Soup is surely the ultimate food. From the
poorest of the poor standing in the street
beside a soup kitchen to the richest of the
rich at a posh dinner party, we can all eat
soup. Be it a hot Mediterranean summers
day or a cold wet Scottish autumn one there
is a soup that is just right. It will match your
mood – from comforting and warm to spicy
and exotic, full of unknown promise like a
first date. Feeling alone and miserable? Just
cuddle up to a bowl of soup by the fire,
watch the telly and stuff the world out there.
Or have friends round for lunch and put a
panfull of soup on the table surrounded by
bread, cheese and beer and let everybody
help themselves. In a hurry? Make it
instantly from a packet all glutinous and full
of strange plasticky vegetables. Or take
your time, like I will today and make a big
pan full of velvety pumpkin soup for the
family tonight. It will bubble away quietly
while I get on with other things and if
anybody is late, no worries, it only gets
better whilst sitting keeping warm.
Nowadays we are so used to getting food pre-prepared, ready to eat, that we hardly
consider how it gets there. You order it over the phone or internet, or you open the tin
and warm it through, or you take it out of the freezer and microwave it, and hey presto
or “ding” should I say, there it is on your plate ready to eat. Even recipes are pretty
foolproof, you could probably go from start to finish without tasting and the end result
would be fine.
But that is not what we are after here. No, we are constructing something from scratch,
so taste everything all the way through. Watch how the flavours change, how the stock
overpowers everything at the beginning but then mellows during cooking as the other
flavours develop and come through.
And think about what you’re tasting, is it nice? Is it what you expected? Does it need
If it does you’ll know, you may not know what, but you will know that the taste is not
quite right. Here is where I experiment. I’ll take a spoonful and add a little bit to that
spoonful, say yoghurt perhaps or lemon juice or some feta cheese. Then I’ll taste that
and if it works – fine, if not I still have my soup. This way you’ll learn what works and
what doesn’t, and gather a whole lot of ideas that work (or don’t) for the future.
You could make a soup with just carrots and water, and very nice it would be I am sure
but rather plain and one dimensional. This is where the base of a soup comes in. Along
with the stock, the base adds a depth and background to the flavour of those main
ingredients, subtly complementing and bringing out the best in them.
In the west most recipes use onions or something similar, leeks say or shallots or celery.
Bacon as well, if you eat it would go in as part of the base, to be chopped and cooked
slowly in a little oil or butter until it all becomes fragrant. This will usually take a good
ten minutes or more, the onions should become translucent and start to turn faintly
golden brown. Keep the heat low during this so that it does not burn, because burnt
onions will overpower the whole thing. If it does burn, because you know that the
phone will ring at just the wrong moment, then just throw it out, wash the pan and start
again, it is no big deal.
While the base is cooking I usually peel and chop my main ingredients ready to be
stirred in and allowed to cook for a few minutes before adding the stock. I say stock but
any liquid could be used, from water through to beer, wine, milk or a combination, it
all depends on what you feel like, what you are making.
Once the stock is in, bring it to simmer - a gentle bubble really and leave until it is all
cooked, twenty minutes to half an hour for most vegetables, but bite a bit to see.