Mount Rushmore – Soup Edition

Mmmmm, soup.  Is there anything better than a delicious, piping hot bowl of soup on a snowy winter’s day?  (Note to our SoCal contingent: “Winter” is when the air turns cold and our precipitation comes in the form of tiny ice crystals.  Second note to our SoCal contingent: “Precipitation” is when water falls from the sky.)  More importantly, is there a more underrated, abused, or neglected culinary delight than soup?  When most people think of soup, they think of something that comes in a can.  Hogwash.  Canned soup is salty water with some B-grade vegetables and mystery meats thrown in.  I don’t even feel comfortable calling it “soup”.  Let’s just call it “can water”.  Soup, on the other hand, is delicious.  It is a labor of love.  I remember on one episode of “Top Chef” where a contestant used an open-ended challenge to prepare a soup and one of the judges remarked that a world renowned chef used to choose his underlings by telling them to prepare the best soup they could.  I couldn’t have nodded in agreement more vigorously.  And it is far more complex than just throwing a bunch of crap into a pot of salty water.  It is about extracting flavor.  It is about melding flavor.  It is about texture.  Damn, I’m just getting hungry thinking about it…

For me, soup is a meal unto itself.  Don’t get me wrong, if someone wants to give me a delicious bowl of soup and then more food, I’m not going to argue.  But let’s do away with the silliness that soup is but a mere starting course.  A good soup stands on its own.

Without further ado…

1. New England Clam Chowder:  Try to argue with me on this.  I dare you.  NECC is almost a stew when done right: a right, creamy base with endless chunks of clam, potato, and vegetable.  Sprinkle some fresh black pepper and toss in a few oyster crackers for good measure and you are good to go.  And don’t try fooling anyone with that Manhattan bullshit.  I will drown your ass in that shit.  That’s not chowder.  It’s clam and tomato soup.  It can be made well, but it ain’t clam chowder.

2. French Onion Soup:  While the order of items I list in Mount Rushmore is usually arbitrary, I still feel a little dirty not giving this one the top spot.  I mean, what’s not to love about French onion soup?  What seems like a simple broth but which is really complex to hit all the flavor notes.  Onions, one of Ruhlman’s  Twenty (soup is also in there, ohbytheway), star in this dish like they do nowhere else.  Oh, and we’re going to throw some cheese-melted-to-the-point-of-crisping and a delicious hunk of bread on there?  Sign me up.  The important thing about French onion soup is to avoid just devouring that delicious cheese and bread from the start.  While a good onion soup can stand on its own, this bowl really shines when you get all those flavors and textures working together.  (Shit, my mouth is really starting to water.  And I’m writing this from the bathroom, mind you…)

3. Tomato Soup:  And not that condensed tomato water shit Campbell’s has been peddling.  Real, good, creamy tomato soup.  The best tomato soup I’ve ever had was made by the former chef at my current school.  He worked a good amount of sweet onion into the base, which not only served to thicken in but added depth and richness.  Despite its name, don’t go pretending this soup is healthy: get your heavy cream in there.  A bowl of this godliness should be closer to pink than red.  A little black pepper over the top, a grilled cheese at the ready, and you’d be hard pressed to ask for a better lunch.

4. Chicken Noodle Soup: Ugh.  There are so many soups that are superior to even the best chicken noodle.  Bisques of one kind or another, lentil, mulligatawny… I could go on.  But Mount Rushmore is about more than just the best.  It also must pay homage to history and to fame.  Chicken noodle soup is probably the first soup most of us ever had.  It’s what parents and grandparents give us when we’re sick.  I’m pretty sure that godforsaken book series is up to Chicken Soup for the Dog’s Soul (Shit… it’s even worse than I thought…).  But as terrible as I assume that book series is, the fact that it exists hammers home all that is great about soup: it nourishes.  A single bowl has all you need in it.  It can be simple or complex, with an ingredient list 50 items long or shot enough to write on your palm.  But it nourishes you.  It makes you feel good.  It satiates you.  And chicken noodle soup remains the most ubiquitous example.  As such — as much as it pains me to include it over far more delicious bowls — it must go on the Mount Rushmore of Soup.

