News flash: Soup is not the stuff that comes in a can. Soup is the Kitchen Master’s bestest friend, the crisper cleaner-outer, the creativity outlet, and the soul-satisfier. To quote those guys who shall not be named, “Soup is good food.”
In order to be a Kitchen Master, to satisfy the masses, to feed the hungry, you must make good soup. And for most men, good soup includes meat and some form of homemade bread, or at least crackers and cheese. But let’s notice that excellent, healthy, aromatic soup can be made from the humblest of ingredients, ingredients you really should have on hand, as they are useful for any number of easy, healthy, budget- and family-friendly dishes.
“Crackers and water.” That’s what my mom used to say with a smirk which irritated me a little bit. Oh, but now I understand. “What’s for dinner?” is an aggravating question when you don’t know the answer, and frankly, don’t want to know.
But when you have it all under control with a delicious pot of soup . . . now that’s when you can say, “Soup!”
Friday was soup day at my high school, no doubt because it’s a great way to use things up, and because the cooks were tired by Friday. Most of the kids hated (or so they said) soup day, but it was my favorite, and I was one of the cooks’ favorites. I always came back for seconds with a big grin, and any cook will tell you it’s nice to be appreciated.
At my house soup can mean something they all love, like creamy bacon mushroom, potato, clam chowder, or beef stew, or it can mean something with a few too many vegetables, which they have finally come to love (OK, tolerate), maybe because they figured it was better than peanut butter.
I don’t do picky eaters. If they don’t like what I cook, they’re free to make a PBJ, but not to complain. As I told them all once in a fit of pique over complaining and picky kids, “God made it, so it’s good. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.” That may sound mean, but I will not be guilty of foisting onto the world thankless, persnickety children.
Back to soup. I make it out of what I have, so no two pots are the same, but here’s a basic recipe that always turns out.
Meat of choice – I like chicken or hamburger. With hamburger I go with Mexican seasonings, with chicken it’s Italian. If you choose chicken, boil it the day before, cool and have kids debone. Or just chop up the half a breast you have leftover in the back of the fridge. Hamburger is also nice to have cooked ahead of time.
Fresh vegetables – carrots, celery, onions, garlic and potatoes (optional) and as many as you want. If you love carrots, put in the entire bag (if you have a big pan – this soup has a way of growing large). If you only have one carrot, cut it up small to spread the color. If you’re out of celery and potatoes, that’s not such a big deal unless you’re making potato soup. If you’re out of onions and garlic, well, you just need to go to the grocery store.
Canned and/or frozen: Tomatoes (in any form – tomato sauce or paste, diced, chili-ready or Italian depending on what sounds good, the last of the Pace Picante sauce), okra and japalenos (optional for you, but not for me) corn, green beans (frozen or canned).
Here We Go!
Begin with carrots – they take longest to cook. Peel (or not), slice, cover with water and cook on medium high heat. Add cubes of celery next, then chopped onions and garlic (dried and/or fresh – I use dried onion flakes, fresh chopped onions and freshly minced garlic) and bay leaf (I always add oregano before serving). I’ll leave it up to you if you want potatoes in your soup. If so, cube and put them in right after the carrots. How to decide? Do you have and love potatoes? Are they about to go bad? Then put them in! Soup is a creative and money-saving endeavor.
Now brown hamburger meat if you aren’t on top of your game with this chore already completed, or debone the chicken you cooked the night before. You forgot!!! Well, then, put that baby on right now to boil – you’ll need to turn off your veges until the chicken’s ready to go. It’s frozen? That never stops me, and I don’t have a microwave. Just put it in the water and turn on the burner (only be sure to pull out the bag of giblets just as soon as the chicken is thawed enough to do so). Now, make some cornbread and put out some butter to soften. You can snack on hot buttered, cheesey japaleno cornbread while you wait.
Oh, it sounds fattening? Then don’t eat three pieces! Just eat two and save one for the soup. Yay!
Back to the hamburger. You can put in lots or a little, or just serve your soup with cheese and bread to make up for a lack of meat
Brown the hamburger with still more onions and garlic, and sometimes oregano and/or chili powder and as always, salt and pepper. If I have it, I use sea salt. If I’m lazy or in a hurry I put the peppercorns in whole (yes, you’re allowed to use that cheapo Wal-Mart pepper – we’ve all done it, and speaking of that, I’ve found Wal-Mart is an inexpensive place to get dried onion flakes).
