Warm, hearty soups give you something to look forward to when summer’s heat fades and the cold weather of fall and winter set in. Sure, you can open a can or grab a bowl from the local deli, or you can learn the secrets of making your own savory and satisfying soup. Chef Percy Whatley, executive chef at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park in California, shares his top tips for tantalizing, soul-warming soups.
The love of food
For the past 20 years, Chef Whatley has been a culinary professional, but his love of food began years before.
He recalls, “My love for food goes way back to childhood, picking tomatoes out of our garden, eating them right off the vine. We always had a garden, all seasons. I grew up in southern New Mexico, so we had sunshine 350 days a year – a lot grows!”
Executive chef for the award-winning Ahwahnee for the past three years, Chef Whatley says his life-long connection to food has given him an understanding that locally grown food simply tastes better. The dishes he deliciously serves to the lodge’s guests are made from ingredients grown or produced locally in the agriculturally-rich Central Valley of California.
“We do our best to stay seasonal in both cooking methods and sourcing of ingredients. If we stay within that concentric circle of local, the products that come in the door are better in general. Better for you, better tasting and needing little done to them to highlight all of their goodness. We keep the preparations pretty simple,” he adds.
Soups are soul food – all year round
Though steamy hot bowls of soup seem fitting for the colder seasons, Chef Whatley uses the summer bounty of juicy fruit and freshly harvested vegetables for warm weather soups as well.
“The popularity of our soups or stews changes with the seasons. Warm, hearty soups sell much better when it is cold outside, where lighter, brothy soups generally are more welcomed in the warmer times. Even cold soups fare very well during the summer,” he explains.
And just what is on the soup menu at The Ahwahnee, now that the season is morphing into fall? Chef Whatley says, “Now that it is autumn, we serve great squash purees, with a little creme fraiche. Our fall/winter menu will feature butternut squash puree with a little lobster spring roll, chili oil and pea shoots. Should be fun!”
Chef’s secrets for the best soups
Chef Whatley shares his secrets for making soup – fall and winter’s penultimate comfort food.
1. Start with a flavorful soup base
“Have some flavorful stocks to use a base – there is no better flavor-enhancing liquid for soups,” Chef Whatley recommends. He also says that the best stock for soups is chicken but you can also use a vegetarian stock, if desired.
“Also, a ham hock in soup is an incredible addition, adds a little smokiness and the gelatin in the hock gives the liquid a great mouth-feel,” he adds.
2. Use quality ingredients
Take advantage of your locally-grown produce and other foods – they will give your soup the freshest – and most eco-friendly – flavors.
Making the best use of all of your ingredients will also deliver superb results. Chef Whatley suggests, “Go to the Farmer’s Market and get some good veggies to go into the soup. Save the bones from your leftover roast chicken and make a stock with a couple of carrots, onions and some celery.”
3. Taste as you go
Making a superlative soup is a process – you can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and hope for the best. Chef Whatley recommends seasoning your soup throughout your steps.
He says “Seasoning your food as you go, layers the flavors and makes the flavors have depth on your palette. Taste three or four minutes after you season then let [the soup] simmer for another 10. Season again and again until it tastes so good you are ready to eat!”
4. Experiment with recipes
Mastering mouthwatering soups is like anything else – practice, practice, practice, and be sure to enjoy.
“If you are a beginning cook and are cooking from recipes, try another version from another book for – what seems to be the same – butternut squash soup recipe or chowder recipe. Slight variations make you think about the differences in ingredients make,” says Chef Whatley.
He adds that a little of this and little of that is all food creations are and how you end up liking it yourself.
5. Savor your creations
The more soups – or meals, for that matter – that you take the time to cook, the more you learn about cooking and the more you learn to savor.
“These experiences teach you about cooking and ultimately how you enjoy your own cooking at the table. From there you will begin cooking without books and through lots of experience, you will make up your own recipes,” concludes Chef Whatley.
Ready to savor some of Chef Whatley’s superb signature soups? Check out these warm and wonderful soup recipes.