Soup Toppers With Style
I can't lie. I'm totally biased. I just love soups. Chowders, spicy coconut and lemongrass Thai soups, beef stews, sausage and bean, super rich pumpkin, decadent tomato bisque . . . I just can't get enough of it, especially in the autumn. Bonus? Soup is unbelievably cheap to make. Depending on the type you choose, you can easily get into the twenty-five cents or less per serving category. The problem some people have is that hearing the word soup automatically makes them feel economically deprived. Throw in some soup garnishes however, along with a nice dinner salad, bottle of wine and batch of crusty bread, and you've got a super cheap at-home dinner with restaurant style. As promised, here are a few ideas:
Croutons. Homemade or otherwise, these add flavor and crunch. I personally think the homemade kind are way more luxurious as you can customize them with a specific seasoning or cheese. There are some nice gourmet options you can pick up off the shelf, however. Also, bear in mind that croutons can be made with more than traditional loaf bread. Think Middle East croutons made with leftover pita bread, naan cubes or tortilla strips if you want your bread-based soup garnishes to have the necessary wow factor.
Sunflower kernels. I'm addicted to these things. On a salad, in bread or in a batch of sunflower kernel muffins. They are also fun to sprinkle on soups, particularly the autumn themed ones like pumpkin or butternut squash. Yum!
Bacon bits. I think these are particularly great on baked potato soup, chowders or cheeseburger soup for sort of a bacon-cheeseburger flavor. If the meat thing doesn't appeal to you, the imitation ones taste fine too.
Seasoned oyster crackers. Sure, you can use the plain ones. But considering how popular the ranch seasoned ones are to receive for a homemade gift around the holidays, why not use a handful to top off a bowl of soup? Bonus: it'll save you the calorie consumption of sitting down to a whole jar of them at a time.
Sliced green onions or scallions. As soup garnishes go, these add tons of snap, which is my theory on why many restaurants include them as a side topping. They also have a fair bit of color which is a nice addition if you are throwing a dinner party and a bit more concerned with dramatic presentation than normal. I've also seen this done with lemon grass at Thai restaurants.
Crispy French fried onion pieces. The only ones I'm familiar with are the ones you can buy in the large cans here in the States to use on the Thanksgiving casseroles. I'm sure you could make your own if you were so inclined. They are particularly great on soups though, and the last I checked they even had a cheddar flavored variety. Bring 'em on!
Rice noodles. To tell you the truth, I ran across this idea for the first time while searching for images for this post. I think it's a great idea, though!
Toasted pumpkin seeds. Of course trying these with pumpkin soup goes without saying, but I'm sure there are other fun soups out there these would work well with. It's also a way the kids can feel like they are helping by toasting pumpkin seeds after cleaning out the inside of the Halloween gourds.
Chopped fresh herbs. Parsley, cilantro and basil are three that come to mind right off the bat. I'm sure there are numerous other ones out there. I've seen this done as a garnish only, as well as having the chopped herbs on hand with a spoon to help yourself. As with most of the other topping ideas, this adds quite a bit of color and texture.
Sour cream. While this more than tasty with lighter colored soups such as potato, it's particularly dramatic with a darker colored soup. I'm picturing this with a nice spicy tortilla soup.
Lemon wedges. This one you basically have available on the side for people to squeeze the fresh lemon juice into their bowl of soup. Really popular in the Middle East, which is where I first got into doing this.
Whipped cream. The first time I had this on soup was in Slovenia on Lake Bled. Pretty tasty and can be done with any soup where you might like a dairy element that is less tangy than sour cream.
Potato sticks. The kind I'm referring to are the ultra thin fried ones that are used as casserole toppers and in some instances prepackaged snacks (look near the potato chip and pretzel aisle in the store). While I couldn't find a royalty free picture of these, I did run across an interesting spin off idea in the picture below. These are done with super thin small pieces of deep fried sweet potato. To tell you the truth though, I think I'd only go to this much trouble for a special occasion.
Tortilla chips. Personally, I save the broken ones that are too small to use with dip. Then I save them in a jar or other container in the freezer to use with soups and taco salads. If you're going for visual drama however, you could use the whole chips.
Shredded cheese. You can use this on many different soups, but you can also work in extra cost and calorie savings by making certain soups with a milk or white sauce base instead of a cheese base and using this stuff instead. A couple that come to mind are broccoli and potato soups. Also, if you like that broiled cheese topping that the restaurant versions of French onion soup often come with, that gives you one more thing to do with that bulk mozzarella you have in the freezer.
Herb purees. I recently discovered these things at the grocery store. They come in clear squeezable tubes and are basically the chopped herbs blended into some sort of solution that keeps them somewhat suspended. You can bet I'll be checking out the ingredient list more carefully the next time I'm in civilization. This strikes me as a great additional way to use the end of season bounty besides freezing them in the ice cube trays. Another great idea for soup garnishes? Homemade cilantro pesto.
Taking soup to the next level is a great way to stay psyched about eating at home more. And besides, just think of all the extra wine you can buy! Another helpful tip with soups is to freeze it ahead in individual containers, as suggested by Rob in Madrid during a previous bulk cooking discussion. His point, and it was a valid one, was that often couples don't feel like eating the same thing, which is one of the main perks of eating out. Having a few different soups on hand in the freezer in single serving containers, and a few topping options on the ready can help keep you on track with your eating out budget.
So that's it, Wise Bread readers. Sixteen soup garnishes that take budget eating to the next level, keeping yourself on budget without feeling deprived. On a selfish note, does anyone have a to die for recipe for coconut, lemongrass, chicken and mushroom Thai soup? This little place on fifth street in Tucson makes the best I've ever had. Unfortunately, I'm about as far away from there as I can get and still be in the continental United States right now. Help me out, will ya?
Thanks in advance, and feel free to post other ideas for soup garnishes in the comment section below. Have a great Wise Bread day!