O broth, where art thou?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am

There's no place for delicate flavours and light textures in winter soups - they should be hearty and richly flavoured. These soups can be served as a light main course, but for a more rib-sticking meal, serve them as a starter and follow up with a seasonal main course.

French onion soup (pictured)

There are many versions of this classic French soup, but they all start with a large quantity of onion cooked slowly so it becomes sweet, soft and brown. Restaurant chefs then add rich homemade beef broth. Home cooks can 'cheat' and use canned broth, but choose the brand carefully; it should taste good on its own (the Pacific brand is recommended). The part that takes this soup from good to great is the addition of cheese-covered toast, grilled so the cheese forms long, chewy strings.

60 grams unsalted butter

1kg brown-skinned onions

10 grams sugar

2 tsp plain flour

1 sprig fresh thyme

100ml brandy

1.2 litres beef broth (vegetarians can use vegetable broth)

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Thinly sliced French bread, toasted

About 180 grams freshly grated gruyere cheese

Trim the ends from the onions, cut them in half through the stem and slice approximately 3mm thick. Melt the butter in a soup pot, add the onion and sprinkle with the sugar. Stir to coat the onion with the fat then turn the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, for an hour, until the onion is caramelised and richly flavoured. Sprinkle the flour over the onion and cook for several minutes, stirring constantly, so the flour loses its raw taste. Add the sprig of thyme, salt (it might not be needed if using canned broth) and lots of black pepper, then stir in the brandy. Simmer for one minute then add the broth in a steady stream, stirring constantly. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Taste for seasonings and correct if needed. Ladle the soup into deep, heatproof bowls, top each with a slice of toast and cover it with a layer of gruyere. Cook under the grill until the cheese is brown and bubbling then serve immediately.

Mushroom soup

Use a mix of whatever fresh mushrooms are available, such as white button, shiitake, enoki (cut off the brown base), chanterelle and portobello. The addition of dried porcini enhances the mushroom flavour.

The best stock for this soup is one made from a roasted chicken carcass (reserve the meat for something else): simmer the bones with half an onion, a carrot and small celery stalk. Cook for about an hour then strain

out the solids. You can also use diluted broth made from chicken bouillon cubes or powder.

60 grams unsalted butter

2 shallots, minced

1 garlic clove, cut in half

15 grams plain flour

50ml dry white wine

500 grams fresh mushrooms, roughly chopped

30 grams dried porcini

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 litre chicken stock

Freshly grated nutmeg

200ml cream

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Rinse the porcini then soak in 100ml of warm water for about 30 minutes. Remove the porcini and chop roughly. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve to remove any grit.

Melt the butter in a soup pot, add the shallots, garlic, salt and black pepper, and cook over a low heat until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for several minutes. Add the wine and simmer for one minute, then add the mushroom (including the porcini) and cook until it starts to release its liquid. Add the thyme, chicken stock and porcini-soaking liquid. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste the soup - if it's bland, continue to cook to concentrate the flavour (or you might need to add a little more bouillon). Use a food processor to roughly puree the mushroom solids - you still want some texture. Reintroduce the solids to the liquid then stir in the cream and a light grating of nutmeg. Bring to the simmer then serve.

Lamb and barley soup

This thick soup takes some time to cook because you need to make the lamb stock first. The stock can be made in advance then refrigerated.

For the stock:

30ml cooking oil

1 meaty lamb shank, about 400 grams

1 medium-size carrot, peeled and roughly chopped

? onion, peeled

1 celery stalk, roughly chopped

1 rosemary sprig

For the soup:

30ml cooking oil

1 leek, white and pale green part only

1 medium-size carrot

1 celery stalk

150 grams pearl barley

1 medium-size potato

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a soup pot and when it's very hot, brown the lamb shank. Add the carrot, onion, celery, rosemary and 1.5 litres of water. Bring to the boil and simmer, uncovered, until the lamb is tender. Strain the liquid into a bowl and, with the exception of the lamb, discard the solids. When it's cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone and chop into small pieces.

Cut the leek in half lengthwise and cut off and discard the stem. Rinse the leek thoroughly to remove any dirt between the leaves, then finely chop. Dice the carrot and celery. Heat the oil in the clean soup pot and add the leek, carrot, celery and salt and pepper, then cook until the vegetables soften slightly. Add the barley and stir for several minutes to toast the grains. Add the lamb stock, bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the barley is tender. Peel the potato and dice it, stir it into the soup and cook until tender. Add the lamb and cook to heat through. If the soup is too thick, stir in some water. Taste the soup for seasoning and add salt and pepper, if needed.

styling Rachael Macchiesi