A new generation of soups is stirring
up all sorts of healthy benefits and
shedding the sodium and calories
that can weigh things down.
Soup has a long-running reputation for being healthful. Today, chefs are one-upping its good-for-you attributes with powerhouse ingredients like whole grains and a greater variety of fresh vegetables than ever. Traditionally indulgent soups are getting makeovers with an innovative switch of ingredients here, a clever substitution there.
Senior Executive Chef Richard Johnson and Registered Dietitian Rose Prissel, RD, LD, both of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, have been finding and executing some very effective yet simple alternatives to the high salt and fat content in many traditional soups. They use some methods and alternate ingredients that may surprise you.
The Mayo Clinic, a Sodexo account, has a huge focus on helping its more than 30,000 employees become the healthiest in the world. Part of that initiative is the recently opened Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, a facility on the clinic's main campus with workout space, an employee café, cooking demos, and wellness classes. Unlike other dining areas at the clinic, only the recipes that meet the clinic's sky-high dietary requirements make it into the center. Soups included.
Johnson says the most challenging factor in creating a healthy soup is usually not the fat content, but the sodium. Through increased meals eaten outside the home and the prevalence of processed foods, people have developed a taste for salt. A lot of it.
“Most people like more salt than is good for them,” Johnson says. “There are a lot of soup bases that are high in sodium, and even many lower-salt bases, that sometimes don't offer as good a flavor option, are still too high in sodium.”
Prissel says the best dietary wisdom is: everything in moderation. The solution at the Mayo Clinic is making stock in-house, in big batches with a major cook-chill operation. Johnson says the large-scale operation makes it easy to make and freeze stock for later use, but that any operator can create such stocks in a conventional kitchen.
A great way to punch up soup flavor — without piling on the salt — is to roast vegetables that will be used for stock, or in the soup itself. The clinic's Blistered Corn Chowder provides an excellent example.
The veggies are blistered on sheet trays in the oven (see recipe, page 54), unleashing intense flavors from the skins of the corn and Poblano chiles. Also, if you use tomatoes in soup stocks and bases, because of their high acidity, you often don't need more sodium, Johnson says.
Another chef, Jim Gallivan, CCA, CCP, CFBE, the new academic department chair of The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Atlanta and author of two cookbooks, warns that some vegetables don't work well in stocks, because the finished product will be overpowered by their flavor.
Gallivan advises chefs to leave out broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus. “They have a strong flavor that can overpower a soup,” he says. However, “asparagus in a stock would be okay if you were making a soup with asparagus.”
While creamy soups often mean high fat, the Mayo Clinic corn chowder recipe gets around that, too, by using soy milk instead of heavy cream. “We came across this by trying to find a substitute that made my mouth happy,” Johnson says.
“More so than low fat sour cream, soy milk gives the better mouth feel. It resembles the heavy cream that people are so used to.” Gallivan uses unflavored yogurt in some soups to get that creamy mouthfeel.
And, should there be any doubt about flavor in healthy soups, Johnson offers another tip: “The part that brings it all home is the use of fresh herbs to add interest to any soup you make.”
Still, even with this careful manipulation of flavor, you can't please everyone. “We're finding it very important to educate the customers,” Johnson says. “We still have people who miss the salt. We have signage that says, ‘Your chefs have decided not to add any extra salt, but you can add salt at the table.’ The vocal minority shouldn't dictate how we make our soups.”
When you think about what isn't in the soups you make — extra sodium, unnecessary fat — it might be easy to overlook what is in soups that can make them the paragon of a healthy meal.
For Patrice Barber, RD, nutritionist, USC Hospitality, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, soup is the ideal showcase for the sunny summer squashes, leafy greens, little-known wonder grains, and other treasures from the California coast.
“Let the seasons guide you as to what to put into your soup,” Barber says. When it's springtime, asparagus and spinach go into the soup pot. For colder months, Barber loves heartier soups with kale, sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkin.
For any time of the year, Barber adds creaminess by pureeing ingredients such as okra or barley. She says soup can be the place to experiment with items that are new to you or your customers.
“You can try beans and colorful lentils,” Barber says. “We've been using a lot more whole-grain pasta here, like the little shells or orzo.”
And if you needed another good reason to put nature's bounty into soups? “We steam vegetables to retain the nutrients, but in soup we don't have to worry about losing nutrients, because they go right into the soup,” adds Barber.
It can be tough to get customers to warm up to cold soup, a very healthy and especially summery option. “If I had a nickel for every cup of gazpacho that was sent back, I could retire,” Gallivan says. “But calling any cold soup ‘gazpacho’ helps people understand that it is cold.”
This month, Gallivan will be attending the 17th annual NatureSweet Carmel Tomato Fest in Carmel, CA, as a featured chef.
The dish Gallivan will bring to the event is a chilled yellow tomato, green Thai curry bisque.
When making chilled soups, Gallivan says the seasoning must be stronger. “You almost over-season a cold soup,” he says, “because the palate tastes a cold soup differently.”