The late-summer harvest brings a mix of sadness and excitement to Chris Parsons’ mood. The executive chef at Catch restaurant, which has locations in Winchester, Mass., and on Martha’s Vineyard in the same state, got the year’s last haul of fresh corn from his farmers, and he knows the soup staple he’s enjoyed for the summer will disappear until next July.
“I kind of hate to see it go away,” Parsons says. “But we’re now sitting down and figuring out what to do in this next season. We go through a pretty big transition on all our menus as fall stuff is coming in right now.”
One of several soups he’s planning for October is a cider-roasted blue Hubbard squash soup, $11, that’s puréed and strained through a fine sieve, poured into guests’ bowls at the table and garnished with foie gras, pomegranate seeds and cider vinaigrette. The use of such accompaniments stems from Parsons’ belief that crunchy and acidic elements are vital in creating vibrant soups.
“Those keep the flavors alive, especially in thicker soups,” he says. “I do a lot of nuts and nuts oils in garnishes, and I’ll use golden raisins reconstituted in Cabernet vinegar and toasted chopped pistachios [in a roasted-cauliflower soup]. And I know we’re going to do a celery root soup we pour over a raw-apple salad tossed with Maine crab. That has a really fresh, crunchy flavor.”
Parsons does veer off the crunchy course occasionally, as with his upcoming sweet-potato soup made from maple and brown-butter roasted yams he garnishes with toasted house-made marshmallow.
Since warmer Kentucky weather didn’t sustain the corn crop any longer for chef Edward Lee, he got all he could over the summer and froze some for later use. As the owner at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Lee featured that harvest in a corn and brown-butter soup with lobster, $9, at the James Beard House earlier this month.
“Both of those ingredients are sweet, but they’re different interpretations of sweet,” says Lee, who paired the soup with Champagne as part of his “barnyards and bubbles” theme. “You’re getting an earthy sweetness from the corn and an aquatic sweetness from the lobster. That works—for me, at least—on two different places in the mouth.”
While Lee seeks seasonally fresh ingredients, he admits freezing lets him hold on to the flavors of fresh vegetables as long as possible before moving to fall and winter vegetables that he says require flavor assistance.
“In the summertime, we generally don’t use any spices at all because we like to let the ingredients show through on their own,” Lee says. “But when fall hits, we start adding spices like cumin, coriander and ancho chiles, or we cook with browned butter. When we work with [mild] things like butternut squash, everything gets an extra layer of flavor added to it.”
Kyle Ketchum also leans on the seasons for his inspiration, but in 16 years as a chef, he’s learned to use bits and leftovers from all around the kitchen to fortify his soups.
“I tell my guys, ‘This is what we have to burn out right now, so let’s make soup from that,’” says Ketchum, executive chef at the Spiced Pear in Newport, R.I. “A chef I worked for in Texas taught me how to make roasted-vegetable soup from nothing but scraps thrown on sheet trays with olive oil, salt and pepper, and slowly roasted in the oven. All we did was add vegetable stock and puréed it, and people just loved it.”
But scraps only go so far, and Ketchum and his cooks make as many as three unique soups a day, including a New England chestnut soup, $12, destined for the menu in November. The soup is made from mirepoix sweated with garlic, chestnuts, bay leaf and sage, then deglazed with brandy and vegetable stock. When the soup is reduced to half its volume, cream is added and the whole is reduced by another 25 percent and puréed. At the table, the dish is garnished with duck confit or rabbit rillettes, candied chestnuts and sage oil.
While Ketchum loves puréed, strained soups for their elegant presentation and uniform color, he also likes adding texture for a pleasant interruption on the palate. For example, he adds tapioca pearls to a smooth, curried butternut squash soup blended with milk and kaffir lime “to get the texture of the pearls bouncing around in your mouth.”
Jason Robinson, executive chef at the Inn at Dos Brisas in Washington, Texas, also likes smooth soups, mostly for their ease of use on the restaurant’s tasting menu.
“I like chunky soups, too, but to serve one, you have to put it in a big bowl; you can’t do it in an espresso cup,” Robinson says. “[A puréed soup] blends the flavors a lot better, too, especially with something like our curried-eggplant soup. If you didn’t blend it, you’d not get that nice uniform yellow color, you’d get some brown mixed in.”
The curried-eggplant soup is joined on the current soup tasting by a wild-mushroom and truffle soup as well as a caramelized lobster bisque. The trio is part of an $85 fixed-price menu. Robinson says guests staying at the Inn this motnh can expect to sample his pumpkin pie soup, which uses smaller and sweeter pie pumpkins, whose flavor he amplifies through roasting. He accents the soup with the traditional spices of cinnamon, clove, paprika and brown sugar before finishing it with unsweetened whipped cream. When pumpkins aren’t available in his four-acre organic garden, which is fueled year-round by the south-central Texas sun, he substitutes gray Hubbard squashes.
Cool weather already creeping down to Greenville, S.C., has guests of Soby’s New South ordering a lot of the house specialty she-crab soup for $7.50. Chef de cuisine Shaun Garcia says the soup, which is the restaurant’s signature dish, must start “with a really robust crab stock made from blue-crab shells.”
“Once we reduce that,” he says, “we add sherry and heavy cream, thyme, nutmeg and garlic.”
In addition to large lumps of blue crab, the dish is garnished with roe taken from the crabs, dried in the oven and ground into a powder.
“People think it’s paprika or Cajun seasoning, but it’s crab roe shaken over top,” he says. “I think the ocean smell it gives the soup is what sets it apart. People who are familiar with the Low Country see it as getting a taste of home.”
Serving soups American customers would call traditional is far from the mind of Eric Lau, chef and co-owner of the Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Millbrae, Calif. Lau knows winter is coming and that “people want foods to keep the body warm,” but don’t expect him to offer rib-sticking stews.
“I make a shark fin soup with broth and shredded chicken,” Lau says, “but what’s most interesting is a soup I make with chicken, some fungus, bamboo shoots and frozen snake from Arizona.”
Lau removes the meat from the bones and uses them to make a stock, and the snake bits are warmed and returned to the broth before serving. Depending on the cost of the snake, he charges $15 to $18 per bowl.
“It’s like hot-and-sour soup, but with more flavor in it,” Lau says. “It has a lot of pepper in it, too, so it keeps people warm.”