I used to think making soup was hard--felt like I couldn't get it to taste quite right, or there was some secret I couldn't master. Once in a while, I'd produce a soup I deemed good, but I couldn't reliably repeat myself.
Mostly, I think I lacked confidence, which is probably normal when you don't cook that often.
In 2003, when I left my job in Columbus, I got a lot more cooking practice because I had a lot more time at home. At the same time, we subscribed to a local CSA farm, so I was always getting surprising things in the grocery box, in quantities that forced creativity. My cookbooks got a tremendous amount of use.
And I learned a few soups that are reliably delicious--vegetarian borscht from my Russian cookbook, Potage St. Germain (split pea soup) from my Belgian cookbook, gazpacho from one of my vegetarian cookbooks.
These soups were occasional, though; the stuff of holidays and dinner parties. Making at least one soup a week teaches you what soups have in common, and what makes for a promising experiment. Now I mostly improvise. Sometimes I use soup to compensate for deficiencies I perceive elsewhere in our diet. For example, if I think we're not getting enough green vegetables, I put greens in the soup; if we haven't eaten beans lately, I throw some chickpeas in. Here are some things I have learned:
- When you have onions, celery, carrots, and butter or olive oil, you have enough to start a soup. You can almost always find something in the pantry or refrigerator to help fill it out and finish it.
- Using canned stock or bouillon cubes is nothing to be ashamed of. When using canned, I prefer a proportion of 1 can stock to 2 cans water, unless I am making a very brothy soup without much other flavoring (then it's 1 to 1). I use the same proportion when I am using homemade stock. As for bouillon, I sometimes saute it first with the aromatics.
- Potatoes, beans, and grains (rice, barley) give a soup body.
- Puree, puree, puree. I have a stick blender (you can immerse it right in the soup pot)--one of my favorite things. But a pureed soup seems to need quite a bit more salt than a brothy one. (There's probably a scientific reason for this...)
- Canned tomatoes can do wonders for flavor. Also, a small amount of sugar (like a half-teaspoon).
- Not everything belongs in every soup. That old Napa cabbage might not be such a good complement to the mushroom barley soup you're concocting; broccoli can be overpowering; bitter greens should probably be blanched before being added to your soup.