It is perfect that I have been asked to write this article. As far as I can remember, my mother never made soup. The cupboards always had canned soup in them. We were fed canned soup when we stayed home from school with real or imagined illnesses. Soup was not part of family meals, although we had dinner together every evening. Possibly it had something to do with the volume of food that my Mom was required to prepare for a family of nine children. She was an excellent cook and she had the quantity thing down pat.
Nor was I nurtured with soup by my grandmothers. When my father’s mother, my Stone grandmother, visited, she scrubbed floors and washed and folded laundry. I don’t recall having seen her near the oven or stove at all. On the other side was Grandmother Sullivan, descended of Irish immigrants. She cooked everything in one pot, either boiled or baked, so my mother said. I never saw her cook, but she did have a tea ritual every afternoon that was quite intriguing.
So the Mom who loves to prepare soups from scratch for my family can only be me.
My First Homemade Soup Experiences
My older sister Faith, whom I adored and wanted to emulate in every way, became a vegetarian in high school. I decided to follow her path; I was 13. Through her hipper friends we discovered “garbage soup.”
Garbage soup was simply all the vegetable trims in the household, thrown in one pot with no regard to marrying flavors, and simmered off and on for days as more scraps were accumulated. We experimented and tasted our horrific combinations and tried to pretend that they actually tasted good. This was hippie crunchy stuff and we wanted to be a part of the vegetarian culture. The rest of the household asked about that terrible smell in the kitchen—an unusual thing in our home because my Mom was an excellent cook.
This phase fortunately passed, but the seed was planted. There had to be better ways to create nutritious food that tasted good. With this chapter coming to a close, I stayed vegetarian for about two years, eating lots of vegetables and yogurt.
Learning the Trade
It was not until I moved to the Midwest, again following in my sister’s footsteps, that my culinary ventures started to take on a more devout intention. I lived in an Ashram, a spiritual community of sorts, which operated a vegetarian restaurant, a country kitchen restaurant, and several bakery locations. Being a few years ahead of me in the move to the Midwest, Faith was already well established as the primary cook in the vegetarian restaurant. I was sent to work in the country kitchen and bakery shop. It was there that I was first exposed to the magical mixture of ingredients that went into really great tasting soups and more.
I was initially assigned to bakery sales, production, and cake decorating. My ability to work very long hours on little sleep enabled me to advance through most aspects of the combined food-related businesses within the three years that I chose to live in that environment. I would equate this experience to boot camp. From this base, I started off on my adventures in the real world, testing and honing my skills in a much more competitive yet somewhat less driven public forum.
I learned about stocks and broths. I learned about layering flavors. Most of my cooking experience has been trial and error and paying attention to the talented people that I have been fortunate to work with. I have a large collection of cookbooks and culinary encyclopedias. I love to read them and use them for research and reference. For example, before I prepare my first cassoulet of the fall or winter, I like to compare several recipes and refresh my understanding of the history of the dish.
Creating Awesomely Flavorful Soup—A Note On Recipes and Ingredients
People often ask me for recipes. I gladly oblige, although it takes some effort on my part because I do not normally use recipes. Instead, I find my inspiration in looking at, feeling, and smelling the beautiful array of vegetables I purchase from local, organic farms, always my first choice. I look for balance in color, texture, flavor, and appearance, and I let them show me the way.
Chicken Broth Basics
Making your own broths for soups adds a dimension of flavor that elevates the final results. I save and freeze trimmings from onions, celery, carrots, garlic, leeks, and parsley. These vegetables are a good addition to any broth. (I sometimes save more pungent trimmings such as cilantro stems, peppers, cabbage, and the other members of the cruciferous vegetable family. I keep these separate from the basics. I might use them to make a vegetable broth for a vegan bean soup, or something that the strong flavors of these vegetables would compliment and not overpower.)
I also save all trimmings and bones from any meats that I prepare to use for stock, sometimes setting them aside in the freezer until I’m ready. While chicken bones are fine to use raw, beef, lamb, veal, and duck bones benefit from a half-hour’s roasting in a 400-degree oven.
To make the broth, select an appropriate size saucepan or stock pot for the ingredients. Choose a vessel large enough to allow room for a few inches of water over the ingredients. Add bones to the pan plus your stock vegetables and seasoning. Cover the ingredients with cold water.
My standard spice combination for broths is bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns, but the possibilities are endless. Consider what you have in mind for a finished product. Smell each herb or spice as you open the container and imagine what flavor it will impart. Should you be interested in reducing or eliminating salt from your diet, the addition of more savory herbs and spices will boost the flavor of the broth considerably. Dried herbs and spices that work well for this purpose include rosemary, sage, basil, oregano, tarragon, whole cloves, and fennel, anise, or cumin seed.
Place the pot on the stove on high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and allow to cook until all the flavor has been cooked out of the bones. (Chicken stock will take about three hours; other carcasses four to six. Vegetable broth may be ready in half an hour, and fish or shellfish stock in little more than that. Lobster stock made from lobster bodies will be ready in about 90 minutes.) Leave stock to simmer on the back of the stove undisturbed. Stocks do not benefit from stirring. It actually makes them cloudy and less attractive.
When all the flavor has been extracted, strain the stock through a colander or sieve. Once strained, stocks can be reduced to increase the intensity of the flavor. Simply place the strained stock in a pot back on the stove over medium-high heat and allow to boil gently until you have achieved the desired result. Add salt to taste now, or wait until you put the stock to use in soups or other dishes.
Cool the stock for a bit before storing in the refrigerator. As it chills, any fat in the stock will rise to the top and solidify. It can be lifted off the cold stock and is ideal to use as the cooking fat for sauteing vegetables for soups, adding another layer of flavor.
Layering Flavors—Going from Stock to Soup
I start with the appropriate cooking fat and onions or leeks, celery, carrots, and parsley, introducing the ingredients one at a time and allowing each additional ingredient to marry tastes with those that have been previously used. To oil, butter, or chicken or other fat, over medium to low heat, I add the onions or leeks and allow them to wilt and cook until translucent. This flavors the cooking fat with the onion. It also makes your home smell divine. Next, I add the celery and repeat the process of layering in each additional ingredient to build the flavor base for the soup, before even adding the stock. Using this method as opposed to chucking everything into the pot at once makes an incredible difference in the finished soup.
To me there is the magic of the moment in preparing foods. The most important ingredient is love. I love what I do and I love to feed people. I wish to nourish the physical presence and the soul. I acknowledge my gratitude for the farmers, the sun and the rain, the soil—the total environment in which I am able to practice my craft and bring joy to others.
By Martha Stone of Martha’s Eat Local