Pittsburgh Chefs Share Secrets for Perfect Soup
It's perfect weather for soup. Learn how improve your favorite recipe — and which local spots serve some of the best.
PHOTOs BY HAL B. KLEIN
My house is an old Bloomfield house built in 1911. It’s sturdy. The guy Jack who owned the house before I did didn’t cut cheap on the insulation, and he did a nice job framing in weather-resistant windows. But with a week like the one we just had, it doesn’t matter what kind of house you live in. This is a bone-chilling time of the year.
Still, I don’t hate this cold.
We might as well take advantage of winter’s opportunity and use it to heat ourselves up by making something long-cooking and delightful to eat. It’s time for soup.
“But since soup mainly involves tossing everything into a pot and waiting, it’s one of my better dishes,” Katniss Everdeen thinks to herself in the Susan Collins book “The Hunger Games.”
Not so fast, according to the legendary culinarian Auguste Escoffier, who believed that, “Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which extracts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.”
For the home cook, I lean on the side of Katniss, though you will benefit from paying a little extra attention to what you’re doing. Consider browning the chucks of beef, for example, when making a beef and barley soup. If you’re making chicken soup — or anything with a bone base — bring the bones to a hard boil, skim off the gunk and make sure the liquid is clear before adding your vegetables.
A couple of local chefs have a few tricks up their sleeves, too:
- “Don’t forget to add vinegar or another acidic component. That’s something a lot of home cooks often overlook,” says Root 174’s Keith Fuller.
- “The flavor will be better if you make it the day before you’re going to eat it,” says Kate Romane of e2. She says that you also should make more than you’re planning on serving: “If you’re going to go through the trouble, you might as well make enough to freeze.”
Bonus: A hot stove is an extra radiator. You’ll warm both your insides and your interior. All you have to do is decide what to make.
A friend and I made the cannellini bean and lamb soup from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s "Jerusalem" last night. In the intro, they write, “This particular soup is what we would cook to brighten up a dreary winter’s night.” Truth. (Recipe below.)
If you’re in the mood for a quick warm-up but don’t want to cook, here are two of my favorite go-to Pittsburgh soups of the moment:
- Borscht at Kavsar: One of my goals for this winter is to convince people to eat more borscht. The beet-heavy Eastern European soup comes in many forms (hot or cold; beefy or vegetarian; cabbage or no cabbage) but its deliciousness cannot be denied. Yet for whatever reason, a lot of people I know reflexively turn their noses at this healthy and heartwarming soup. It’s time for a change. It’s time to embrace borscht. The iteration (hot/beef/with cabbage) at the Mt. Washington Uzbek restaurant is a great place to get started.
- Ramen Bar: Modern culinary superhero David Chang might have just declared that the ramen craze is dead, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not worth eating the Japanese noodle soup. Ramen Bar in Squirrel Hill (pictured) might not be quite on par with legendary ramen houses like Ivan Ramen, Ippudo or Chang’s momofuku noodle bar, but it’s certainly worth visiting on a cold afternoon. (Editor's note: Four years ago the ramen landscape was bleak. We still don't have our Ivan Ramen, but you can get some very tasty, well-made bowls at Ki Ramen, Yuzu Kitchen and Love Noodles.)
Cannellini Bean & Lamb Soup
Adapted from "Jerusalem: A Cookbook" by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
- 2 small onion, finely chopped
- ¼ small celery root (about 6 ounces) peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
- 20 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 pound lamb stew meat (Salem’s in the Strip and the East End Food Co-op both have nice selections of lamb)
- 7 cups water
- ½ cup cannellini beans, soaked overnight
- 7 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
- 9 ounces Yukon Gold or other yellow semi-waxy potato, cut into ¾-inch cubes
- Lemon and cilantro to finish
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan and cook onion and celery root over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until onion begins to brown. Add garlic and cumin and cook for 2 more minutes. Set aside.
2. Add meat and water to a Dutch oven or other soup pot. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a hard simmer. Skim the surface frequently until the liquid is once again clear.
3. Add onion and celery root mix, plus beans, cardamom, turmeric, sugar and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour.
4. Add potatoes, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes or until potatoes and beans are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
5. Serve soup, adding a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro at the table.