Friday 24 January 2014

Homemade Soup 101

As the weather gets colder and colder my mind turns quite naturally to thoughts of warm, comforting, tasty soup. There's something to be said for curling up alone at home, wrapped in your ugliest (and thus by default comfiest) sweater and leaning over a steaming bowl of hot goodness while chowing down on crackers and cheese or freshly baked bread dripping with butter. Soup is as multifaceted as it is traditional. From the complicated medley of Provencal seafood and tomato that is the Boullabaise of southern France, to the simple and delicious clam chowder of the east coast, to the perfectly honed art that is a properly executed tonkotsu ramen, soup is available all over, in a medley of flavours that can suit anyone's palate. There is something about the making and eating of this type of dish that evokes home and comfort, a feeling which at times borders on the cathartic.

Considering my substantial rant above, it came to me as quite a surprise that some people are afraid of making soup, particularly of improvising it. This is a post to help these people discover the joys of soup making. Soup at its most basic has long been a place for odds and ends, a dish that is in its most basic form, a splendid manifestation of culinary chaos. If you're worried about soup making, don't look at it as a complicated and dainty dish, think of the hearty peasant muddle of veggies happily simmering away in seeming perpetuity over a wood fire. Simple soup is ultimately a way of rewarding the leftovers of your wilting veggies for their loyal service. It is the last chance to stop the faithful residents of your crisper from completing their crawl towards the compost heap. Soup instead offer the ugly, the bumped, the forgotten, a last chance to redeem themselves, as their comrades did before them, by charging into your hungering belly.  In essence, a simple soup made from leftovers, is like the French Foreign Legion of foods.

Now, with this ode to veggies in mind, I've decided to provide a loose template for soup making which is easy to follow and should allow anyone to understand the basics of making a soup with anything you might have lying around. So look through your pantry, check through every fridge drawer and lets get to it!

Categories of Ingredients:

When making soup, I tend to break up the components of a soup into the following categories:

Base: Any broth, bouillon, etc. which might be around. Often, I just use water but think of it as a good use for otherwise discarded ham water, leftover gravy, meat (or bacon) drippings, fondue broth, etc. If its liquidy and has flavour, it can be souped!

Body: The main source of consistency for your soup, generally veggies of some form or another.

Flavoring: Anything really, really tasty which will change the dimension of your soup. For soups with meat think of bacon, ham, bonito flakes, seaweed, chicken, fish heads, etc. For vegetarian soups, think soy sauce, miso, hot sauce, etc. In any soup, be it vegetarian or not, garlic, spices, herbs, wine (or other alcohol) and salt are all common culprits for the flavoring category

Fat: A bit of fat gives a rounded flavor to your soup, although it's optional, it's good to have some, even if just a glug of olive oil, to bring out the other flavours. You can even use peanut butter! Though if you do, don't try to brown any veggies in it, add it to the hot base.

Extras/Thickeners: For added nutritional benefit and for a heartier soup, I've thrown in this category to include pasta, lentils,chickpeas, flour or any other such ingredients.

Garnishes: Sliced hard boiled egg, egg cooked in the soup, slices of lightly cooked meat, sour cream, yogurt, green onions, you name it!

Very Basic Template

1) First up? Prepare any extras or thickeners that need preparing. If you're thinking of using any legumes for instance, soak them for the required time (generally 24 hours). If using brown lentils or any other strong tasting legumes, I suggest cooking them separately and straining them as the cooking liquid can taste very earthy.  Keep the liquid, add the strained legumes to the soup when ready, and then add cooking liquid to taste. As someone who speaks for experience, you don't want to overwhelm any light soup with earthy lentil taste.

2) If using fat, heat it and warm any strong tasting veggies that might need taming such as onions. Garlic also benefits from a quick visit to heated fat as does meat, so if you're using meat, I'd add it here. If using bacon (like in some chowders), I would suggest cooking chopped bacon until the fat is rendered, then adding any onions or garlic. Any heat resistant spices such as black pepper, coriander seeds, cumin or paprika (to name a few) can be added here and actually benefit from a bit of cooking.

3) Once whatever you're cooking has absorbed the cooking fat and started to stick, making brown patches in the bottom of your pot, feel free to deglaze. Alcohol, such as leftover wine (although rare it does exist, I promise) is ideal for deglazing, it will dissolve all that brown stuff and make for a really rich flavour. If not using alcohol, this is the time to add your base.

4) Once your base is added, this is where you throw in the majority of the rest of the body, carrots, peppers, potatoes, etc. These can be left to simmer for as long as you like. Don't forget to watch the liquid level so you don't burn your pot and stir every now and then. Medium heat is great for a few hours and a lower heat can go for days. The body can be accompanied by some fresh flavorings such as the traditional French bouquet garni (traditionally a bundle of herbs) or any of its components. Bay leaves are popular, as is thyme, rosemary, parsley and basil.

5) I recommend adding your extras and thickeners near the end of the cooking so that your lentils, pasta or other additives are not overcooked and mushy.I'm a big fan of blended soups so this would be the point at which I whip out the immersion blender and render this stuff into the grownup equivalent of baby food.

6) Don't forget to add some fun garnishes!

The photos used here were ones that I took when making a lentil soup which contained:

mmmm...lentil soup

Base: Water 8-10 cups
Body: two peppers, a leek, carrots, onions
Flavoring: Garlic, soy sauce, three pickled jalapenos, black pepper, sumac, smoked paprika, a tbsp. of vinegar
Fat: Olive oil
Extras/Thickeners: 1 c. Dried lentils, cooked

I these ingredients into the aforementioned template, passed it through an immersion blender and voila! A few meals for the week and some frozen for a rainy (more likely icy) day.

Other nice mixes to try are:

Leek and Potato (the classic)
Base: Chicken broth/gravy/water
Body: Leek and potatoes
Flavoring: Bay leaf, garlic
Fat: Olive oil
Extras/Thickener: Some enjoy meat in it, I like it as is!

Clam Chowder (the fattening)
Base: Cream/milk
Body: Potatoes, Clams, Onions
Flavoring: Garlic, bacon
Fat: Butter
Extras/Thickener: Flour

Lime, lentil, coriander seed and tomato (the exotic)
Base: Tomato coulis diluted with water or broth
Body: Onions, green onions, tomato
Flavoring: Soy sauce, coriander seed (lots), black pepper, smoked paprika, lime juice
Fat: Olive oil
Extras/Thickener: Lentil

Hope this is useful!

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