Mirepoix is an amazing thing when you think about it. The word itself sounds fancy and maybe even complicated. If a recipe called for it with no explanation it might dissuade the average home cook. But really, the romantic French word is a term for simply chopped carrots, onions, and celery.
This “holy trinity,” as it is called in Creole cuisine, is the base of innumerable soups, stews, stocks, and sauces. Just about every culinary tradition has a term for these necessary aromatics: refogado in Portugal, soffritto in Italy, sofrito in Spain, and suppengrun (soup greens) in Germany. I find great comfort in knowing that the first step in even the most complex sauce is often chopping these three, easily accessible vegetables. I also feel immense appreciation for the chefs who employ this simple technique daily and then branch off, using their experience and creativity, to create something unique. From oxtail stew to curried red lentils with coconut milk, these soups were born the same way.
In her celebrated cookbook “Soups and Sides” Island resident Catherine Walthers says, “Soups are for all seasons.” And she expertly includes recipes for each season, like chilled watermelon soup that surely would have been delicious in August (or even last weekend, 80 degrees on Columbus Day!) But we’re in real soup season now as the nights get cooler and the days crisper, calling for a steaming bowl of something hearty.
This list is by no means comprehensive, as just about every restaurant in town offers a soup du jour this time of year. I simply want to point out a few standouts and encourage you to seek out the same and maybe do some recreating at home.
Espresso Love in Edgartown offers a daily vegetarian and meat soup. On a day too hot for soup last week, I went for it anyway and really enjoyed the spinach and tortellini. It was late in the day and had probably been simmering for a while, making the broth rich with herbs and spices and the tortellini tasty from soaking it all up. Leafy spinach and chunks of tomato created the bulk of the small but satisfying soup.
The Little House in Vineyard Haven has a signature curried red lentil soup with coconut milk, that is so satisfying and delicious that I’ve been reluctant to try something new, though last week’s black bean and vegetable was pretty darn good too. For a bigger meal, The Little House has great sandwiches and salads and they are currently serving dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Check them out for a comfortable, cozy dining experience that feels like eating at a friend’s house.
When you’re on the go, The Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven is always a good place to stop for lunch. With imaginative vegetarian (and not) options like adzuki chili and pulled pork and black bean soup, in two sizes, these are not “get your appetite going” soups but rather the main event.
As I mentioned last week, 7a Foods uses local chicken for their home style chicken soup. The rich brown broth is evidence of hearty, healthy chickens. Served piping hot, to-go with perfectly crisp crostini.
The Black Dog Café also serves homemade crostini with many of their soups, like the chicken and dumpling. Their offerings change daily but are always filling and satisfying.
Dunstan Smith at Ken N’ Beck makes a divine local oyster stew served with house-made oyster crackers. He mentioned that he likes to experiment with under-utilized cuts of meat that can be great in a stew, like oxtail, so be on the lookout for that soon. When you’re there, check out their new $10 wine pairing with any entrée.
State Road Restaurant uses their garden’s bounty for their leek and potato soup with The Grey Barn and Farm cream and cob-smoked bacon.
Check out Fella’s famed chili served with cheese and chopped onions as well as the Menemsha Café’s medium-spice (you can always add more of your own) ground beef chili with cheddar.
In Oak Bluffs, the Ocean View’s French Onion Soup is a popular menu item in the bar. And soups change daily at Linda Jean’s, of which favorites are corn chowder,
For a quick meal at home check out Little Rock Farm’s line of soups in varieties such as asparagus, leek, and potato; gluten-free kale; and lobster corn chowder. You can find them at Cronig’s, Alley’s, Reliable Market and The Net Result. Grab a baguette or loaf of Ciabatta on your way out and dinner is served.
For experimenting with your own soups, I highly recommend Catherine Walthers’s, “Soups and Sides.” It’s more than a cookbook. She emphasizes technique, so once you’ve mastered that you can play with ingredients and infuse your soup with whatever makes it delicious to you and yours.
Oyster Soup recipe
I’m including a simple, eight ingredient recipe for oyster soup from my all-time favorite gastronome, M.F.K. Fisher. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a preeminent food writer and memoirist, in the early and mid-1900′s.
1 quart fresh oysters
3 cups milk
1 cup cream
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½; teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon grated onion
Melt the butter, stir in the flour. Blend well.
Slowly add the milk, constantly stirring, then the cream, seasonings and grated onion.
Keep hot over a low flame.
Bring the oysters to a boil in their own liquid. Cook about five minutes.
Add oysters to the milk stock without boiling.