One of the first times I played host to our annual soup party, the first guest arrived and I was still in my pajamas in our kitchen, ladle in hand, stirring frantically.
This winter, by contrast, I had hours to relax on the couch before the party started, thanks to a change in approach and a whole lot more planning, which it turns out are the not-so-secret keys to any good party. That and a great guest list.
Our annual soup party started half on a whim and half as a birthday gathering for me; with a Christmas birthday, I wanted to get friends together around the holidays to celebrate, but on a different day. Soup was one of the only meals I felt confident enough to make for a crowd.
Eight years later, I’ve locked myself into making soup for at least 50 friends every December, and much to my delight, the event has taken on a life of its own.
My work begins long before the party takes place.
We mail invitations — each year, a friend has kindly designed a postcard, sometimes even handmade — and we address and stamp those about a month in advance. Guests almost always ask me what they can bring to the party, especially because I prepare all the food. When guests bring wine and beer, it takes a lot off my plate.
And if they’re particularly inclined to make something, I advise them to bring a dessert, because I don’t make sweets for the party, either.
All my attention then turns to menu planning. Generally I make three or four soups, planning to double and triple all the recipes. Though some years the party has been theme-based, most of the time I stick with one soup that’s worked well in the past and then add a couple of new ones. A sweet potato stew has been a repeat, as have different varieties of chili.
At first I kept the soups basic, but as I’ve become better in the kitchen, I’ve gotten fancier, trying out things like elk stew and a version of Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.
Some years we’ve done more than just soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches were expensive and time-consuming. A cheese plate with good, crusty bread is simpler. Black beans and rice with loads of toppings were another easy option, and a popular one with my friends. A large bowl of easy-to-make punch was a big hit — so much so that it ran out in the first hour of the shindig.
The styles and types of soups vary widely, but I always keep a few things in mind: One soup should be meatless, and one should be vegan. If possible, I keep all the soups gluten-free.
To avoid a repeat of the kitchen-and-pajamas scenario, I now make the soups a day ahead. Not only did it make the day of the party less stressful, it improved the flavors of the stews. Generally I cook all day, cool the soups down and then pack my fridge overnight.
Though I’d love to use real bowls and spoons at the party, it’s just too much work. Disposables — holiday themed, if I can find them — are the rule of the evening, and I stuff oversize Mason jars with spoons. Last year I ran out of spoons and bowls and learned another lesson: Buy a lot more bowls, spoons and paper towels than you think you might use.
My stove is large enough to hold two large stockpots, but I usually have four soups. Slow cookers and portable electric burners have become my friend. I have my own big slow cooker which I use for one soup and the plug-in electric burner, a more recent acquisition, now keeps a fourth soup hot.
I heat up the soups a few hours in advance to make sure they’re hot in the hour before the party, and, of course, check each one for seasoning as a final touch before the guests arrive.
Once the party gets going, the best compliment I can get is empty soup pots. This year, all four hit the bottom of the pan before the night was over.
SOUP PARTY RECIPES
Year one: Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Noodle Soup
My mom cut out this recipe from The World-Herald for me in 2008. I made it at the very first soup party we hosted. Don’t be afraid of the tofu; it takes on a wonderful flavor and consistency in this simple dish. To make it gluten free, use gluten-free noodles, and to make it vegan, use eggless noodles. Makes two to four servings.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 stalks celery, diced
6 cups vegetable broth
1 pound tofu, cut into small cubes
½ pound egg noodles
Parsley to taste
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the carrots, onion and celery and cook until soft, about five minutes. Add the broth. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Add the tofu, parsley and noodles. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, until the noodles are tender.
— Adapted by staff writer Sarah Baker Hansen
Year five: Chickpea & Rice Soup With a Little Kale
The fifth year of the party was one of the first years I started adapting my soups to all sorts of dietary restrictions and including at least one vegan option. I turned to Omaha restaurateur and vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz for a vegan soup suggestion, and she sent me to this recipe, which she featured on her blog, theppk.com. “Everyone likes it,” she said, and she was right. I’ve made it for numerous soup parties and the pot is always scraped clean at the end of the night. This soup is also gluten-free. Serves six.
