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When the Answer Is Soup

October 15, 2013

Garden broth

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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If you’re a family cook in a household that almost always eats in, you know you have daysmaybe lots of dayswhen someone asks, “What’s for supper?”  and the answer is “soup.”

Sometimes, it’s the only answer. Here’s why:

  • Soup is totally forgiving. It doesn’t need a recipe. A little of this, a little of that, a little liquid. Give it a name according to its main ingredient(s) and you may have a family classic that lives on through the generations to come.
  • It comes in infinite variations: Thin as broth, dense as stew, entirely vegan or made with bone-based broth and lots of meat, ready in 10 minutes or having spent all day in a crock-pot, homey or ready for company—if you can ladle it into a cup or bowl, it’s soup.
  • Soup is a great way to get more vegetables, sliced, chopped, minced, or pureed. The most health-conscious cooks know that a great quantity and diversity of vegetables in our diets is one primary key to vibrant health.
  • Some of the best soups are medicinal, like grandma's famous chicken soup.  Every indigenous culture features healing soups intended to prevent illnesses or heal from them. (Don’t forget the onion-skin broth.) 
  • Of course we all know lunch and dinner soups, but some folks designate special soups for breakfast, and for dessert, too.
  • A vegetable-rich soup makes a complete meal, as long as you add a protein source such as beans or lentils, poultry, cheese, meat, or seafood.
  • Nothing edible can’t star in a soup: carrot tops, potato skins, dandelion (more than you think you need), sour milk, lettuce, nasturtium leaves, dill pickles, red radishes, rutabagas, even horseradish.

For me, thoughts and meals of soup start creeping in as the days get colder and darker.
Although I’ve eaten delicious fruit soups and gazpachos at summertime get-togethers, I don’t think much about soup in summer, though I do make and freeze broth (see photo).

But once we start firing up the kitchen woodstove for heat, it just seems natural to put a pot of water with dry beans or peas or the remains of a roasted chicken on to stew, ready for a late-day addition of other ingredients.

Categories of homemade soup

Do you make soups from each of these favorite categories? If not, why not?

  • Fast-and-easy soup This soup comes in innumerable 10-minute variations: Open a can of beans or chickpeas, another of broth. Toss in a few chopped (or mixed frozen) vegetables. Maybe a little leftover meat or chicken, a handful of herbs. Cook ‘til the vegetables are soft. Top with toasted croutons, a little grated cheese.
  • Must-go soup This is the always-unique soup that culls refrigerator leftovers, everything from the bones from last night’s chicken to the wilting celery stalk or scallion, the wizzled orphaned carrot, the crumbled remains of a meatloaf, torn bits of stale bread.
  • Gleaner’s soup In my gardening household, gleaner’s soup is a version of the must-go sourced from the vegetable garden. That last ear of corn, the pitiful little zucchini struggling to grow on a mildewed vine, a handful of green beans missed by the frost, a malformed carrot, a couple of onions that never made it out of the scallion stage, the tiny cabbage that won’t get large enough for the root cellar. You get the picture. Chicken broth, canned tomatoes, leftover chicken or meat, a handful of herbs, a wonderful fresh-vegetable supper. Everyone but the cook assumes the veggies were specially selected for flavor and freshness.
  • Bean soup Every household needs a couple of go-to legume soups (beans, lentils, chickpeas, soup peas). Filling, tasty, high in protein, with admirable quantities of other important nutrients, beans need better PR. To every bean, there are a hundred glorious soups. My current favorite is also fast and easy. I open a couple of jars (I can my own) of black beans and combine it with a container of my homemade, frozen salsa, made with homegrown chopped tomatoes, roasted/peeled mild and spicy peppers, onions, and garlic. The proportions don’t really matter. I season it with a little salt, plenty of cumin powder, and a generous pinch of dried oregano.
  • Seafood chowder My local supermarket sells a product called “chowder fish,” which consists of scraps of white fish (mostly cod and haddock) too small to sell as filets. This is a never frozen, always-fresh mixture. With a little chopped onion and a cubed potato or two, it makes a delicious fish chowder. Because it doesn’t contain any colorful vegetables, I usually serve this one with a green salad and a handful of crackers.
  • Company soup You’ll find a lot of recipes for elegant “company” soups. I say, lay out your best bowls and spoons, maybe alongside a cloth napkin, ladle up your everyday soup, and voilá! Company soup.

I end with today's haiku:

beech leaves turning gold
then russet; they'll mock winter
hanging on til spring

 Try one of these 5 warming soups from the Almanac archives.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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