Related note: Not long ago, someone (I think it was Bill Simmons?) attempted to do a March Madness of soup.  In preparation, he asked many of his interviewees what their number one soup was.  A surprising amount — maybe even more than half — said split pea.  Really?  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve had some very good split pea soups.  If the ham is properly worked in and the texture is right, it can be downright delicious.  But as the best soup?  Ever?  Really?  Is there something I’m missing.  Is this a midwest thing?  A southern thing?  A west coast thing?  An everywhere-but-where-Kazzy-is thing?  Help me out here…

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97 thoughts on “Mount Rushmore – Soup Edition

  1. Soup:
    Chicken curry soup. Basically chicken veggie soup with curry power, more garlic, etc. I limit my veggies, and no starches at all, to something I converted from another recipie. Also works with beef/pork.

    Chilli-Beef, venison, elk. Yum. Cant get enough of cumin. With beans.

    Curry pumpkin soup-no in chunks, it’s like cream of tomato but thicker.

    Veggie soup: same as chicken veggie without meat.

    Chiopinio (sp). Rarely do I have the willingness to buy all the seafood and make this but sometimes…


    • I think we need a ruling on whether chili counts; because if it does, there’s no contest, chili rules over all. Maybe it’s a stew?

      There’s a Chinese place here that does the most ridiculously good hot and sour seafood soup. I’m not even that big of a soup guy. Too much work for too little payoff. But this stuff is deliciously addictive.

      From the OP, a good white clam chowder or tomato soup can be good. But contra the OP, they are just one course in a larger meal. These are team players, not solo acts.


    • Along with the “is Chili soup” question, what about ham and beans? My mom used to make them and it had most of the characteristics of soup (and was delicious), but I’m not sure it counts.

      Also, my wife and I have a running disagreement. She says one “drinks” soup, whereas I say one “eats” it. Any opinions?


    • I’m going to rule that chili (and stew) are not soups for the purposes of this MR. They’d throw everything into flux.

      And I have no fucking idea what ham and beans are.


  2. My approach to this would not be ‘what comes from a can,’ but ‘basic preparation methods using various liquid basis.’

    I move to change ‘chicken noodle’ to ‘chicken soup,’ a basic chicken broth with chicken and whatever assortment of other things (including noodles) you might have on hand.

    I nominate:

    Coconut soup — coconut milk with an assortment of vegetables, some seasoning, and perhaps a few bites of leftover meat.

    Minestra — a water based soup (no stock), filled with the vegetables available and plenty of fresh herbs, particularly basil, perhaps some pasta or beans or both;

    Lentil soup — this is the soup Esau received in exchange for his birth right; plenty of alliums (onions), stock or water, spices, most particularly I recommend cumin, vegetables to hand, and plenty of lentils, cooked until the soup is thick and hearty. Other dried legumes can work here, split or chick peas; beans, on the other hand, need long soak and pre-cooking before using, so they don’t make a ‘lentil’ soup.’


  3. 1) Pho. How can you not have mentioned the best beef soup ever! Serious French and Vietnamese fusion, this is delectable — but never, ever make it at home.

    2) Ramen. Be it Tokyo style or no, Ramen is one of those awesome foods — it’s so awesome that I spent most of a trip to SF eating nothing but.

    3) Daal. Warm and smooth and awesome.

    Tomato soup with heavy cream in it is a travesty. Instead, allow me to offer:
    4) Tomato Potato Onion soup. Just like it says on the tin, except it’s never seen in a tin.

    5) Chicken soup.

    And yes, there is something better than a warm bowl of soup on a winter’s day. A fresh, spring bowl of chicken soup when it’s pouring rain out — filled with new potatoes and scallions, carrots and mushrooms and celery.


      • Fighting words, Burt. Not the “stew” part, but “done right”. Minestrone includes a lot of variations – in fact, the strongest argument against it being on this list is that it’s too broad a term. To me, it’s about getting the spinach, beans, and pasta in the right proportions. But there are some people, probably mentally disturbed or who grew up in isolation, who would think to use rice or leave out the spinach.


      • “But there are some people, probably mentally disturbed or who grew up in isolation, who would think to use rice or leave out the spinach.”

