A Celebration of Soup

Soup has been the cornerstone of my diet for as long as I can remember. As a child my mother made it often and effortlessly, just as I do now.

It was an integral part of our lives; she was an actress and was constantly playing in theatres in London’s West End. In those days nearly all of the big and reputable theatres had a kitchen which always had a good wholesome soup on the go for everyone backstage. I have many memories of being sent to collect mugs of delicious soup to take back to the dressing room with fresh bread.

There is always something in the garden, the larder or the fridge to turn into a soup so I do every week: a head of celery with a bit of blue cheese; some tomatoes with a handful of herbs from the garden and a good squeeze of orange juice; onions with a touch of marmite and cider; my anything minestrone; chilled yoghurt, cucumber and prawns or a gazpacho in the summer, and the perfect answer with what to do with all that wretched left over Stilton at Christmas when no one can face anymore…If ever I’m not sure what to cook, a soup is always at hand.

I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than being faced with a bowl of disappointing soup and sadly there’s an awful lot of it about if, for whatever reason, you decide not to make it yourself. In fact, some commercially produced soup has become quite grim and it’s no wonder.

Again and again recipes are cost engineered on a computer programme rather than developed in a kitchen and are then produced in vast cooking vessels in such ridiculous quantities particulates (otherwise known as actual pieces of food) are avoided as their correct dispersion into individual packs is almost impossible to achieve.

Soup is without doubt one of the most versatile foods, yet we don’t seem to take nearly enough advantage of it. It can be light and restorative, a whole meal of richness, or a healthy light alternative. It can be hot, cold, cooked or raw but is always soothing to swallow, quick to quell hunger and easy to digest. In our fast food market today there is barely a sandwich bar I can name that doesn’t have soup on its menu throughout the year.

But there’s a pattern to their lacklustre flavours, so often predictably easy to guess: carrot and coriander, leek and potato, tomato and basil. All the trademark recipes that give away the fact it’s bought in.

I can’t understand why more of you don’t make it yourselves. Soup is without doubt ridiculously easy to make and incredibly simple to boot, not to mention having a very good cost of goods, bearing in mind the high water content.

To be absolutely honest, anyone who can cut up a vegetable can make a soup in not much more time than it takes to open a tin and heat it up.

So why don’t you? Well for a start, speak to anyone about soup and it’s the stock that seems to daunt them. All that old fashioned worthy attitude that a good stock is only achievable if you boil bones, shells and bits for hours, well I don’t agree. I have visited the supplier of soup to Pret in New York and yes, I was hugely impressed with their stock making procedures: literally hundreds and hundreds of tonnes of bones that are bought in and boiled for hours to achieve the correct result.

Admirable, but I still think unnecessary. I’d defy anyone to actually be able to identify in a taste panel a soup made from a stock from scratch, versus a very good quality ready made one. So no, I don’t make my own stock. Like Marco Pierre White I don’t believe it’s necessary. There are simply too many good ones on the market, so why bother.

The quality of Knorr and Marigold are very high indeed, as is the concentrated brand of stocks: Major. They are all stalwarts of the kitchen and never fail to deliver so why not use them. There are only four you will ever really need to be able to produce a good selection of soups which are beef, chicken, a light vegetable, not dark (this is important or summer recipes normally pale in colour will become a terrible brown) and fish. I never bother with the weirder ones as every soup I’ve ever developed has been delicious using one of these. There is an argument you could even omit chicken, as a good vegetable stock will be far more useful to produce vegetarian recipes.

So what are the hiccups so often encountered when making soup? Perhaps if I run through some a few more of you might try your hand at soup making. Well the guidelines are very similar to making a good sandwich or anything else in the SOUP www.sandwich.org.uk September 2008 51

“I reckon I never spend more than ten minutes, fifteen at the outside making a soup. If you do you’re overcooking it and annihilating the goodness and vitamins, not to mention the colour and flavour ” kitchen for that matter. Keep it simple is right at the top of the list. I would say I never make a soup with more than three or four ingredients, in addition to the stock and seasoning. There simply isn’t any reason to, honestly – if an endless list of ingredients is required someone is adding unnecessary complexity, not to mention extra labour and cost. Of course there are exceptions to the rule: a delicious Christmas Lunch soup I developed a few years ago really did have a lot of ingredients but every one was justified and worth it I can tell you; turkey, bacon, sausages, stuffing, cranberries, sprouts, bread sauce and gravy. One of the best soups ever I think.

Undercooking and overcooking can destroy a good soup. A guide to undercooking is to be sure you have given enough time for the flavours to develop or the vegetables to be cooked through. Colour will always be your best guide here for overcooking. A spinach soup I often make has the raw spinach added at the very last minute, so it’s just left to wilt. As soon as this has happened the soup just needs blitzing – so all you need to do is sweat a few chopped shallots, add some stock, crème fraiche, lots of freshly grated nutmeg and fresh lemon juice and then after a ten minute simmer throw in the raw spinach.

Some of the simpler soups require a minimum cooking time and once that moment has passed the soup is in decline. Spinach soup should be a vibrant green. Pea and mint is another great summer soup – never be ashamed of using frozen petit pois. They are simply the sweetest and the most consistent by far. Again this should be the brightest of greens.

Fresh is best but certainly not always. Of course the best seasonal soups will take advantage of vegetables in season, amongst others there’s nothing like a curried parsnip soup on a very cold winter’s day but as I’ve said never forget the staples like frozen petit pois. Tinned chick peas are on my extensive list of tins, along with good quality chopped tomatoes out of season, practicality must abound. Dried is invaluable too; a small amount of dried porcini mushrooms will intensify your mushroom soup and give it a truly meaty flavour.

Thicken honestly – never use starch or flour. There are so many ingredients you can use to thicken a soup – never use horrid starches or flour which ruin the flavour and will destroy the texture. Experiment with different varieties of potatoes – ‘new’ work well in summer soups (which reminds me of another wonderful recipe; Jersey Royal and Mint Soup) and ‘old’ in winter ones. Bread, pasta, egg based mixtures are also excellent thickeners or simply add more vegetables, they all work very well in the right recipes.

Avoid a curdle – Before adding dairy ingredients such as cream, but especially yoghurt make sure you have allowed the soup to cool down a little first, otherwise it will curdle and be ruined forever. I find crème fraiche is far more stable to use than cream, plus I think it gives a far better less sickly overall richness. I wouldn’t bother with the low fat version though – it doesn’t deliver anymore than low fat cream does.

Respect your spice – spices can often be treated in a haphazard and crude way. In an ideal world they should be crushed and mixed freshly but this can often be impractical. Off the shelf spices are of excellent quality but you must ensure they are freshly opened and well sealed.

Spices that are months and months old will have lost their mettle and become musty and should never be used, but it has to be said that in reality many kitchens contain them. They should be properly cooked or they will give off a harsh unpleasant flavour, which will spoil even the most delicious of soups. I wonder if any of this is a help. I can’t only hope so and that it serves as huge encouragement to experiment to see just how easy soup making really is.

Time and again I come across independent sandwich bars who are incurring immense kitchen grief to overcome such challenges as roasting their own chickens or vegetables when quite frankly both of these and countless other recipes should be left to suppliers with the correct equipment and efficiencies to be able to produce these ingredients more commercially and effectively.

It makes much more sense to produce easy recipes instead such as soup which demonstrate provenance and uniqueness to a business and produce the sort of products that promote brand loyalty like topsy. So go on, why not give it a try?


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