By Diane Rossen Worthington
Diane is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 20 cookbooks, including “Seriously Simple Parties,” and a James Beard Award-winning radio show host. You can contact her at www.seriouslysimple.com
It’s cold outside and all I want to eat is a steaming bowl of pureed vegetable soup. Through the years I have discovered the magical calming quality of velvety soup purees. I make these vegetable purees year-round and serve them hot or chilled. The key is to know the basic principals: purees require liquid (usually stock), vegetables and a thickening agent. I am partial to using potatoes or a dense vegetable like winter squash instead of flour because the soup develops a thick texture without a floury taste. You can always control the thickness by adding more or less stock.
The other key element to a pureed soup is what you use to puree it. There are a few different options: the blender, the hand immersion blender, the food processor or the hand food mill. My two stand-bys are the blender or the immersion blender.
If you like a very frothy almost cream-like texture you will have more luck using a blender. There are many blenders to choose from. Make sure to select a very high-powered one. My personal preference is the Vita Mix for its amazing ability to create rich tasting soups and sauces without using any dairy. It is a big investment but if you are watching your weight this is one secret I can’t keep to myself. I had a friend who told me I needed a Vita Mix for 4 years; I finally broke down and purchased it and have been using it happily ever since.
When I am less concerned about frothy and I am feeling pressed for time I go for the immersion hand blender. This electric stick blender goes right into the soup pot and purees the soup so you don’t have to transfer the soup to another vessel. Remember that you want a high-powered hand blender that will smoothly puree the soup. Make sure when you use it to always keep the wand on the bottom of the pan when pureeing so it doesn’t fly up and decorate your ceiling.
I love mushroom soup. Here I’ve added plenty of dried mushrooms along with the more flavorful cremini and shiitake to increase the rich mushroom flavor without additional calories. Pancetta or bacon “croutons” are a natural companion to the earthy mushroom flavor and add both a bacon taste and a crispy topping. Pancetta is uncured bacon but you can also use regular bacon, if you prefer. The soy sauce enhances the mushroom flavor. Try this as a first course to an elegant dinner party or for lunch along with a simple green salad.
Three Mushroom Soup with Crispy Pancetta
2 ounces dried wild mushrooms, shiitake or porcini
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 pound thick pancetta or bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 leek, light green and white part, cleaned and finely chopped
1 pound fresh cremini (brown) mushrooms, thinly sliced
½ pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 (8 ounce) Yukon potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch dice
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and white pepper
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 cup half and half
1/3 cup or to taste, dry Sherry
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, for garnish
1. In a medium saucepan combine the dried mushrooms and broth. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. You can also do this in a large glass measuring cup and microwave for 4 minutes, loosely covered with plastic wrap. Remove from heat and let infuse. Set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta or bacon and fry until crisp on all sides, turning with a spatula, about 4 minutes. Drain on a paper towel and reserve. Discard grease. Add the remaining butter and saute the leeks, stirring occasionally, for 3 or 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the fresh mushrooms and diced potato and sauté another 3 minutes or until the potato is softened.
3. Lift the mushrooms out of the broth and place in the pot with the vegetables. With a fine-meshed strainer, strain the liquid into the vegetable pot and add salt, pepper and soy sauce. Simmer for 15 minutes, partially covered.
4. With a hand blender or regular blender process the soup until it is a fine smooth puree or if you prefer, roughly pureed with some texture remaining. Add the half and half and Sherry and simmer for 2 more minutes. Taste for seasoning.
5. To serve: pour into soup bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of the crisp pancetta and chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
Advance Preparation: The soup may be made up to 3 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Remove from the refrigerator and reheat gently. Adjust the seasonings when you reheat the soup. The bacon can be cooked up to 6 hours ahead, covered and refrigerated. Reheat in the microwave for 30 seconds, or until hot and crisp. This soup does not freeze well because it has half and half in it and will curdle when defrosted and reheated.