Soup-erior Comfort Food

A look into the soup culture of the North Country


Story and photos by Alyse Whitney

Irises Cafe & Wine Bar features different soups nightly. Roasted acorn squash and apples compose the bisque above.

 

For nine months out of the year, the temperature in Plattsburgh does not rise above 60 degrees. The combination of frigid cold and inevitable snow leaves residents searching for one thing – comfort. Comfort food can be classified into many different categories, but when it all boils down, the most popular cure for the winter blues is soup. In the North Country, the places to find soups are endless, but the variety of ingredients utilized at local restaurants are the key to comfort.

"The demographic up here (North Country) is more in tune to comfort foods. Even at high-end restaurants, these dishes are being utilized. In addition to being more economic for the customer, people can also easily identify with it more," explains Chris Dominianni, chef and owner of The Great Adirondack Soup Company.

Although many types of comfort food are popular, soup’s simplistic nature helps it stand out on menus across the North Country. "Up here, people like every kind of soup that you make, but it’s the simpler ones that people really enjoy," says Craig Richards, executive chef at Butcher Block. "You can do so many things with it and add a variety of ingredients – that’s why people keep coming back for it," he adds.

One of the most defining characteristics of soup is its affordability. "Soups are great because they are economic; you get a lot of yield, and you can feed a family," Dominianni says. Although soup used to be considered a peasant food, it is very fulfilling and a global concept; no specific group of people is known for eating soup.

"Soup is in all levels of society, but it is more refined the higher up you go," adds Doug Spurdens, executive chef at Irises Café & Wine Bar.

In addition to being affordable, soup is also a simple dish to create at home. "Anybody can make soup," Dominianni says. "You don’t need a culinary degree."

"Anybody can make soup – you don’t need a culinary degree."

When people say soup can just be ‘thrown together’, it is because it is true. "It’s an easy way to get rid of stuff in your fridge," explains Richards. "If you have chicken one night and pasta a few days later, they can be combined and quickly utilize leftovers." In addition to reusing leftover ingredients, incorporating fresh vegetables is essential when preparing soup.

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At Great Adirondack Soup Company, customers can choose from a 12 oz. cup or a 16 oz. bowl to enjoy.

The most important part of making soup is the ingredients, and the North Country does not lack when it comes to fresh, local produce. "We’re an agricultural community, and that makes my job easier," Dominianni says. In order to keep his ingredients fresh, Dominianni receives his produce through the Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) program in Keeseville.

Spurdens also puts his soup together by browsing markets and choosing local, seasonal produce. "I just go to the cooler and pick my main ingredients, but I won’t pick something random unless it’s the spur of the moment," he explains.

Generally speaking, the main ingredients of soup do not change from season to season. Both chefs like to use aromatics, such as onions, garlic, and leeks as a flavor base before using stock, protein (such as chicken or beef), vegetables, pasta, and grains to complete the dish.

The delicious taste of soup is not just a trick used to get children to eat their vegetables – it actually has a lot of health benefits. "When you make soup, you’re throwing in the vegetables. Instead of steaming off all the vitamins and nutrients, they are all staying in the soup stock," explains Dominianni. The balance and variety of ingredients is what sets soup apart from many other healthy dishes.

"It is good for you and it has the best of everything. It’s not deep-fried, it’s not full of sugar – it’s just natural broth, vegetables, chicken, and rice," explains Richards. "Soup gives you energy and the steam helps too -- if you’re stuffy, it kind of clears you up a little bit."

"It’s not deep-fried, it’s not full of sugar."

When it comes to seasoning soup, there is a trick to making it perfect. "I had to learn how to season soup to how it tastes the fourth or fifth bite, not the first," Dominianni explains. "Flavor gets on your tongue and stimulates all five taste sensations on your palate. If I smack a soup hard with something hot, like curry, then by the fourth spoonful it will be overwhelming."

Dominianni notes there is one more catch when it comes to developing flavor profiles: "For vegan or vegetarian soups, you have to really amplify those five taste components to make sure they are not bland." To ensure that his flavors are spot-on, his technique includes a two-day process to give the soups ample time to sit and come together. "The flavors tend to marry and have a chance to sit overnight and blend," he explains.

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At Butcher Block, unlimited trips to the soup and salad bar are included with every entree.

Soup has undergone many transitions over the years. Traditionally, there was not a lot of meat included in entrées. Instead, a big pot of soup would encompass all of the food groups and ingredients we see in food today.

"Nowadays, everybody assumes soup is an appetizer, and I think that is where it has been lost. It always used to be your entrée – you got your big ol’ bowl, and that was it. Nobody is going to sit there and be fulfilled from that now; they expect a piece of meat coming anytime after that bowl of soup," Spurdens says.

"Nobody is going to sit there and be fulfilled from that now; they expect a piece of meat coming anytime after that bowl of soup."

The standard ‘soup of the day’ greatly varies, depending on the given location where it is being served. Throughout the world, there are hundreds of different signature soups, depending on the local ingredients that are available. "There are traditional soups for different regions. It can range from New England clam chowder in Boston to yellow split pea and ham in Quebec," explains Richards. "Wherever you go, it’s going to be a different kind of soup."

Whether someone was fed Campbell’s canned tomato soup or a bowl of mom’s homemade chicken noodle as a child, the comfort is in tradition. "With every culture, it was always some kind of soup. That’s what people sit around campfires eating; it’s what makes them comfortable," Spurdens says. "I think that is comforting because that’s how it has always been. When you eat a bowl of soup, it is keeping your hand warm too."

Eating soup is something that also warms you from the outside in. "You take soup in slowly and it warms you up as it goes down," Dominianni explains. "Soup has body to it; it doesn’t just go down like tea or coffee – it stays with you for a bit."

If it is not the physical warmth of soup that is comforting, it could be the warmth of a memory that makes people so cozy, Richards explains: "Maybe there’s a certain flavor that reminds you of home, or reminds you being a kid – it just brings you back somewhere and relaxes you."

 

What kind of soups would you like to see locally?

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