Cream of vegetable soups have always been a favorite of mine. I love their satiny texture and rich flavor. I also like the fact that I can easily make a silky-smooth soup from whatever looks best at the farmers' market (or even from what's in my fridge or pantry) because the method is virtually the same for all vegetables: they're cooked until tender in broth, water, or milk, thickened, and puréed.
Many traditional cream soups are thickened with a béchamel sauce (made by stirring milk into a butter and flour roux) and finished with a good amount of cream. But all that cream, milk, and butter can make the soup feel too rich—even for me.
An easy, adaptable way to make soup
When I make a "cream of" soup, I usually feature just one vegetable. But I always add some aromatics—garlic, shallots, onions, leeks—to make the flavor more complex.
The fat used to sauté the aromatics also adds flavor —
Butter adds richness, bacon fat a wonderful smoky flavor, and olive oil a light, fruity note.
The thickener is added along with the liquid —
For every 2 pounds of featured vegetable, I add about 6 cups of liquid. Most puréed vegetable soups call for broth, but you can use milk or water, or a combination. It's easier to thin a soup once it has been puréed than to thicken it, so err on the side of less liquid rather than more. The potato or rice goes right into the pot with the simmering liquid.
Begin by sautéing some aromatic vegetables over medium heat until soft. If you want the flavor of a robust, resinous herb like thyme or rosemary, add it now. Then add liquid and simmer.
Add the thickener—1/2 cup raw rice or a sliced raw potato. These starchy ingredients swell and give off starch during cooking. When the soup is puréed, they'll make it look and feel creamy.
When to add the featured vegetable depends on how long it takes to cook —
Long-cooking vegetables like carrots or turnips should be added at the same time as the starch, but quick-cooking vegetables like spinach and sorrel should be added when the starch is almost cooked (see Vegetable timing chart). This isn't an exact science, so don't worry if the starch needs a few extra minutes. Just be sure that you're able to smash the potato slices easily against the side of the pot and that the rice is plump and tender; otherwise, the purée may be grainy.
Vegetable timing chart —
All vegetables should be diced or shredded for the quickest and most uniform cooking.
| Long-cooking vegetables go in with the potatoes or rice; they're tender in about 25 minutes.
• Other roots and tubers
• Sweet potatoes
| Medium-cooking vegetables need 10 to 15 minutes.
• Winter Squash
| Quick-cooking vegetables cook in only a few minutes.
• Swiss Chard
Purée the soup in a blender —
For the creamiest texture, I use a blender. A food processor will give a slightly grainy texture, and a food mill will be the coarsest. If you want the soup perfectly smooth, or if the vegetable has a skin (like tomatoes) or is particularly fibrous (like artichokes), work the puréed soup through a medium mesh strainer with the back of a ladle.
The puréed soup may need to be thinned with a little extra broth, milk, or water, especially if you're serving the soup cold (any cream soup that's served hot can also be served cold).
Cut the featured vegetable into even-size pieces and add at the right moment—when the time remaining for the potato or rice to cook is about how long the vegetable will take to cook.
Photo: Scott Phillips
Purée the soup in batches. When the rice is plump or the potato is tender, carefully purée the soup in a blender, food processor, or food mill. For a more refined texture, pass it through a mesh strainer as well.
Photo: Scott Phillips