At the start of the new year, the cookie jar gets locked away and the juicer is dusted off. Cozy casseroles are replaced with lean salads and everyone starts to eat as if it’s 80°F outside. But it’s January, and in many parts of the country, it’s still freezing cold. Which is why I’m much more inclined to lighten up my favorite comfort foods than make the switch to smoothies and raw spinach. Creamy vegetable soup, for example, is one of my dependable wintertime staples: it's easy to make, it freezes beautifully, and immediately warms you up on a chilly winter day.
Luckily, it’s possible to create a silky smooth soup without adding cream—or any dairy at all, for that matter. Traditionally, cream soups are thickened with a roux (a mixture of fat and flour) and then enriched with cream or butter at the end. But all you’ll need is the right ratio of veggies to stock, a starchy add-in, and a blender. Here's how to pull it off:
Start with 5 cups of stock for every two pounds of vegetable, or just enough to cover the veggies in your pot. Remember, you can always thin your soup with stock or water if it's too thick, but it’s tough to thicken if you add too much liquid.
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You’ll want to cut your vegetables into small uniform pieces (think carrots, sweet potatoes, celery root, etc), which will cook faster than large chunks. If applicable, peel the veggie first. Then, heat up some olive oil, add any aromatics—an onion, a couple leeks, or a few cloves of garlic, or all three—and sweat those with a generous pinch of salt until softened. Add your starring vegetable and sweat for a few minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender and can be easily pierced with a fork. Transfer to a blender (never more than 2/3 full, so you’ll likely have to do this in batches), puree until creamy, and return to the pot to season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, etc.
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But wait! There are a few things you can add that act as creamy soup insurance so you’ll have no doubt the final result will be silky smooth and velvety. Rice, oats, and potatoes are all starchy and swell during the cooking process. Use ¼ cup rice or oats per 2 pounds of vegetables, or a half a medium potato, peeled and diced. Add them to the pot when you add the stock. The starches they release help thicken the soup, leaving you with a creamy finished product made with no cream at all. As for the taste? You’ll notice the difference: without the added dairy, the flavor of the vegetables really shine. And so will you.