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Chef Foster: Soup may not be a cure-all, but it can still be a remedy for what’s ailing us

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I’ve got the sniffles and a nagging cough. Not sure if it’s allergies or I’ve finally succumbed to a common cold that’s been circulating through school.

The good and the bad of fall wrapped up into one condition for which there is no cure, except? Well you can’t really call soup a cure for anything, but it can be a remedy for a lot of what may ail us.

A cure would be too easy, would allow us to blow past that cold that may be our body’s way of saying “slow down.” A remedy “mediates” the conditions, helps us to get up and out of bed, shuffle to the kitchen, and put on a pot of soup.

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Of course the king of comfort soups is chicken noodle with it schmaltzy broth, slurpy noodles and warming aroma. Those of us, of a certain age, remember that once you convinced Mom that you wouldn’t last the day at school, most assuredly you would find a bowl of chicken noodle soup at your bedside for lunch.

There were few alternatives to that, tomato being too creamy, bean soup being too heavy and rich. There was no thought of miso or Pho, no bone broth or reinforced stock. There was just the belief that a bowl of soup would loosen up the nasal passage, provide need liquids to the body, and soothe the distressed soul so that balance could once again be restored between mind and body.

I’ve written extensively about the power of chicken noodle soup, the cleansing nature of soup in general, and the overwhelming anecdotal evidence that it indeed speeds the recovery. What I’ve begun to notice are the differences in how other cultures look at this phenomenon.

Restorative soups are not new or reserved for certain cuisines, they exist in just about every country and cookbook in the world. And although they do not all fit the chicken soup template, there are similarities that bridge cultures that are sometimes at odds with each other.

The main ingredient of any soup is the broth or stock. This component is especially important when we consider the chicken noodles of the world. A stock is made with bones or cuts of vegetables whereas the broth includes meat and bones. Both stock and broth should have an accompanying mire poix which usually consists of carrot, onion and celery.

Some soups will then reinforce that stock with a mixture of onion and garlic slowly sweated to bring out deep flavors. This is called a sofrito, but there again we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. We really are talking about broth and stock, and about the various clear soups that can be made to aid in our recovery.

With a good soup, the broth is often made, and then reinforced. This process can be accomplished by adding more bones, bones that have been browned for deep color and flavor, another round of fresh mire poix or a complimentary set of vegetables that may steer the broth in another direction.

The addition of more meat will oftentimes take the broth on to a highly concentrated level. It’s at this point that you can strain the broth, freeze it, and pop a cube into other soups or stews for a bit of concentrated flavor. If you choose to reduce the stock or broth further, you can take it to a glaze, chill it and actually cut out squares of stock as well.

This method is the principle behind bases and bouillon cubes, but I digress.

Our main focus is on the finished soup, and once we have the fortified stock of broth, it’s simply a matter of the garnish. The garnish can be something as simple as noodles and mushrooms in a miso broth, to vegetables, pasta and beans in a minestrone.

It represents the body of the soup and gives it some weight and identity. Vietnamese Pho starts with the broth and gives you the option to choose the make-up of your finished product. I can add rice noodles, chilies and lime for a kick in the face type of profile, or I give it more depth with sliced raw beef, sprouts and spinach.

Chilies, fresh ginger and raw garlic with broth and lemon is a variant of 5 ingredient tea, a home remedy favored by some to shake a cold. The difference becomes the reinforced broth rather than just water, providing nutrition and a certain amount of calories when you’re at your lowest.

Seasoning, herbs and aromatics can be applied as a finishing touch but if I’m under the weather I’m focused on something I can hold my head over, allow the steam to clear my head for a moment until the aroma of a rich restorative soup penetrates the gloom.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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