The other day I was attempting to describe to a young granddaughter how to make chicken soup. She had trouble believing that the first and major ingredient in soup was water. “Don’t you open a can or a box of broth or buy ready-made chicken soup and add a few vegetables? “ she asked. (In the interests of full disclosure, her mother is a very limited cook.) After I had gone through the various steps, including the skimming off of the grayish foam that floats on top of the water when the chicken begins to cook, she pointed out that it would be much easier and less messy to buy ready-made soup at a local grocery store with a large prepared food department. “It is just too much trouble to start with water,” she announced.
But is it really too much trouble? The wonderful thing about making soup is that it makes the cook feel like an alchemist. You don’t turn lead into gold but you do turn water into food. After an hour, more or less, of cooking its many healthful ingredients, soup is no longer water, but something substantial and delicious.
Soup is perhaps the most forgiving of culinary mistakes and non-compliance with recipes. Sure you can oversalt it, but there are tricks to take away the excess saltiness. You can make it too thick, but adding more water takes care of that problem. If it’s too thin, then add something starchy like a potato or blend some of the soup and add it back to the pot. Are you missing half the ingredients called for in the recipe? Find something in the refrigerator that more or less resembles the ingredients in the recipe. Indeed, it is inefficient to compulsively follow a soup recipe precisely, because soup was never meant to be precise. The water in the pot is the dumping ground for combinations of ingredients that should not, but nevertheless do, work together to create an entity much more tasty than the sum of its parts.
And soup satisfies. Hot soup, as we go into the depth of winter, warms us inside and out. It may be the savory steam rising from the bowl that brings some welcome humidity to our face, oftentimes overexposed to the elements of wind outdoors and artificial heat indoors. Or it could be that holding a mug of soup warms our still cold fingers. Soup can’t be gulped and the leisurely spooning is a welcome relaxing change from the usual urgency of eating quickly in order to return to our cell phones and computers. Eating soups with multiple ingredients is entertaining. One never knows what might be on the spoon (is that potato or parsnip, carrot or orange squash, meat or mushroom?). And because it is filling, we are better able to eat smaller portions of the main course or indeed be satisfied with just some bread, a salad and fruit for the meal. And unlike many foods, the next-day soup often tastes even better.
But why make it when the supermarket is filled with shelves of canned, boxed and frozen soups? Because, despite the advertisements that have you believe there is no difference between the canned and homemade variety, there is. It is not just the uniformity of the size of the vegetables and chunks of chicken or meat or the unappetizing clump as it falls out of the can into the pot or plop as it is squeezed out of the box, or the absence of herbs and spices. It doesn’t smell like homemade and the taste and texture disappoint. But the basic reason factory-made soup disappoints is that it does not reflect the personal quirks and idiosyncratic way of cooking of the home soup maker.
Homemade soup is tasted, tweaked with spices, herbs, lemon juice, perhaps a splash of wine or, if it is a cream soup, of nutmeg or cayenne pepper, rested and cooled, strained, blended, re-heated, and even topped with crusty bread and melted cheese or a dollop of yogurt and chives. It probably never tastes exactly the same every time it is made, and that is also part of its appeal. It is hard to make soup in a hurry but once it is on the stove and simmering, you can go away and it will take care of itself. (Don’t go too far away though. When I was a young cook, I decided to make soup stock with marrow bones given to me by a butcher. I left home with the bones cooking in a large pot in a large amount of water. Hours later, when I returned, there was an inch of water left and the bones had turned to gelatin.)
New Year’s brings a renewal and commitment to achieving a thinner, fitter, no longer sleep-deprived self. Soup should be part of the New Year’s healthier life- style objectives. So buy a pot, fill it with water, rummage around the refrigerator for those vegetables you never got around to eating, the chicken breasts still in the freezer, the handful of rice or pasta in the back of your pantry shelf, and that can of navy beans you bought because you wanted more fiber in your diet. While the water is heating, check the Internet for instructions on making a simple vegetable soup (you can leave out the chicken if you wish) and then start adding ingredients.
Enjoy. And Happy New Year preparations.