Spicing up Winter Soups

Winter Soup

It’s the end of winter–the season of the root cellar. That’s where I go for the ingredients for winter soups: potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, cabbage, winter squash, onions, and leeks. These are humble ingredients, full of mellow, earthy flavors. These understated flavors beg for some pizzazz, so cooking with them provides a perfect opportunity to play with spices. Lentils and Indian dals (beans) combine well with winter vegetables, so making curry powders and spice blends is a natural path to follow.

Spices in a Pan

Spice Basics: Spices begin to lose their flavor as soon as they are ground (that’s one reason it is so satisfying to use a mortar and pestle –you get to enjoy the wonderful aroma of fresh spices as they are ground). Start with whole spices whenever possible and grind them in small amounts. To get the most fragrant spices, shop from mail-order sources or stores with customers who appreciate spices and buy them frequently. Protect all spices from air, light, and heat.

Releasing Flavor: Before spices can impart their full flavor to foods, they need a little help. Cracking, grinding, dry-roasting (toasting), and blooming are all methods of releasing the flavors of spices.

*Grinding, Cracking, Crushing: These methods release aromatic oils. Coarsely ground or cracked spices add little jolts of flavor and interesting texture to a dish. A fine grind can be more subtle and blends in more evenly. I usually toast (dry roast) whole spices before grinding to use in marinades or add to dishes near the end of cooking.

*Dry roasting: This method toasts whole spices without oil or liquid, transforming spices the same way toasting bread does. It is best to toast each kind of spice separately, as they require different amounts of time. Heat a dry, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the whole spice and stir or shake the pan continually to prevent scorching. Toast until the spices are fragrant and lightly browned. Transfer immediately to a spice grinder or mortar and allow to cool before grinding.

*Blooming: Cooking whole spices in oil extracts flavor and aroma quickly. Warm a few Tbs oil in a pan over medium heat. Add whole spices to the pan and cook until small bubbles rise around the spices. Turn the heat down or off and stir a minute or so until the spices are fragrant but not browned. Bloomed spices can be the way to begin a recipe, or poured over the top of a finished dish (spice oil for finishing is called Tarka). Ground spices made into a paste with moist ingredients like garlic, ginger, and fresh herbs and chiles are also bloomed at the start of cooking.

Playing with spices: Start with one or two spices at a time. Cumin, either whole or ground, is friendly presence in a wide variety of dishes. Cumin and coriander or cumin and mustard seed enhance each other, and the three spices are often used together. Their flavors are companionable and taste earthy and warm. Fennel is another easy-to-add spice that is welcome in food from Italy to India.

Start small. A little can go a long way. A good way to experiment is to toast and grind the spice or spice mixture to a powder. Add a pinch or two at the end of cooking, stir and taste. You can always add more. Adding spices to a bowl of potato soup or other simple stew can be a revelation. Or, put a few pinches of whole spice into the oil at the start of a stir-fry or braise; cook about 30 seconds before adding other aromatics.

Harira with Baharat and Meatballs


A hearty mixture of grains, lentils, and chickpeas, Harira is a Moroccan soup commonly served during the fasting month of Ramadan. This is an excellent soup for a blustery winter night, with or without the meatballs. Baharat is an Arab spice mix.

Baharat: 1 tsp black peppercorns, 2 tsp coriander seeds, 1 3-inch cinnamon stick, 5 or 6 whole allspice or cloves, 2 tsp cumin seed, seeds from 2 cardamom pods, 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces. Dry-roast all the spices except the cardamom and nutmeg. Grind to a powder in a spice grinder.

Meatballs: 8 oz ground beef, 6 to 8 oz ground lamb or turkey, 1 small chopped onion, 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, 1 beaten egg, 4 Tbs bread crumbs, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint, thyme), 2 tsp Baharat spice mix (or 1 tsp ground cumin and 1/4 tsp each ground cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg), 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper.

Put all the ingredients together in a bowl. Mix with your hands and shape into small balls about 1-inch in diameter. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, fry the meatballs until browned on all sides. Set aside.