¾ cup cashews, soaked in water for 2 hours or overnight
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh black pepper
¾ cup red rice, rinsed
3 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1 cup carrots, diced chunky
5 cups vegetable broth
1 24-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed, about 3 cups
4 cups chopped kale
Thinly sliced green onion, for garnish
Drain the cashews and place them in a blender with one cup of fresh water. Blend until completely smooth, scraping the sides of the food processor with a spatula occasionally to make sure you get everything. This could take one to five minutes depending on the strength of your blender.
Preheat a stockpot over medium heat. Saute onion in olive oil with a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper and saute a minute more.
Add rice, celery and carrots and then pour in the broth. Cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, bring down to a simmer, add the chickpeas, and let cook for about 15 more minutes, until rice is cooked and carrots are tender.
Add the cashew cream and kale, and simmer until kale is wilted, 3 to 5 more minutes. You may need to add water to thin the soup if it seems too thick. Taste for salt and seasonings and let sit for 10 minutes or so to allow the flavors to marry. Serve topped with green onions.
Note: This soup thickens as it cools, so if you have leftovers, just thin with a little water when you reheat. When doubling or tripling this recipe, I use broth mixed with some water to thin it but still maintain flavor.
— Isa Chandra Moskowitz and theppk.com
Year seven: U.S. Senate Navy Bean Soup
This classic, retooled by America’s Test Kitchen, made an appearance at the soup party and was one of the most flavorful, satisfying bowls I’ve ever served. It’s called the U.S. Senate soup because it’s been served in the Senate Dining Room every day in a tradition that dates back to the early 20th century. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
4 fresh parsley stems plus 2 tablespoons minced parsley leaves
1 pound dried navy beans, washed and picked clean of debris or dark-colored beans
1 smoked ham hock (about 12 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 medium carrot, chopped fine
1 medium stalk celery, chopped fine
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Ground black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice plus 1 lemon cut into wedges
With a 12-inch length of kitchen twine, tie together bay leaves, parsley stems and thyme sprigs. Combine beans, ham hock or ham steak, herb bundle, dried thyme if using, 1 teaspoon salt and 4 quarts of cold water in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium and simmer until beans are soft, about 2 hours.
While the beans are simmering, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a small bowl.
Remove herb bundle and ham hock. Lightly smash some of the beans in the pot with a potato masher until creamy and lightly thickened. Using tongs and a chef’s knife, remove and discard skin, fat and bones from hock and mince the meat. Add meat and vegetables to beans and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes longer. Just before serving, season soup with salt and pepper to taste and stir in parsley and lemon juice. Ladle into bowls and garnish with a lemon wedge.
— Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated magazine
Year eight: Southwestern Chicken & Corn Chowder
My mother-in-law, Sally Hansen, and I won a soup contest this fall with this pot. Naturally I had to make it again for the most recent installment of the party, where it was the first soup that my guests finished. I promise it’ll be a hit. To make it gluten-free, use gluten-free flour. Serves 12.
4 quarts chicken stock
6 ounces butter, melted
1½ large onions, diced
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, ½-inch cubes. Alternately, you can use chicken thighs here, or a mix of both.
1 cup flour
1 cup tomato puree
4 cups heavy cream or milk
8 cups potatoes, peeled and diced
2 pounds corn, fresh or frozen
2 cups green onion, chopped (reserve 1 cup for garnish)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Cayenne pepper to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 cup bacon, browned and cut into bits for garnish
Heat chicken stock. Meanwhile, place butter in a 12-quart heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add chicken and saute until no longer pink. Reduce heat to medium, then add flour and stir with sturdy wire whip for 2 to 3 minutes.
Begin ladling in the warm chicken stock. Add tomato puree and bring mixture to a boil. Add potatoes and return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally.
When potatoes are nearly tender, add corn, green onions, chili powder, paprika and cumin. Cook for an additional 10 minutes or until desired consistency is reached. Add cayenne pepper, black pepper and salt to taste.
Serve soup in warm bowls, and garnish with additional green onions and bacon bits.
— Recipe adapted by Sarah Baker Hansen and Sally Hansen