An Ode to Soup

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It's the ultimate quick and frugal comfort food, a warrior in the fight against food waste. I can't imagine life without it.

I was ten years old when I made vegetable soup for the first time, and the experience made such an impression on me that I wrote about it in my diary:

"December 30th. I cut up onions, carrots, and celery with Mom's new food processor. Then I fried them with butter and put them in a pot with water, chicken broth, thyme, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper and angel hair's noodles. We ate around 1:00 p.m. The soup was delicious."
It may not seem like much, but it was a big deal for me. I still remember the day clearly. It was during the Christmas holidays and my mom was busy cleaning out the bedroom I shared with my sister to make room for new gifts. She sent me to make lunch and shouted directions from upstairs. I was a reluctant cook, but when that pot of soup was finally served up, so flavorful and satisfying, it was like I'd discovered a magic trick. It blew me away that those basic ingredients could turn into this! I was hooked.
"December 31st: Mom wanted me to make the same soup as yesterday, so I did."

The lesson Mom taught me all those years ago, and that I practiced and tweaked over and over again in the subsequent years, is that a recipe doesn't matter when it comes to soup. You use whatever you have on hand, and as long as you follow a basic formula, you'll have a great pot of soup by the end.

I'd never seen the formula written down until this week, when I came across an article on Food52 about how to make quick and easy soups in under 30 minutes. There, the soup formula was revealed in all its simple glory, and the memories of my first soup-making experience came flooding back. Here it is, taken apparently from How to Cook without a Book (first published in 2001, which was several years after my soup epiphany).

1 pound protein + 1 pound vegetables + 1 quart broth + 1 onion + 1 can tomatoes + a starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, beans) + herbs, spices, and/or flavorings

Brinda Ayer writes, "The technique is simple, too: Sauté an onion until softened, add the remaining ingredients, bring it to a simmer, cook for about 20 minutes, and serve it up."

Yep, that's basically it. My technique has evolved, and now I add aromatics along with the onion, usually a shocking amount of garlic and/or ginger (if it's a curried soup). Animal protein is optional, and best sautéed before or with the onion if it's raw, or added at the end if it's pre-cooked (like leftover turkey and chicken). Sometimes I like to simmer sausages in the broth and slice afterwards; they infuse the soup with rich flavor.

As for those starches, don't skip on those and don't be afraid to mix them up. They're the filler, the body, the texture in your mouth. I love chickpeas, navy beans, kidney beans, diced white potatoes, barley, couscous, tiny pasta pieces, or leftover rice stirred in at the end that softens instantly.

Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Ah, the eternal dilemma. I am a tomato fan, if for no other reason than it seems to make a soup heartier and I'm always looking for ways to satisfy the ravenous appetites of my bottomless children. It pairs well with tiny pasta and beans (think minestrone, my all-time favorite soup).

I maintain that a soup is only as good as the quality of its stock. Making your own is preferable. Do it in a slow cooker if you can't be bothered watching a simmering pot. And if you don't have any stock, homemade or store-bought, mask that lack of flavor with spices. Make a zingy curried butternut squash soup with coconut milk and cilantro and maybe no one will notice...

If you haven't discovered the wonders of soup, I highly urge you to do so. It is the perfect comfort food for cold seasons, and quick to make. There is no better way to use up rogue leftovers and limp veggies forgotten at the bottom of your crisper. It is a fierce tool in the fight against food waste and the ultimate frugal dinner. We should all be eating more soup.