Tricks of the soup and stew trade


As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, soups and stews - largely on hold during the summer months - make their way back into the minds, hearts and kitchens of home cooks. These bowls full of comfort can be simple - but they don't need to be boring. Here are three easy ways to amp up the flavor of any soup or stew:

Start with a savory base of aromatic vegetables and herbs.

Your favorite soup recipes may already incorporate this technique; if they don't, you can make it the first step in prepping the pot before you add the main ingredients. What the base is called and the vegetables it typically contains will vary by the country where it originated.

For example, a French mirepoix (one of the most widely used combos) always starts with onion, carrots and celery. An Italian soffritto adds some parsley and garlic - and sometimes fennel and scraps of prosciutto - to the threesome. The Spanish version, called sofrito, is built around onions, garlic, bell pepper and tomatoes. In the U.S., onion, celery and green bell pepper - aka the "holy trinity" - provide the foundation for all Cajun and Creole dishes.

Finely dice the veggies, keeping all the pieces about the same size so they cook evenly. Sautéed in a little oil or sweated (covered and cooked over low heat until very soft but not browned), the base will eventually melt into the broth, leaving only its rich flavor behind.

Up the umami factor.

Umami - often called the fifth taste (after salty, sweet, sour and bitter) - was identified by a Japanese scientist in the early part of the 20th century. Loosely translating to "deliciousness," it's a characteristic of foods like mushrooms, soy sauce, miso paste, Parmesan cheese, browned meats and seaweed that add depth to dishes. An easy way to bring that flavor-boosting pop to a pot of soup or stew is with a small shot of anchovy paste or Southeast Asian fish sauce (made from fermented anchovy juice). Miso paste is a good, high-umami substitute for vegans.

Funky in large doses, in small amounts, miso, fish sauce and/or anchovies can be your secret weapon - no one but the cook needs to know it's there. So start with very small doses - ½ teaspoon or 1 teaspoon - at a time and stir them into the bubbling pot. Let it cook for a while, then taste. Add a tiny bit more if needed. Red Boat fish sauce is a personal favorite, with Phu Quoc and Three Crabs brands close behind. All are available online if you can't find them - or a tube of anchovy paste - at a local market.

Drop some acid.

Give your soup or stew a final taste. Is something still lacking? A tablespoon of vinegar stirred in when you turn off the heat can brighten the flavor and bring it all together.