Spring has been indecisive this year. One week, I’ve been sitting on the grass in a T-shirt and the next sheltering in my puffy jacket. Perhaps it is the same everywhere but, here in Britain, it is all blamed on an Arctic wind. My response has been to make soups!
In my opinion, soup is just about the most pleasing meal to prepare. I suspect it awakens an ancient spirit in me. You know: an Iron Age hut, an open fire and a cauldron, a capacious ladle and a queue of soup bowls held close so that not a drop is lost.
Choosing ingredients and adding them to the pot does feel a little magical and once the aroma is let loose in the kitchen, the effect is a feeling of calm and home.
Soup season never really ends. Even if it is warm and sunny when you read this, there will be cool evenings or a day when you feel under the weather; then soup will be just the thing. So, it seems a good time to share a few of my soup secrets.
My First Law of Soup Making is ‘You must not be able to taste the water.’ Even if your soup is fairly thin, the broth must have a richness that draws you back to have another spoonful. This indicates good flavour as well as ‘good for you.’ I accomplish this in two ways.
One, I always add more onions than are thought necessary; usually double the quantity! I pour a little oil into the pot, dice the onions and cook them slowly over a medium-low heat until they are golden and nearly caramelized: they become thick and slightly sticky, almost like a sauce or a jam.
Two, I add a little strip of kombu seaweed, either right at the start or as the onions begin to soften. These two steps create richness, which will remain in the background no matter what other ingredients you add.
Here are a few more tips:
Add your choice of spices to the onions, right at the start. Spice flavours are ‘carried’ by the oil in a saute and if they are seeds, such as cumin or caraway, the extra cooking helps to soften them.
Before you go much further, decide what sort of texture you’re aiming for. Do you want a creamy, pureed soup? With or without chunks? Or a very light soup with delicate floaty bits?
Texture is partly visual and partly mouth-feel. Most of us enjoy a mouth-feel texture that includes some contrast and, in a soup, one that doesn’t require much chewing. It can be nice to bite into a tender cube of parsnip or a plump bean. Generally, however, soup wants to slide past the molars without being noticed!
One way to achieve this is to add the other veg once the onions have begun to cook, cover the pan and put the whole thing over a low heat. Don’t stir it yet. You want the onions to stay under the other veg for the time being. By the time the onions are cooked, so, usually, are the veg.
For a thick soup, puree the cooked onions and the added veg or other ingredients with at least 500ml/1 pint of water or home-made stock. Adjust this amount of liquid to suit the size of your pan and your texture preferences. (But without breaking My First Law of Soup Making!)
Add herbs to the soup at this point. They give their flavours to both water and oil, but can get overwhelmed if added too early in the preparation.
Perhaps cook a few chunky vegetables in a separate pan, then add them to the pureed soup for the final few minutes of cooking. The chunks add both mouth-feel and visual texture.
Colour contrast is another way of creating visual texture. Think of beetroot soup with a swirl of Creamy Onion Sauce drawn onto its surface. In White Bean Soup, the soft pastel green of the broth is a beautiful contrast to the beans. A garnish of fresh chive exaggerates the effect.
In soups with a clear broth, such as Alphabet Soup or Certainty Soup, individual ingredients are shredded and grated, sliced, cubed and chopped. This creates an interesting mouth-feel and a delightful visual texture, too (think Jackson Pollock).
The visual appeal for a soup can come almost entirely from a garnish you float on the surface of each bowlful. A thin slice of lemon floating on a bowl of red lentil soup is gorgeous and delicious! On other soups, try toast cut into cute shapes, a few shreds of carrot or a curl of sweet red pepper.
Summer soups don’t have to be cold! Warm soup on a hot day can be cooling; and warm food at any time of year is perfect for some people.
Jefferson asks, ‘What’s a good dish for ‘batch cooking’ and carrying to work?’ You know what I’m going to suggest! Make a pot of soup the evening before you want to eat it so the flavours have time to blend and mature. Let the soup cool, then store it in the fridge overnight. Reheat one portion at a time to serve – or put in your soup flask – on consecutive days. Or, after cooling, freeze the soup in handy portions. That way you can build a frozen soup collection and vary your choice each day.
A sandwich or bread roll is all you need to accompany a bowl of soup. Hearty or delicate, soups create simple but sustaining meals, which is probably why I am so fond of making them.
Have a great month!