        Now THAT’S how you argue Mount Rushmore. Well played, .

        The trouble with ramen is most people have only been exposed to the instant stuff.


      • Kazzy,
        Sapporo Icchiban makes a damn good instant miso ramen. Highly recommended.
        (and for a dollar a meal, it makes a damn nice lunch!).

        The shame of it is: most people haven’t ever had good instant ramen.


    • Does Daal count as a soup, I think it’s more of a stew? Also, you’re not supposed to eat it by itself. You’re supposed to mix it with rice or dip your flat bread in it (actually scoop/mop it up with your flat bread).

      Rasam is a soup. And it is an awesome soup. Of course the British adulterated it and ended up calling it Mulligatawny* soup, but the original is awesome. I’m partial to tomato rasam. My grandmother used to make that for me whenever I was down with a flu.

      If you are looking at varieties of tomato soup. Tomato shorba which is usually available at any high class indian restaurant is among the best soups I have had. They are tangy and just a little bit spicy to make things interesting.

      I actually like Cream of Mushroom. Campbell’s cream of mushroom can be made to taste good by modifying the cooking instructions on the tin. Instead of adding water like they say, add milk. Stir until you get the requisite thickness. You get a creamier and smoother product than you would if you just followed Campbell’s instructions.

      Campbell’s tomato soup should be prepared similarly. Don’t add water, add milk. Then, add about a handful of grated cheese and stir it in. Then, when you serve the soup again, add in more cheese so that you get gooey swirls of cheese inside your soup.

      *In fact, the name itself is a combination of two tamil words: Milagu, which means black pepper and thanni, which means water. It is likely based off Milagu Rasam. Rasam is usually a vegetarian dish. In fact, I would say that once you start adding meat its not rasam anymore. I would also further add that you can almost never find mulligatawny soup in authentic indian restaurants.


  4. 1. Thom ka kai
    (If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out on one of life’s supreme pleasures–this is the one item I invariably include in my meal when I go out for Thai; it’s the soup they serve three meals a day in heaven.)

    2. French Onion
    (only served twice a day in heaven)

    3. Tomato Bisque
    (served weekly heaven)

    4. New England Clam Chowder
    (served occasionally)

    (As an also receiving consideration, I’d also include “Dutch soup.” I have no idea what it’s properly called, but that’s what my Dutch wife calls it. It’s some conglomeration of beef chunks, meatballs, noodles and chicken-soup seasoning that her Dutch dad makes. It’s always a bit hit in my house, especially on those cold gray soup days–make a big batch in a huge pot and we have enough for two or three days.)


    • Butternut squash was an also-ran in the mental draft. Sooooo good.

      I didn’t think about matzoh ball soup, but a good bowl of it is fantastic. The problem is too many people have either never had it or had poor renditions.


    • I much enjoy the lobster bisque while eating it. It has a very high milkfat content, which makes the afterglow sometimes a bit uncomfortable.

      Cioppino — dude, you are from San Francisco, aren’t you? Related: bouillabaisse.


  5. I cannot argue with the four you’ve chosen. (I might even cough politely and mention that someone hereabouts posted his own chicken soup recipe a while back.) My only quibble is your ambivalence about chicken soup at all.

    Oh, but if chili counts then French onion has to go.


    • My issue with chicken soup is less output and more input. You can only do so much with chicken and noodles and vegetables. Even the best chicken soup is limited by its primary component parts. I’ve had great chicken soup. My dad’s turkey soup is one of my faves. But there are a number of soups that simply have much higher ceilings.


      • You’ve not had fresh new potatoes, small as your thumb — or smaller? Try ’em with some green onions (bit bigger than scallions), and carrots, some early mushrooms.

        … seriously, this stuff outshines any creamy tomato soup any day of the week.


      • Art deco? Baroque? You should have used a sports analogy. Would I criticize Mariano Rivera for not striking out 200 guys a season? No. But I’d still take Pedro Martinez over him.


  6. I’d just like to reiterate what Kazzy was forced to admit. Chicken noodle is an indispensible western soup. I don’t think you can have a Mount Rushmoor of Soups without it.


