Long considered to have restorative powers, soups have been prescribed since ancient times for restoring health and energy. One of the oldest recipes I know of is chicken & ginger soup, from ancient China, dating back over 5,000 years (though Nettle pudding, which dates back to 6000BC, was declared the oldest recorded recipe in the study from the Food Science department of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff).
Soup is very versatile. Some are light enough to serve as a first course, whereas winter soups are usually thicker, more full bodied, vegetable based concoctions, substantial enough to be a filling main course when you add meat or poultry, especially on a cold winter night! I remember my great grandmother’s beef & sweet potato soup laced with braised carrots and leeks with fondness. It was served with crusty country bread and lashings of her own rosemary butter. Two helpings were sufficient. And reasonably priced, a must for these austerity-laden days we’re facing.
The secret of a good soup lies in the richness of its stock, pure and simple, as well as the freshness of the ingredients used. Here I will explain how to make the three basic stocks, chicken, vegetable and sea-food (look up my post on stocks, written just a few days ago). Once a stock is made it can be stored in your freezer for your next concoction. Another hint is not to over simmer a stock as the accompanying vegetables and bones do turn sour if cooked indefinitely. Unfortunately, the cabbage family (turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) does not do well in stock. Nor do most powdered herbs, onion skins, artichoke trimmings, or too many greens, and absolutely no sweet peppers (bell peppers in the US) as they turn acidic. All the recipes for stock are calculated to make 2 to 3 batches of soups, or roughly 6 liters (12 pints approx.)
Sea-food Stock: to make a serious sea-food stock you need to spend a little money on fresh shellfish as well as rockfish. To make the same quantities as above you will need 2 pounds of mussels, 1 pound of shrimps, 1 pound of clams, 3 pounds of rockfish, or, if you have a relationship with your fishmonger ask for a couple of (fresh) large fish heads, ideal for fish stock. Use the same amount of vegetables as above, the bouquet garni, the Tamari (maybe a little more) the garlic and one full bottle of dry white wine. Clean all the shellfish. In a large stockpot put the fish (heads) or the rockfish, the cut-up vegetables, Tamari, garlic, potatoes, bouquet garni and the wine, cover with same amount of water and bring it to the boil. Simmer for one hour then add the shellfish. Fish stocks need to be skimmed a little more frequently. Simmer for another 15 minutes then it’s time to sieve the whole lot. It’s a meal in itself plus you have 5 or 6 litres of serious sea-food stock to play with!
How about a traditional Soupe a L’Oignon? If you love onions this is for you. Minimum preparation, no fuss and a great starter. Very healthy as well. You will need to use the beef stock for that soup. And for say, 6 people, allow 2 pounds of brown onions, 6 garlic cloves, 100 grams of butter, half a litre (1 pint) of good red wine, a dash of tomato paste, a tablespoon of plain flour, 200 grams of freshly grated Gruyere cheese, and 2 or 3 large croutons per person. Cut up the onions finely. In a skillet melt the butter and add the onions, stirring constantly till caramelised. Add the flour and the finely chopped garlic, the tomato paste and the wine, then 2 pints of the beef stock. Do not bring to the boil, just simmer along nicely for one hour, it should thicken lightly. Taste for salt & pepper. Have the croutons made from baguette ready. Heat up the grill/broiler. In earthenware soup bowls pour the soup almost to the top, place the croutons and top them with the Gruyere cheese. To serve the onion soup gratiné, place under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 3 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling and serve. Goes extremely well with a glass of Beaujolais.
A favorite of mine is the Venitian Cannellini Bean Soup with Pancetta, a stunner in cold winter nights. You can buy cannellini beans almost anywhere these days. You’ll need 400 grams of dried beans (a little under a pound). Soak overnight and rince well. For the soup you will need 2 onions, 6 garlic cloves, 2 sprigs of celery, 2 leeks, a sprig of fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons of Virgin olive oil, allow 4 or 5 slices of Pancetta per person, a few slivers of Parmesan and a large glass of red wine. In a skillet pour the oil and add the onions, garlic, chopped celery & leeks, the wine, the beans and cover with 6 pints of chicken stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2 hours, skimming now and then. Pan fry your Pancetta and have it ready. When the beans are cooked, use a moulinette or a food processor. It should be thickish. Add the pancetta on top with the Parmesan slivers and serve.
Here are a few suggestions, a plethora of ideas I have gathered over the years, in 4 continents. But first, if you have kids who spend too much time watching television or play nintendo games, here’s how to -trick-impress them, tell them you’re cooking an Intellectual Soup, as it will make them read more books. Simply purchase 1 packet of alphabet pasta, use the chicken stock, and add a few cubed carrots and broccoli florets. It works with mine!
Now for the few suggestions. In the past I have tried to turn almost anything into soups with varying degrees of success. The following combinations are the ones that have ended up on my menus. One notable omission is the avocado soup I once cooked in Bali many moons ago: it looked great but tasted like revolting green liquid iron (I think I must have been under the influence of some other green stuff!)
Cream of Asparagus & Jerusalem Artichoke; Red Lentil & Tamarind; Roasted Red Peppers & Eggplant Velouté; Curried Puy Lentils & Serrano ham; Roasted Fennel & Sugar Pea Soup; Gingered Pear & Baby Spinach Soup; Japanese Eggplant & Leek soup; Sun-dried Pepper & Garbanzo Bean Soup; Celeriac & Parmesan Soup, Almond & Chinese Cabbage Soup; Banana & Macademia Soup (very rich, but so yummy); Butternut Pumpkin & Lime soup; Wild Garlic & Butter Beans Soup. These were the most popular over the years. In a few days I’ll post more soup recipes. Then brace yourselves for two posts on pizzas!