When autumn sets in and the days start getting shorter, a primal switch seems to flip in all of us. We just know that colder, darker days are ahead. It is now that our bodies instinctively start to crave stouter, more satisfying foods.
Nothing fits the bill for autumnal fare better than rich soups and hearty stews. Often, these dishes may seem light on ingredients. However, on closer look, they are bursting with layered, textured flavors that take a greater care of preparation than you may realize. Chef Bradley Daniels of Croissants Bistro & Bakery in Myrtle Beach loves cooking soups and stews. "It's really fun cooking. You can use a little or a lot of ingredients.
Often, it's a little bit of this and that, but when put together, there is so much flavor." Of the many things to do when preparing soups and stews, Daniels says the most important thing is try to layer the flavors. "I like to start with thyme and shallots, or onion and garlic as a base. I sweat these down to get their rich, essential flavors. Then, I'll add a wine and reduce that. Then comes the stock. The real secret is time and patience.
Everything is a lot more flavorful going layer by layer."
"I love the transitioning of flavors when making a soup or stew," says Sheina Hammerman, executive chef and co-owner of Mr. Fish Restaurant in Myrtle Beach. "From start to finish, the longer it cooks, the better the flavor gets. To illustrate, I recently made a bouillabaisse with lobster from the market. It took two days!" A traditional Provençal fish stew, bouillabaisse is made with at least three types of fish and shellfish, and bathed in a litany of flavorings, such as garlic, basil and fennel. Upon reflecting on her creation, Hammerman says, "It was wonderful. Hmmm... that might be on the horizon for our fall and winter menu!"
"It's important to season as you go," says Hammerman. Echoing Daniels, she says, "Build one flavor onto the next. There are many steps, but taste as you go. The great thing about soups and stews is they are very forgiving and fixable."
For Adam Kirby, executive chef of Bistro 217 in Pawleys Island, preparing a soup or stew is "classic cooking. You can't rush it, and the results are worth it." Kirby says many of his soups begin with a mirepoix, which is a base mixture of 50 percent onion, 25 percent carrot and 25 percent celery. "This is your solid foundation to build all flavor upon. Take one ingredient at a time."
All the chefs agree on a similar soup base. For Daniels, it is shallots and garlic, then aromatic thyme to get things cooking. For Hammerman, it is garlic, onions and celery (for a stew, it is more likely to be onions, garlic and celery, in addition to peppers and carrots). However, the result is a solid, flavorful base that can stand up to whatever main ingredients are intended for the soup or stew. "For me, soups and stews are fun food and easy eating," says Peter Gennaro III, executive chef of Café Amalfi at Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort. "When I first started as a chef, I was a 'saucier,' or sauce cook. If you understand sauces, you understand soups."
Gennaro says the real secret to a soup is to keep it simple. "You don't need to complicate it." For instance, he loves how the flavor of mushrooms works in a soup. "I really enjoy more exotic mushrooms, like shiitake, portabella or morel. They have such big flavor.
Hence, all you have to do is sauté them, add some cream, a little roux, salt and pepper, a bit of cheese and you're done." Gennaro says that now is a great time for fall squashes, like acorn or butternut, too. "Squash, some chicken stock, cream for thickening and seasoning to taste, and you're done."
Gennaro's White Shrimp and Broccoli Rabe Soup is a twist on traditional broccoli soup. "This incorporates local shrimp that are really coming into season now," he says. "They give texture and a substantial bite. Broccoli rabe is a fun fall vegetable that people should try. It has a slight bitterness to it that is mellowed out perfectly by the cream."
Both Daniels and Kirby love cooking and eating gumbo when the chill of autumn sets in. "I love gumbo; chicken and sausage gumbo, or even duck gumbo," says Daniels. "Gumbo is so rich in flavor. You can really take advantage of local fall seafood." For Kirby, "I love soups and stews that feature fresh winter vegetables. Squashes and mushrooms are great right now."
Daniels' French Onion Soup is a classic palate pleaser. "The trick is to cook the onions slowly. They need to caramelize. This brings out the color and the richness of the onions and beef stock." However, Daniels warns not to use too much salt. "Beef stock is inherently salty. You can easily over salt this dish." Pungent Swiss and creamy provolone cheeses round out the complexity of flavors that all work together.
Winner of the 13th annual Souper Supper "People's Choice Award," Kirby's Tomato, Crab and Jalapeño Soup has been on the menu of Bistro 217 probably since it opened. He says one of the secrets of the soup is "canned tomatoes. Peeled plum tomatoes are used for a more intense, stewed flavor. Jarred tomatoes are best, but just don't use fresh tomatoes. They don't work." Another secret hint for home chefs from Kirby: "Use a big bottomed, aluminum pan. Everything cooks nicely and evenly together in it."
Although her Frogmore Stew featuring fresh, local seafood is always a favorite, what does Hammerman like to turn to for fall and winter comfort? "One of my favorite soups is Matzo Ball Soup. It is the epitome of comfort food for me. It is made with natural chicken stock and balls made of matzo meal (which is unleavened bread). It is very simple, but so warm and delicious." All the chefs definitely agree on what is the perfect partner for a hearty soup or stew: A delicious bread that is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. Says Kirby: "Always have good bread. There is just a basic love of good bread with soup or stew. Simple is often the best."