The Four Truths of Easy, Flexible Soups
A deep dive into the stock pot
By this time of the winter, we're drowning in soup recipes and ready to hightail it into uncharted waters. If you are, too—and you’re able to endure a few corny mixed metaphors—grab hold of one of these lifesavers we call The Four Truths of Soup:
You've already got whatever you need.
Mark's "forever soup" probably won't kill you.
Broth is just flavored water.
Pureeing changes everything.
1. You've already got whatever you need.
With even a modestly stocked fridge and pantry, you can make infinite soups, according to a three-step formula: Cook some stuff (meat, aromatics, root vegetables) in fat; stir in seasonings and liquid (see #3 below); add a final layer of ingredients (greens, cooked beans or grains, dried pasta or noodles, or tender vegetables).
Well, you might ask, how much of each of these should I use? It sounds too simplistic, but honestly the proportions of each ingredient should be as much or as little as looks good to you. Figure that 6 cups total liquid is a good start for 4 servings; to thicken, you can always boil or pour off extra broth, or add a little more rice or pasta or … like that.
As with most cooking, the timing is the trickiest part, though less so with soups than with other things – in fact timing is rarely crucial and never complicated. You start with the ingredients that take the longest to cook and end with the most tender. You mostly keep the pot covered, which will maintain the heat so the pot bubbles gently after each peek or addition. Along the way you taste for seasoning and doneness. Maybe you use the time to gather garnishes. When the soup is done you declare it so and reach for a ladle and bowls.
Our most versatile minestrone recipe is a good example, especially if you're looking for some guidance on quantities. It's a meatless minestrone but easy to bulk up by adding animal or plant protein in Step 1. To make the soup even heartier, finish with cooked beans, grains, noodles, or meat—a perfect opportunity to use leftovers.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 45 to 60 minutes
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot or parsnip, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
Salt and pepper
About 1 ½ cups chopped hard vegetables like potatoes, winter squash, rutabaga, or turnips, peeled if necessary, in smaller-than-1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup chopped tomatoes (canned are fine; include the juice)
6 cups vegetable stock or water
About 1 ½ cups soft vegetables like green beans, cut into pieces; drained cooked, canned, or frozen shell beans; diced zucchini or summer squash; or chopped fennel bulb
1/2 pound dark, leafy greens like kale, collards, or spinach, stems cut out and discarded, leaves cut across into thin ribbons
1. Put the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion, carrot, and celery. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Add the hard vegetables and garlic and cook, stirring, for a minute or 2 before adding the tomatoes. Raise the heat so the mixture sizzles. Continue stirring until the tomatoes darken and start to become dry. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and adjust the heat so the soup bubbles gently. Cook, stirring every now and then, until the hard vegetables are fairly soft and the tomatoes have broken up, 10 to 15 minutes. (You can make the soup in advance up to this point. Cool, cover, refrigerate for up to 2 days, or freeze, and reheat before proceeding.)
3. Add the soft vegetables and adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles enthusiastically. Let them have a 2-minute head start before adding the greens. Cook, still stirring occasionally until all the vegetables are quite tender, a final 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve, passing some olive oil at the table for drizzling.
— Recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
2. Mark’s “Forever Soup” probably won’t kill you.
I (Mark) sometimes keep a soup going for a week or more, adding to it daily. Suppose you start with a typical six-cup soup, as described above. Maybe you only eat four cups. The next day, your leftover is a kind of stock, with stuff in it. (That’s soup.) Yes, your rice or pasta is going to get overcooked, but by now there’s not much of it, and who doesn’t like overcooked rice or pasta? This technique is not for finicky people, or those who want detailed recipes, or “gourmets,” but for real, I think it’s great. So here we go.
Add a few cups of water to your base and warm it up; now put in whatever you have that makes sense – again it can be meat, grains, veg, cooked beans, and so on – along with more aromatics and/or seasonings; and do it again the next day.