Fall is in the air and soup's in the kitchen
From the first slice into a crisp white onion to the last scraped spoonful out of a big rustic bowl, soup is both comforting and transformative.
Soup is magical. From the first slice into a crisp white onion to the last scraped spoonful out of a big rustic bowl, soup is both comforting and transformative.
Cozy little things by nature, soups, especially cool-weather ones, are designed to warm you all the way to your toes. So inviting, and yet so elusive.
Soups seem simple — that's part of their universal appeal — but they can be tricky to pull off.
For one thing, they require a fair amount of patience. A well-tended soup will serve you many dinners well, but it'll take a bit of time, and sometimes a bit of finesse, to pull together. And it's always better the second or third day after the flavors have had a chance to mix and mature. I now have an entire notebook filled with fabulous, delicious soup recipes that I've written over the years, but for a long time, soup and I were not even on speaking terms. I loved soup, and I tried — oh how I tried! — but, like so many men I'd fallen for, soup didn't love me back. So I gave up.
It's embarrassing to admit now, but I was afraid of soup. Turns out I'm in good company. In The Art of Simple Food, award-winning chef Alice Waters devotes an entire chapter to broth and soup, with an opening admission that's validating to any soup-aphobes out there.
"When I first started cooking, I never liked soup — because I didn't know how to make it! I was naïve; I thought the process was nothing more than putting leftovers in a pot, heating them with stock or water, and — voilà! Soup."
Video: How to make roasted red bell pepper soup
But Waters, of course, mastered soup-making (along with so many other things), and in her book, she outlines her simple, time-tested technique. It's all about building flavors one at a time, slowly and gradually, tasting and adjusting seasonings as necessary along the way.
"The simple soup I make most often starts with a base of softened onions to which one or two vegetables are added," Waters says. "The soup is moistened with broth or water and simmered until the vegetables are tender.
"First, the onions are gently cooked in butter or oil until soft and flavorful. A heavy-bottomed pot makes all the difference for this: it disperses the heat evenly, making it easier to cook vegetables slowly without browning. The amount of fat is important, too. You want enough butter or oil to really coat the onions. After 15 minutes or so of slow cooking, the onions will be transformed into a very soft, translucent, sweet base for the soup."
The operative words here are gently, evenly, slowly. Before I took these words to heart, I used the dump-and-stir method, expecting a wonderful pot of soup to appear, but most of the time I was disappointed. I think that I just wanted it all to happen too fast.
Now that I use the Alice Waters method, slowly adding one ingredient at a time, I have amazing results. Like relationships, soup-making can't be rushed. The flavors must be allowed to reveal themselves, one at a time.
Getting to know a particular soup, I've found, is a journey in itself. As I've traveled around the world, I've tasted soups wherever I've landed. And I've discovered soups can be as varied as the cultures that make them.
Consider one of the simplest of soups, tomato. In India, it is smooth and elegant, spiked with ginger and coriander. The national soup of Morocco is the tomato-based harira, made with chickpeas and lamb. In Tuscany, flavored with little more than garlic and thickened with stale bread, it is known as papa al pomodoro. In Spain, I tasted chilled gazpacho made with fresh chopped tomatoes and crunchy diced cucumber — the perfect antidote to a hot summer day. Closer to home, I fell head-over-heels for a Mexican tortilla soup made with tomatoes and broth, served with crispy tortilla strips on top.
I learned to make them all. By remembering the tastes and the textures, and filling in the gaps with recipes, I can transport myself — bowl after delicious bowl — back to the places that I have loved. I can rewind my life in an instant to a memorable food experience in a far-flung place and hit "play" with that very first spoonful.
Soups have always been like that — even in the Old West. Those saddle-sore cowboys out on the trail used to look forward to the occasional meals when the "cookie" would liven up the usual monotonous trail food with a soup or a stew. The time-travel button for those boys no doubt took them back to a hearty chuck-wagon stew made in a heavy cast-iron pot eaten under a starry Western sky.
More than once when I was a kid, I would come in from a day on horseback to a pot of my mom's soup. Now every time I visit, she makes soup for me. One of my favorites is her beef and vegetable stew, which, along with her jalapeño cornbread, whisks me off to my childhood. And then, just like magic, the whole family is sitting at the kitchen table like we used to, eating together once again.
This is why I love soup so much. And it's why it was worth making the extra effort. Which, by the way, is how I got soup to love me back.