“Soup is cuisine’s kindest course. It breathes reassurance; it steams consolation; after a weary day it promotes sociability, as the five o’clock cup of tea or the cocktail hour.” — From “The Soup Book” (1949) by Louis P. De Gouy
Many folks enjoy recipes. Being able to duplicate a dish correctly makes them happy.
I am not one of those cooks.
I hate recipes and almost never follow them in the kitchen. I loathe the exact measuring required. I resent recipes’ do-it-my-way voice of doom. I guess I have a problem with authority.
Recipe aversion may seem strange for someone who owns hundreds of cookbooks and edited recipes for 30 years. I wrote two recipes for this story.
I hate those recipes, too. Given the choice, I’d rather wing it in the kitchen.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love reading recipes for ideas and information about cooking and life. I just won’t let a recipe tell me what to do.
That’s why I truly love cooking soup.
Soup is made for improvisation with ingredients that can vary from batch to batch. You don’t have to wait to get exactly the ingredients the recipe requires. You can just make some soup.
Most of us ignore it in the summer, but come the dark season soup calls us with tidings of warmth and comfort. Sinuses clear with a snort of steam bubbling up from the pot of soul-restoring chicken matzo ball soup or tom kha gai.
The soups we crave can be a bit heavy, fat-drenched and calorie-dense. Thank goodness. One-bowl meals should fortify you against the shiver and so satisfying you squeegee every last dab from the bowl with your finger.
While they may be recipe-free, my soups are never totally freeform. They start with a craving for Asian noodle with beef or a deep flashback to my mom’s pasta “fazool.” Sometimes I gaze at the earthy winter carrots, squashes and sweet potatoes in my produce bin and imagine a great bisque. I look for ways to incorporate heat-generating seasonings from black pepper and chilies to garlic and ginger.
Soup is the lovable supper because there are almost always leftovers waiting to be reheated on a frigid, dreary Tuesday night. Most soups actually taste better a day or two after being made. Add crusty bread and butter, a simple salad and a glass of wine and you have a meal. We also appreciate soup because it can be one-pot easy and a way to transform inexpensive ingredients into a memorable potage.
Soup has always been a favorite way to enjoy cheese from Wisconsin cheddar broccoli soup to chili con carne with grated Cheddar. And what is grilled cheese but a large cheesy crouton dipped in a bowl of tomato soup? In my time I have added cheese to many soups and I have seldom regretted it. Even inappropriate pairings like brie in hot and sour soup have turned out okay.
Two of the recurring stars of my winter soup repertoire are cheese-topped French-style onion soup and Southwestern pork green chili.
Onion soup may be the ultimate in mid-winter soothers, a Harry Potter-esque cauldron of sweet-ish bone-fortified broth and onions under a bread island dripping tentacles of Gruyère.
Onion soup can take days or less than an hour if you throw away the recipe. The endless simmer of the stockpot on the back burner is lovely but you have permission to use canned or boxed broth. A sacrilege, maybe, but it is excusable in the real world of making dinner for tonight. Authenticity can wait for the weekend.
I’m a fan of the whole onion group, especially in winter, including yellow, white, red and green onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, ramps and chives. The more varieties used the more depth of flavor and sweetness that develops in the soup.
I sometimes fortify my broth by simmering a couple of leftover roasted chicken drumsticks in it and adding the meat at the end. I also once made a French-Thai variation by adding coconut milk and a chunk of ginger.
The crouton in this soup can be any good bread in the house but preferably not too fresh. It gets piled with a mountain of grated cheeses, usual firm or hard ones. Mozzarella is not recommended because it rubberizes.
Green chili is an elemental idea in Southwestern cooking, simultaneously a pod, a sauce that smothers burritos, a chunky meat stew and a brothy soup.
For all the variations you start by roasting fresh green or red chili peppers (pasilla, Anaheim, jalapeno, etc.) over a gas flame, under a broiler or in the oven before peeling and seeding. You can also easily substitute canned or frozen roasted chilies but the roasting aroma alone is worth the effort.
My green chili soup is halfway between a stew and soup. I cook pork chunks in oil until they start to brown, add flour and broth and simmer with chili strips or puree. It’s topped with shredded Monterey Jack or crumbled Cotija cheese.
Pieces of warm flour or corn tortillas wrap mouthfuls of pork, chili and cheese. Green chili can be warm, smoky and complex without torching the taste buds. I’ve also made it with beef and other ingredients and served it over chunks of roasted butternut squash.
