By five o’clock on a recent Tuesday, cars were lining up in front of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook. One by one, the awaited orders came out—all including quarts of fresh, hot soup.
“I love making soups,” says chef Sarah Stegner. “They’re the perfect, comforting way to feature vegetables and great stocks. Early into the pandemic, we had stopped making them every day, but we had so many requests, we decided to go full-on with them again starting in January.”
Inside the restaurant, Stegner glances over at early dinner guests spooning bowls of soup. “Most people have it as the first course for their meal,” she says, “but the carry-out orders are what’s really taken off.”
Spinach, parsnip, squash and lentil; tomato-basil, split-pea, vegetable and cauliflower; potato-leek, bean and sausage: “The options are pretty much endless,” says Stegner.
She thinks her soups are hitting the mark with guests not just because they’re winter-warming and healthy, but because the time-consuming steps of mincing and chopping and making a good stock have been done for them by Stegner and her kitchen.
“The better the stock, the better the flavor,” says Stegner. “But it takes many hours. Our chicken stock [the base for Prairie Grass non-vegetarian soups] is intensely flavored, made with bones from our antibiotic-free and hormone-free chickens, lots of vegetables, bay leaf, thyme and other herbs.”
Once stock is ready, she sautés or roasts vegetables and other ingredients to simmer and reach peak flavor in the soups.
For her brilliantly-green spinach soup, Stegner blends fresh, organic spinach with the stock and a touch of butter to order, and garnishes with parmesan Reggiano. Her hearty sausage bean soup includes crumbles of house-made lamb sausage with candied fennel, roasted garlic, carrots, celery, onion, Swiss chard and beans.
The best-selling lentil soup is made two ways, one vegetarian, the other with chicken stock and sometimes bacon. And the parsnip soup, with sauteed onion, parsnips and stock, is finished with cream and a bright sprinkle of tart pomegranate or wood sorrel.
“I always want garnishes to add texture, flavor and contrast,” she adds, “they’re not just there to look pretty.”
Stegner’s soup artistry is driven by her love for fresh vegetables. “My passion for vegetables really defines my restaurant,” she says. “I’m not vegetarian, but creating any dish for the restaurant, I’m always looking for which vegetables are local and in season, and then add proteins to those.”
With plant-based dining in mind, Stegner just added a four-week subscription package, offering plant-based meals (chef’s choice) including an entrée and a side for pick-up Thursdays between 2pm and 5pm.
As with soups, the vegetarian meals are a time-consuming labor of love. “To make these really delicious, there is a lot of chopping and simmering involved,” she smiles.
Through the cold-weather months, expect to see plenty of winter vegetables showcased both in the soups and in the plant-based subscription meals. “Parsnip, celery root, carrot… Even rutabaga and turnips. I think people are less comfortable with the cooking methods for vegetables that are available in the winter, so you don’t see them used as often. But here, we love working with them.”