The carrots should be almost tender, and that’s all you want. Put your vegetables along with the meat into your big soup pan, including the cooking water and the meat drippings. Once the soup is refrigerated you can easily peel the fat off, although if you’re using organic meat there’s no reason to do so. The soup will be even better once it’s leftover.
Now for the fun and easy stuff: sliced okra, tomatoes, corn and green beans (frozen or canned) and enough water to cover everything with extra on top.
Once it’s hot, taste and add seasonings as preferred.
That’s it. Serve it with or without crackers, cornbread, or artisan bread. And may I suggest some thinly sliced sweet onions? Oh, and remember this soup is even better leftover.
P.S. Cabbage is also good in this soup – cook it ahead with the carrots and potatoes.
AND SPEAKING OF CABBAGE . . .
I had this big beautiful Chinese cabbage and not much else and it was snowing. Definitely souptime. I peeled and sliced three potatoes, chopped onion and garlic, and began simmering them in water as I chopped the cabbage.
Adding the cabbage along with the little heavy cream I had (about ¼ cup) and a quart or so of milk, I went flavor hunting. Ah ha! Bacon ends and pieces – so beautiful. There was no danger of anyone thinking this was merely cabbage soup. This was soup with bacon! About a cup sizzled as I added sea salt and cream cheese (celery would be good, but I was out).
When the bacon was crispy I chopped it and added it along with some of the drippings (matter of taste here and I’m not admitting how much I use) and a stick of organic Humboldt butter.
I got rave reviews on this soup!
Rave reviews are practically a given if bacon is involved. Here’s a soup that was a happy accident due to my need to use up several Crimini mushrooms:
Creamy Bacon Mushroom Soup
Begin by frying your bacon nice and crispy. I usually use about one slice of bacon per cup of liquid, so six to eight slices in this case. I prefer putting bacon on a cookie sheet and cooking at around 400 degrees (keep a close watch as it’s a sin to burn bacon) in the oven until nice and crispy. Remove promptly when finished.
Now chop (in all chopping look for kids with idle hands) the mushrooms (any kind you have on hand) – I first used about ten mushrooms, but I’ve made this with only three. Saute for a few minutes on low heat in an oil or oil mixture. I do almost everything with some combination of butter/coconut oil/olive oil. NEVER USE MARGARINE OR ANY OTHER KIND OF BUTTER ADULTERATION/ABOMINATION. How much oil? This is your soup – you decide! (I’m also not admitting how much butter I use.)
Now add milk, heavy whipping cream, half and half, or any combination thereof. I always use mostly whole milk with a little cream or half and half. Why can’t I be specific? Because I don’t want you thinking you can’t make this because you don’t have the exact ingredients. Again, soup is a creative endeavor, and as this particular soup contains bacon, you really can’t lose.
OK, I”ll get a little bit helpful. Let’s say you have a big group of healthy eaters and you want about six to eight good servings of soup. Use about eight cups of liquid, roughly half milk, ¼ cream, and ¼ half and half. It will be delicious using all milk, so long as it’s whole milk. So in this case it would be four cups of milk, two of cream and two of half-n-half.
As the soup cooks on medium/low heat, chop the bacon and prepare a thickener. I like to use a couple of heating tablespoons of cornstarch stirred first into a cup of warm water (or you could try using a roué of wholewheat flour and butter). When the soup is hot pour in the cornstarch and water mixture, stirring until creamy and well incorporated.
Continue to cook, stirring often, until the soup has bubbled for a few minutes. Turn off and test for saltiness, adding sea salt a little at a time until just barely salty. Depending on your preference for thickness, you can add more cornstarch/water mixture, and cook a few minutes more. You will love the taste, but it’s best if you serve this soup later. It’s going to be even better after refrigeration and re-heating (on medium low with stirring).
Variations: A couple cans of tuna or clams make this soup a delicious and even heartier meal. You might call it Southern Clam Chowder or Granny’s Cream of Tuna with Bacon. Also, Mushroom broths from the grocery store are delicious in this soup, as is chopped garlic. You can dress it up with a little parsley on top, and serve it with crackers and cream cheese. But really, it doesn’t need any help. After all, it’s made of mushrooms, cream, and bacon.
Tip for kids who don’t like the texture of mushrooms: Put the mushrooms in the blender or food processor and they won’t know they’re in there if you don’t tell.
Budget tip: Use only one or two slices of bacon, or just leftover bacon drippings, or even a little chopped ham or Spam. If none of this works for you, just up the butter a little.
Man-pleaser tip: This soup has bacon. Nuff said. But if you really wanna lay it on thick, make bread.