Soup is a forgiving food. It happily accepts a fennel bulb where none has gone before, or allows a leek to come in place of an onion, or invites a leftover in to make a tasty variation. Soup is something we can turn to again and again. When we don’t have time to cook, we’re comforted by the pot that awaits us in the refrigerator, for soup usually improves with time.
Soup can be a prelude to a meal, the meal itself, or even dessert in special cases. Soup can also leave home and go out to lunch in a thermos—indeed, it’s an all-around good sport. Still, there are, if not cut-and-dried rules for soups, at least some useful guidelines.
The soup that comes before the main course should be light unless the dish that follows is also light. It’s good to have a contrast of color and texture between the two courses. First-course soups—often puréed and smooth, ready to be adorned with a dash or sprig of something—are generally more elegant than the homey, comforting soups we turn to on a rainy night. For the first course, a shallow soup plate just deep enough to contain the soup within its rim is a pretty presentation, as is a dainty porcelain double-handled cup on a saucer. This style presumes a sit-down dinner rather than supper on the run.
Etiquette established, main-dish soups come into their own in deep bowls or chunky, rounded, lug-handled pottery pieces served up in a cozy kitchen. Steep-sided bowls help a soup retain its warmth as well as making it less likely to slosh over. Set the bowl on a wider plate to make room for the bread alongside. This is the informal soup-for-supper meal that’s good for the soul. If possible, pull your table right up to the fireside. A simple garnish—a swirl of crème fraîche, a spoonful of olive oil, a sprinkling of herbs, or even a buttermilk drop biscuit—will bring out the soup’s charm and personality. A more complex garnish can make yesterday’s plain soup a little more interesting today.
The following ingredients are the backbone of a basic vegetable stock: onions, carrots, celery, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, garlic, leek trimmings, salt, onion for the initial sautéing of vegetables.
In making a soup that’s not at the sweet end of the flavor spectrum, it’s always good to include some of these: chard stems and leaves; fresh mushrooms; the soaking water from dried mushrooms; scallions, in addition to or in place of onions or leeks; potato parings; celery root (well scrubbed); parsley root; Jerusalem artichoke; lettuce; eggplant. In winter stocks, try these: dried sage (about 1 or 2 teaspoons per 2 quarts of water); dried rosemary (about a 1-inch piece); caramelized onions; mushrooms fresh or dried.
For a versatile basic stock, I recommend avoiding vegetables in the cabbage family: no turnips or rutabagas, no broccoli or cauliflower. Also no red beets (save them for beet soup), no onion skins, no tiny celery seeds or powdered herbs or ground pepper, for they can make stock bitter. It’s also good to avoid spiking your stock with excessive amounts of greens—use no more than 4 cups. And please, don’t add anything you wouldn’t eat otherwise. No spoiled vegetables or funky foods. But one exception to that last note is Parmesan cheese rinds—whole chunks may be added to stocks that will be used for soups with beans. When in doubt about an ingredient, try this simple trick: Simmer it alone for a while, then taste the water to see if the flavor is to your liking. Unlike meat stocks, vegetable stocks don’t benefit from hours of cooking.
Start by heating the oil in a soup pot; choose a sturdy one with a good handle. Using vegetables that have been chopped into roughly 1-inch chunks, sauté with garlic and herbs for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 2 teaspoons salt and 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes, no more, for when the vegetables have given up their flavors, they have nothing more to offer. Strain and store covered; refrigerate if keeping for more than an hour or two.
Once strained, the flavor of stocks can be concentrated by boiling them, uncovered, until they are reduced by half. This will make storing the basic vegetable stock a little easier.
Combining grains: We may think of bean soups in terms of a single legume, such as black bean chili or lentil soup, but older culinary cultures often mix plump, tender beans and robust, chewy grains within a single soup. Don’t be too cautious to experiment.
Cleaning: Always sort through beans and lentils to remove any little stones, clumps of earth, chaff, and so on. Even a tiny stone can crack a tooth
Soaking: When not using a pressure cooker, soaking the beans shortens the cooking time considerably. Soak them from 4 hours to overnight, or cover them with cold water, bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat and soak for 1 hour. In very hot weather, put soaking beans in the refrigerator.
Salting: Don’t add salt or acid until the beans have already begun to soften. (Lentils and split peas needn’t be soaked, and salt can be added at the beginning.)
Puréeing: To give bean soups a thicker consistency, purée all or just a portion of the beans.
Storing: Beans sour more quickly than other foods, but a bean soup will keep 4 to 6 days in the refrigerator. To reheat, bring the soup to a full boil. Give it a sniff. If it’s spoiled, you’ll notice the slight sour scent of fermentation.
Introduction, tips, and recipes adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, published by Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Copyright © 1997 Deborah Madison.