Reading through lots of soup recipes I came upon a roasted walnut and cauliflower soup that happened to be vegan. I have made many cauliflower-based soups and I roast walnuts all the time, but I’ve never put the two together.
It just proves that there is an exception to every rule. I actually followed the recipe and found the soup to be comforting and satisfying although I did add twice the amount of walnuts and some extra ground black pepper.
Improvising soup is a little risky but so rewarding. You must pay much more attention, especially to seasoning. Soup recipes are provided with this feature. My advice? Read them, nod your head and then simmer things your own way.
Freestyle Onion Soup
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2-4 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
1 large fresh shallot, peeled, minced
4 lbs onions (yellow, white, red), thinly sliced
¼ – ½ cup dry white wine (or hard cider)
8-10 cups broth (veal, beef, pork, chicken)
1 bay leaf
Fresh thyme sprig
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-inch-thick slices crusty bread, toasted
½ -¾ lbs cheese (Gruyère, Emmenthal, Parmesan, etc), grated or shredded
Heat oil and butter in soup pot over moderate heat. Add garlic, shallots and onions and cook, stirring frequently until onions start to turn golden brown. You can do this low and slow over 60 minutes or crank up the heat and do it quickly. Add broth, wine and bay leaf and scrape the bottom of the pot to dissolve the browned bits. Bring to a hard boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes to an hour. Add more broth as needed. If you’re using them, add minced green onions and chives.
When ready to serve, portion soup into oven-proof bowls. Top with bread and bury with grated or shredded cheese. Make sure you fill the bowl with onions, broth and bread to the top or the melted cheese will sink instead of sitting like a gooey crown.
Place on a cookie sheet under a broiler or in a 375-degree oven for about five minutes or until cheese is bubbly hot. If you’re in a hurry, pre-melt cheesy croutons under a broiler or in a toaster oven.
Variation: For a smoother texture, puree half the finished soup in a blender and add it back in.
Freestyle Pork Green Chile Soup
¼ cup vegetable oil
1½ lbs boneless pork shoulder, chopped or cubed
2-5 Tbsp flour
¼ tsp ground cumin
3 cups diced onions (white, yellow or red)
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
8-10 cups broth (chicken, pork or beef)
4 fresh chili peppers (Anaheim, poblano, etc.), roasted, peeled, seeded, or 1-2 (4- ounce) cans roasted green chili peppers
1 fresh hot red or green chili peppers (jalapeno, serrano, etc.), sliced in thin seeded circles
1-4 cups shredded Monterey Jack, crumbled Cotija cheese
Salt, to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, to taste
Warmed flour or corn tortillas (2 or more per person)
Fresh lime wedges
Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat and add pork. Stir for five minutes or until pork starts to brown. Stir in flour and cumin and add onions and garlic, cooking until onions soften. Add broth, stir well. Bring to a boil and then turn down to medium. Add chopped chili peppers, and fresh chili slices and cook about 30 minutes. If soup is too thick, add water or broth. Taste and adjust salt and heat levels.
Ladle into bowls and top with cheese and cilantro, if desired. Serve with warmed tortillas, a lime wedge and a bottle of hot sauce.
Variations: Add a tablespoon of bacon fat to onions while cooking. Add tartness with chopped fresh tomatillos or canned roasted tomatillo.
Roasted Walnut and Cauliflower Soup
(Recipe courtesy Chef Adam Moore for California Walnuts)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 head cauliflower, core removed
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup coconut milk
1 Tbsp yellow curry powder (mild or hot)
1 cup roasted walnuts
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Roasted Walnut Gremolata, as needed for garnish
In a large sauce pot over medium heat add olive oil and shallots. Sweat until shallots are translucent. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme and cauliflower. Cover pot and sweat vegetables until cauliflower is softened — about 20 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients, except salt, pepper and walnuts, and bring to a simmer. Reduce by one-quarter, then remove from heat and add walnuts. Puree until very smooth and season with salt and pepper.
Place hot soup in a warmed bowl and top with whole walnut halves and roasted walnut gremolata.
1 cup walnuts, roasted, chopped
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 Tbsp lemon zest
1 Tbsp yellow curry powder (mild or hot)
½ tsp kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until walnuts are the size of a grain of rice. CC
John Lehndorff is a veteran food editor who has taught classes in Conceptual Cooking (cooking without recipes). Not surprisingly, his specialty when he cooked in restaurants was soup du jour. Read his blog at johnlehndorff.wordpress.com