Soup. An earthy, comforting word. It has such charm, only one sound short of “swoop”. And a swooping sensation in my stomach is exactly what I felt every time I smelt my grandparents’ rib-sticking leek and potato. Characteristically of their generation, grandma did the cooking, but for some reason that I’ve never quite fathomed, my grandpa made the soup. And what soup finesse! My mum loves to recount the story of how my sister once, as a child, complained that mum’s vegetable broth was never as good as his, because he cut his vegetables into perfect cubes. My poor, hard-bitten, time-constrained, working Mother. Scourge of the food tessellation fanatics.
Due to this family influence, I’ve had a life-long love affair with that most versatile of culinary inventions, soup. An unworthily underrated food. It’s a universal comforter to rival the cup of tea – tinned chicken chowder when you’re ill, winter broth when you’re cold, cuppa soup when you’ve drunk so much coffee that you can’t feel your lips and you’ve STILL not finished that essay (try it). It’s also the culinary corrector pen – just chop it all up, add some stock, maybe liquidise it, et voilà! Delicious after all. And the vast range of styles this monosyllable evokes is astounding. Thick, smooth and creamy vegetable soups. Rich bouillabaisse (don’t worry – I can’t say it either). Chunky broths. Thin oriental stocks crammed with seafood and noodles. Farm-yard goulash. Some of the top chefs, such as Robuchon, have aspired towards the ultimate “clear” soup – essentially a carefully strained colourless stock, with a perfect flavour balance. One of the best soups I’ve tasted was in a classy Vietnamese restaurant in Soho called Pho. I say classy due to the ambience of the place, but perhaps this is misleading; it actually isn’t too expensive, and they claim that their menu is based on Vietnamese street-food. Their key dishes are cauldrons of beautifully seasoned noodle soup, some spicy enough to leave even my most curry-proof of friends gasping for several minutes.
But that’s the beauty of soup – it’s not only the domain of Michelin stars and linen napkins, but also of budget back-of-the-cupboard meals and roast dinner leftovers. If you want to sample a wonderful example of a classic, down-to-earth soup here in Durham, try the Pancake Café’s Winter Broth. It’s stuffed with good wholesome veggies and a mound of pearl barley. Particularly appealing now that the cold and dark are drawing in, and a cheap, cosy meal out.
In my humble, soup-slave opinion, however, nothing beats a good old homemade soup. It’s ridiculously easy to cook, perfect winter comfort eating, and nigh-impossible to muck up! This makes it great fun for both the veteran chef and the wee student still terrified of the chopping board. Here are a couple of my favourite recipes, passed down through my family. Why not pick some veg up from one of the lovely North Road greengrocers and warm up the winter nights with these delicious toe-curlers? Don’t forget to cut your vegetables into perfect cubes…
Creamy Vegetable Soup
A good basic soup recipe and very adaptable – make what you want out of it! Use whatever veggies you have left in the bottom of your cupboard, and experiment with different herb combinations.
Also a great one for any fresher’s flu that’s still lurking around, as it’s packed with vitamins and good stuff like that. Lovely out of a mug whilst curled up in bed. Add a few shakes of chilli flakes/tobasco and a bit of ginger to clear out the sinuses.
Makes: Lots! It freezes well…
- 1 large onion
- 2/3 cloves garlic
- good slug of oil/tbsp butter
- 4 carrots
- half a butternut squash/couple of parsnips
- 3 medium potatoes
- tbsp rosemary
- tbsp thyme
- 2 tins chopped tomatoes
- 1 pint chicken or vegetable stock
- shake of Worcestershire sauce
- splosh of double cream
- Roughly chop onion, crush/finely chop garlic, roughly chop rest of veg (the smaller you chop, the faster they’ll cook).
- Heat oil over a low heat in large saucepan and gently fry off onion. Add garlic after a couple of minutes.
- Once soft, not brown, add rest of veg and herbs and “sweat” (continue to fry over a low heat, with the lid on, stirring regularly) for about 10 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, stock and Worcestershire sauce. Turn the heat up. Once at the boil, simmer for about half and hour, topping up with boiling water if necessary (but don’t make it too watery – you can always thin it out later).
- Once the veg is soft and crumbles when you stick a fork in it, take off the heat and liquidise using a handheld blender/tip into a food processor and blitz until smooth.
- Stir in cream, season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot and scrummy.
Winter Chicken Broth
Try this if you don’t have a blender/processor. Brilliant way to get the most out of a roast chicken, but also lovely with just a couple of stock cubes instead. Best served with chunky white bread to dip in.
Makes: a couple of good hearty meals, or a light lunch for 4–6.
- splosh of oil/tbsp butter
- 1 large onion
- 2/3 cloves garlic
- 2 large potatoes
- 3/4 sticks celery
- 2 carrots
- 2 parsnips
- 1 tbsp thyme
- 1 tbsp basil
- 2 pints of chicken stock, either homemade (see 1 below) or from stock cubes
- 100g pearl barley
- 1 bay leaf
- squeeze of lemon juice
- If using home-made stock, place whole chicken carcass (leftover from roast dinner) in large pan, including any leftover bits of meat and the jellies. Add an onion, peeled and halved, and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer well for an hour or so. Pull out onion and chicken bones and pull away any meat left on, add to pot. Try and check for smaller bones left in as well.
- Finely chop onion and garlic. Roughly chop veg.
- Gently fry onion in oil/butter, add garlic after a couple of minutes. Once soft, not brown, add rest of veg, basil and thyme and sweat (see above) for 10 minutes.
- Turn heat up and add stock, pearl barley and bay leaf. Bring to boil and simmer for about 45 minutes, until pearl barley is tender, but still has a bit of bite. You will need to keep topping up with boiling water/more stock, as the pearl barley absorbs lots – there should be plenty of liquid at the end.
- Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve hot, with crusty bread.