Soup really is m’mm-m’mm good

  • Gordon Ramsay’s Broccoli soup. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Chicken Tortilla soup. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Hearty Shellfish soup. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

It was a cold night during the extended holiday season. We had been indulging in everything one indulges in during that caloric time.

And so we wanted to eat something flavorful but healthful. Something that did not require a trip to the grocery store. So we shopped in the pantry and the refrigerator, though actually it was the freezer, and made a hearty, delicious seafood soup.

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And then, like a lunkhead, I failed to write down the recipe. I didn’t even think about it. It’s not like I write about food for a living, or anything.

Still, a recent cold snap had me thinking once again of cooking up several batches of that most wintry of dishes, soup. Naturally, I started out by attempting to re-create that magnificent seafood dish.

A great seafood soup begins with a good seafood broth. You can buy it, but it’s so easy to make one yourself. All you need is chicken broth, which I always keep on hand, and shrimp with shells on it. Just remove the shrimp shells, drop them in the broth and cook. After a few minutes, you have a superb, fresh-tasting (because it’s freshly made) seafood broth.

Along with the usual soup suspects — onions, garlic, carrots, celery and a single bay leaf — I added a can of fire-roasted tomatoes for a mahogany-like depth. Only at the last minute or two did I add the shellfish: the peeled shrimp, which I had chopped, some langostinos, which I had also chopped, and a handful of clams.

It helped that we happened to have the langostinos in the freezer when I first made the soup. The second time I made it, for this story, I used frozen bay scallops. Either way, it was terrific.

Admittedly, the shellfish soup recipe is a little complicated, so for my next soup I made what has to be the world’s easiest soup. Honestly, I do not understand how something that takes so little effort can taste so good.

All you do is plop some broccoli into boiling water, and then blend it with some of the water you boiled it in. Season it with a little salt and pepper, and you have a brightly flavored, remarkably satisfying soup.

The recipe comes from Gordon Ramsay, the invective-prone chef from England, which may explain the superior results. Ramsay also suggests topping each bowl with a couple of slices of goat cheese and a few walnuts, but he emphasizes that these are not necessary.

If you like goat cheese, use the goat cheese. It makes the soup even better.

For a heftier, meal-like dish, I chose to make a chicken tortilla soup. This is a traditional dish, popular south of the border and north of it.

With this soup, you make your own chicken broth by simmering some chicken. Mark Bittman, the not-always-reliable cookbook author, makes an extraordinary suggestion that turns out to be entirely reliable: add a couple of beef bones to the broth for extra depth.

The beef is nontraditional and completely optional, but I highly recommend it if you can find the bones. If not, you can use a cut of beef with a lot of bone on it, such as short ribs or flanken — which is short ribs sliced across the bone.

Another secret to this dish is the puree that you add back into the stock as a thickening agent. You put some of the stock into a blender and add a couple of tortillas that you have fried, a chipotle pepper or two, a little onion and some cilantro. This puree gives the soup some real heft, both in texture and especially in flavor.

The most fun part of any chicken tortilla soup, of course, are the garnishes. Once the soup is served, you can top it with a wedge of lime, shredded cheese, cilantro and, best of all, thin strips of fried tortilla.

Gordon Ramsay’s broccoli soup

Recipe by Gordon Ramsay; serves 6

1 large or 2 medium broccoli clusters, as fresh as possible

Salt

Black pepper

Goat cheese, optional but recommended

About 30 walnuts, optional

About 3 tablespoons olive oil

Boil enough water in a large stock pot to cover the broccoli. Add 1 tablespoon of salt or more to the water. Add broccoli and boil rapidly until you can pierce it with a knife with little or no effort.

Remove the broccoli to a blender with a slotted spoon or tongs, but do not discard the water. Add enough of the water to the blender to fill it halfway. Add a pinch or more of salt. Pulse the blender several times to break up the broccoli and then purée for several seconds until smooth. Taste and season with black pepper and more salt, if necessary.

If using the goat cheese, dip your knife into the still-hot water (or use the boiling water while the broccoli is cooking) to help you make smooth, even cuts. Cut 2 slices of the cheese for each bowl, dipping your knife in the water each time. Place 5 walnuts in the bottom of a shallow bowl and place 2 slices of goat cheese on top of them. Pour soup into the shallow bowl, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Chicken tortilla soup

Recipe by Mark Bittman from the New York Times; serves 6

2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs or legs

1 pound beef bones or a cut with a lot of bone in it, such as short ribs, optional

1 medium onion, quartered, skin left on

1 head garlic, halved across the equator, skin left on

1/2 cup vegetable oil or more as needed

6 corn tortillas, divided

Salt

2 tablespoons canned chipotle chiles in adobo, or to taste

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

2 avocados, pitted, peeled and cubed

4 to 8 ounces plain melting cheese such as mozzarella (not fresh), Oaxaca or Jack, shredded or cubed

Lime wedges for serving, optional

Put the chicken, beef bones if using, 3 of the onion quarters and the garlic in a large pot. Add water just to cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the liquid bubbles gently. Cook, skimming the foam off the surface every now and then, until the chicken is very tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Meanwhile, put the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, fry 2 of the tortillas (1 at a time, if necessary), turning once, until crisp and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Cut the remaining 4 tortilla into thin strips, add them to the skillet and fry, stirring to separate them, until crisp and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt while they’re still warm.

When the chicken is tender, transfer it to a plate or cutting board with tongs or a slotted spoon. When it’s cool enough to handle, shred the meat with your fingers, discarding the bones and skin. If you used beef, discard it or save for another use.

While the chicken is cooling, strain the stock and discard the solids. Peel the remaining quarter of the onion and put it in a blender with the chipotle, 1/4 cup of the cilantro and a sprinkle of salt. Crumble in the 2 whole fried tortillas and add enough stock to fill the blender a little more than halfway. Purée until the mixture is as smooth as possible.

Pour the purée and remaining stock back into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles gently and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the shredded chicken, taste and add more salt if necessary. Divide the avocados, the cheese and the remaining 1/4 cup cilantro among 6 bowls. Ladle the soup into the bowls and garnish with the fried tortilla strips and lime wedges, if desired.

Hearty shellfish soup

Recipe by Daniel Neman; serves 4-6

1/2 pound shrimp with the shells on, thawed if frozen

4 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, diced

1 garlic clove, smashed

1 large red potato, cut in 1/2-inch dice

2 carrots, thinly sliced

2 ribs celery, thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted tomatoes

1 cup bay scallops or langostinos, thawed if frozen

8 clams, thawed if frozen

Peel the shrimp and place shells in a large pot along with the chicken stock. Heat to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Strain and reserve the stock; discard the shells. Meanwhile, chop the shrimp into small pieces and set aside.

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In the same pot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Return the reserved stock to the pot and add the potato, carrots, celery, bay leaf, wine and tomatoes. Simmer until the vegetables are soft and a knife or fork easily pierces the cubes of potato. Add the chopped shrimp, scallops or langostinos, and clams. Cook until the shrimp are pink, the scallops are hot all the way through and the clam shells have opened, about 2 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and the garlic, if you can find it, before serving.

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