It’s one of life’s great ironies.

Just when we’re taking a hard look in the mirror at what a month of feasting has done to our waistlines, it’s the dead of winter, when the last thing we want to do is diet.

What we want and need is hearty comfort food.

Unfortunately, the words “comfort food” are usually synonymous with rich and fattening. But that needn’t be the case.

 

One of the most comforting foods in the world is soup, which fills and satisfies that craving for richness without loading on calories that will get stored as fat. This is especially true of the soups that used to warm our ancestors during the cold season.

When I was working on my first cookbook, “Classical Southern Cooking,” one of the biggest surprises was the variety of soups to be found on the pages of early 19th-century cookbooks and family manuscripts.

But an even bigger surprise than their variety was their relative lightness and elegant simplicity.

A key element in many of them was a flavor base, often that classic triad of onion with carrots and celery. But some of them also included two root vegetables that are sadly underappreciated today: parsnips and turnips.

This neglected duo are unsung heroes in the winter soup pot, adding rich, mellow flavor without actually making it rich in fat calories. Yes, some winter soups of the past did contain a good bit of fat and starch, but those things were usually added in ways that can easily be scaled back.

The secret to minimizing fat in any soup is to make it a day before you plan to serve it, chill it until the fat congeals on the top, then just lift it off and discard it.

Another secret to making a soup taste satisfying and indulgent is to add a pat of butter or drizzle of olive oil to each serving at the table.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but our bodies assimilate uncooked fat more easily without turning it into stored fat. It also carries the other flavors more cleanly, and lends a feeling of satiation that actually helps us eat less.

Here are a pair of very old winter soups that comfort without compromising that commitment to slim down and will satisfy even the lucky few who aren’t dieting. I use them as a springboard for all sorts of variations, depending on our mood and what’s in our pantry.

 

 

Beef Soup Monticello

This very old vegetable-beef soup was common in founding father Thomas Jefferson’s day and was by no means created at Monticello, but was so beloved by Jefferson and his family that its recipe went by that name in the family manuscripts.

Making it is a two-day process. It’s made one day, chilled overnight, then the solidified fat is lifted off and discarded. Fortunately, making it ahead also mellows and improves the flavor. If two days seems daunting, just remember that very little of that time directly involves cook once it’s assembled and simmering.

Mr. Jefferson isn’t here to know, so feel free to change it up to suit your own taste. Add a cup or so of a favorite vegetable, chopped tomatoes, and if you like, a starchy element, about 2 cups of diced potatoes or quarter-cup of pearled barley when you add the celery, or a cup of fine egg noodles or small soup pasta in the last 4-10 minutes (depending on the pasta).

Adapted from “Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation/2005). Serves 8.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 3 pounds beef shanks, marrow removed for another use

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 2 large sprigs each parsley and thyme, tied in a bundle with twine

• 2 cups white onion (about 1 large), peeled and chopped

• 12 cups water

• 2 cups carrots (about 3 large), peeled and diced

• 1½ cups turnips (about 2 medium), peeled and diced

• 1½ cups parsnips (about 2 medium), peeled and diced

• 3 cups cored cabbage (about 1 small head), cut into thin, 1-inch strips

• 1½ cups celery (about 3 large ribs), washed, strung, and diced

• 2 cups Toasted Croutons (see recipe)

 

Directions:

1. Put butter in large, heavy-bottomed 6- to 8-quart pot over medium-low heat. Add shank and season with salt and pepper. Add herb bundle and scatter onion over top. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting, loosely cover, and simmer until juices are fully extracted from beef and onion and reduced to a glaze, about 2 hours.

2. Add water, raise heat to medium, and bring to a simmer, skimming off foam as it rises. Add carrots, turnips, parsnips and cabbage, bring back to simmer, still skimming as needed, and adjust heat to medium low. Simmer gently until meat and vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours, and broth is reduced by about one-third, adding celery after about 1½ hours.