    • Had I not written this at 4am on the toilet, I would have included a section about the soupification of non-soup foods. Like loaded baked potatoes? There’s a soup for that. Stuffed peppers? Yep. Mexican food? The aforementioned tortilla soup? Cheeseburgers? Probably!


  7. Borscht. Ooooh yes. It can be simple with just beets and red cabbage and a splash of vinegar, or all the red things you can find – red beets, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, red wine vinegar – vegetarian or with pork and meat broth, served with dill, sour cream or rich yogourt, and good hearty rye bread. Oh yes indeedy.

    Some kind of legume soup, and I’m not terribly picky about the specifics. French Canadian split pea soup, or Turkish red lentil soup, or a creamy Indian kaali dal soup, or etc. etc.

    Leek and potato soup, creamy and smooth.

    Pho. I might have forgotten Pho had Kim not thought to include it.

    As alluded to above, to my frame of reference split pea soup is a Quebec / Acadian thing. I don’t know about best soup ever, but I’d bump chicken and/or clam chowder from the list in its favour.


  8. I’ll agree with the NE clam chowder since it’s well known. However, years ago when I was traveling to Seattle with some regularity, places served a seafood chowder that was better. It was a pale orange in color, and I’ve never seen anything like it outside of Seattle.


  9. Another tough Mt.Rushmore to climb…

    Papa al Pomodoro – This is my daughters’ favorite soup ever. It’s the heariest tomato-based soup you will ever eat and we even occasionally add small meatballs to take it over the top. If you leave out the bread it’s still awesome and more appropriate for dipping your grilled cheese in.
    Recipe here:

    Bean Soup – I think this is what Michael Cain is referring to as Ham & Beans above. Yes, a great way to get rid of that hambone. I usually like mine to just have Navy beans in it but I occasionally use the 16 Bean mix. Well-made bean soup may be my favorite of all soups.

    Pho/Ramen – I am lumping these together because both have noodles, Asian flavors and are heavily dependent on a rich stock. So glad that both are blowing up in the U.S.

    French Onion – With plenty of bread and melted cheese please. Delicious.


  10. 1. Pho – it is the absolute king of all soups.
    2. Chicken soup
    3. Italian Wedding Soup.
    4. Seafood bisque. I don’t care what kind of seafood, if it’s seafood and it’s a bisque, it’s on Mount Rushmore.

    Honorable mention – Matzo ball soup, especially when made with goose. The specific version I have in mind would be my second or third favorite soup of all time, but I don’t think it appropriate to have such a specific version elevate the entire domain of Matzo ball soup onto Mt. Rushmore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Matzo ball soup, but usually it’s not flavorful enough to beat out Pho or bisque, and it’s not enough of a standby for me to beat out Chicken soup or Italian Wedding Soup.


  11. Northwest Clam Chowder – Similar to NECC, in that it is a cream base with clams, potatoes, scallions, and some other veggies (depending on the chef), but almost universally it has BACON! Which, obviously, makes it superior to NECC.

    Minestrone – A good minestrone can warm the soul & the palate, while being nearly as satisfying as a hearty stew.

    Beef Barley – Another soup that borders on stew.

    Hearty Chicken Noodle – with CHUNKS of chicken & veggies, not tiny pieces


    • Ahem.

      NECC has bacon. Otherwise, it’s not NECC. My earliest NE cookbook dates back to 1700’s, and there’s bacon in there. My mother uses bacon, my sister uses bacon, my grandmother used bacon. I used bacon when I made it for my cafe. (I cannot eat it; I’m allergic to sea food).

      Never a roux; always heavy cream and always russet potatoes. Freshly dug clams essential. Best if you dig them yourself.


  12. Chili – It is definitely soup. As are stews. And chili is the king of soups and stews. Anyone who doesn’t like it is touched in the head. I’m not a purist. Beans are fine with me. White chili is also fine. Green chili is even better. I’m including all the taco/tortilla/quesadilla soup recipes as subsets of chili.

    Italian Wedding – Meatballs. Meatballs. Meatballs. Escarole.

    Chowders – I’m just going to throw the clam chowder, corn chowder, creamy potato soup, all in one big category because they all derive most of their goodness from cream and potatoes. Yes, adding the clams or corn or whatever you’d like adds a distinct flavor, but I think the base (cream and potatoes) is how you define the soup.

