How to Turn Anything into Soup
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Let’s say you’re home, it’s very cold out, you’re craving soup, and you don’t feel like going to the grocery store. Some people might think this is a hopeless circumstance. I see it as a chance.
You can make soup out of almost anything. What about the chickpeas you have in your pantry? These can be used to make a soup. You know that celery root you bought for that Ottolenghi soup that you didn’t make? You can make soup from celery root. Even cheddar cheese from your cheese drawer, or spinach, can be used to make soup. Or beer.
For the purposes of this column, let’s focus on the kind of thrown-together soup that I like to make: a hearty, vegetable-packed soup with beans and greens and a little Parmesan on top. Do I buy these things? Sometimes. I usually just use what I have on hand and go from there.
You need to start with fat. Most often, this fat is extra-virgin oil. But if you want to shake things up a bit, you can use butter (ideal in a squash soup), you can render bacon or sausage (excellent in a lentil soup), you can even use lard, if you’re the kind of person who keeps lard around, in which case, respect.
Once you have heated your fat, you then add your aromatics. In France, mirepoix is used. In Italy you would add soffritto. Fun fact: those are the same thing – a combination of chopped onions, carrots, and celery. Don’t have celery? Add carrots and onions. Don’t have carrots? You can also add onion. The main thing is that you season at this stage with salt because you don’t want Tom Colicchio showing up to your kitchen saying, “You didn’t develop any flavor.” (He always says that on Top Chef.)
The aromatics don’t have to stop there: like garlic? Add tons of garlic. The more you chop your garlic, the more garlic flavor it’ll release. So, if you slice the garlic it’ll be less garlicky than if you mince the garlic. You could also add ginger here, chili flakes, green pepper (if you’re going for a Cajun vibe, in which case omit the carrots – then you’ll have what’s called “The Holy Trinity.”) You could add tomato paste here and toast it in the fat, to caramelize it (a cool trick) tinting your soup red; or you could add anchovy paste, to give your soup a surprising hint of umami.
The concept here is that you’re flavoring the fat with the aromatics and then that flavored fat will infuse whatever you add next. If you were making Ribollita (Italian kale and cabbage soup), you could add a bunch of sliced cabbage and Tuscan kale at this stage, being sure to season, stirring all around and then, when it’s softened, adding water or stock — just enough to cover (season again). Then, add a can (drained) of white beans. Let it simmer for an hour until everything is combined. If it becomes too thick, you can add more water/stock.
You could also add some Parmesan rinds to a tomato soup by substituting the kale/cabbage with a can or two of tomatoes, plus stock. Putting a Parmesan rind into an improvised soup is like putting Tina Fey into your improv show: it’s bound to make things better. If you’re feeling indulgent, add some cream. It’s the winter, why not? You deserve it.
The other kind of soup to make is the kind where you add something hard but porous – think Butternut squash, think potatoes, think fennel – and allow it to cook in the liquid for an hour or so until a knife goes through it easily, at which point you blend or smash, depending on what kind of texture you prefer – chunky or smooth.
You may think that water is a better choice than stock but it has its own merits. Water is free and there aren’t weird chemicals and unknown ingredients pumped into it, which isn’t always true of your stock. As long as you season as you go, you’ll be fine.
Sometimes it’s fun to throw in another liquid in with your water or stock to make things more complex. Apple cider in the squash soup is an example. White wine is a great addition to Ribollita. (Add it after you have cooked your aromatics, and make sure that the alcohol has been cooked off before adding the stock.) You can doctor a soup that’s a little dull at the end with lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, fish sauce, yuzu kosho, Tabasco, whatever you think will make your soup taste better.
And that’s the most important step of all: tasting your creation. If you’re going to throw together a soup, it’s on your shoulders to carry it across the finish line. (Look at my sports metaphor. If something’s not working, don’t throw your soup away. Figure out where it’s gone wrong then figure out how to fix it. Sometimes, all it takes is a good amount of salt and vinegar. And there’s no soup problem that a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese can’t solve.
You can also use leftover roast poultry: simply shred and add it to the dish at the very end. It’s also an excellent way to use up leftover salad greens. I’ve seen Ina Garten dump leftover fully dressed salad into a soup and blend it. If it’s good enough for Ina, it’s good enough for us.
Soup is the perfect way for you to have fun in the kitchen and not risk harming yourself or others. And if things really don’t turn out, just change the name. A failed minestrone is a success if you call it “a deconstructed minestrone.” And worst comes to worst, you can always pop open a can of Campbell’s.
Adam RobertsWrites the bi-weekly Newsletter Amateur GourmetThe author of three books including Secrets of the best chefsThe following are some examples of how to get started: Give My Swiss Chards to Broadway: The Official Broadway Lover’s Cookbook(with Tony Award-nominated actor Gideon Glick). He lives in Brooklyn, with his dog and husband.
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Photos courtesy of Adam Roberts.)