Bread and soup

What's more natural than dunking thick slices of bread in a hearty bowl of soup.

crouton soup 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
crouton soup 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's no wonder bread and soups are classic partners in many cuisines. After all, what's more natural than dunking thick slices of bread in a hearty bowl of soup. Yet, somehow I missed out on this satisfying custom until I moved from the US to Israel and became familiar with the foods of my Yemenite in-laws. They ate their aromatic meat soup with bread - and lots of it. For festive occasions it was substantial salouf, or homemade Yemenite pita. At other times it could be regular pocket pita or plain dark bread - lehem shahor. Everyone dipped bread in their soup, often first spreading the bread with fiery s'hug (hot pepper garlic relish), or crumbled bread into the soup to make it more filling. During my years of studying French cooking in Paris, I learned that bread and soup are an equally popular pair in the countryside. Some ate it exactly the way my Yemenite relatives did. In regions like Auvergne in central France, certain soups were ladled over layers of thick country bread, which soaked up as much soup as it could absorb and made the soup thick enough so a spoon could stand up in it. To make it even richer, the bread could be fried as croutons. In the mountainous French region of Savoie, butter-fried croutons and sliced Swiss-type cheese are layered in a tureen, and chunky winter vegetable soup is ladled over it. The celebrated French onion soup would be much less enticing without its toasted topping of baguette and cheese. Fish soups in Provence usually come with croutons spread with garlicky aioli or with its peppery cousin, rouille. For a savory variation on this theme, Suzanne Dunaway, author of Rome, at Home, suggests serving fish soup with garlic-rubbed toasted rustic bread, spread with pesto. I find this pesto-topped toast a good accompaniment for vegetable soups too. Yet croutons are also a favorite garnish in elegant soups served in small portions in dainty cups. In classic cuisine, smooth, velvety cream soups often come with small, perfectly diced fried croutons, which are popular because their crunchy texture provides a pleasant contrast to the smoothness of the soup. We were always mesmerized in our cooking classes, as we watched our chefs skillfully tossing the croutons in the air so they all landed in the skillet and browned evenly on all sides. Frying isn't the only way to make croutons. You can also bake them or toast them, and thus cut the amount of oil or butter needed to a minimum. Another way to prepare crisp "croutons" is to simply cut bread in cubes and let them dry. This works best with country-style white or whole-wheat bread, as well as with thin slices of baguette or of crisp rolls, but not with soft, rich bread. Although croutons are available packaged, they are so much better when fresh and homemade. If you're looking for way to use up extra bread in your freezer before Pessah, now is a good time to make croutons from all kinds of bread and to enjoy the contributions they make to soups. FRIED CROUTONS This is the classic way to make croutons. They are richer and crunchier than baked croutons and are delicious with vegetable soups, bean soup and creamy soups. They'll keep their crunch best if you serve them within two hours of sautéing them Serve the croutons in a separate dish so that each person can put some in his soup at the last minute, and the croutons will not become soggy. 4 square slices white bread, crusts removed 4 to 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil Cut bread slices in 1.25-cm. squares. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet. Test oil by adding a bread square; when oil is hot enough, it should bubble vigorously around bread. Remove bread piece with slotted spoon. Add enough bread squares to hot oil to make one layer in frying pan. Saute them, tossing them often or turning them over with a slotted spoon so they will brown evenly. Fry them until they are golden brown. Transfer croutons to a strainer and drain them. Drain further on paper towels. If pan is dry, add another 2 tablespoons oil and heat thoroughly before frying more croutons. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 4 servings. BUTTERY BAKED CROUTONS These croutons are easy to make. They and their cheese-topped variation are great with vegetable soups. 4 slices white bread 2 Tbsp. soft butter salt and freshly ground pepper Preheat oven to 200º. Butter a baking sheet. Cut crusts from bread. Spread bread with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cut each slice in about 1.25-cm. squares and transfer to baking sheet. Bake about 7 minutes or until bread becomes crisp. Serve hot. Makes about 4 servings. Baked Cheese Croutons: After spreading bread with butter, sprinkle it with 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, then with pepper. Bake until cheese melts and bread becomes crisp. TOASTED CROUTONS This alternative to baked croutons is virtually fat-free (if you use bread that contains no fat). If you're preparing a small amount of croutons, you can bake them on a tray in a toaster oven. 4 slices bread, with or without crusts, or 12 thin slices baguette or of thin crisp rolls a little oil spray salt freshly ground pepper Preheat oven to 190º. Cut bread in about 1.25-cm. squares; leave baguette or rolls in thin slices. Spray a little oil spray on a baking sheet with a rim. Put bread on baking sheet in one layer. Spray bread lightly with oil spray and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake croutons, turning a few times, about 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Makes 4 servings. SORREL SOUP WITH CROUTONS Sorrel is a popular soup green in Polish, Hungarian and French kitchens. Often it is made into a creamy soup with potato, so the cream and potato soften the sharp taste of the greens. If you prefer, you can add a dollop of sour cream to each bowl instead of stirring it into the pot of soup. Baked or Toasted Croutons (see recipes above) are a popular accompaniment. Instead of using sorrel, you can make this soup with spinach or chard. Cheese croutons are good with these greens. 2 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil 1 medium onion, chopped 4 medium boiling potatoes, diced 8 ounces fresh sorrel (hamtzitz) 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup sour cream, regular or low fat salt and freshly ground pepper Croutons - fried, buttery baked or toasted (see recipes above) Melt butter, add onion and saute 5 minutes over medium heat. Add potatoes, 6 cups water and pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat 30 minutes. Remove stems of sorrel and wash leaves thoroughly. Chop leaves finely. Add sorrel to soup and cook 5 to 10 minutes or until very tender. If you would like a smooth texture, puree soup in blender. Reheat soup just before serving. Stir in sour cream, and heat through, stirring; do not boil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve croutons on the side. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series and of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.