The restaurant was called The Peppermill. Whenever you asked for some “freshly ground pepper” on your salad or soup, back from the kitchen came not one but two servers with a peppermill as thick around as a telephone pole and nearly as long. One server would hoist one end of the mill on their shoulder while the other spun ‘round the business end and out came your grinds.
They hated it when you said “When.”
That’s one way to finish a soup, although (notwithstanding the Grinder o’ Gargantua) not a very creative, or even notably tasty, one.
An altogether more delicious way is to finish a soup with not merely one pole, as it were, but with four.
For some finishing flair to your soup service (on mostly hot soups, but sometimes also those tepid or cool) try the quartet of something crunchy, something leafy-green, some grated cheese, and a decorative swirl of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
One way to get a handle on this Final Four is to consider your soup’s place of origin. For example, today’s recipe for hot butternut squash soup is finished “in the Spanish way” with the crunch of broken-up Marcona almonds, grated Manchego cheese, and a Spanish oil. Another cheese such as Mahón Curado would suffice indeed. The green here is flat-leaf parsley, American of course, but something a Spaniard or any Mediterranean cook would have handy. Cilantro might work with this soup, but I do not think as well as parsley.
If it were a French soup, for example a bisque or garbure, the leafy-green could be tarragon (if it worked for that soup’s vegetables and meats), or parsley, or even chervil, if you could find any fresh. Crunch would come by way of walnuts, perhaps, or hazelnuts; the oil could be from Provence; and the grating cheese something Alpine, such as Comté or Gruyère.
Italian soups (such as any number of vegetable soups, or perhaps a ribollita) would be finished “in the Italian way” with crushed hazelnuts, of course, or toasted breadcrumbs or croutons fried in olive oil. Parsley or celery leaves or even a few fennel fronds as the green. For the grating cheese, either Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano would nicely fill the bill; and the olive oil could be as desired for taste or verve, something from Tuscany for pep, from Puglia for richness, or from Liquria as a stand-in for melted butter.
Mexicans finish off their posoles or tortilla soups with cilantro (green), pepitas or piñones (crunch), any number of dry-ish cheeses such as cotija or aged jack; and (not commonly but eminently possible and very delicious) a Spanish or Californian olive oil.
A German would find something green for his soup — for instance, various sorts of pork pieces with vegetables and sauerkraut in a rich broth—in dill or snipped chives; crunch via hazelnuts or even candied almonds; and for cheese, something Alpine from Switzerland, perhaps, or one of Germany’s drier cheeses such as Tilsit or some smoked, aged cheese. There isn’t much German-made olive oil, frankly, but a melting pat of butter wouldn’t be kicked out of the bowl.
I don’t need to take you all around the globe, but you get the idea. In general, Asians don’t eat much animal-milk cheese, and aren’t fans of fruity olive oil, so grating Gruyère, for example, on a pho doesn’t cut it; but profligacy with greens and crunchy nuts sure works.
In fact, for crunch, the globe is the perfect inspiration: fried onion or shallot strips; crushed potato or corn or other vegetable chips; broken up leftover papadum or chapati; last night’s popcorn; fried bacon bits; sesame or poppy seeds; and sunflower seeds.
In sum, the message here is to finish a soup by being thematic with a quartet of finishing elements according to the soup’s place of origin.
Butternut Squash Soup in the Spanish Way
Makes 8-10 servings.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil from Spain, and more for garnish
1 onion, large dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled, large dice
2-3 pounds butternut squash (1 large), peeled, seeded, in chunks
1 small or 1/2 medium sweet apple or Asian pear, peeled, cored, and large dice
4 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth, low sodium if desired
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon smoked sweet or hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crushed or rubbed
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
Directions for butternut squash soup
Over medium-high heat, in a large pot, cook the onions in the olive oil until they are soft and becoming translucent, about 15 minutes, adding the garlic about 6-7 minutes in. Add the celery, carrot, squash, apple, and a good measure of salt and pepper, stirring, and let the vegetables cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the broth, the bay leaf, the smoked paprika, and the rosemary and sage, stir, and bring the pot to the boil. Lower the heat so that the mixture simmers gently, with the cover a bit ajar, for another 40 minutes, or until the squash chunks are beginning to fall apart.
While the soup is cooking, toast the almonds, in a small skillet, in a little olive oil and a lot of salt and pepper, just until they take on some color (watch they do not burn, which can happen quickly). Finely grate some Manchego and chop some flat-leaf parsley. (You’ll want enough of these three to generously garnish the soup when serving.) When cool, crush the almonds inside a sturdy zippered plastic bag with the bottom of a hefty-walled pint glass or meat mallet; you’ll want the almonds to be chunky-crumbled, not pounded into meal.
When the soup is finished cooking, remove the bay leaf and let the liquid cool enough (refrigerated and the next day is fine) so that it may be blended in a blender, in batches, or with an immersion blender. Do not blend the soup while it is piping hot.
To serve: Bring the soup to a very warm temperature and ladle portions of it into warmed bowls. Garnish with the three garnishes (almonds, parsley, Manchego), swirling more olive oil decoratively onto the top.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com