One winter a few years ago, I decided to hike up a hill in the rain. The walk was a long, steady incline, all the while being pelted by rain that felt more like chips of ice. Breathless and soaked by the time I reached the top, if I wasn’t motivated enough by the weather, my urge to get downhill in a hurry was to start a pot of one of my favorite soups.
Invigorated by the walk in the cold wet, I launched into soup-making, one of the best, most hopeful and most self-nurturing things one can do under wintry conditions. For the hearty minestrone I was making, I built layers of flavor by sautéing carrots, celery, onion, garlic and bacon (!), then adding chopped potato, beef broth, canned tomatoes, white beans and sprigs of fresh rosemary. In the darkness of the kitchen, the rain tapping outside, the light at the end of the tunnel was that simmering pot of goodness. Like so many soups, it was as restorative to make as it was to eat.
What is it about soup? As Auguste Escoffier put it: “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” Or, as the renowned “Miss Manners” Judith Martin wrote: “Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup? Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give a hearty sustenance and cheer?”
My youth was nourished by big pots of soup. Outside of the canned favorites like tomato and bean with bacon that I could heat up myself for a Saturday lunch, there were the beloved homemade versions — my mother’s buttery potato soup, a light but earthy, comforting broth laden with onions and celery; the big stock pots of beef-vegetable stew with translucent shreds of sweet cabbage, or its cousin, hamburger stew, with bits of hearty ground beef and tons of carrots, peas and corn; sunny chicken soup with floating strands of egg noodles; and that creamy (and slightly mysterious) oyster soup, served on some winter holidays with crackers reassuringly crumbled on top.
When all else fails, I turn to soup, getting out my big pot, sometimes trying out a new recipe or revisiting my established favorites (colcannon, minestrone, black-eyed pea, creamy mushroom, rich black bean or garlicky broth-y white bean). As relaxing as listening to jazz music (or you can do both), soup-making unfolds in simple steps of chopping and seasoning, with little to no pressure in its creation.
The fact that it can be recipe-less and ingredient-versatile (many soups can be made with whatever you have on hand) makes it so ideal. Case in point: a soup combining roasted veggies and vegetable or chicken stock, then pureed — and that’s it — is a testament to how easy (and quick) a soup can be.
Creating a little “soup pantry” of a few ingredients is an easy way to be ready when the soup mood strikes:
- Have on hand fresh items, like onions, celery, carrots and garlic and some fresh herbs, for the flavor building blocks of most soups.
- Stock up on canned items such as beans and diced tomatoes, as well as corn, mushrooms and other veggies.
- Canned or carton broths have a pretty long shelf life, or dried bouillon and “stock” paste bases in little jars provide a space-saving option.
- Dried herbs and spices, such as oregano, rosemary and thyme, dried garlic, dehydrated onion, celery seed, chili powder, cajun spice and good ol’ salt and pepper will provide lots of flavor options for soups. It’s good to have dried beans, lentils, peas, and grains like barley and rice, too.
- Always have olive oil and butter for sautéing ingredients, as well as milk or cream to add to cream soups. But creaminess can also be achieved by pureeing part of the cooked veggies (like potatoes, beans or squash).
It’s rare, but things can go wrong. As Beethoven put it, one who does not have a “pure heart” cannot make good soup. Lack of attention or resisting intuition results in underdone, crunchy potatoes, hard beans or blandness from too little salt or spice. Over-attention, like too much salt and too much spice will sink your soup, too, like the time a soup recipe called for a whole packet of taco seasoning, resulting in a mouth-searing soup that actually made me scared to eat it. To avoid this, add a little salt or spice and taste; you can always add more, but it’s extremely hard to take out.
The best soup advice? Make enough so that you have leftovers — almost every soup is better the second day.Mid-Winter Minestrone Homestyle Potato Soup
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”