Stock and soup making has preoccupied me for the past three years. Out of the blue, an old flat-mate turned up on my doorstep with an unusual eating disorder: she was recovering from a broken jaw and restricted to a liquid diet. Her food cravings became my challenge. From being a keen soup-maker I became obsessive. Creating stocks, particularly vegetable combinations, assumed a new interest and became the basis of a book.
I began chronicling my efforts and soup took over as the mainstay of my family's diet. We moved with the seasons, from wintry vegetable and pulse purees to spring vegetable minestrones and shellfish potages, to chilled summer consommes and elegant fruit cups. Potatoes remain the most popular ingredient, and whole meal soups, preferably with different textures and served with a spicy salsa, the favourite style.
Things that you can serve with or put into soup to enrich or embellish it became a secondary obsession. I like raising the profile of soup, to serve each soup, however modest, with complementary trimmings. I like the fact that the same soup can be transformed by serving it with, say, dumplings. And so the book expanded to include almost as many garnishes and embellishments as soups.
Soup can be simple or elaborate, or anywhere in between. It can be hot or cold, thick or thin, classic or innovative, carefully contrived or a melange of leftovers. It can be a comforting sort of dish, a heartwarming broth, an elegant crystal-clear delicacy or a meal in itself.
Soup is widely regarded as man's oldest food, probably developed about the time that boiling was discovered to be a way of cooking. A gruel made by cooking a mixture of barley, toasted cereals and water was for centuries the daily fare of the ordinary people of the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Later, small amounts of meat were added, and in medieval times the myth of the endless stockpot, constantly replenished with beef, veal, mutton and marrow bones, become the precursor of pot-au-feu.
Those early soups, really the by-product of cooking the meat, were thin and meagre food for the peasants, to be ladled over thick pieces of bread. By the end of the 15th century, soups were produced from meat, poultry or fish in their own right, with seasoning and colouring becoming more refined and terminology more exact. Soup came to mean the everyday fuel of the working classes, and potage was the name for the delicate entree at the beginning of a banquet. These days, when soup terminology is far more complicated and suggestive than exact, anything goes. What remains is the habit of serving soup at the start of a meal.
The vogue for thin potages led to the invention of 'veal glue', the forerunner of the bouillon cube. This evolved into the packet soup most famously used by Captain Cook for his voyage in 1772. But it was Alexis Soyer, the great Reform Club chef, who taught people the value of the broth produced by bones and cheap cuts of meat. His soup kitchens in Dublin at the time of the potato famine in 1847 fed 26,000 people daily.
Stock is the body and soul of most soups. It is invariably the 'secret' ingredient that makes many soups rich, complex in flavour and full-bodied. It is also one of those cooking 'mysteries', which inspires a fear out of all proportion to the simplicity of making it. Stock can be made from virtually any meat, fish, vegetable, herb or spice and its variations are limitless. It requires no particular skills and need not take hours to make. At its most basic, it is the liquid you have cooked the vegetables in; at its most complex it is a subtle balance of ingredients which complement each other to give what Albert Roux calls 'a marriage of flavours'.
The ground rules are to use good-quality ingredients, to ensure that any fat is trimmed from meat and bones before placing them in cold water, and to simmer very slowly. Fish and vegetable stocks take a maximum of 40 minutes and chicken, the most universal stock, between two and three hours. Meat and bone stocks, which will be rich in gelatine, take up to six hours. Most importantly, stocks must be strained, cooled, then skimmed of fat.
Deciding when to stop and how to order my researches were the most difficult parts of writing the book. The result falls into three distinct sections: the foundations of soup-making; the things you can serve with or in soup; and recipes. These divide into eight different categories and include classic and innovative soups using ingredients from around the world.
All-purpose vegetable stock
Makes approx 2 litres/3 1/2 pints
Ingredients: 110g/4oz onions
75g/3oz tomatoes (optional)
30g/1 1/4 oz butter
bouquet garni made with 4 parsley stalks, 1 strip of lemon peel, 1 bayleaf, 1 clove, 3 sprigs of tarragon, wrapped in a green part of the leek and tied with thread; 1tsp fennel seeds and 4 peppercorns, salt and pepper.
Preparation: Finely chop all the vegetables. Soften the onions and leeks gently in the butter for 5 minutes, then add the remaining vegetables and sweat for a further 10 minutes. Add 2.3 1itres/4 pints of water and the bouquet garni and bring to the boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Strain, season and skim for fat.
Five-onion soup with croutons and chive cream
The allium (onion/garlic/leek) family and potatoes are wonderfully versatile soup ingredients. Any proportional combination, either wholly or partially pureed, or left in chopped or sliced form, will make a delicious soup. Butter, for initial sweating, and a splash of milk or cream make the results richer, and water or any stock gives markedly different results. Thyme, bayleaves, parsley, coriander, dill and mint are good partners. This soup, like so many, was devised with what happened to be to hand.
