, egg, Italian seasoning and bread crumbs. The meatballs are served only upon request.
It is a huge endeavor to be able to offer both a regular menu and a choice of organic food on a daily basis. The cost of the food is sometimes doubled or even tripled. We have a separate station in the kitchen for the organics, separate warmers and separate utensils. Since we are the first hospital to try this, there is no model to follow; we are like guinea pigs.
It’s all about educating the customer, our patients, letting them know what they’re eating and why they’re eating it and why they’re here. Some-times they are here because they’re not eating properly. We like to educate them on a better way to eat so they stay away from here.”
“By using your own stock you also can control the sodium level, which is important for people with high blood pressure or hypertension,” Bullett says. “You can make up for it by using lots of herbs, fresh, of course.”
Bullett encourages the careful reviewing of labels and ingredients when purchasing jarred vegetarian and vegan bases.
“You have to read the labels,” she says. “If it’s a vegan soup, it can’t have an animal by-product in it. Many vegetarian soup bases have gelatin in them."