When it comes to cooking, people get tied up in the details of following recipes that they forget that soup is a simple meal that people have made for centuries out of the little bits of food that they had on hand.
Making a soup should be easy, just above boiling water on the “cooking difficulty scale”.
Many European soup recipes are based on simmering bones on the stove for a few hours. The long cooking process extracts the flavor and nutrients out of the bones and the remaining meat. I love to prepare stock like this, usually letting everything simmer overnight. Still, I have found that when you are looking for an easy meal to make, it is better to take soup-making tips from Asian cultures, where soup is fast and flavorful from the additions of fragrant herbs added at the last minute.
Making soup is the ultimate way to use up leftovers. Even if you didn’t cook the food in the first place, like repurposing leftover Chinese take-out. Start with chopping up a handful of cooked meat and vegetables, add rice or noodles and a sprinkle of salt, barely cover the meat and vegetables with water and heat on the stovetop until hot. Taste and add a little soy sauce and hot sauce to give the soup more flavor.
Try picking a theme to the soup to give yourself guidelines. Take traditional flavor combinations from Italian, Mexican, Indian, Asian, even American food, chicken noodle is a favorite for a reason. This way, you can add herbs and spices in the chosen family of flavors.
When you create a soup from leftover ingredients, You will probably be making a dish you have never made before. This will give you the opportunity to practice tasting and then deciding if what it needs next. Add a little salt or pepper, then taste, start with less and add more as you go.
If you have less meat and vegetables, this is where you might want to use a liquid other than water, so that you have a more flavorful broth. I like to have a chicken base on hand. Chicken base is a concentrated paste that you mix with water to make a savory liquid. It comes in beef and vegetarian versions too. I like miso paste as a similar item, the process of fermenting the soybeans, to make miso, creates flavor to add to the soup. If you have these on hand, you can make as much as you need and not worry about what to do with any leftovers. They will last for up to a year in the fridge.
Basic Swanson’s broth has a neutral flavor. I find that some of the boxed broths and stocks from the supermarket, have other ingredients, like mushrooms and tomatoes, that add flavor, but are not necessarily the flavor that I want for the soup. These are fine once you find a brand that is to your liking. If you are cooking for just one or two people, you might not use the whole container. The package size is why I usually prefer the chicken base product when I don’t have the time to make stock from bones.
Most store-purchased broths have salt added, even the ones that are low sodium, so be careful when adding salt. Making soup from leftover ingredients is one of the only times where you can wait until the end to add salt since the meat, vegetables, and grains will have salt in them from their initial preparation.
Below is a list of suggested components for your soup. My first tip is to start with less and add a little more as you go. If you want a hearty meal, use less liquid and more vegetables, meat, and grains.
Liquid: Water, broth, stock, miso paste, bouillon or base, or bean liquid (from home-cooked beans)
Vegetables: Anything cut up into bite-size pieces. I will freeze mixed cut vegetables in a zip-top bag and keep it in the freezer, grabbing a handful when I make a bowl of soup. You can freeze them when they are raw and allow time to cook in the soup.
Meat: Cooked chicken or beef, chopped or shredded. Try using a bit of sausage. Shrimp or fish can be used raw.
Grains, beans, rice, pasta: Add raw rice and pasta when the soup simmers. Add pre-cooked grains and beans to make you soup faster. These add bulk and calories to your soup. You can omit them if you are avoiding grains. Because soup is water-based, it is inherently low in calories, and if you are hungry, these components will make your soup more filling.
Garnishes: Soy sauce, fresh herbs, green onions, chili flakes, hot sauce, fermented vegetables, kimchi, lemon juice, vinegar, chopped pickled vegetables, extra virgin olive oil or toasted sesame oil, grated Parmesan cheese.
Your garnish is adding a burst of flavor that doesn’t need cooking. Fresh herbs or salty, bitter, and sour flavors from the acidic ingredients balance the savory meat and vegetables that have cooked in the soup. The addition of a little fat in olive oil or sesame oil will also enhance the mouthfeel of the soup.
When you have time to sauté onions and develop flavors for a specific soup that you want to make, you can do that, but for now, think of soup-making as a simple throw it in the pot and bring-to-a-boil meal. Play with the garnishes if you have them on hand and think “fast and easy.”
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard