A very common question I get asked is “how to make a good soup from scratch without following a recipe?” Now, there are many types of soups, and endless ways to prepare them, but for the focus of this column entry I am going to concentrate on the common broth type soups.
Start with a soup pot and heat it slightly over medium heat. Add a little bit of cooking oil of your choice, and then chopped mirepoix: a flavour based combination of onions, carrots and celery. The basic ratio to follow is 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery. Rough chop them if you want a chunkier soup; or finely dice them; or anywhere in between. Always add some finely minced garlic to your mirepoix. Add a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then stir, cover, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables become slightly tender. If you want to add dry herbs (or fresh woody type herbs, like rosemary) add them to the mirepoix before this cooking process.
Fresh delicate herbs, like parsley, basil, oregano, should be added literally at the end of the complete cooking process of the soup, 30 seconds to 1 minute before serving. Dry herbs and woody fresh herbs need this jump start in the cooking process, whereas delicate herbs need just a gentle heating through to release their essential oils.
Now is the time to start steering the soup in the direction you want to go, by adding some distinct flavouring Ingredients such as specific vegetables, meats, hot peppers, etc. For example, if I wanted to make a Mexican chicken type soup, I would add some bell peppers, hot peppers, and some cooked chicken. Other types of vegetable variations that come to mind that you would add at this point are tomatoes, mushrooms, etc. Now cook a couple minutes more.
Next: add a complimenting broth/liquid and bring to a boil. Going back to my Mexican chicken type soup example, I would obviously add chicken broth. One could also do a combination of broth and some wine too for a different flavour. Another example would be adding beef broth and some red wine, or dark beer, for a beef-based soup.
After reaching the boiling point, bring your soup down to a simmer and cook until the ingredients have reached the desired consistency you want. Obviously chunkier or starchier vegetables would require a longer simmering time, as well as bigger chunks of meat if used.
Before this simmering point however, you may want to add a filler type ingredient to the boiling liquid such as diced potatoes, pasta shapes, rice, barley, etc. Now the simmering time will be dependent on these ingredients being tender as well. Please keep in mind to keep the volume of these filler ingredients less than you first think as they tend to absorb a lot of the liquid.
At the end of the simmering, turn off the heat and season to taste with salt, pepper, and if acidic ingredients (like tomatoes for example) were added, then a bit of sugar too. Any kind of sweetness will do actually, and this will balance the acidity of the soup and make it more enjoyable on your palate.
Lastly, one optional step: if you want your soup thickened, then dissolve a bit of cornstarch with some more broth and stir into the soup. Now bring it back to a boil to achieve the full thickening power of the cornstarch.
The only thing you have left to do is garnish and enjoy. Why garnish? It is an opportunity to add a splash of colour, and complimenting flavour to the dish. I like adding an herb sprig for my guests to plunge into the soup to release a burst of essential oils, and then at the end the sprig is discarded. However, this garnish be anything you want, as long as it 1.) compliments in flavour, and 2.) contrasts in colour so it stands out.
Cooking from scratch is not only enjoyable, when you do it well, but it is also an expression of your tastes and personality. Remember however, that practice makes perfect: the more you do it, the better you will get. Happy cooking…