There are a few simple rules at my friend's annual soup party and competition: Bring your own crockpot and ladle. Avoid cooking at the party, but, please, if you do need a spot on the stove, request in advance.
And for heaven's sake, do not, under any circumstances, bring chili.
"Chili is not soup," says host Sara Goddard. "If you want to have a chili competition, start your own party."
If it sounds like a proud tradition, that's because Feb. 16 marked the 10th anniversary of "What a Crock," held at the Bryn Mawr home of Goddard and her husband Joe Daly, with 25 guests and 6 soup entries.
The party is a spin-off of a soup competition Goddard's mother hosts annually in Aurora, N.Y. - the original celebrated its 20th anniversary this year: "Aurora is a small town, and it's very cold in winter, so practically half the population shows up," Goddard says.
After attending her mother's party for the first time in 2003 and placing second with a chowder, Goddard, director of social enterprises at the Free Library of Philadelphia, came back and began her own satellite soup party in Philadelphia.
But she made some changes to the formula: While her mother never competes - instead, she makes an "old-school" Italian Wedding Soup that guests have come to eagerly anticipate - Goddard says she "threw that rule out the window." This year, she made Creole Creation, a gumbo-esque broth swirling with shrimp and andouille sausage.
Instead of a "best appetizer" category, Goddard created a "best soup name," encouraging participants to get creative, thus spawning such memorables as Hibernian Vampire Slayer (which also won best soup), and "I Will Always Love Soup," a Whitney Houston memorial tribute.
While most of the attendees are home cooks, there are a handful, including Daly, who have had professional kitchen experience. The 2006 winner was a mulligatawny soup made by Sarah Curtis-Fawley and Chris Powell, who have since moved to Portland, Ore., where they own and operate Pacific Pie Co. (and daily changing soups are on the menu).
Nevertheless, the soup party has cultivated its own competitors, people perfecting stocks all year.
"Some start out shy about competing, but once they come to one party they want to come back and win," Goddard says. Meanwhile, noncompetitors are invited to bring bread and appetizers or wine to accompany.
Over the years, some trends have emerged. Allium-based (garlic, chive, onion, leek) soups are perennial favorites, as are tomato and potato soups.
While the unfamiliar can be an uphill battle (neither waterzooi nor Thai pumpkin gained much traction), now and then a globally inflected underdog can surprise, such as the African peanut soup that took first place in 2009.
And the voting crowd doesn't always reward degree of difficulty. Homemade wonton and matzo ball soups have gone prizeless in the past. Bisques, with their subtle cream base, are universally enjoyed but rarely take home the gold. Cold soups are simply doomed to failure. The party takes place in February, after all.
During the tasting stage, guests help themselves, ladling samples into plastic mugs while exchanging good-natured boasts and ribbing.
After tasting the entries, attendees record their top three choices, for soup and soup name. Winners are awarded prizes such as cookbooks and cooking gadgets. The first-place victor also has the honor of taking home the mantel-worthy trophy - a mini crockpot and ladle, adorned with dog tags naming past champions.
This year's winner, Sweet Rosemary, was an herbed sweet potato puree with mascarpone cheese and bacon crumbles, a surprisingly sophisticated choice for a crowd that has favored novelties like Chicago Hot Dog soup, Pizza Soup, and the dessert-esque Peanut Butter and Jelly Time.
"It's a very simple soup, but it packs a lot of flavor," says Allie Lejeune, who with her husband Seth delivered the blue-ribbon creation, a spin on a Giada de Laurentiis recipe. "My mother-in-law, Marge Lejeune, actually gave us the recipe and advised us to cut back on the maple syrup," she said. "We also added the bacon, because who doesn't love bacon."
This was the first time the Lejeunes had won, a triumph because they had placed second twice previously, with Freakin' Leeks, a potage parmentier (leek or onion and potato soup) topped with frizzled leeks, and My Big Fat Sausage, another sweet potato soup fortified with pureed spicy sausage.
