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Soup’s on: How to make the perfect pot

Tortillsoup Sixteen Trump Hotel Chicago 401 N. Wabash. (Jean Lachat/Sun-Times)

Tortilla soup at Sixteen in the Trump Hotel Chicago, 401 N. Wabash. (Jean Lachat/Sun-Times)

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Martha Bayne and Sheila Sachs, creators of Soup & Bread — a for-charity soup dinner held Wednesdays through April at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, and a cookbook by the same name — have started Soupscription, a soup recipe subscription program.

For $60 a year, you get five soup recipe cards and one bread recipe each month. A nifty box made out of repurposed wine crates to hold them all sells for $75 (only a few boxes remain).

Recipes come from notable chefs and caterers as well as local musicians, artists, writers and just about anyone who’s brought in soup for the weekly eating fests. The recipe pack features at least two vegetarian recipes, some vegan as well.

A portion of the proceeds will go toward supporting the Greater Chicago Food Depository, keeping in line with the Soup & Bread philosophy.

For more information, visit

Amelia Levin

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Updated: December 28, 2011 10:34AM

Sandwiches have certain “elements” that together make them delicious. Fresh-baked bread, a ripe tomato, perhaps some artisanal meat or cheese, the crunch of a romaine lettuce leaf.

We don’t always think of soup in the same way — but we should.

From a velvety broth to a few star ingredients and the finishing garnish, soup warms our body and soul in the dead of winter, but it also marks the measure of a skilled and thoughtful cook.

In fact, most culinary school instructors will tell you mastering the art of stock and soup making is the basis of classical French cuisine.

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking. Without it nothing can be done,” wrote Georges Auguste Escoffier, the “grandfather” of this cuisine, in his 1907 book A Guide to Modern Cookery , which still serves as the basis for culinary school instruction today.

“Soup is all about building flavor,” says Sixteen chef Frank Brunacci. “You can’t start the next ingredient until the first ingredient is perfect and you’ve extracted everything you can from it. Each part of the soup creates a structure where you’re layering flavor on top of another flavor.”

Soup also takes practice — it took one of his line cooks 10 tries to perfect the tortilla soup he serves on the menu.

Here are some tips for perfecting each element of a great soup.

The base

The base can make or break a soup .

“The broth is the key — if you don’t start with a good broth, nothing you do with the soup after that will cover it up,” says Martha Bayne, journalist, founder of the weekly Soup & Bread event at the Hideout in Wicker Park and author of the self-published Soup & Bread Cookbook ($20).

In the three years since she and fellow former Chicago Reader staffer Sheila Sachs founded Soup & Bread, Bayne’s seen hundreds of different soups starting with hundreds of different, delicious broths.

Soup contributors have included notable chefs, musicians, Hideout bartenders, food writers and other Chicago folks.

“One person brought in a broth made with seven different kinds of chilies, which made it rich and spicy, and then he layered that with kale and sausage,” Bayne says. “But the broth was what really knocked our socks off.”

Dale Levitski, a “Top Chef” alumnus and chef at Sprout, 1417 W. Fullerton, serves a complimentary soup with every prix fixe menu during the colder months. Served just after the appetizer, the soup offers a “savory intermezzo” before the entree. Still, just as much thought goes into this mini-course as the others.

“If you’re making a broth, it should be silky. If you’re doing a puree, it has to be velvet,” he says.

For purees, Levitski will pour the mixture into a blender and walk away.

“Don’t just blend for a minute and be done,” he says. “Leave it in there for a few minutes until smooth.

“But you also don’t want to make butter or cream cheese, so keep an eye on the puree to make sure you’re not over-whipping at the same time. The puree should foam up just a bit from the blending, and then it will settle down and become velvety.”

Giuseppe Tentori has another trick up his sleeve for a great soup base or broth. When making clam chowder for his upcoming restaurant GT Fish & Oyster, Tentori lets the stock or broth sit overnight before incorporating the main ingredients.

Tentori first sautes bacon with onion and garlic for a smoky start; adds celery, white wine and clam juice and simmers that for a while, then chills the broth overnight to allow the flavors to meld.

The next day, he brings the broth back up to a simmer, adding potatoes as a thickener and dropping in fresh clams (big and meaty New Zealand diamondback clams) in the last few minutes so they’re not rubbery from overcooking. The juicy clams “pop in your mouth,” he says.

“I think soup is better the next day, when it’s a little stronger and all the flavors have sit in the broth a little longer,” Tentori says.

The ingredients

Tentori’s technique of adding the gentle clams at the tail end shows how different vegetables and proteins require different cooking times, even in a simple soup. Potatoes and carrots take longer to soften when simmered than spinach, kale or other delicate greens that take only seconds to wilt and turn muddy brown in color when overcooked.

When it comes to soup ingredient selection, simple is better.

“I try not to use more than three, four or five ingredients in a soup, max,” Brunacci says, adding that the quality of those ingredients should be top-notch. “Without cursing, the saying goes, ‘If you start with ‘bleep,’ you end with ‘bleep,’ ” he says.

Extracting as much flavor from each ingredient helps build depth of flavor. Don’t just throw a bunch of vegetables in with some broth and boil endlessly. Start first by browning the onions and incorporating the garlic, bacon or other herbs and spices together with the vegetables before simmering in a broth.

When making a simple celery soup recently, Brunacci took the time to saute then simmer celery root with cream, water and milk to make a stock.

After straining the stock, he brought the remaining pulp to a boil with a touch of cream and truffle oil, reducing it to a velvety smoothness, then incorporating that puree back into the original stock.

Ingredient selection also can offer opportunities for avoiding waste and cleaning out the fridge. Excess trimmings from vegetables such as carrots and onions, leftover purees and other pre-cooked ingredients can go into the pot.

Levitski, in creating his now best-selling parsnip and pear soup, literally saw parsnips and pears sitting on his chopping board and thought to combine them.

He sautes the parsnip and pear with sweet onions; simmers the vegetables in milk; purees the mixture, adding cream, vegetable stock, apple cider and sherry vinegar; purees it again, then tops it off with black pepper, pear slices and a thyme relish.

The garnish

Garnishes also can be a way to use up leftovers, even serving as inspiration for a soup.

Shredded, pre-cooked meat, day-old bread made into croutons, leftover pieces of cheese or Parmesan cut into thick shavings — just about anything can make a great garnish as long as it’s edible (no whole rosemary sprigs, thank you) and doesn’t overpower the soup’s main ingredients .

“The soup is the star,” Brunacci says. “After that, any garnish should give it some surprise and enhance the soup, adding to it, not subtracting from the main flavors.”

When entertaining, go for some drama by serving bowls with the garnish placed in the middle, then pouring hot soup over it tableside.

In Brunacci’s tortilla soup, crunchy pork skins set at the bottom of a bowl slightly melt and season the soup further when the broth is poured over.

During Sixteen’s pork month in November, shredded suckling pig slow-cooked in the oven for 40 hours served as garnish for the soup, alongside fried plantain pieces, red onions and mango vinegar.

A squeeze of lemon, zest from an orange or a few pinches of smoked paprika — the garnish can offer room for a little creativity and lasting pizzazz.

Amelia Levin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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