Soup-erior Comfort Food
A look into the soup culture of the North Country
Story and photos by Alyse Whitney
For nine months out of the year, the temperature in Plattsburgh does not rise above 60 degrees. The combination of frigid cold and inevitable snow leaves residents searching for one thing – comfort. Comfort food can be classified into many different categories, but when it all boils down, the most popular cure for the winter blues is soup. In the North Country, the places to find soups are endless, but the variety of ingredients utilized at local restaurants are the key to comfort.
Although many types of comfort food are popular, soup’s simplistic nature helps it stand out on menus across the North Country. "Up here, people like every kind of soup that you make, but it’s the simpler ones that people really enjoy," says Craig Richards, executive chef at Butcher Block. "You can do so many things with it and add a variety of ingredients – that’s why people keep coming back for it," he adds.
One of the most defining characteristics of soup is its affordability. "Soups are great because they are economic; you get a lot of yield, and you can feed a family," Dominianni says. Although soup used to be considered a peasant food, it is very fulfilling and a global concept; no specific group of people is known for eating soup.
"Anybody can make soup – you don’t need a culinary degree."
When people say soup can just be ‘thrown together’, it is because it is true. "It’s an easy way to get rid of stuff in your fridge," explains Richards. "If you have chicken one night and pasta a few days later, they can be combined and quickly utilize leftovers." In addition to reusing leftover ingredients, incorporating fresh vegetables is essential when preparing soup.
The most important part of making soup is the ingredients, and the North Country does not lack when it comes to fresh, local produce. "We’re an agricultural community, and that makes my job easier," Dominianni says. In order to keep his ingredients fresh, Dominianni receives his produce through the Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) program in Keeseville.
Spurdens also puts his soup together by browsing markets and choosing local, seasonal produce. "I just go to the cooler and pick my main ingredients, but I won’t pick something random unless it’s the spur of the moment," he explains.
"It’s not deep-fried, it’s not full of sugar."
When it comes to seasoning soup, there is a trick to making it perfect. "I had to learn how to season soup to how it tastes the fourth or fifth bite, not the first," Dominianni explains. "Flavor gets on your tongue and stimulates all five taste sensations on your palate. If I smack a soup hard with something hot, like curry, then by the fourth spoonful it will be overwhelming."
"Nowadays, everybody assumes soup is an appetizer, and I think that is where it has been lost. It always used to be your entrée – you got your big ol’ bowl, and that was it. Nobody is going to sit there and be fulfilled from that now; they expect a piece of meat coming anytime after that bowl of soup," Spurdens says.
"Nobody is going to sit there and be fulfilled from that now; they expect a piece of meat coming anytime after that bowl of soup."
The standard ‘soup of the day’ greatly varies, depending on the given location where it is being served. Throughout the world, there are hundreds of different signature soups, depending on the local ingredients that are available. "There are traditional soups for different regions. It can range from New England clam chowder in Boston to yellow split pea and ham in Quebec," explains Richards. "Wherever you go, it’s going to be a different kind of soup."
One of the most popular dishes throughout the history of cooking has been soup. World-renowned for its simplicity, the dish has an ability to transform leftovers and inexpensive ingredients into delicious, healthy meals that can easily serve dozens of hungry people.
There are, of course, different variations on the same theme when it comes to a pot full of various ingredients. Different regions have their signature soups, just as other entrees and drinks act as specialties. The numerous varieties of flavors allowed soup to be accessible to anyone, ranging from peasants to the rich and sedentary to traveling cultures.
The dish is most commonly associated with New England, the most popular of which is clam chowder. The finished product is usually very thick and laden with vegetables or meat. Usually pasta is not used in this type of soup.
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