Back in the fall, a Durham locavore said to me: Yay! It’s soup season, weather- and budget-wise. For those who love their firesides and the beauty of trees without leaves, it can be a welcome change. But that was October. This is February. After a string of warm, springlike days, the return to winter can be trying.

All the more reason to re-appraise soup as we ease toward true spring. It needs time alone, not lots of attention after the initial set-up; it can be left to simmer in slow cookers while we’re at work; it multiplies itself for leftovers, freezer meals and portable lunches; and soups gather both in-season and last season’s frozen (or otherwise put by) produce and meat.

Soup is also economical. I’ve written in this column before about soups made with locavore stocks, and keeping homemade chicken and beef stock on hand is the key to easy, quick soup-based meals. As always with home cooking, improvisation is the norm, because your pantry, freezer and Saturday hauls from the farmers’ market will always look different from mine. Turkey corn chowder after Thanksgiving is one I can make because I still have turkey stock and corn off the cob from a neighbor’s garden in my freezer. Options abound: chicken noodle soup, or or one of my favorites, White Bean Soup Provençale, both of which depend on rich homemade chicken stock like the one from Bryan Horton’s stew hen recipe (see Locavore Cooking, Jan. 14). Beef Burgundy or its American cousin, Beef Stew, as well as the French Onion Soup included here all call for beef stock.

White Bean Soup Provençale

My daughter requests this soup every time she comes home from college. It comes out a bit differently each time, but it is always dependent on quality chicken stock. As a shortcutand a healthier option than canned beansI prepare large batches of unseasoned dried legumes at once and freeze them in 1-quart containers for quick beans and rice, last-minute chili and navy bean soup with cornbread.

2 fat garlic cloves, minced
1 storage onion (or 2-3 thick green onions) diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 foot-long wand of fresh rosemary, cut into 3-inch lengths, or 1 tablespoon dried
1 quart frozen or home-canned tomatoes, chopped or pureed
1 quart chicken stock
1 quart cooked white beans (navy, great northern or Italian white kidney)
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

In a 4-quart saucepan, melt the garlic and onions in the olive oil, until soft, over low heat. Add rosemary, sauté for a minute. Stir in tomatoes and bring to a bubble. Add stock, and when soup returns to a bubble, add beans. Simmer for 15 minutes, adding water, more stock, or thinned tomato juice if not soupy enough to your liking. Remove rosemary wands; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves four generously, and with a whole grain bread and salad makes a hearty winter meal. For a last-minute addition, toss in a cup of chicken off the bone.

Uncle Neal’s French Onion Soup

I met my old friend Neal in Paris at the American University, where I was a freshman and he was doing his junior year abroad. He grew up to be a global banker and godfather to my daughter, and he is now on his way to becoming sommelier and wine merchant for his Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. He’s always been an excellent cook, cultivating his tastes and skills on annual pilgrimages to Europe and Napa Valley. This recipe has its origins with his French host family from that year in Paris and has been modified over the years by both of us. It celebrates beef stock, glorious spring onions and local cheese.

4 cups onions, sliced 1/4-inch thin (storage or new green onions work, white parts only)
1/2 stick butter
1 small loaf sturdy French bread, sliced 1-inch thick
3/4 pound hard Swiss-like cheese, grated
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups beef stock (see recipe below)

Sauté onions in butter until just soft. Cool to almost room temperature. In the bottom of a 2- to 3-quart casserole (I use my soufflé dish), layer 1/3 of the onions, bread slices, and 1/3 of each of the cheeses. Repeat the layers twice, ending with cheese. Combine wine and stock and pour over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until cheese bubbles and is slightly brown. Serves six as a first course, three to four as a main dish.

Bag O’ Bones Beef Stock

I make this with a bag of soup bones that sells for $5 from a local farmer. If you want to make extra to have on hand for uses in addition to onion soup (recipe above), add three cups of storage onion chunks to the herbs during the simmer stage. Likewise, when carrots and celery are in season, they make excellent additions. This recipe uses herbs currently available at farmers’ markets (usually as transplants in 4-inch pots, but I use them up before I ever get them in the ground).

3 quarts (about 4 to 5 pounds) beef bones (and meat scraps, if you have them)
Cold water to cover (10 to 12 cups)
6 whole cloves garlic, peeled
15 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 teaspoon dried thyme, or 8 sprigs fresh
1 teaspoon dried parsley, or 8 sprigs fresh
4 bay leaves
Kosher salt to taste

Roast the bones (and onions and carrots if you like) in a single layer in a 400-degree oven for 35 minutes or until nicely browned. Transfer them, and any juices or meaty bits from the roasting pan, to a stockpot and cover with water. Add the herbs and any vegetables you are including and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about three hours. Skim off cloudy foam that rises to the top. Add salt to taste. Strain stock into large bowl and refrigerate until fat has surfaced and can be scraped off the top. Store in refrigerator up to three days or freeze. Makes approximately 8 cups.