I’m always going on about soup, and now seems like a good time to talk about it some more.

And just as with bread, there is are quick and slow versions which each have a role to play in everyday eating. I remember at times of high workload and low energy, practically existing on cartons of New Covent Garden soups. Pea and ham, lentil and spinach, chicken etc. Always pimped with grated cheese or a dollop of crème fraiche, some fresh herbs or a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

But buying fresh soup (as opposed to tinned or dehydrated for the store cupboard) always felt wrong, and often there was a niggling side-serving of knowing that the ingredient combination or seasoning were not quite right, and I could make it better at home.

Growing up in a household of frugal Scottish cooking, soup sometimes felt like an overly worthy meal, a penance, a chore to consume because it was just, frankly, boring and served with a hint of apologetic, budget-driven defensiveness by my mother.

When I first lived alone I started to experiment with soup (and other things!), and even had a brief tango with the cabbage soup diet but thin, watery gruel just makes me reach for big, juicy, satiating calories. I still do, and this defines my approach to soup making and eating.
The flavours must be big and punchy, the mouthfeel just right – no thin broths for me (with the exception of a few top-notch laksas, phos or tonkotsu that fulfil all other criteria).

I love thick, hearty soups. Delia Smith’s Tuscan Bean and Pasta Soup from her How to Cook series (1999)  is still one of my favourites.

The quickest soup that fits this almost-instant bill is fresh pea and mint, that can be adapted endlessly to very good effect. At its simplest it uses half an onion sautéed in a tablespoon of butter or olive oil, 500g of frozen peas, a bunch of fresh mint leaves, a teaspoon of bouillon powder and half a kettle of boiling water. Tip the peas into the pan with the softened onions, pour over boiling water, add stock powder and mint leaves, blitz really well and pass through a sieve (optional). Check and adjust the seasoning and bingo. It’s vibrant and bright, with sweet essence of pea and can be adapted in so many ways.

At the Daffodil Soup pop-up in Hackney in 2018, we sometimes made it with ham hock stock and added shredded ham hock to serve. Or popped a poached egg in the bowl and some shards of crispy bacon and Parmesan. Or make it thicker and perch a couple of pan-fried scallops on top with a squeeze of lemon and some chopped parsley.

But on its own with a slick of quality extra-virgin olive oil and sourdough croutons it makes a very satisfying vegan dish.

On a Monday morning when prep-time was tight it was always good to know the soup could be made right at the last minute for lunch service.

At home I regularly make veggie-drawer soup. It’s a way to clear out the odds and sods in the vegetable drawer, from sticks of old celery and carrots to fennel, swede, the odd new potato and other leftovers, eg cooked pasta or a half-tin of beans or tomatoes, that would otherwise end up going to waste. A rasher of bacon or leftover cooked chicken might go in too, and this soup will keep us going for a couple of week-day lunches.

Onions are the basic first law of soup prep. They provide a solid base of earthy sweetness and bring all the other flavours together.

Make the decision early on as to whether you plan to blitz the soup up at the end or leave it chunky – this will determine how much intensive chopping you need to do. If it’s a kind of minestrone you’re making – the Italian dream soup that has a little bit of everything and is topped off with a punchy herb pesto and glugs of olive oil – then you want to keep your vegetables all neat and tidy in small, similarly-sized dice so that they cook at the same rate and are easy to eat.

Which brings me to the second law of soup, which is to imagine in your mind, before you start chopping, slicing and dicing, eating a spoonful of soup. Chop the veg accordingly – if it’s busy soup with loads of different ingredients, keep them really small so you get something of everything in every spoonful (without having to crowbar open your jaw to accommodate huge chunks of, for example, butternut squash).

If it’s a smooth, whizzed up soup you’re aiming for, that’s not a problem but do still try and keep all the different ingredients the same size so they cook at the same time.

And (top tip, this), start preparing and cooking the ingredients that take the longest to cook, and layer them up as they go in so that the ingredients such as fresh herbs and or pre-cooked beans, go in at the end. An example of this would be using something like split peas that need soaking for 10-15 minutes (the overnight soaking of beans and pulses is another chapter). Pop them in a bowl and cover with water while you chop the veg and they’ll be ready to go in early, as they need longer cooking time than, for example, diced celery or fennel.

