Today’s post is going to be very different from most of the recipes in this blog in the sense that while it is easy in the sense of being uncomplicated, it takes a very long time to make. Bear with me and the soup, though – most of that time isn’t taking up any of your attention and effort, and the results are very, very much worth it in the end.
I do not have a very great photo of this soup, nor did I originally intend to write about it, since it is not a glamorous food, nor is it in any way shape or form a soup that has a very specific recipe (though some things are needful while others are optional). But I happened to post a photo of this soup on facebook a few days ago, and lo and behold, it’s one of my most popular-ever food photos. It would appear, then, that the hive mind wish to know about the soup. So, settle down comfortably and I will tell you of days and soup gone by…
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I didn’t know how to make soup. Those were dark and terrible times, for I happen to love eating soup, and since I had very little parental food-basics teaching in my childhood, I had not been instructed in the Art of Soup. And so I was left out in the cold, hungry and bereft of soup unless I went to a restaurant to get it.
But in the soups in the restaurants were more often than not, simply not good enough. They were too watery, too full of flour, too bland, too … something. And usually, they were simply failing to embody the essence of that which is Soup, that warming feeling that makes you feel warm and comfortable and happy on the coldest, most miserable November day.
And so, unsatisfied with soup, I set forth to seek answers, to find a great teacher or the secret or the grimoire that will allow me to finally achieve the Soup I was seeking. My journey took me through weeks of cajoling restaurant staff at Miss Aimee B’s about the secret of their (very successful!) soup, ordering old and obscure reprints of 19th-century book on soup making by a French gentleman who truly knew the Art of Soup (but not the art of writing without putting readers to sleep, may he rest in peace!), up the mountains and down the valleys, with a detour to the butchers’ to buy or beg marrow bones, and much much further. I learned to saute vegetables and to make stock and to season correctly, and my soups had much improved – but still, they had failed to achieve that special something I craved. And when I thought I was too tired, and I could not persevere through more failed and, more often, simply unsatisfactory soups, I found the secret, as such tales often go, in a place I had not even thought to look – an out-of-print science-fiction novel by R.A. Heinlein.
And then, only then, did I finally understand!
The secret to that comforting, amazing soup that would warm you through and make you feel special wasn’t in any cookbook, nor in any particular secret technique. It was time. Yes, this was simply it – making a true cold-weather comfort soup takes time. There is no real way to go about it, although I suppose a pressure cooker might help a bit with shortening the ‘active’ portions of that time when soup is actually cooked, but I do not own one nor is it going to really do a thing about the ‘passive’ times. Essentially, I discovered that even more than a stew, to achive its peak deliciousness and a silky, satisfying texture, a multi-component soup (we aren’t talking about cream-of-whatever soups here at all!) needs to be cooked, stand a day or two refrigerated, and then to be cooked (a bit more than just reheating!) again, with a new layer of flavors added. It’s a fairly well-known fact that stews are better the next day – but if you think about it, what is a stew but a soup with less liquid?
This is not to say that you can’t make a perfectly good soup (especially of the cream-of-vegetable or bisque variety) in a far shorter time – the Soup we speak of is that other mythical beast the aroma of which permeates not just one’s apartment but makes the entire building hungry, the one that evokes images of a giant cauldron over a fire in a fantasy-novel tavern as the blizzard howls outside. That Soup. And That Soup is not in three hours made.
The ingredients for a really amazing autumn soup are unsurprisingly humble. There is no reason to waste delicate things such as fresh clams or asparagus tips here, nor would they fit in with the rough and rowdy crowd. The quantities are best described as ‘enough to your eyes’. The list I give is by no means exclusive or exhaustive – this is a soup of your imagination. I am merely here to guide you along the way.
Things I have put in this soup on first day:
- Bacon, cubed and fried on gentle heat until a little crisped around edges and smoky.
- Beans (specifically a 13-bean mix I had laying around the pantry), soaked for about 3 hours in water on countertop.
- Onions and garlic – peeled, chopped, sauteed.
- Carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces.
- Some cubes of peeled butternut squash I had in my freezer.
- A wedge of cabbage, shredded and sauteed to remove cabbagy ‘funk’ before adding to soup.
- Some on-their-way-to-old baby plum tomatoes, chopped into small bits.
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon (heaping) of dried savory and oregano each
- A generous amount of chili flakes and half a teaspoon of habanero chili powder (you figure the amount of heat you want for yourself, if any!)
- Some sliced and sauteed celery or a handful of pearled barley or some dried mushrooms will certainly not go amiss here.
- Salt, bay leaves, black pepper, garlic powder, dried onion powder, some smoked paprika.
I have assembled all of this by putting a pot on the stove, adding the drained and rinsed bean mix to it, adding water and setting it all on medium heat, then sauteeing things in the pan next to it, transferring them over to the pot as they were done. Any spices simply and unceremoniously got dumped into the pot at any point of this assembly. If I had a block of frozen stock in the freezer, I’d have added that to it, or a tablespoon of shop-bought fond, but I had neither. No matter.
Bring to a vigorous boil, cover, turn heat down and cook on gentle simmer until the beans are tender, which can take up to 3 hours. At this point the soup is perfectly serviceable and quite ok to eat. So we had some of it for dinner that day, and it wasn’t bad.
But then… then what you do is cover the pot, plug the lid vent if there is one with some paper towel (keep flies out), and stick it out on your balcony (by now it’s the temperature of a refrigerator/freezer here), or in your fridge (cool it some if you do this). And leave it alone for 24-48 hours. The soup needs time to become. The magic will take place while you wait.
When the time has passed, bring your pot of magic to the stove, and remove the vent plug if you had one. Heat the soup on medium-high heat until boiling. Add a few pieces of frozen chopped spinach, a handful of spelt, fresh greens you had around the place, chopped leaves off a sprig of rosemary. Taste the soup and add seasoning if needed. Add some fat (olive oil, butter or rendered duck or pig fat) if you feel it looks like it needs it. Allow to boil on medium-low heat for about half an hour to an hour to meld the ‘aged’ flavors with the new. Add a tablespoon or two of sherry if you feel like it, or brandy if that’s what you want. Or neither.
Pour into bowls or giant mugs like mine in the picture. Toss in a few croutons (in my case, that was a heel of a rye sourdough bread that I cut up and put in the mug before pouring the soup over). Drizzle over some robust olive oil or put in a pat of butter. Take it all to the sofa or armchair, pull a blanket over your lap and exhale. The evening is going to be fine. You have achieved Soup.