What's for dinner? It is the eternal question and, nationwide, the "I'm out of ideas" face can be spotted on folks wandering the grocery store in search of inspiration.
While even chefs sometimes get "dinner block," there is an advantage to having a library of tricks and techniques at your disposal. And as the weather grows cool and the days grow short, top chefs look to their most coveted culinary secret: soup.
You can make soup out of anything. Which, OK, is not exactly a secret, but sometimes we need a reminder that soup is the very best, ultimate winner in the most important categories. Quick and easy? Check! Perfect make-ahead item? Check. Slow-cooker friendly? Double check! Delicious and satisfying on its own, or paired with sandwiches or salad? Check, check, check.
But just because soup is easy, it doesn't mean you necessarily know what kind of soup you want to make, so the students at The Culinary Institute of America are here to nudge you in the right direction. We challenged Chef Martin Matysik's Advanced Cooking class to develop a user-friendly soup that will help jumpstart your weekly meal planning. And boy, did they deliver.
The competition was tight, but this recipe for Autumn Sweet Potato and Mushroom Soup stood out. It is creamy (more on that in a minute) with rich, meaty flavors of sweet potato and portobello mushroom. The aromatic rosemary, bay leaves, and celery come in for that parting hug as the soup warms you.
This recipe is almost vegetarian (omit the Worcestershire sauce, which is made with anchovies, or replace with a vegetarian version) and can be made dairy-free or vegan with a few slight changes. Substitute olive oil when it calls for butter, and replace the cream with your favorite unsweetened non-dairy milk substitute. Or, to help replicate the richness that heavy cream offers, stir in soaked and puréed cashews.
Once you've made this soup, you have a base recipe that you can use all the way through winter. Instead of sweet potato, you can use any hearty vegetable, like butternut squash, parsnip, or carrot. Use your favorite herbs, like sage or thyme, and your go-to flavoring ingredients like hot sauce, Parmesan cheese, and balsamic vinegar. The beauty of soup is that it's tough to ruin. If it gets too thin and watered down, simply simmer until the flavors reduce. Too thick and gloppy? Just add more stock or broth, or even water.
A soup this hearty can be served as a main course, alongside a bright fall salad (think greens, apples, and pecans) or an open-faced chicken salad sandwich on multigrain toast. It's also a perfect next-day lunch or starter course at a dinner party. After all, now that you know our secret, you really should share it with friends.
AUTUMN SWEET POTATO AND MUSHROOM SOUP
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (Active time: 30 minutes)
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt, as needed
Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 cup diced shallot
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 portobello mushroom caps, roughly chopped
1 cup heavy cream
2 sprigs rosemary, minced
2 dried bay leaves
2 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup celery leaves, for garnish
2 ounces Camembert cheese, cubed, for garnish
8 prepared sweet potato chips, as needed for garnish
1/4 cup creme fraiche, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and toss to combine. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, shallot, garlic, and mushroom and cook until the vegetables are softened and the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes.
Add the reserved potatoes, cream, rosemary, and bay leaves. Cover and simmer to blend ingredients, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves, and carefully transfer the sweet potato mixture to a blender. Blend until smooth.
Return the mixture to the soup pot and add the vegetable stock. Simmer over medium heat, uncovered, until the mixture has reduced slightly and is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper, as needed, and serve with Worcestershire sauce, celery leaves, Camembert, sweet potato chips, and creme fraiche, if using.
Nutrition information per serving: 414 calories; 278 calories from fat; 31 g fat (18 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 97 mg cholesterol; 548 mg sodium; 31 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 13 g sugar; 6 g protein.