Soup soothes. Jewish and non-Jewish mothers alike swear by soup’s power to heal. Soup can feed an army with little more effort than feeding one person. Soup making is a mystery to some—the whole of a finished soup rarely betrays the parts that went into it, making improvisation seem risky. But soup begs for creativity and using what’s on hand. Soup is versatile, with endless possibilities—sweet or savory, hot or cold, thick or thin, meaty or veggie, complex or simple, elegant or humble. Soup can start a meal, be a meal or end a meal.
“Worries go down better with soup than without.” —Jewish Proverb
I used to be intimidated by the alchemy of what made a good soup good. I loved the idea of a big pot of hearty soup sputtering and simmering away on the stove, filling the house with a wonderful aroma. I took the plunge, followed a few recipes and began to see patterns in how soup comes together. Most soups begin with a saute of some or all of the following: celery, onion (or leeks or scallions) and carrots. With little more than water, salt, some herbs and possibly beans, soaked overnight, you have soup.
“Soup is cuisine’s kindest course. It breathes reassurance; it steams consolation; after a weary day it promotes sociability, as the five o’clock cup of tea or the cocktail hour.”
—Louis P. De Gouy, “The Soup Book”
Upon returning from a trip back east, where I captured and carried home a flu heavier than my suitcase, I craved a curative. I considered the state of random vegetables in the fridge, farmers market purchases from a week and a half earlier. Not quite shriveled but perhaps breathing their last few breaths. Despite my delirium, I looked forward to cooking, having been away for a week and missing the simple pleasure of preparing my own meals.
What I found: green peppers, a potato, a small zucchini, 3 small carrots, celery and half an onion. A few roma tomatoes sat ripening on the window sill. In the cupboard, a rare container of chicken broth.
Knowing I could throw these together and make a passable soup, I nonetheless turned to Epicurious.com for inspiration. I found a recipe for Italian Chicken Soup (recipe also below) that would make perfect use of what I had. Like minestrone soup, this kind of recipe is forgiving, adding what is not called for and forgoing what you lack.
This is the way most recipes should be approached. Cooking this way leads to more cooking and more healthy eating. Fewer vegetables go bad from lack of use. Confidence builds with repeat practice. Don’t have zucchini? Toss in some frozen peas instead. Both add a touch of green even if their flavor is different. I didn’t have chicken, nor did I have ravioli, so I added broken up pieces of spaghetti instead. A nice addition might have been a can of chick peas or other beans in place of chicken. I also didn’t have parmesan to grate into the soup, only a small hard rind. I keep these scraps to boost the flavor of homemade vegetable stock, so I added one to the soup and fished it out later. The tomatoes on the window sill were becoming overripe, so I added those. Got stale bread? Toast it, rub with a garlic clove and pour the soup over it. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Heaven.
No matter what I left out or put in this soup, it did exactly what I hoped it would. It “steamed consolation” in this travel-weary, convalescing soul. I can’t say it promoted sociability but it did provide meals for the next few days.
Recipe: Italian Chicken Soup
Epicurious.com, Bon Appétit, March 1995
by Tammy Moore-Worthington: Artesia, New Mexico
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 small onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
6 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
2 medium zucchini, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 9-ounce package fresh cheese ravioli
1 1/2 cups diced cooked chicken
Grated Parmesan cheese
Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add bell pepper, onion, garlic, basil, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper and sauté until vegetables are just tender, about 10 minutes. Add broth. Cover pot and simmer 10 minutes. Add zucchini and carrot. Cover and simmer until carrot is almost tender, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to high and bring soup to boil. Add ravioli and boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Add chicken and cook just until heated through, about 1 minute. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle soup into bowls. Serve, passing cheese separately.
Notes: substitute vegetable stock or water if desired; add beans, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, shredded kale or other vegetables you have on hand; drizzle finished soup with olive oil.