That the words soup and soul are so close would seem no mere coincidence. Soup is true soul food – pure nourishment, sustenance and comfort, reviving liquid, and solid replenishment. Soup, so healthful, frugal, and austere, at once so rich and luxurious. It has no recipe, yet there are as many soups, potages, veloutés, broths and consommés as there are kitchens, cooks, and proverbs about this heady elixir.
On this island, soup tends to be thick and blended; a hearty lunch to steel one against the cold days. Love and simplicity and is the key to these soups. Limit the main ingredient to one or two vegetables – think cream of mushroom, potato and leek or tomato and roast pepper. Start with gently cooking onion and celery. Perhaps some garlic. Be sparing with oil or butter – if this soup-base is browning, a splash of water or a lid helps. Season early for flavour later. At this early stage, maybe a spice or hard herb is appropriate (think curry for parsnip and apple, thyme for potato and leek). Now for main ingredients –root vegetables for instance (with a lid again), or mushrooms or tomatoes (uncovered). Continue to cook over a medium to low heat, stirring occasionally. Once satisfied this looks and smells well, liquid follows. Water is perfect, homemade stock is exquisite. Stock powder is a handy seasoning, not an ingredient – add lightly. Not too much liquid – soup can always be thinned out later. Bring to the boil, and gently simmer until your root vegetables of choice are good and soft. In the case of mushroom or tomato, cook long as you can, intensifying flavour. Little liquid is added. Cream, if required at all, is added at a late stage and simmered at a gentle bubble. A little goes far. Likewise, a cube of butter as you blend will lend silkiness and richness. Blend well. Try to think of something that matches the soup, that you can add at serving to augment excitement, dimension, texture, and flavour. Herbs, cooked barley, toasted seeds or oats, crispy kale, or root vegetable crisps, Bombay mixture even. Be imaginative.
As days and evenings warm up, we must remind ourselves that soup need not only be a winter dish and need not only be lunch.
Miso soup from a sachet can be made with a kettle and pleasantly consumed as tea, anytime. To make a meal of it, pick up a packet of miso paste, dried shitake (or any other) mushrooms, sesame oil (not blended) and some seaweed. These ingredients will last, and lift flavour and healthfulness in hosts of other dishes. Yellow (or white) miso is my stock favourite. I’ve been getting a taste for a dark brown (or red) one lately. A large pot of water is set to boil, inside two shitake and a sheet of kombu (kelp). Seaweeds like dilisk or wakame are great too, with the bonus of being edible (kombu is only for flavour). Separately, in plenty of boiling water, cook a grain (maybe brown rice, barley, or buckwheat). Sushi rice or udon noodles work marvellously. Drain once edible and toss in a little sesame oil. Slice finely as you can some scallion and spinach leaves. Soak in ice cold water. Dice a packet of silken tofu. Turn the soup right down to less than a simmer; a shimmer if you will and whisk in plenty of miso paste and a few glugs of soya sauce. Remove shitake, chop, and return. Taste. Sprinkles of bonito (dried tuna) can be added, or a splash of mirin rice-wine, but nobody will suffer too much without them. Pour the hot soup over the grain, tofu, scallions and spinach you have arranged in bowls. Enjoy with sesame seeds or togarashi, pickled ginger or daikon.
Nothing but stale bread, canned beans, tired vegetables and pasta-packet-ends in house? Fear not. Minestrone soup! Big pot. Cook crushed garlic, diced onion and celery. Add bay leaf and season. Add tomato puree/canned tomato/grated fresh tomato. Cook well. Add diced root vegetables – turnip, celeriac, carrot, parsnip… Cook further. Add plenty water and a pinch of stock cube. Bring to boil. Cheese stubs, soaked lentils, cured meat ends, bacon lardons, ham, mussels – any of these things can go in too. Simmer slowly until vegetables begin to soften. Add diced potato and peppers, cooking slowly. Add tiny florets of cauliflower/broccoli/sliced cabbage/kale/frozen broad beans or peas and a tin of rinsed out beans of choice (cannellini, borlotti, whatever…). Simmer gently. Add any herbs you can find (thyme/oregano/basil, parsley…). Meanwhile, macaroni/broken-up spaghetti/alphabet pasta/a mix of lonely cupboard pastas are in boiling another pot, drained and added. Make stale bread croutons. That’s it. To each bowl, more herbs and grated cheese. And off to feast. Be apprised: minestrone is brothy and the sum of its parts – plenty of liquid and flavour and only a small amount of each ingredient is required to achieve this magical synergy.
Dinnertime already! – perhaps we’ll get to talk about French onion, gazpacho, fish soups, oxtails and beef teas, phos, ramens and chicken noodles another day. Soup’s up, get slurping, and remember … too many cooks…