Ingredients for soup: 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 large chopped onion, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1 cup diced carrots, 3/4 cup chopped celery, 1 cup diced parsnip, 1 cup brown lentils, 1 cup barley, farro, or bulgur wheat, 4 cups vegetable, chicken, or meat broth, 2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups diced fresh or canned tomatoes with juice, 1 Tbs tomato paste, 2 tsp ground coriander, 1 2-inch cinnamon stick, 1 tsp salt, 2 tsp Baharat, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, chickpea liquid or water to thin soup, 1 cup chopped parsley leaves, 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves, salt and black pepper. Lemon wedges for serving.

Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook until softened, 5 or 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Stir in the carrots, celery, and parsnips and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, ground coriander, cinnamon stick, and salt. Cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the grain and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the broth, water, and the lentils. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer gently over low heat 20 to 25 minutes. When the grain is barely tender, add the Baharat, meatballs, chickpeas, and more liquid as needed. Simmer another 15 to 20 minutes, until the grain is fully cooked. Stir in the fresh herbs and season to your taste with salt and black pepper.

Cauliflower and Potato Curry with Chickpeas

Bowl of Spices

Marcella Hazen wrote in her cookbook of Classic Italian Cooking, “Soups are where good leftovers go when they are reborn.” Leftovers from a dinner of rice, dal, and curried vegetables found a new home in this culinary collision of Indian curry and Middle Eastern spiced chickpeas. 

Garam Masala: 11/2 Tbs cumin seed, 1 1/2 Tbs coriander seed, 1 1/2 Tbs black peppercorns, 1/2 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp whole cloves, 4 green cardamom pods, 3-inch stick whole cinnamon, 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, 1 tsp crushed red chiles

Dry roast the spices (except the nutmeg and chiles). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.

Curry ingredients: 2 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs vegetable oil, 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 1 tsp whole coriander seed, 1 tsp whole black mustard seed, 1 thinly sliced medium onion, 1 minced small hot chile, 2 Tbs grated ginger, 2 cloves crushed garlic, 1 1/2 cups fresh or canned diced tomatoes, 2 carrots cut in 1/4-inch slices, 1 lb potatoes (or winter squash) cut in 1-inch chunks, 1 medium head cauliflower cut into florets, 1 tsp salt, 1 1/2 cups water or broth, garam masala, 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (1 15-oz can), 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, chopped fresh coriander, parsley, and mint leaves, and yogurt.

Warm the butter and oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat with the whole spices. When they are fragrant and sizzling, stir in the onion and cook 5 or 6 minutes. Add the chile, ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice and heat to a simmer. Stir in the carrots, potato, and cauliflower and stir to combine. Sprinkle with salt and the water or broth. Cover, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once or twice. When the potatoes (or squash) are tender, gently stir in 1 tsp garam masala. Taste, and add more spice or salt if desired. Simmer 5 more minutes over very low heat.

While the vegetables cook, make the spiced chickpeas: Put the drained chickpeas in a bowl and toss with 1 tsp garam masala  (or 1 tsp ground cumin seed, 1 tsp ground allspice, and 1/2 tsp ground cardamom), and 1/4 tsp salt. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil with 2 cloves minced garlic and 1/4 tsp red chile flakes in a skillet over medium heat. Cook about 1 minute, then stir in the chickpeas. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, shaking the pan or stirring to toast evenly. Add the chickpeas to the curry. Sprinkle the top with a handful of chopped fresh herbs.

I added the leftover moong dal (red lentils) to the stew, as well. To try that incarnation, cook 3/4 cup well washed dal in a saucepan with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and add 2  bay leaves and a small stick cinnamon. Simmer until the dal is tender, about 25 minutes. The dal should be thick but soup-like. Remove the bay and cinnamon. Stir in 1/4 tsp turmeric and 1/2 tsp or more salt, to taste. Stir the cooked dal into the vegetable curry before adding the chickpeas. 

South Indian Lentil Stew with Sambhar Masala


Made with quick-cooking dal (small lentils, beans, and peas used in Indian cooking) and a generous amount of winter root vegetables, this soup is a lovely, warm yellow. Make your own Sambhar Masala, or substitute another curry powder.

