In The Thick Of It

"Crab" Portofino Soup"

The soup station at the Season's Cafe in the Ohio State University Medical Center beckons customers with fresh, housemade soups and signature chili daily.


In a hospital setting, if you're going to have one product that's really good, that you're really famous for, it had better be soup," declares Mary Angela Miller, MS, RD, LD, administrative director at Ohio State University Medical Center.

Building a reputation
That's why Miller and her staff take care to ensure that the soups and chili sold in the hospital's Season's Cafè are homemade, signature products.

"When customers come in the cafè door, instead of asking, 'what's on the menu,' they'll say, 'what's the soup today?'" she notes.

The key to such customer enthusiasm, Miller insists, is "testing, testing, testing." With a cook-chill operation, finding ingredients and recipes that stand up to the rigors of that preparation is crucial. "For instance, we found the perfect thick noodle to hold up in our popular beef noodle soup, and it's really the secret ingredient. This soup is so thick and hearty, it's almost a casserole," she says.

For Season's Famous Homemade Chili, the staff renders a blend that's "meaty, not too tomato-y, and looks like Mom used to make"; and about 900 servings a week are sold. For OSU tailgate parties or other offsite events, customers can purchase the chili in large cook-chill bags of 25 servings each for $12.00. "It's always consistent, always a quality product," Miller notes. "In my 15 years here, I've never had a complaint about the chili or soups."

Recovery efforts
But what do you do when complaints surface? That's the problem Robert Volpi, director of dining services for Williams College in Massachusetts, faced when he looked over the results of a student survey last school year. "Soups were rated the lowest in all categories," he says. "It was a shock."

Although far from handing down a failing grade (the soups rated 3 out of a 5-point system), students nevertheless took the lineup to task for its taste and limited variety. To achieve consistency, Volpi zeroed in on a single supplier for soup bases (the kitchen staff had been using "all kinds of different products"); and he and his culinary staff worked with the manufacturer over the summer to test over 100 new recipes.

Better quality soups called for better quality presentation, too, so Volpi reconfigured the station, changing it from soup tureens next to the salad bar to a new display with hammered copper kettles on serpentine, skirted tables. Slices of multi-grain bread from the campus' own bake shop join fresh-made, seasoned croutons and wedges of cheese for accompaniments. New, twelve-ounce ceramic bowls beckon customers to fill them with the improved soups, and "neat, one-handed" peppermills allow for quick garnishing with fresh-ground pepper.

You want choices?
Two soup selections per meal is pretty standard; three is nice but six choices plus chili? At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, that's what customers have enjoyed since earlier this year, when the expanded line replaced the previous single soup/one chili offering per day.

The change has "gone over quite well," Executive Chef Stan Walker modestly notes. "Soup is an inexpensive comfort food, and about a third of all our checks include a soup order."

It's no wonder, with such picks as Walker's signature Rush Chicken Soup (chock-full of matzo balls, noodles and rice), Cream of Smoked Chicken (laden with big chunks of smoked chicken, thickly-sliced mushrooms and peas), Potato and Cabbage Soup, Vegan Spicy Black Bean and Vegan Gumbo. The new station also features fun garnishes, such as cheese-flavored popcorn, housemade croutons and corn chips.

An expanded soup selection is a nod to what Walker sees as the increase in the popularity of soup these days. "There are better recipes and products for vegan soups now, and a lot of the 'in' foods today are soups, such as Asian noodle soups and ethnic stews."

Next up for Rush customers will be a weekly Chili Bar, boasting four different varieties of the hot stuff.

"We'll offer our very popular Rush Chili along with three other eclectic chilis, including a white version made with hominy, chocolate, three different kinds of beans and fresh corn," says Walker (see recipe).

Accompaniments will include tortilla bowls, jalapeÒo corn bread, fresh-made salsa, "Mexican crumbling cheese," fresh avocado and others, as the inspiration strikes Walker.

"If the chili bar is successful, we're thinking of adding a weekly chowder bar on a different day, which could feature three or more choices along with bread bowls, a variety of cheeses and crostini," he muses.

Maintaining a balance
According to Mary Zawieski, vice president of the Rochelle Group (a Kongers, NY-based foodservice consulting firm) and former director of auxiliary services for Connecticut College, the secret to a good soup/stew/chili menu is balance.

"When I work with foodservice directors or menu planners, I try to encourage them to have a minimum of two soups daily, as one just isn't sufficient in this day and age, with so many different dietary needs," she says. "If serving only two soups, one should be a vegetarian/vegan and one should be a meat/poultry soup. If one is a creamy or hearty-type soup, the other should be broth-based."

Three soups on the menu, however, makes it easier to achieve balance, Zawieski urges. "With three, one should be a broth, one creamy, and one hearty; and of the three one should be vegetarian/vegan.

Nothing turns health-and weight-conscious customers off more than to see nothing but hearty, creamy and calorie-laden soups, since many customers look to soup as a nutritious and lower-calorie choice for a meal."

A good example of what not to serve, she suggests, would be New England clam chowder, creamy butternut bisque, and chili all at the same time. "Yes, one is hearty, one is vegetarian and one is meat-based, but all are high in calories."

But thick and hearty doesn't necessarily have to mean eye-popping calorie counts, either. Simple techniques such as roasting roughly-chopped vegetables before slipping them into soups and toasting grains first "brings out so much more of the flavor than just adding the raw ingredients to the liquid and boiling them," Zawieski advises.

Roasting and then purèeing vegetables (especially pumpkin, squashes and carrots) before stirring them into soups is another healthful way to heighten the flavor while thickening the stock, she adds.

"And try something other than noodles for a change; something whole grain instead, like barley."

Fresh approaches

Tired of the same old ingredients in your soups and stews? Add some new interest, flavor variations and a fresh look with these alternatives:
INSTEAD OF... TRY
Celery Fennel
Spinach Collard greens or bok choy
Butternut or acorn squash Kabocha, red kuri, turban or sweet dumpling
Boiling or baking potatoes Baby purple or red potatoes, Klamath pearl
Bell peppers Sweet tooth peppers
Regular onions Maui onions or red pearls
Tomatoes Tamarillos
Okra or green beans Cactus pads (nopales)
Parsnips Sunchokes
Diced whole tomatoes Sliced tear-drops
Diced white meat chicken Shredded, smoked dark meat poultry
Noodles Toasted whole grains
Croutons Toasted polenta cubes, cheese-flavored popcorn
Bacon bits Soy crumbles