Super herbs for soups
The best thing about winter is that is the season for soup, providing yet another reason for using herbs.
Besides log fires and red wine, a hearty soup is one of the great pleasures of winter and in most cases herbs are the magic ingredient.
Whether herbs are used as seasoning or as part of the base of the soup, they can provide a depth of flavour without dominating it. There are also some soup recipes where herbs provide the signature taste, such as in creamy chervil, celery, sorrel or rocket soup.
All soup recipes consist of four elements and knowing how to put them together will always result in a tasty soup.
1. The first element is the flavour base and this gives the soup its depth. Usually onions form the base along with meat, such as bacon, shin or chicken, or vegetables such as garlic, parsley, celery and herbs like bay, thyme, and origanum. Whatever ingredients are used or combined, the idea is for their flavour to infuse into the rest of the soup.
2. The next element is the broth which can be a homemade stock or stock cubes, or vegetable water and to this can be added other liquids like wine, or balsamic vinegar or even a dash of herb vinegar.
3. Then the solid ingredients are added. These have the most distinct flavour and give the soup its name and character. Finally, herbs, spices and seasonings are added to complement the ingredients and round off the flavour.
4. When using herbs as flavouring for soup, there are a number of herb combinations that work well.
Basil and origanum can be added to a tomato soup or where tomato is used as one of the main ingredients along with other vegetables such as in Minestrone or Italian vegetable soup (Pistou). Although fresh basil is generally not available a basil pesto can be used and if you plan ahead make and freeze basil pesto in small quantities for adding to soup.
Parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme can be used in almost any soup that uses poultry. Except for parsley the others are strongly flavoured aromatic herbs so should be used sparingly, especially the rosemary and sage. An idea is to fry sage leaves in a little butter and sprinkle the crisp leaves over the soup as a flavourful garnish.
A mix of Italian parsley, chives, and dill, with the option of lemon thyme, is a much used combination in chunky meat and vegetable soups or simply vegetable soups. Italian parsley is a better option than moss curled parsley because it stands up better to long cooking.
Celery or Par-cell together with onions and carrots forms the flavour base for most soups. Don’t overlook celery, not only for its taste but its detoxifying, antiseptic, diuretic and antispasmodic properties. It eases gout, arthritis and rheumatism which can be exacerbated by the cold in winter.
The classic Bouquet Garni of four parsley sprigs, 1 thyme spray and a bay leaf is an excellent flavouring for a meaty soup, which makes sense considering this combination is used in slow cooked meat dishes. Dill can also be added.
Chervil’s delicate taste complements elegant clear soups, such as vegetable consommé, and it can be used as a light garnish or last minute addition. Vegetable consommé uses carrot, turnip, leeks and celery as a base with bouillon and three-eights of a cup of sherry as the broth.
Quick tip: Soup without bread is only half the pleasure, especially hot, herb bread. A quick way to do this is to buy a French loaf, slice it thickly (but not all the way through) and spread with homemade herb butter. Wrap it in foil and heat in the oven. Don’t overdo the herbs. Rather use fewer herbs in the soup and more in the bread or the other way around. Herbs suitable for herb butters are basil, chervil, parsley, chives, garlic chives and lemon thyme. Finely chop the herbs and add them to the softened butter and add a little lemon juice (optional).
Herb of the month – Parcel or Par-cell (Apium graveolens secalinum)
This is a two in one soup herb. The plant looks and grows like parsley with flexible stalks and curly leaves although it is more vigorous and larger than garden parsley. The taste is pure celery and it is in fact celery, not a cross between the two species.
Parcel is also known as Leaf Celery as well as Chinese Celery because the strong celery flavour is essential for Chinese cuisine. It is closely related to wild celery and is easier to grow than normal celery
Like parsley the outer stalks and leaves are harvested, or the whole plant can be harvested, about 10cm above the ground. Both the stems and leaves are used. They can be chopped finely and added to stir-fries, soups, stews, rice dishes, meat and fish.
It is frost tolerant and should be grown a bed that gets full winter sun. It also grows well in a container. It likes humus rich soil and is a gross feeder so should be fertilised at least once a month with an organic fertiliser, even during winter.
It is not susceptible to pests and diseases, unless planted in a shady position when it may be affected by fungus. If grown next to normal celery it will cross pollinate.