3. Remove and discard herbs, remove shanks, let cool enough to handle, then remove bones and cut into bite-sized pieces. Cover and refrigerate until ready to finish soup. Let soup cool, cover, and refrigerate until fat has settled on top and solidified, about 4 hours or overnight. Lift off and discard fat.

4. When ready to serve, return meat to soup, bring back to a simmer over medium heat, and simmer until thoroughly heated, about 5 minutes. Ladle soup into heated bowls and serve with croutons passed separately.

 

Early American Bean Soup

Nothing comforts like a hearty bean soup, and this old-fashioned Early-American rendition is simplicity itself to make. It’s best made with beans you’ve reconstituted and cooked yourself, but can be made with canned beans if you’re pressed for time.

Change it up simply by changing the type of beans that are in the pot. The classic Savannah version is with black beans; in New Orleans, it’s their signature red bean; and to the north, it’s navy or great northern beans. Some country cooks use pintos.

You can also enrich it with diced or chopped ham and bump up the flavor with herbs. Sage, rosemary, and thyme are all very nice with beans. Serves 6.

 

Ingredients:

• 1½ pounds (4 cups), dried beans (black, red, navy, or great northern—your choice)

• Salt

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 2 cups yellow onion (about 2 medium or 1 large), trimmed, peeled, and chopped

• 1 cup carrots (about 2 medium), peeled and diced

• 1 cup celery (about 2 large ribs), strung and diced

• 1 cup parsnips (about 2 small or 1 large), peeled and diced

• 1 cup turnips (about 2 small or 1 large), peeled and diced

• 8 cups ham broth or equal parts chicken and beef broth

• Salt and whole black pepper in a pepper mill

• 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

• Toasted Croutons (see recipe)

 

Directions:

1. To precook beans: sort, discarding deformed beans, and rinse. Drain and put in large, heavy-bottomed 6-quart pot. Cover with 4 quarts water and bring slowly to boil over medium heat. Boil one minute and turn off heat. Let stand 1 hour, or until beans double. Bring back to simmer over medium heat, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until tender, replenishing liquid with simmering water as needed, about 1 hour. Season with salt, simmer 3-4 minutes, and turn off heat. Drain, reserving about 2 cups liquid.

2. Put 2 tablespoons butter and onion in heavy-bottomed 4-6 quart pot. Simmer over medium heat until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add carrots, celery, parsnips, and turnips and simmer until softened, about 4 minutes.

3. Add broth, bring to simmer, and cook 2-3 minutes. Add beans, taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer gently about 15-20 minutes. Puree 1 cup of beans with some of liquid in blender, or if using stick blender, partially puree just enough to thicken soup. Let simmer 5 minutes more. If too thick, thin with reserved bean cooking liquid. Soup can be made ahead: cool, cover and refrigerate. Save reserved cooking liquid to thin soup with later (it thickens when it is cooled and reheated).

4. To serve, reheat gently over medium-low heat, stirring often and thinning as needed with reserved cooking liquid. Taste and adjust salt and pepper and simmer 2-3 minutes. Ladle into heated bowls, sprinkle with parsley and pass croutons separately.

 

 

Toasted Croutons

Homemade croutons make any soup special and give the impression that you’ve gone to a lot more trouble than you actually have, because they’re so easy to make. Yes, they’re a simple carbohydrate and are toasted with fat, but for heaven’s sake, you’re not eating them like popcorn and their buttery richness makes even the leanest soup taste indulgent. Variable yield.

 

Ingredients:

• ½-inch-thick slices slightly stale crusty, home-style bread

• About 1 tablespoon salted butter or olive oil per cup of diced bread

• Salt (optional)

 

Directions:

1. Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 275 F. Cut bread into ½-inch dice and set aside.

2. Put butter or oil in rimmed baking sheet or sheet cake pan and put into oven until butter is melted or oil is hot but not smoking. Add bread, toss to coat, and bake, checking and stirring occasionally, until uniformly golden brown and crisp, about 30 minutes. If olive oil was used, if liked, croutons can be lightly salted to taste.