Ingredients: 50g/2oz butter
2 medium onions, sliced
salt and pepper
3 large leeks, white part only, sliced
3 shallots, diced
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
1 medium floury potato, peeled, diced and rinsed
1 sprig of thyme
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
1.1 litres/2 pints chicken or
vegetable stock, or water
100ml/4fl oz double cream
2tbs chives, chopped
For the croutons:
4 slices any stale, close-grained white bread
2-4tbs olive oil
Preparation: Melt the butter in a spacious, lidded, heavy-bottomed pan. Stir in the onions and, after a couple of minutes, season with 1/2 tsp of salt. Add the leeks, shallots and then the spring onions and potato. Stir everything around to coat with the butter, cover, and leave to sweat over a very low heat for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add the thyme, bayleaf and garlic, and several grinds from the peppermill. Pour on the stock, bring slowly to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
Strain the liquid into a clean pan, remove the bayleaf and thyme sprig, and puree the onion mixture with a ladleful of the broth. For a super-smooth finish, process the whole soup and pass through a fine sieve. Reheat and adjust seasoning. Just before serving, lightly whisk the cream and stir in the chives.
Garnish each serving with croutons and spoon on a dollop of the chive cream. Serve extra croutons separately.
Make the croutons by removing the crusts and cut the bread in 0.5cm/1/4 in squares. Heat the oil until smoking, turn down the heat and saute the croutons, tossing and stirring so that they colour evenly to a golden brown. Remove to absorbent kitchen paper.
Hungarian tarragon lamb soup with parsley dumplings
This is a robust soup-stew, and a rich, tarragon-seasoned version of British lamb and barley broth. Serve with crusty bread.
Ingredients: 225g/8oz lean lamb, cubed
150g/5oz mixed chopped onion, celery and carrot
1.4 1itres/2 1/2 pints rich lamb stock
1tbs lemon juice
150ml/1/4 pint double cream
1tbs tarragon vinegar
2tbs tarragon leaves
a pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
50ml/2fl oz sour cream
1 egg yolk
For the parsley dumplings:
110g/4oz self-raising flour
1/4 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
15g/1/2 oz curly parsley, finely chopped
Preparation: Cover the lamb and mixed vegetables with the stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently until the meat is almost cooked. Rub the flour into the butter and whisk small pieces into the soup to thicken it. Add the lemon juice, double cream, tarragon vinegar, tarragon leaves and a pinch of sugar, stirring thoroughly. Bring back to simmer and cook for 10 minutes before adding the parsley dumplings (see below). Simmer for a further 10 minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning. Just before serving, mix the sour cream into the egg yolk, add a ladleful of hot soup and pour back into the soup. Heat through, stirring, but take care not to let it boil. Serve with a dusting of paprika.
Make the parsley dumplings by sifting the flour into a mixing bowl with the salt, a few twists of black pepper, the parsley and suet. Stir in just enough cold water to make a pliable yet stiff but not too sticky dough. With floured fingers, form the dough into marble-sized balls. Part-cook in lightly boiling broth or water, cover, and remove with a slotted spoon after 10 minutes.
Soupe au pistou
A summer soup from the South of France adapted for winter with seasonal vegetables; broccoli or cauliflower florets are another good addition. Leftovers can be pureed and thinned with more water or light chicken stock. Serve with a splash of olive oil, garnished with flat leaf parsley.
Ingredients: 110g/4oz flageolet or haricot beans, pre-soaked and part-cooked for 60 minutes in unsalted water
110g/4oz shell pasta
110g/4oz carrots, scraped and diced
110g/4oz celeriac or celery, diced
110g/4oz leeks, white part only, chopped
1 large potato, peeled, diced and rinsed
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
75g-110g/3-4oz turnip, peeled, diced and blanched in boiling water
3 sprigs of basil, chopped
approx 2.1 litres/3 3/4 pints boiling water
chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
For the pistou:
2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled
4tbs pine nuts (optional)
large bunch of basil leaves, finely chopped
50g/2oz Parmesan, freshly grated
100-175ml/4-6fl oz olive oil
Preparation: Put all the ingredients except the pasta, pistou and parsley garnish in a large pan and cover generously with boiling water. Simmer for 30 minutes, then add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is tender but retains a slight bite. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve garnished with the parsley and serve the pistou separately for people to stir a dollop into their soup. Provide extra parmesan or gruyere.
Pistou can be made quickly in a food processor, but better results come from pounding the ingredients in a mortar. Begin with the garlic, then add the pine nuts, if using, then the basil, and finally the parmesan.
Pound until you have a thick paste, and stir in the oil gradually, a few drops at a time, until everything has amalgamated into a cohesive sauce.
Sour shrimp soup
Tom yam goong is a refreshing, pungent and chilli-hot Thai soup. Raw shrimps, as Thais call prawns, are stocked by oriental food stores; other ingredients are more widely available.
Ingredients: 1.4 litres/2 1/2 pints
water, light chicken stock, or stock made by simmering the prawn shucks for 20 minutes with a diced onion and any mushroom parings
3 stalks lemon grass, tender part only, cut into 5cm/2in lengths
5 kaffir lime leaves
150g/5oz small mushroom caps or straw mushrooms
40ml/1 1/2 fl oz nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
6 dried red chilli peppers
10ml/1/2 fl oz chilli paste
225-450g/1/2 -1lb raw prawns, shelled and de-veined
4 spring onions, chopped in 2.5cm/1in pieces
handful of Thai basil (slightly minty, with tougher and smaller leaves than normal)
100ml/3 1/2 fl oz lime juice
2tbs coriander leaves, finely chopped
Preparation: Bring the water or stock to the boil and add the lemon grass, lime leaves, mushrooms, fish sauce and chillis. Simmer vigorously for 2 minutes, then add the chilli paste, prawns, spring onions, Thai basil and lime juice. Cook until the prawns turn pink, and serve flecked with coriander leaves.
A Celebration of Soup will be published on 25 February by Michael Joseph at pounds 16.99.
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