Flavors at Home: Soup Signals Comfort and Embracing Fall

Soup is something I could eat every day of the week. This version also signals a change of seasons, away from summer and deeply into fall.  (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

In light of the shelter-in-place order, many of us have resorted to cooking at home, revisiting old recipes and getting creative with our pantries. Instead of our usual Flavors Worth Finding column with recommendations from restaurants, KQED staffers are sharing the meals they’ve been making at home to find some comfort and grounding during uncertain times.

When I was growing up in Minnesota, soup was one thing that truly signaled fall was here. My mom would make all kinds of one-pot wonders. She'd alternate between Napa cabbage stews, minestrone packed with frozen veggies and kidney beans, the occasional laksa with a heavy and complex broth and chicken noodle with the bowtie-shaped farfalle pasta.

If it was a restaurant night, it was all about lemongrass-forward tom yum soup from the now-closed King and I Thai in Minneapolis or phở gà from Ho Bien in St. Paul. We'd climb into oversize sweaters, drive through the neighborhoods, comment on the color of the maple trees and order heaping amounts of soup to share.

As I got older and learned more techniques, I'd make heartier, heavier soups like butternut squash and pumpkin, or satisfy my craving with canned clam chowder.

These days, my mind and spirit are still in August, but the construct of time has pushed far past that into (almost) November. My brain does not compute. In an attempt to catch up or force myself not to dissociate, I ventured back to the comfort of soup. Where I live in Walnut Creek, the temperatures have just started to dip  into sweater weather—it's been more of a swelter with highs in the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit before last week. So I've been experimenting with various clear soups to try to reset my idea of time.

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This week, I riffed on a recipe from YouTuber and cookbook author Kevin Curry. He has this how-to on healthy shrimp meatball soup, and I knew I wanted to make it. It's been hard to find a soup that's comforting, easy, full of flavor and fitting of all my current dietary needs these days. I really love the texture and flavor of fish cakes, fish balls and shrimp balls, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Cabbage, purple onions and bell peppers on a grill pan
If you don't have a grill pan, you can saute your veggies or assemble raw. (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

Surprisingly, shrimp balls are pretty easy to make if you have a food processor. The trick is to pulse sparingly, leaving visible chunks of shrimp meat. If you go too far, it will become a gummy, gluey mess. I added salt, pepper, mint and cilantro to Curry's recipe. Essentially, you blitz up some green onions, add garlic and pulse; then add your other seasoning and the shrimp, and pulse three to five times until it comes together slightly.

From there, I used a food scale to weigh out 3.5 ounce portions. A trick for this is to put parchment paper or cling film over your scale for easy cleanup. If you don't have a scale, you can eyeball it. One tip Curry mentioned in his video that really worked well is oiling your hands with olive oil before shaping. I used a muffin tin sprayed with olive oil to bake my shrimp balls in the oven.

Would I normally make my own stock for a soup? Sure, but I'm also all about this method that takes the store-bought version and adds to it. You can better control the flavor and intensity of your broth if you make it yourself, but for something that is relatively cheap, you can play with flavors by adding things like cinnamon sticks and cardamom to chicken stock and water, like this recipe does.

Charred baby bok choy on a grill pan
This is a super cool technique I picked up from this recipe. I never thought to grill baby bok choy before, but it's a great idea. You get the grill marks and it keeps its crunch, which can sometimes get lost when sauteeing. (Urmila Ramakrishnan / KQED)

The last part is probably the best: Assembly. I found myself pulling out my grill pan and charring different types of veggies. I stuck to the original baby bok choy seasoned with sesame oil, salt and pepper. I also added grilled bell peppers in various colors, purple cabbage, shredded carrot, purple onion and whole grain noodles. You can also swap the noodles for brown rice or barley, or the veggies in the recipe for roasted sweet potato (which I did one night). The star of the show is the shrimp balls, which I know I'll continue to experiment with by changing the seasonings.

All the components come together like a rainbow symphony of vibrant vegetables. It's also a celebration of textures with the al dente noodles, perfectly chewy shrimp balls and crunchy purple cabbage and carrots.

The current weather may not feel like fall, but I'm perfectly happy slurping this up and feeling the happy-full slosh of soup in my belly. Happy eating.