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Vegetarian Kitchen: Savory Soups, Antidote to Winter
By Leslie Shankman

There are soups for all seasons cold, cucumber soup in the heat of summer, savory tomato soup when the garden is overflowing in early fall, and golden squash soup in autumn. But soups don't really come into their own until the temperature drops below freezing, nothing warms body and soul like a hearty bowl of soup.

People are often deterred from making soup by the misconception that it's complicated and time consuming, and I suppose it is, compared to opening a can. Another deterrent, at least for new vegetarians, is the belief that beef or chicken stock is the only real source of flavor and body. It's a popular misconception. Have you ever tried to order French onion soup in a restaurant that serves meat? And what about those "easy-to-make" soups that beckon from the covers of the women's magazines? When you scan the ingredients you find the inevitable can or two of chicken or beef broth, or failing that, lots of butter or half-and-half.

It's true that to be good, soup needs both flavor and body, but there are many easy and healthy ways to get both without simmering a stock for hours, using animal flesh, or adding high-fat ingredients. The trick is to build a soup from the ground up.

I lay the foundation by sautéing vegetables and spices in a 5-quart pot. Next, I add the first floor: liquid, other vegetables, and usually grain and/or beans. All this simmers for an hour or so, requiring little or no attention, and filling the house with an enticing aroma. Then comes the second floor: more herbs, tri-color pasta, or fine strands of rice noodles. The final trim might include texture in the form of croutons, crumpled tortilla chips, or cheese.

Here are some suggestions for making flavorful soups with plenty of body. The recipes that follow incorporate many of these approaches. None requires a simmered vegetable stock. You won't miss it.

Creating Flavor
You can use one or more of these methods to give your soup flavor. Experiment and find what appeals to you.

Begin with Seasoning Vegetables

• You can enhance the flavor of some vegetables by sautéing them before adding the liquid. Oil is also a flavor enhancer: ghee will lend its rich, buttery taste, while olive oil provides a Mediterranean touch.

•Sear onions over a high heat, then brown and caramelize them over moderate heat for a rich "meaty" taste. For a sweeter taste, roast them over low heat. Nothing warms body and soul like a hearty bowl of soup.

•Mushrooms sautéed with a pinch of salt release a rich liquid that deepens the flavor of the soup. They tend to absorb and hold the flavor of the oil and spices they're sautéed in. If you want them to have more presence in your soup, cut them in quarters instead of slicing them.

•Dried mushrooms are expensive, but it only takes a few-such as shitake, porcini (also called ´cepes), or morels-to give your soup a wealth of flavor. If you think of it, soak them overnight before cooking, although 30 minutes will do in a pinch. The soaking water is flavorful and can be used when you add the liquid, but it should be strained through cheesecloth to remove any sand.

•Green or red peppers are both more flavorful if sautéed first. Fresh garlic and ginger can be minced and lightly sautéed for added flavor. If you let whole garlic cloves simmer in the broth, the pungent taste will mellow and become full and sweet.

•Parsnips, leeks, or other vegetable with a distinctive flavor can be used in the base or in the soup itself.

Use Spices and Herbs

•The three spices of classical Indian vegetarian cooking-coriander, cumin, and turmeric-provide an excellent flavor base for many soups. Roast these powdered spices until they're dark brown for a flavor similar to beef stock or soy sauce. Lighter roasting yields a flavor more like chicken stock. Use three parts coriander, two parts cumin, and one part turmeric. In more delicate soups, reduce the amount of cumin powder, substitute cumin seeds, or eliminate the cumin altogether.

Here are some other spices that are particularly good in winter soups:
•Paprika tends to underline flavors and pull them together; it also provides rich color. If you sauté paprika too long, it becomes bitter, so it's better to add it directly to the soup.

•Accent spices are a reliable source of flavor. Try a pinch of cinnamon in a carrot soup, a touch of mace in onion soup, or a sprinkling of nutmeg in spinach soup.

•Dried herbs such as bay leaf, thyme, oregano, and basil can be gently sautéed with the vegetables before liquid is added. Bay leaves impart a strong, deep taste, while thyme adds a distinct, earthy flavor that balances lighter, sweeter flavors. Fresh herbs (and some dried herbs, such as dill and tarragon) are best added when the soup is almost done. The zesty, refreshing taste of fresh, chopped cilantro (coriander leaves) will brighten earthy soups, such as lentil, but don't add it until the soup is ready to serve.

Add Flavor in Liquid Form

• Carrot juice lends a sweet, earthy flavor and a golden color to the broth that complements the acidity of tomatoes. Don't use so much that you unbalance the soup. Celery juice isn't sweet but adds a full-bodied flavor. You can also use water left over from cooking beans, noodles, or vegetables. (Vegetable cooking water can be bitter, so taste it first.) I often cook beans in extra water, so I'll have it to add to a soup.

Try Some Commercial Flavorings

• There are several products on the market with a rich, salty taste, such as miso, tamari, soy sauce, and Bragg's Liquid Aminos. Miso is the heaviest and lends a deep, almost beefy quality. (Avoid white miso-it's too sweet.) Tamari, soy sauce, and Bragg's heighten flavors, just as salt does. Several tablespoons is usually plenty, and you'll want to use less salt. All of these are fermented, except Bragg's.