"The sausage soup was even better than Sweet Rosemary and we still think we were robbed for the top prize in 2012," she says. "I think the key to the win this year is that we made it the night before to let the flavors develop."
When the winners are announced, the party takes a quieter turn. For tasters, their work is done. For the competitors, the evening's losses and disappointments are replaced with determination.
"We're already planning ahead to what we're going to make next year," says Brian Callahan, whose Hipster Dipster, a riff on French onion dip, performed well but didn't place. "You have to stay ahead of this crowd."
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup olive oil
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 stalks celery, cut into ½-inch dice
1 small eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 medium yellow onions, cut into medium dice
1 cup frozen yellow corn
2/3 cup jarred roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
12-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, finely ground
1/2 cup roasted cashews, finely ground, plus more chopped for garnish
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons madras curry powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
13 1/2-ounce can coconut milk
2 quarts chicken stock, preferably homemade
Salt to taste
1. Heat butter and oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add potatoes, carrots, celery, eggplant, and onion, and saute for 10 minutes or until starting to brown.
2. Add corn, roasted red peppers, diced tomatoes, and nuts, and saute for 5 minutes.
3. Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until soup has reduced and is very thick and brownish in color. Soup should be the consistency of chili. Garnish with extra chopped cashews and parsley.
Per serving: 441 calories, 9 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 866 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.
Old School Italian Wedding Soup
Makes 10 servings
For the stock:
1 pound beef shank, bone-in, with meat on the bone
1 each, chopped: large onion, celery rib
2 to 3 carrots, chopped
2 quarts store-bought beef stock
5 cups water
For the meatballs:
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 cup (or more) fresh grated parmesan
1/4 cup dry Italian herb breadcrumbs
1 whole egg, lightly beaten
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the soup:
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 celery rib, diced
2/3 bag of baby carrots, cut into coins
2 quarts homemade beef stock
A little more water, if necessary
Oregano (and other herbs if you like)
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked rice
1 head escarole,
chopped into bite-sized pieces, simmered for 20 minutes
1. Make the stock: Simmer beef shank with onion, celery, and carrots in beef stock and water, about 2 hours, skimming the stock a few times while it cooks. Strain stock through a colander, then through a fine sieve. Reserve the meat from the beef shank; shred when cool.
2. Make the meatballs: Using your hands, mix all meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Wet hands and roll about 25 to 30 ½-inch meatballs. Set aside or refrigerate until the soup is boiling in the next step.
3. Make the soup: In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, saute onion, celery, and carrots in a tablespoon of olive oil until onions are translucent. Add homemade stock, along with oregano and any other herbs (red pepper flakes, basil, etc.). Add shredded reserved beef shank back to the pot. Bring to a boil. Gently drop in meatballs one at a time until all the meatballs are in the pot. When they are cooked, they will rise to the surface. You will need to skim the soup while the meatballs cook, as fat from the meatballs will rise to the surface. Remove from heat.
4. Ladle soup into bowls, adding escarole and rice. Garnish with chopped parsley and grated parmesan and serve with crusty bread.
Per serving: 240 calories, 20 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 917 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
"Sweet Rosemary" Soup
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large or 6 small shallots, thinly sliced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds (2 to 3) sweet potatoes, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 (6-inch long) stems fresh rosemary
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1 to 3 tablespoons maple syrup (to taste)
Bacon, cooked and crumbled, for garnish
1. In an 8-quart stockpot, melt the butter and oil together over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Add the sweet potatoes, rosemary, and chicken broth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the sweet potatoes are very tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the rosemary stems.
3. Using an immersion blender, blend the mixture until smooth and thick. Whisk in the mascarpone cheese and maple syrup until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the soup warm over low heat until ready to serve. Garnish with bacon.
Per serving (based on 6): 406 calories, 10 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 36 milligrams cholesterol, 458 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.