Groundhog’s Day yesterday and Imbolc mean we’re halfway to spring. There are wee signs in the garden – the earliest flowers unfolding, and rhubarb gallantly punching hot pink nubs and crinkled neon leaves through its own mulch.
Still, it’s winter and the hardiest vegetables rule. A steaming pot of homemade soup is winter’s snooze on a hammock, comforting, delicious moments when we feel as if we’ve been well taken care of.
Raid the fridge. This pot of soup included some of almost everything I had in the vegetable category – leftovers, the kitchen’s flotsam and jetsam – simmering on the stove, imbued with the health of winter plants like onion, garlic, carrots, celery, fennel, mushrooms, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, cabbage, kale, and a few destitute peas from the hinterlands of the freezer. Last summer’s frozen roasted tomatoes were the kicker, but any can of tomatoes would be fine.
Anyway, such ingredients are the base for a versatile soup. Add curry, ginger and turmeric, maybe coconut milk and/or cream for a curried root soup; jalapeno, chipotle powder, cumin, shredded chicken for a Mexican flavor; or, go Italian with dried or fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme and basil if you can get it, a piece of leftover Parmesan rind, Cannellini beans, Italian sausage, pasta . . .
This vegetable soup is at the heart of a favorite adolescent food memory because, well, it’s delicious, and it was surrounded by a big day of skiing which I considered the ultimate fun. Mom’s pots of soup, or spaghetti or pot roast at day’s end are as much a part of those memories as are recollections of my own unskilled, no holds barred skiing. Plus, I was probably inclined to appreciate whatever was put in front of me on those Saturday nights. She’d make soup from scratch, always with a meaty beef bone of some kind. Teenagers with energy to burn, when my brother and I got home we were rosy cheeked, hungry and exhausted. Wilma spent a big part of those Saturdays cooking for us and had a spectacular dinner ready, not fancy, but homemade, often vegetable soup, steaming and delicious with freshly baked cinnamon rolls for dessert. Jackpot!
Afterwards I fell into bed, satisfied with life. The Hammock effect. I’m inclined to make soup the way my mom did, and I do, but I’m more cavalier about the range of vegetables. I begin with the usual ingredients, the carrots, onion, celery (a mirepoix), and then I raid the refrigerator’s veggie bin. The sky’s the limit. Mine’s good, and yes, versatile, but not mom’s.
Versatile Vegetable Soup Recipe
And I do mean versatile. Consider these ingredients and their quantities a loose guideline for cooking up your own sappy soup memories.
1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
Sauté these in olive oil and a pinch of salt until translucent, ten minutes or so. (If you’re adding a soup bone, add it now, cover with liquid and simmer quietly for a couple of hours before adding herbs and additional veggies.) This is a good time to decide about the soup’s flavor theme, a curried Indian version, spicy Mexican or Italian. These are by no means authentic versions of traditional Indian, Mexican or Italian soups, but a way to use what you have to make a soup with panache. My mom’s was simply her own, perhaps her mother’s, imbued with stock from beef bones and often barley; add cooked rice or quinoa, almost any grain you prefer.
After the chosen herbs have been stirred into the sauté mix add 6 – 8 (or more) cups of any combination of vegetables you like, chopped and diced relatively uniformly. I wouldn’t recommend adding dark red beets, which will lend their hue to the entire pot of soup. Add water, vegetable, chicken stock or a combination, and a can of tomatoes if that fits. Liquid should cover vegetables by one or two inches. Season with salt and bring it all to a gentle simmer. Add more liquid if needed.
Cook with the lid on for about 30 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Adjust seasonings and add other ingredients that fit your soup’s theme: rice, pasta, beans, coconut milk . . . whatever. My own version included herbs that are alive and well in the garden right now, rosemary, thyme and bay, also some Cannellini beans, and all the vegetables I could get my hands on: after the onion, celery, carrot, garlic sauté, I added potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, kale, cabbage, fennel and tomatoes. No meaty soup bones this time. Add cooked pasta and Italian sausage if you like. Delicioso.