Add Pepper and Lemon

• A dash of cay-enne or hot pepper sauce heightens flavor. If I have fresh chili peppers on hand, I'll often sauté a teaspoon or so with the other vegetables when starting the soup-it enhances flavor rather than adding heat. A squeeze of lemon juice added toward the end of cooking also enhances flavor.

Ways to Create Body

There are many ways to thicken a vegetarian soup; some add flavor as well as body. These can be used alone or in combination with each other.

•Purée some or all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor.

•Add cooked whole grains such as rice, millet, or barley. You can also blend them.

•Use cooked beans-kidney, pinto, navy, garbanzo, lima, black, or other. If you don't have cooked beans on hand, throw in a handful of split mung or lentils about 30 minutes before the soup is done. They won't swell enough to absorb a lot of the broth, as will other types of dried legumes.

•Add cow's milk, soy milk, blended tofu, or tahini. Be careful to heat the soup gently when using any of these ingredients so it doesn't scorch or curdle.

•Add grated or finely chopped raw potatoes. They'll "melt," adding thickness. Or, cook the potatoes separately and blend them before adding.

•Mix flour, cornstarch, or arrowroot with a little cold water to form a paste. Add 2 tablespoons of flour or 1 tablespoon of starch for each quart of soup just before the soup is done, stir until it thickens, and then let it cook for a few minutes longer.

•Just before you serve the soup, stir in as much as one tablespoon of nutritional yeast for each quart of soup. Don't simmer the soup afterwards or you'll destroy the B vitamins, iron, and phosphorus. The yeast will thicken the broth slightly and will add a fullness to a hearty tasting soup, although it may be too strong for a delicate soup, such as cream of tomato.

•Part of the "body" of a soup comes from ingredients that add substance and texture, such as bread crumbs, croutons, pasta of all shapes and sizes, rice noodles, tofu cubes (fresh or frozen), cheese, dumplings, or tortilla pieces.

How Much Water Is Enough?

Most of the following recipes are intended to be made in a 5-quart pot. I don't measure the liquid, but simply fill the pot a little more than halfway when I have finished sautéing the seasoning vegetables and spices. By the time all the other ingredients are added, I find that the liquid/ingredient ratio is just right. You can always add more water, so if in doubt, start with a little less. Unless otherwise noted, these recipes make 3-4 quarts of soup-plenty to warm a family or a small group of friends. Extra soup can usually be frozen. Some soups-such as split pea, lentil, and mushroom barley-freeze well.

One last general tip: soups should be simmered gently, not boiled. Active boiling destroys flavor, color, vitamins, and other nutrients.


Barley is an energy food and has a warming effect on the body. The mushrooms and spices create a rich brown flavorful broth that is thickened and further flavored by the barley as it cooks.

1 T. ghee or vegetable oil
2 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 scant tsp. turmeric
2 medium onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
10 oz. mushrooms (about 4 cups), sliced
2-3 T. tamari or Bragg's Liquid Aminos
1-1/2 C. scotch barley, washed
1 tsp. paprika
3 C. leeks, finely chopped
3-5 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
3-4 celery stalks, (about 2 cups) diced
1 tsp. dried dill
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a 5-quart pot, heat the oil and add the coriander, cumin, and turmeric, stirring to ensure even roasting. Roast dark for a richer flavor.
2. Add the onions and sauté until soft; push them aside and add the garlic. Sauté until fragrant.
3. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Sauté until they have released their moisture, shrunk, and browned. Stir in tamari or Bragg's and sauté a few minutes more.
4. Add the barley and enough water to fill the pot about 2/3 full.
5. Add the paprika and leeks; cover and simmer slowly for 50 minutes.
6. Add the carrots and celery. Simmer for 40 more minutes or until the vegetables and barley are tender.
7. Add the dill near the end of cooking, and season with salt and pepper.


This winter minestrone is a one-pot meal. Most of the flavor comes from the vegetables, which are all sautéed first. This recipe calls for garbanzos but most of the bigger beans will work equally well. Pass around a bowl of freshly grated parmesan cheese when you serve the soup.

1 T. ghee or oil
2 T. coriander
1/2 tsp. turmeric
2 medium onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 C. mushrooms, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1-2 tsp. fresh chili peppers, chopped finely, or 1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne or hot pepper sauce
1 medium pepper, diced
3 celery stalks and leaves, diced
2 tomatoes, cubed
1 C. string beans, cut bite-size
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1-1/2 C. cooked garbanzos
1 tsp. paprika
1 C. tri-color pasta (elbows, spirals, or shells)
2 T. nutritional yeast (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a 5-quart pot, heat the oil and add the coriander and turmeric, stirring to ensure even roasting.
2. Add the onions, sauté until soft, and push them aside to make room for the garlic and fresh chili peppers.
3. When the garlic is fragrant, add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt and sauté them until they release their moisture and begin to shrink and brown.
4. Add the peppers and sauté until they begin to soften. Then add the celery, tomatoes, string beans, and carrots, in that order, sautéing each for a few minutes before adding the next one.
5. Add the beans, paprika, any water left from cooking the beans, and enough additional water to fill the pot about 2/3 full. Add cayenne or pepper sauce if you didn't use fresh chilies.
6. Simmer about 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
7. Add the pasta and simmer until it is al dente.
8. Season with salt and pepper and add the nutritional yeast if you're using it.


