As I write this, it is currently 30° here in Rockville, Maryland. We had our first snow of the season today, just a scattering that fluttered down, most melting upon hitting the ground, but some managing to stick and cling to the naked tree branches in my yard. When I took my dog out for a walk before lunch it was bitterly cold, even wearing a coat, scarf, and gloves. After lunch, my daughter and I bundled up and headed out to attend the matinee performance of a play being performed by a local community theatre organization. By the time the play was over and we walked out to the car, the snow was gone and the temperatures had risen, but it was still a damp, miserable night out.
While it isn’t the kind of winters common in Minnesota or Colorado or Alaska or even Pittsburgh, when our version of winter settles upon us and confirms that it is here to stay a while, the first thing I think about is soup. It’s no wonder, since I have great soup genes coming from both parts of my unique heritage. The Cajuns are known all over the world for their gumbo, but I also grew up with oyster stew, shrimp and corn soup, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, red bean soup, and many other hot, steaming bowlfuls of yumminess. My mother didn’t learn much cooking from her Scottish parents but she made a delicious beef vegetable soup, along with all the other Cajun recipes.
My own soup making began with the homemade chicken noodle soup I learned to make from my daughters’ day care provider in the early 1990s. It is still a family favorite today. However, my break-through in soup making came in 2002 when my family moved overseas for two years. While living outside of Brussels, Belgium, we only had two English-speaking television channels so our TV watching was greatly limited.
Every afternoon, however, while waiting for my daughters to get off of the school bus, on BBC Two was a cooking game show hosted at the time by British chef Ainsley Harriott. Two celebrity chefs were each given a budget bag of ingredients chosen by audience members and from the contents, along with access to a well-stocked pantry of staples, the chefs had to prepare several dishes. Almost daily, without fail, one or both of the chefs would start with a soup. It is from watching Ready Steady Cook every day that I learned the basics of soup making. With just a few ingredients and thirty minutes, you can make a healthy and delicious pot of soup to stave off the winter humdrums and warm up your family.
To make a good pot of soup, it is important to build layers of flavors, one step at a time. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add your protein. This can be a few links of sausages, a few boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, some thinly sliced flank steak or cubes of stew meat. Season the protein with salt and pepper and toss until the pieces are evenly browned on all sides. Remove the meat and drain off any fat that remains in the pot. This is your first layer of flavor.
Layer two is the aromatics. Peel and thinly slice an onion. It doesn’t matter whether it is a red, white, or yellow onion. It can also be a well-washed and thinly sliced leek or a few diced shallots. Add a bit more oil to the same pot used to cook your protein and sauté your onion until it softens. Season the pot with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you like. I always add garlic powder (sorry, Julia Child), crushed red pepper flakes (just a pinch because my family has sensitive palates), and Herbes de Provence. This is your second layer of flavor.
When the onion is softened, add in other vegetables such as sliced celery, carrots, frozen peas, fresh or frozen green beans, red or green bell peppers, diced tomatoes, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley. To add richness, you can add a few tablespoons of tomato paste but be sure you sauté the tomato paste for several minutes to tamper the acidic punch it will bring to the pot.
Now it is time for adding the liquid, the ingredient that turns it into a soup. If you have homemade stock, you are in the bonus land. But, you can use chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or broth from a can or carton, or you can use bouillon cubes and boiling water to create your own. Be sure to taste your store-bought stock or broth though so you can adjust your seasonings accordingly. Some are very salty and will necessitate you reducing the amount of salt you use when seasoning the protein and vegetables for your soup. You can use plain water, however, your finished product will have less flavor, which can be adjusted by adding other seasonings.
At this point, for a heartier soup, you can add a starch such as a handful of small pasta or uncooked rice; a can of beans, drained and rinsed; a handful of frozen or canned corn kernels; or a few potatoes, that have been washed, peeled, and cubed. Return your protein to the pot, give it a good stir, cover the pot and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. In that short period of time, the vegetables will soften and all of the flavors will meld together into a delicious, belly-warming one pot meal.
Before serving, taste and adjust your seasonings. You can add a dash of cream or milk if you want a creamier soup. You can remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and puree them in the blender or food processor before returning them to the pot. You can thicken it with a bit of cornstarch mixed with cold water and added slowly to the pot. Or, you can serve it as is, with a green salad and some good, crusty bread and butter.
If you were in search of a soup recipe and stumbled upon this essay, you may be disappointed. However, if you haven’t ever made soup before and you don’t want to be dependent upon a recipe to throw together a pot of soup with what you have on hand, then I hope this helps. If you have a specific soup you would like to make and need some ideas, reach out to me via the comment section below. I’d be glad to write up a more formal recipe and send it your way. In the words of one of my favorite chefs, Jacques Pepin, “Happy Cooking!”