    French Onion – Yeah, I’ll go for that.

    Note on Chicken Noodle: How often do you eat any chicken broth based soup and go, “Wow that was amazing!” Never. No one says that about chicken soup. Thus, its disqualification from the MR. I’m eschewing ubiquity as a qualification.


    • I’m calling a penalty on chili being a soup. Some chili IS served in a soup-like consistency but there’s more to it than that, but it is a pretty subjective definition. There is also the so-called ‘white chili’ which is one of my most hated dishes, not because it tastes bad but because it is actually just chicken soup.

      I realize this is a very debatable culinary topic. I half-joked in college that if I did a masters in anthropology it would be an exploration of chili recipes by geographic locale. Cincinnati chili is very thin but I still don’t consider it a soup (served over spaghetti it’s actually more like a sauce). On the flip side, there are some stews that are thicker than most chilis and I still lump them into the soup category.


  13. Oy. What a WASPY collection of watery dishes.

    Here is the real Mt. Rushmore, in order:

    1. Tom Ka Ghai — Because it’s the best soup, ever. Period. And because it’s so similar, I will add Khoa Soi — the Burmese version — here, rather than make it a separate Mt. Rushmore entry.

    2. Pho — Because, dude… Pho. How did you leave off Pho?

    3. Posole — Because a well-made authentic posole might well be the greatest import from Latin-America ever. It’s even better than black bean or tortilla soup, two other Latin-American additions which deserve at least honorable mentions.

    4. Chili — Because if we’re going to count chowder as “soup” — I’m guessing we’re defining soup as whatever restaurants occasionally list for their Soup of the Day? — then we need to count chili as one as well, and chili kick’s chowder’s ass.


  14. 1. Tom Kha. Because seriously, how is this even a question? Will is the only one here who has any excuse for disputing this, and only because he has an olfactory disability. I do admit to some confusion regarding whether I should eat the giant chunks of wood floating around in it, but whatever. Tom Kha with wood still beats any other soup without.

    2. Gumbo. It has sausage, and it has shrimp. You know how many of those things French onion soup has? Zero. Gumbo is what chili should have been.

    3. Pho. With tendon, AKA meat jello. I’m not saying that Vietnamese refugees bringing pho over to the United States made the fall of Vietnam to the communists worth it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s true.

    4. Tonjiru. Miso soup with pork, potatoes, green onions, and all things delicious. Let’s not beat around the bush—if this isn’t on your list, you’re a racist.

    Honorable mention to New England clam chowder. Jesus, Kazzy. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but you could only manage one.


  15. 1. New England clam chowder.
    2. Black bean
    3. Cream of mushroom
    4. Chicken noodle

    French onion doesn’t belong on the list, as it’s just a bowl of grease with cheese on top. Blech.

    That is all.


  16. I should also mention burgoo as a pretty good soup. Of course, it’s only right if it includes squirrel and at least one other wild animal but it didn’t make my top four.


    • Gumbo? I love gumbo. But I think of gumbo as more stew than soup.

      Even then, I’d be troubled to put gumbo on the mountain. People should look at the mountain and say, “I’ve and that and it totally belongs!” or “I’ve had that and it totally doesn’t belong!” Too many people would see gumbo and think, “I haven’t had that.”

      Which is a crying shame. But the truth tends to be.


  17. I have to admit, I don’t think pho counts as a soup. It’s a noodle dish, first and foremost.

    Same with any variation of noodle soups like Miso-tonkotsu ramen, or Bami Nam, etc. etc.


  18. Lobster Bisque

    * Clear winner.
    * Needs its own mountain.

    New England Style Clam Chowder, served San Francisco: in a Sourdough Bread Bowl
    Gumbo (Brandon is correct, and Tod is crazy for thinking chili counts as a soup)
    Lentil (hat tip to zic)


    • Except I am not ambivalent about the chicken (or poultry more generally) noodle soup. For a few weeks after each Christmas we have turkey noodle soup made from leftover turkey and my grandma’s homemade noodles. It’s wonderful.


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