This soup is thick with tender lentils and vegetables. Its zest comes from chili peppers and cilantro. Serve it with a crusty, whole-grain bread for a complete protein.

1 T. ghee or olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. turmeric
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 tsp. ginger, minced
1-2 tsp. chopped fresh chili peppers or 1/2 tsp. cayenne
1 green or red pepper, diced
1 lb. lentils, washed (about 2-1/2 cups)
1 tsp. paprika
2 T. tamari or Bragg's Liquid Aminos
3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
3-4 celery stalks, diced
3-4 medium tomatoes, diced
4-5 C. chard or spinach, washed and finely chopped
3 T. fresh cilantro, washed and finely chopped (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oil in a 5-quart soup pot. Add the onions and fry until golden. Push them aside and roast the coriander and turmeric, stirring to ensure even roasting.
2. Stir roasted spices into onions and add garlic, ginger, and chili peppers.
3. When the garlic is fragrant, add the green or red pepper and sauté several minutes until it begins to soften.
4. Add the lentils and enough water to fill the pot about 2/3 full.
5. Add paprika and the cayenne (if using) and the tamari or Bragg's.
6. Cover and simmer slowly for 30 minutes or until lentils are fairly tender.
7. Add the carrots, celery, and tomatoes and simmer for another 30-40 minutes.
8. Add the chard or spinach and simmer 5-10 minutes until tender.
9. Before serving, season with salt and pepper and add the cilantro.


This classic has plenty of flavor without the ham bone. A thick, deeply satisfying soup, studded with vegetables.

1 T. ghee or vegetable oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 tsp. coriander
1 scant tsp. cumin powder or seeds
1/2 tsp. turmeric
3-5 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
1 bay leaf
1 lb. (about 1-1/2 cups) green or yellow split peas, washed
2 T. tamari or Bragg's Liquid Aminos
5 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
4 celery stalks, diced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a 5-quart soup pot, heat oil and fry the onions until golden. Push them aside and roast the coriander, cumin, and turmeric, stirring to ensure even roasting.
2. Stir the roasted spices into the onions, and add the garlic and bay leaf.
3. When the garlic is fragrant, add the peas, enough water to fill the pot about 2/3 full, and tamari or Bragg's. Cover and simmer slowly for 50 minutes.
4. Add the carrots, celery, and potatoes and simmer for another 40 minutes or until peas have completely "melted."
5. Season the finished soup with salt and pepper.


This is satisfying as an appetizer or as a light meal with a salad on the side. The croutons are easy to make and have little of the fat that's usually found in the commercial variety.

1 T. ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
4 C. onions, cut in very thin half-moons
1 garlic clove, minced
6 C. water
3 T. tamari
1/4 tsp. mace (or, substitute scant 1/4 tsp. nutmeg)
1/2 tsp. salt
Shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)
Pepper, to taste

1. Roast the coriander and turmeric in a large, heavy skillet, stirring to ensure even roasting.
2. Add the onions and sauté at a moderate heat until they are soft and lightly golden (about 15-20 minutes).
3. Stir in the garlic and sauté until fragrant.
4. Turn off the heat and pour several tablespoons of water into the skillet, scraping so that any browned spices or candied onion pieces come loose.
5. Transfer the onions to a soup pot. Add 6 C. water, and the tamari, mace, salt, and pepper.
6. Simmer for 20-30 minutes to blend the flavors.
7. Serve with shredded mozzarella and herb croutons.


3 tsp. garlic powder
3 T. nutritional yeast
1-1/2 tsp. thyme
3 tsp. oregano
3 tsp. basil
6 slices whole-grain bread, cubed
Tamari or soy sauce

1. Mix the garlic, nutritional yeast, and herbs in a large bowl. Add the bread cubes and toss until covered.
2. Spread the coated bread cubes on a greased cookie sheet. Sprinkle any herb/spice mixture remaining on the bottom of the bowl over the bread cubes.
3. For best results, put some tamari or soy sauce (diluted with 1/4 part water, if desired) in a mister. Spray bread cubes with tamari. If you don't have a mister, sprinkle the tamari on as evenly as possible.
4. Bake at 350o for 8-10 minutes or until cubes begin to crisp and brown lightly.
5. Turn the cubes, spray other side, and bake 8-10 minutes or until lightly brown.
6. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes.

A mister filled with 3 parts tamari or soy sauce and 1 part water is a great kitchen tool. It's a handy way to add moisture to fries, without risking sogginess. It's also great for making baked tofu cubes to add to vegetable dishes.

Leslie Shankman worked for three years as a professional vegetarian cook.

This article was provided by the Yoga International Article Archive. Published with permission.


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