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  Thursday, July 24, 2014  
   
 

 
A Soup Party
Your Best Bet for Casual Holiday Entertaining  

A few Novembers ago I was delighted when a dear friend called and said she and her family of five would be in town over Thanksgiving and would love to get together. Wonderful news! I eagerly proceeded to invite a number of our mutual friends to join us for an unexpected reunion. When all had responded I had 20 people planning to come for dinner…the night before Thanksgiving. What had I done? You see I had also invited eight family members for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner the next day. I was suddenly overcome with anxiety. How would I pull this off?

A few panic-laden moments later it hit me. I’d throw a soup party the night before Thanksgiving for our friends and save the big formal dinner for the next day.

Soup to the Rescue
But why a soup party you may ask?  A soup party can be a great option in an entertaining pinch any time of the year, but particularly during the holidays when we want to share as much time as we can with friends and family without the stress of putting on an elaborate event. A soup party is relatively simple to plan. Two soups, several loaves of bread, a salad, and you’re done. Another benefit of a soup party is that a lot of the cooking can be done in advance—a boon for the busy holiday host. Besides, nothing says welcome like a steaming bowl of hearty-winter soup and a fresh loaf of crusty bread. The rich smell coming from a warm pot on the stove encourages guests to get comfy while you take turns stirring and laughing over easy hors d’ouevres. It’s the perfect casual cold-weather menu and the low-stress alternative for holiday entertaining.

A successful soup party begins with what else? The soup. Jim Fallon, chef and owner of the Northern Neck Gourmet says that in winter, “most people want heartier, chunkier soups” and jokes that “you can’t get too big a soup” when it’s chilly outdoors. He says that each style of soup has its own quality. Soups with cream need to be spiced more heavily than chicken or vegetable-based soups which should be more delicate. The key? “Recognize what you’re working with” and go from there he says.

If doing multiple soups for enter­taining Fallon advises offering a balance of heavy and light. A cream-based chowder will pair nicely with soup made with grains and meat like beef, barley,  and mushroom.

For a gathering on a cool evening Fallon recommends Ribollita, a traditional Tuscan white bean soup and what he describes as “humble everyman’s fare raised to gastronomic heights.” Fallon was first introduced to this soup when he worked for Francesco Ricchi, the well-known Washington D.C. restaurateur, in the early 90s. He says a good complement to this hearty soup is a fresh Tomato Basil, a family favorite for Fallon, who first learned how to make the soup from his uncle.

If you’re really pressed for time and just can’t manage making your own soup simplify things by buying it ready-made in quarts or gallons depending on the size of your party. By the way, this will be the only way you can get the Northern Neck Gourmet’s famous Crab and Corn Chowder. According to Fallon, “that recipe is sacred!” so, unfortunately we won’t be able to offer it to you here.

Accompaniments
We all know that man cannot live on bread alone. He can’t live on soup alone either so Fallon has suggested a few easy starters for your soup party.

“You can’t go wrong with cheese” he says, “it’s always flavorful and simple.” He recommends a Spanish goat cheese, Caprichio de Cabre, which he describes as “earthy, fall-like, and intense.” Serve at room temperature with a baguette and slices of pear and apple and you’re set. He also recommends smoked salmon served on a plate with a water cracker and a cheese spread like NNG’s own, a combination of cream cheese, dill, and lemon made in-house. Simple hors d’ouevres like these are always a nice prelude to the dinner ahead.

When it comes to dessert, think simple. Cookies can be made ahead of time and attractively arranged on a platter along with small finger-sized pastries purchased at a bakery. The idea here is to invite guests to help themselves and eliminate extra work for you. 

Serving Tips
How to serve your soup is the biggest question when throwing a soup party. Should you serve it straight from the stove or from strategically placed tureens on your buffet or dining table? When Fallon is catering for a large buffet party he will use pots with small heating elements like votive candles beneath them. Check out your local cookware store for other options like this. If you prefer to keep it simple, fill large serving bowls or tureens with soup and place on your dining table or buffet for quick refills. Or keep your soup simmering on the stove and invite your guests to get up and re-fill their bowls as needed. And always offer a soup spoon. Their large size makes them easier to eat soup with than a regular size spoon.

If you prefer entertaining buffet-style consider serving your soup in over-sized mugs with handles. This way guests can mingle and enjoy your soup creation at the same time. Offer crunchy bread sticks and finger veggies like a zucchini or onion tart that can be cut into squares and eaten from napkins or small plates.

To keep clean-up to a minimum be sure to use dishwasher-safe mugs or bowls and silverware—save the hand-wash only china and silver for a more formal event.

Planning
So what can you do before the day of your soup party? “Anything you can do ahead of time is going to make you that much more at ease” according to Katie Brown, veteran party planner and author of Katie Brown Entertains.

Do your grocery shopping the weekend before your party and make your soup in advance—most soups will stay fresh in the refrigerator for several days. If the soup has thickened when you heat it on party-day, add small amounts of stock or broth to make it thinner. Make your dessert cookies or pastries several days ahead and store in air-tight containers. Stock and set up your bar and select music several days before. You can even set your table the week before your event. Staging all of your serving dishes prevents you from rushing around madly before your guests arrive. Wait to buy your fresh ingredients like bread and salad veggies the morning of the party.

If you find yourself giving parties back to back set your dining table or buffet for both events. Start with fresh cuttings from your garden to make a centerpiece. A punch bowl or silver wine bucket makes a great container for branches or pinecones gathered in your yard. Accent your arrangement with seasonal candles and be sure to buy a fresh set for each event. Use a runner instead of a full tablecloth and place chargers beneath your place settings to protect your table from spills. Have two sets of napkins ready to go so you won’t have to launder them in-between or, better yet, go with whimsical or heavy paper napkins for even less clean-up.

When entertaining, Brown reminds us that we don’t need to be perfect. She warns against over-doing it and says our guests will actually feel more at ease if we let some of our imperfections show. She’s right. Making our guests feel comfortable and enjoying their company is what this season’s entertaining is all about.

The Recipes
To satisfy the soup-chef in you, Chef Jim Fallon of the Northern Neck Gourmet has kindly shared his very own recipes with The House and Home Magazine. Bon appétit!

Tomato Basil Soup
2 tsp. vegetable oil
1 c. onion, diced
2 tsp. garlic, minced
2 c. tomatoes, diced
1/2 c. white wine
1/2 c. heavy cream
1½ c. chicken stock
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. Tabasco
2 tbsp. parmesan cheese, grated
salt
black pepper
6–8 basil leaves, finely sliced
Heat oil in soup pot over medium heat.  Sweat onions and garlic until onions are translucent. Add diced tomatoes and simmer for ten minutes. Add white wine, heavy cream and chicken stock. Season with Worcestershire and Tabasco and simmer for another 20 minutes. Add parmesan and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in basil just before serving.

Ribollita
1 lb. cannellini beans
1 piece salt pork
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. black pepper
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
1/2 head Napa cabbage, diced
2 leeks, sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes
1/2 gal. chicken stock
4 leaves fresh sage, chopped
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
12 slices Italian bread, toasted
extra virgin olive oil
Soak beans overnight in water. Place beans in soup pot and cover with water. Add salt pork and seasonings. Bring to boil, simmer for 30 minutes until beans soften. Strain mixture and return to soup pot with vegetables and chicken stock. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Add sage and parmesan. Salt and pepper to taste. Place toasted bread in bowl and ladle soup over top.  Drizzle small amount of olive oil on soup before serving.