Sambhar Masala: 1 1/2 Tbs channa or urad dal, 2 Tbs coriander seed, 1 1/2 tsp fenugreek, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1 Tbs cumin seed, 1 Tbs black mustard seed, 6 small dried hot chiles (or 2 tsp ground), 1/2 tsp turmeric, 6 to 8 dried curry leaves (optional)

Dry roast the dal or split peas over medium heat, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the coriander, peppercorns, and fenugreek. Continue to stir 2 to 3 more minutes, until the spices are fragrant and lightly browned. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Dry roast the dal, cumin, and mustard seeds. Combine with the other spices, red chiles (remove seeds for less heat), and curry leaves. Grind to a fine powder and stir in the turmeric.

The stew ingredients: 1 1/4 cups masoor or channa dal (red lentils or split mung beans), 2 Tbs vegetable oil, 2 cups diced onion, 1 cup diced carrot, 2 cups diced potato, or parsnip, 1 1/2 Tbs grated ginger, 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 finely chopped jalapeno, 1 tsp salt, 2 cups chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, 2 or 3 tsp Sambhar Masala spice mix (or other curry powder), 1 Tbs tamarind paste or fresh lemon juice

Wash the lentils well, drain, and set them aside. Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot and cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the ginger, garlic, and jalapeno. Add a few Tbs water, sprinkle with salt, and cook 1 minute. Add the potatoes or parsnips, the lentils, and 6 cups water or broth.  Bring to a boil, and simmer partially covered for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. When the lentils and vegetables are tender, stir in the spice mix, chopped tomato, and tamarind or lemon juice (tomatillo salsa is good, too). Simmer 5 to 10 more minutes. Puree the soup and check the seasoning. Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt or yogurt sauce.

Make a Tarka for this soup: Heat 2 Tbs oil in a small skillet or saucepan. When the oil is hot, add 2 tsp black mustard seed. Cook until they begin to pop. Add 1 tsp cumin seeds and cook about one minute. Pour the tarka into the soup, stir well, and serve.

Yellow Split Pea Soup with Chinese and Bengali 5-Spice

Split Pea Soup

I just discovered the Bengali 5-spice mix at my favorite store for all things Asian, so I had to use it.  Bright orange Kabocha squash lends sweetness and color. Spices add fragrant warmth.

*Chinese 5-Spice: 4 whole star anise, 1 tsp fennel seed, 4-5 whole cloves, 2-inch stick cinnamon, 2 tsp Sichuan pepper

Dry roast the cloves, cinnamon (broken into pieces), and Sichuan pepper. Use a spice grinder to grind all the spices to a fine powder.

*Bengali 5-spice (Panch Phoran): 1 tsp brown mustard seed, 1 tsp cumin seed, 1 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp onion seed (Kalonji) or nigella, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seed

This mixture of whole seeds is bloomed in oil to make a flavor base for braises, soups, and stir-fried dishes.

Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups yellow split peas, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs olive oil, 1 tsp panch phoran or 1 tsp whole cumin seed, 2 thinly sliced medium onions, 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 tsp salt, 6 cups vegetable broth or water, 1 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder, 4 to 5 cups winter squash or sweet potato cut in 1-inch cubes, 1/4 cup fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1 tsp orange zest

Put the split peas in a large saucepan and cover them by 2 inches with boiling water. Cover and let sit for 2 hours or longer.

Warm the butter and olive oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot. Add the cumin seed and cook 30 seconds. Stir in the onion and cook over medium-low heat 5 or 6 minutes. Add the garlic, and ginger. Cook 1 minute. Drain the split peas and add them to the pot with 1 tsp salt and 6 cups water or broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add the squash and 5-spice powder. Simmer 20 more minutes until the squash and peas are completely tender. Puree the soup in a blender with the orange juice. Season to taste with  salt, orange zest, and lime juice. Serve with yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce

Plain yogurt is fine, and  yogurt sauce is even better. Mix 1 cup thick plain whole-milk yogurt with 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed (or 1/2 tsp freshly made spice powder), 1/2 tsp lemon or lime zest, a few Tbs chopped chives, mint, or cilantro, and salt to taste.

Variation: Add 2/3 cup finely chopped radish, or cucumber.


2 thoughts on “Spicing up Winter Soups

  1. You shame me — I have some jars of very elderly spices that I need to toss out. Then I can put that mortar and pestle Ellen gave me to good use.

    • Yep, they have to go. Here is my rule: A jar of ground spices or curry powder should smell so good it makes you want to cook something as soon as possible. Otherwise, it is probably too old.

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