Chicken soup has long been touted as a soothing home remedy for the annoying colds and body-crushing flus of winter.
Filled with nutrients, a steaming bowl helps clear sinus congestion, and some research suggests it might also defend against infection. Chicken soup also makes us feel nostalgic — sipping a cup while curled up on the couch can feel like a big, embracing hug from someone you love, even if the noodle-strewn broth came from a can.
But what if you’re kicking off the new year by going vegan in the month of January, a concept known as Veganuary? Or maybe you’re just resolving to eat less meat, opting instead for a diet that incorporates alternate proteins such as beans paired with a wide variety of vegetables. You’re in luck, because soups made from veggies like celery, carrots, leeks, parsnips and/or onions can also make you feel better when you’re under the weather.
“There’s this aura around chicken soup and its special powers,” notes Rachel Kurtter, a dietician and wellness coach for Highmark Health. Yet its restorative properties are not so much about any supposed “magical” powers as simple nourishment.
People tend to lose fluids when they’re sick, and soup replenishes those losses, she says. It also does the body good by providing calories, proteins, and vitamins and minerals.
“At the end of the day, [soup] helps you hydrate and replace electrolytes,” she says, even if you’re only sipping a little at a time.
Kurtter says no one vegetable rises above all others when making soup. Vegetables in general are naturally low in calories and important sources of essential vitamins and minerals. And many of the most popular ones that go into the soup pot — leafy greens, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and garlic — are also high in antioxidants, substances that may protect your cells against unstable molecules known as free radicals.
They’re also loaded with polyphenols, plant-based compounds that help prevent disease and keep you healthy in a different way than vitamins, minerals or other nutrients. Spinach, red and yellow onions, shallots, potatoes, broccoli and carrots, which are all easy to find in winter months, are especially high in them.
“You want to eat a rainbow of colors, ” says Kurtter, because they all provide different benefits to the body in helping your immune system fight infection.
Carrots, for instance, not only add a touch of sweetness but are also a great source of vitamin A, an anti-inflammatory agent. Kale contains high levels of vitamin C, which is thought to reduce the symptoms of a cold (though not the chances of catching one).
Fresh ginger, meanwhile, is effective against vomiting and nausea, and garlic has antimicrobial, antiviral and antibiotic properties.
This year’s cold and flu season is expected to be more severe than the 2020-21 season, according to the Centers for Disease Control, because people are traveling again and fewer are social distancing and wearing masks. Flu activity in 2020 was the lowest since current reporting began in 1997, which is good but also bad, because it means we have less natural immunity against influenza this year.
To help whatever’s bound to ail you this winter, we dish up three nutritious and nourishing vegetarian soups that are easy to make with easy-to-find produce and pantry ingredients.
And going forward? Kurtter recommends supporting your immune system all year round — and not just when you’re sick — by eating a balanced diet, getting a good night’s sleep and managing stress by finding time in each day to unwind, “even if it’s just for 5 minutes.”
“It will help you be healthy all year,” she says.
CHICKPEA NOODLE SOUP
This vegetarian take on chicken noodle soup is healthful and hearty. White miso, a fermented paste made from rice, barley and soybeans (and found in the Asian section of some grocery stores), adds a mild umami flavor. If you can’t find it, substitute a splash or two of soy sauce. The parsley relish adds a spicy finish.
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 sprigs thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence)
1 yellow onion, sliced thinly
1 leek, sliced thinly and rinsed of dirt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons white miso (or liquid aminos)
2 carrots, peeled (or scrubbed) and diced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and diced (or swap in sweet potato)
1 medium rutabaga, peeled and diced (or swap in turnips)
1 small celeriac head, peeled and diced (or 3 stalks celery, sliced thinly)
2 cups (or one 16-ounce can) cooked chickpeas
4 ounces pappardelle or fettuccini
For parsley relish
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
10 sprigs parsley, roughly chopped
In a soup pot, heat a glug of olive oil over medium heat. Add the thyme (or herbes de Provence) and briefly fry, 10-15 seconds.
Add onion, leek and garlic, plus a big pinch of salt, and reduce heat to medium-low. Sweat the mixture until soft, about 7 minutes. Add white wine and reduce by half.
Dissolve miso into 8 cups of water. If it doesn’t blend completely, don’t worry, it will as the soup simmers — this just helps it along.
Add root vegetables, chickpeas and miso water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until all vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small frying pan, lightly toast red pepper flakes over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
In a separate bowl, combine 1/2 cup of olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley and a pinch of salt. Add warm red pepper to the mixture.
When the vegetables are tender, taste and adjust salt as desired. Add the pasta and simmer until tender, 6-8 minutes.
Divide the soup into 4 bowls and top with a hefty spoonful of the parsley relish.
CARROT SOUP WITH GINGER
Ginger root has long been used as a herbal remedy for colds to soothe sore throats and cough, and also can fend off the nausea that comes with the flu. It’s paired here in a warming vegetarian soup with carrots, which, thanks to a high level of vitamin C, can help your body build antibodies and boost your immune system
Like most soups, this keeps well in the fridge for a few days. Make it a full meal by serving with a salad and hearty, buttered toast.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 heaping cups chopped carrots
1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or orange juice
3 to 4 cups vegetable broth
Sea salt and fresh black pepper
1 teaspoon maple syrup, optional
Coconut milk for garnish, optional
Pesto for garnish, optional
Heat olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onions and a generous pinch of salt and pepper and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.
Add smashed garlic cloves and carrots to pot and cook about 8 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Stir in ginger, then add apple cider vinegar. Add 3-4 cups broth, depending on your desired consistency. Reduce to a simmer and cook until carrots are soft, about 30 minutes.
Let cool slightly, then transfer to blender. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add maple syrup if desired.
Serve with a drizzle of coconut milk on top and/or a dollop of pesto, if desired.
KALE, FENNEL AND WHITE BEAN SOUP
If you like greens and beans, you’ll love this soup. It’s quick to pull together and because of all the leafy greens, it will fill you up with all kinds of nutrients. Don’t worry about rinsing the beans, advises Milk Street chef and author Christopher Kimball. The starchy liquid that clings to them lends body to the broth.
I used a baguette for the croutons, and curly kale instead of lacinato (Tuscan) kale.
8 ounces rustic bread, torn into bite-sized pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2-inch piece of Parmesan rind, optional
1 medium red or yellow onion
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cored and sliced 1/2 inch across the grain
1 bunch kale, stems removed, chopped and reserved, and leaves roughly chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained but not rinsed
Heat oven to 375 degrees with rack in middle position. Distribute bread on rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss, then bake until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Remove from oven, sprinkle with about half the Parmesan and toss; set aside.
In large pot over medium, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, kale stems and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and garlic. Cook, stirring until paste begins to brown and stick to the bottom of pot, about 1 minute. Add wine, thyme and pepper flakes, then cook, scraping up any browned bits, until liquid has almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Stir in beans, kale leaves, Parmesan rind (if using), 5 cups water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high, then reduce to medium and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until kale is very tender, 20-25 minutes.
Remove and discard thyme and Parmesan rind (if used). Taste and season with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls, top with croutons and the remaining Parmesan. If desired, drizzle a little oil on top.
— “Milk Street Vegetables” by Christopher Kimball (Voracious, November 2021, $40)
By Gretchen McKay