Another early marker on the decision tree is whether you want to add fat or keep it nutritious and on the healthy side. On the whole I prefer to cook up a mighty soup in stock or water with bouillon and leave the oils aside until the end. But you can soften the base veg lightly in olive oil or butter at the start before adding the liquid, which will give you a richer, more luxurious result.

A kind of minestrone

When I spotted a bag of dried chickpeas in the cupboard. I thought ooh, houmous … tagine … falafel … and all the other things that start with chickpeas.  But first they had to be soaked in water overnight, then simmered for 1.5 to 2 hours, then – crucially – left to cook in the cooking liquid. This allows them to absorb some liquid as they cool and keeps the texture soft and creamy.

Once I’d done all that the moment for houmous and falafel had passed and I thought they would make a fine addition to the veggie drawer soup. Starting with an onion, carrot and celery, all diced nice and finely, I decided to soften the veg in extra-virgin olive oil, to add a layer of Italian warmth to the flavours and I realised I was going down a kind-of minestrone route. While the sofrito was on hissing gently next to me, I diced half a Swede and a chunk of fennel, and quartered some cherry tomatoes that had been hanging around. There was a handful of green beans, a bunch of sage and some parsley in the fridge, so those were chopped and went in too, with the chickpeas, water and a tablespoon of bouillon powder.

This simmered gently for half an hour, and then I used a stick blender for about 10-15 seconds, just to whizz enough of the mix to thicken the soup so it had more body, but still plenty of identifiable veg and chickpeas. I checked the seasoning, added some seasalt and good grind of black pepper, and grated some parmesan cheese to scatter on the top. It was a colourful, warming and nutritious lunch, with a quick splash of Ligurian olive oil to finish.

Chicken soup

With the luxury of time on my hands and deliveries from my lovely butcher  I sometimes start a week’s worth of cooking by making a rich, dense chicken stock that goes in everything from risottos to stews and, of course, soups. I have never had good results making stock from a roasted chicken carcass but perhaps that’s because it’s been picked clean of meat and the bones have little left to give.

I order 2kg of chicken bones for £2.50 and they are usually the remnants from fresh chickens that have been jointed as well as a few wing tips and carcasses with plenty of flesh on them. These get roasted in a hot oven for around 45 minutes to release some of the fat and get some colour in to the skin. You can brown some onions at the same time, just watch they don’t burn.

Typical base-veg for stock are the holy trio of onion, carrot and celery, plus fennel or other root veg but do avoid anything starchy, eg potato or parsnip, and also the leaves of soft herbs such as parsley or tarragon as they can go bitter after a long, slow bubble. The stalks of these soft herbs, however, are perfect for stock, as are bayleaves and peppercorns, and hard herbs such as rosemary or thyme. I would avoid adding garlic at this stage, as it makes the stock less versatile and can be added at a later stage.

Roughly chop the veg, add to a big pot that can accommodate the chicken bones (drain off the fat and reserve it for other uses), veg and aromatics, and cover to the top with cold water. Put the pot on a high heat, and turn it down to low once a bubbly scum starts to form on the surface. Keep a small receptable and serving spoon to hand and every time you pass the pot gently spoon off the bubbles, fat and protein bits that gather on the top. This will keep your stock bright and clear. The kind of heat you’re looking for will be gentle, sometimes referred to as a mill pond, with occasional bubbles breaking the surface and steam rising but not a regular, rolling boil or even a simmer.

This, apart from occasional skimming, will look after itself for 2-3 hours. Then, using a pot large enough to accommodate the liquid, and a sieve or colander lined with muslin or a clean and rinsed J-cloth, gentle strain the stock and make sure you extract all the liquid gold.

Allow the chicken and veg to cool a little, then rescue the chicken flesh from the bones and put in another container.  The bones and veg can now be discarded in the food waste bin as they have done their miraculous work.

Return the pot of strained stock to the hob and boil vigorously to reduce by half – this will concentrate the flavour and also be more practical for storage purposes. As it reduces the stock will thicken and, once cooled, will be like jelly (similar to the stockpot jelly pots you can buy in the supermarket).

This stock will add so much flavour to any soups, stews or casseroles you have planned. It can be frozen and then added straight from the freezer in frozen blocks as required.

