Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to Make Soup from Scratch

Is there anything more comforting than a bowl of hot soup on a cold day? Make the soup from scratch, and your place fills with delicious smells. Home-made soup is inexpensive to make and allows you to control the amount of fat, salt, etc. in your diet. Plus, it's a wonderful way to use up little leftover bits of this-'n'-that in your fridge and pantry.

Much of what you need for a delicious homemade soup is probably in your pantry already.

Here's a very simple template for making soup from scratch. It's an easy, one-pot recipe even beginning cooks can manage. Along the way, I'll suggest some of the possibilities for making each pot of soup unique.

Using this recipe, all your soups will be delicious.

Start with a big stock pot and add a tablespoon or so of some sort of fat (extra-virgin olive oil, butter, bacon fat, duck fat, etc.). Heat the fat over a medium flame (a little lower if you're using butter), then add in equal amounts of onion, celery, and carrot, all diced to a uniform size (all quantities for this recipe are at the end of this post). If you are a garlic lover, you can add some minced garlic in with the other veggies after they've cooked a few minutes.

Uniformly diced veggies ensures that they cook up at the same time:

Roughly equal amounts of diced onion, celery, and carrot: the start of many delicious one-pot meals.

Saute the veggies in the fat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and everything gives off a lovely aroma.

The mixture is done when the onions turn from opaque to somewhat translucent.

Add in some broth (either home made--recipe here--or canned, or from a box) or water--or a mixture of the two. Pour in a can or two of crushed tomatoes. Add in some freshly ground black pepper and some dried herbs (I like a couple of bay leaves and some dried thyme, but you can experiment a lot here).

Dried herbs are just fine for this hearty soup; you don't need to go to the expense of fresh ones.

Add in some beans (either dried or canned, previously drained):

This time I'm using dried  "Flageolet" beans. Next time, it might be canned pinto beans. Or maybe dried lentils.

For a thicker soup, add in a handful of a grain or pasta shape that will swell as the soup cooks: rice, barley, pasta alphabet letters, quinoa--that sort of thing. Remember, dried beans take much longer to cook than canned ones. And barley takes way longer than pasta. Leftover challah or brioche bread also makes a wonderful thickener; just tear it up into smallish pieces, and it disappears as the soup simmers, giving it a silky finish.

If you have any leftover bits of vegetables in the fridge, dice them up and drop them in. Cooked root vegetables and cooked cauliflower are especially delicious in this soup. Note: If your veggies are green, like broccoli, broccoli rabe, peas, or spinach/Swiss chard/kale, add them right before serving and simmer them just long enough to heat up. Overcooked greens make the soup take on a ghastly flavor and look awful.

Stir in everything and bring the soup up to a boil, then drop down to a low simmer and cover. ("Why bring it to a boil?,"  you ask? Good question!)

The answer is, you want to kill any pathogens that might be sitting on your carrots, or humming a tune in the middle of your stock, or hanging out in a corner of your soup pot. These microscopic "bugs" are far too small to be seen, so to make sure they are killed, boil the soup for a moment or two. They can't survive at that temperature. Biology lesson concluded!

Stir the soup every once in a while and check to make sure the liquid isn't evaporating too fast. If it is, add more water or broth, a cup or so at a time. Red wine or beer work, too.

When everything in the soup is completely tender (this may take a few hours if you begin with dry beans), taste and correct the seasonings--basically, add a little salt, ground pepper, a dash of hot sauce, etc.,  if needed. If the soup is overly salty, don't despair! Peel and dice up a raw potato or two, then drop the bits into the soup. Cook until the potato is tender; it will "absorb" a lot of the salty flavor.

Ladle the soup into bowls and add any last-minute ingredients like diced cooked chicken or green veggies (as mentioned above). Heat through, then top each bowl with some grated cheese, a dollop of sour cream, thin slivers of basil, or a little chopped parsley.

This time, I swirled some baby spinach leaves into the individual bowls; the heat of the soup wilts them in just a minute or so. I prefer this method over adding greens to the pot, because if there is leftover soup, the greens will be nasty and overcooked by the second day.

Mmmmm. Bring on the bad weather; I can handle it!

Simple Soup from Scratch
(Note: All quantities are approximate; there is no need to be too exact when making this soup.)

1-2 Tbsp. olive oil (or some other fat)
1/2 to 3/4 C. EACH diced carrot, celery, and onion
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
6 C. broth (or more, as needed)
1/2 tsp. EACH ground pepper and dried thyme
1-2 dried bay leaves
large can (roughly 28 ozs.) crushed tomatoes (chopped or diced is fine, too; just bash them up with a wooden spoon)
2-4 C. cooked beans (either canned or made from dried beans)
1-2 C. cooked grains (rice, barley, quinoa, etc.) OR 1/4 C. dried, uncooked grains
leftover bits of cooked vegetables or cooked chicken/beef (optional)
1-2 C. of cooked green vegetables (broccoli, broccoli rabe, peas)
1-2 C. of fresh, leafy greens (baby spinach, slivers of Swiss chard or kale)
toppings such as shredded cheese, slivers of basil, a few croutons, etc. (optional)

In a large stock pot, heat the olive oil or fat. Add diced carrot, celery, and onion. Cook over medium flame; add garlic (if you want) after the veggies have cooked a couple of minutes. Continue cooking everything until onions are translucent. Add broth, ground pepper, thyme, bay leaves, canned tomatoes, beans, grains, and any leftover cooked vegetables/meat available. Stir and bring soup to a boil, then drop to a low heat and simmer, covered.

Stir soup occasionally and check to see it isn't getting too thick. If it is, add more stock or another liquid (water, or a half-and-half mixture of water with red wine or beer) a cup or so at a time.

Cook until beans and grains are tender. Right before serving, add in any fresh, leafy greens and let simmer  for a minute until the greens are just wilted. Ladle soup into individual bowls, add toppings, and serve. Note: If not using up all the soup the first time it is served, add the leafy greens to individual bowls instead of to the pot.

Refrigerate any leftover soup and bring to a boil for a moment before serving another day.

Makes lots. (How much really depends on how much material you add to the pot, but this recipe easily serves four, and maybe as many as eight.)

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