One of my first tasks is to make a chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin, soul food or simply just a hug in a bowl).

Once again I start with finely diced carrot, onion and celery, in a saucepan with the cooked chicken bits, stock and some water, as well as a generous teaspoon of sea salt and lots of ground black pepper. If there’s a courgette or some leftover butternut squash, swede or turnip around I will dice and add them too. I always add a generous handful of brown rice to this one, as it makes the soup more filling. A gentle simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, and shortly before serving I will check the seasoning and add something green, for example shredded green or black cabbage or chopped kale, and (always) chopped parsley. This can also be served with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, dried chilli flakes or a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper or sumac.

If you’re feeling fluey, or just a bit down in the dumps, then this is the remedy; in our household it is said to raise the dead.

Spicy lentil soup

A bowl of bright sunshine on a dark winter’s day is this glorious spicy brew that is both hearty and adaptable. It is a version of Indian dal, and can also be made thicker and served with rice or dipping bread on the side.

Ingredients

serves 4-6

1 medium onion

1 red chilli (more if you like extra heat)

3 cloves garlic

4-5cm thumb of fresh ginger, peeled

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

75g yellow split peas or moong dal

150g red lentils

1 litre water

6 cardamom pods, bashed

10g vegetable bouillon powder

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil, butter or ghee

Crisp fried onions to garnish (optional)

Method

First, soak the split peas in cold water while you prepare the spice paste.

Roughly chop the onion, chilli, garlic and ginger and blitz (you can use a stick blender for this) with the dried spices (excluding the cardamom pods) and a teaspoon of oil, ghee or water.

Heat a tablespoon of oil, butter or ghee in a saucepan and add the spice paste. Let it sizzle and fry until it softens, then add the water, lentils, drained split peas and the cardamom pods. You can add the half-tin of tomatoes from the chickpea recipe, if you have it.

Allow to cook uncovered for 60-90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if it’s getting too thick. Check and adjust the seasoning with stock powder and salt, add dried chilli flakes or cayenne for additional heat. You can also add butter or ghee at the end, to make the dhal richer but it is not necessary.

While the soup is cooking you can fry off some finely sliced onions in oil or ghee until they are brown and crispy. Add a sprinkle of salt at the end of cooking and use as a classy garnish.

Wild mushroom soup

Wild mushrooms elevate soup to restaurant food – early autumn is the perfect time to take advantage of this earthy delicacy, although you can make it all year round with dried mushrooms and some roughly chopped chestnut, closed cap or Portobellos.  Dried wild mushrooms are a useful store cupboard item, as they can be used in so many dishes, for example risotto, stews and tarts.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

50g dried wild mushrooms (most superamarkets sell them or you can buy them online), soaked in 300ml boiling water

500g mixed wild mushrooms (porcini, oyster, chestnut, girolles/chanterelles, enoki etc)

45g unsalted butter

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small bunch parsley, washed, leaves finely chopped

125ml dry white wine

75ml full-fat creme fraiche

1tsp vegetable stock powder

a cup or so of water

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Creme fraiche, chopped parsley and truffle oil to garnish (optional)

Method

Make sure the fresh mushrooms are clean (brush them gently with a damp pastry brush and break them into pieces to check inside, you don’t want to spoil the soup with tiny grains of grit). Using tongs, gently remove the dried mushrooms from the stock, and chop them roughly. Carefully strain the soaking liquid into a jug through a J-cloth or kitchen paper, to make sure you don’t add the sandy sediment at the bottom).

In a large frying pan, melt the butter and when it’s foaming add the mushrooms and garlic.
Allow to fry quite hard, until most of the moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms start to brown. Now add the parsley and white wine, and allow the wine to reduce by half. At this stage, remove a heaped spoon of the mixture and set aside to garnish the soup later.

Add the strained mushroom stock and the creme fraiche and stir through. Again, allow this liquid to reduce a little to intensify the flavour.

Now use a stick blender to blitz the soup to a smooth puree. Add a little water if it’s too thick. Check the seasoning and add sea salt and finely ground black pepper as required.

To serve, ladle the soup into a bowl, top with a spoonful of creme fraiche and the reserved mushrooms, sprinkle the parsley and drizzle sparingly with truffle oil.

© Linda Galloway 2020