The Valrus's Introduction to that Most Cherished and Wonderful of all Possible College Meals
When I got kicked off Macalester College's campus this year for the inexcusable crime of no longer being an underclassman (freshmen and sophomores are guaranteed on-campus housing, of which there seems to be a distinct lack), I found myself full of trepid at the thought of having to cook to sustain myself. For two years I had lived in the easy if somewhat mediocre world of college food, of simply strolling fifty yards (Macalester has a small campus) to the cafeteria to feast endlessly on a pre-paid-for cornucopia of crunchy rice, undersalted soups, insipid curries and wimpy (not Wimpy) hamburgers.
Now I had to fend for myself. I was nervous about it. I survived.
I don't know when the switch came about, when I stopped thinking "Oh Jesus, what am I going to make for dinner tonight?" and started thinking "Oh boy, what am I going to make for dinner tonight?" But I do know what it was that brought me to the other side, what it was that got me to like cooking, and started me on this Cooking Evangelism kick that is either culminating or beginning with this node, depending on how well it is received. Here it is, in one word:
Soup is, in my humble opinion, the despotic, all-mighty tyrant lord and ruler of college foods, and holds a formidable position in the hierarchy of all foods, period. It is cheap
. It is plentiful
. It is healthy
, usually. Its preparation difficulty ranges from fairly easy
. It contains multitudes
. It can be vegetarian
, or it can be meativorous
. I am aware that "meativorous
" is not a word, but it should be. Not only does soup keep well, it tastes even better after you've tupperwared it up (if you don't have any tupperware
, get some; people spell it with a lower-case T simply because it has become a household name
, and for good reason
) and kept it in the fridge
for a few days
, or in the freezer
for a few months
. Huck Finn said it right when he said "In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better." If you don't mind a bit of monotony
, you can feed yourself for a week on a single batch of soup. It has a catchphrase
. It can be hot
or really frigging weird
. It goes well with toast
. It is good for sick people
. You can even, if you so desire, put SOY
! in it, in the form of tofu
or soy sauce
There are countless recipes for soup that you can find here and in other places. Here I intend only to extoll the many virtues of soup, in the hopes that my enthusiasm will prove infectious, and provide a primer for beginner-level vegetable soup preparation. There will be no specific recipes for soup preparation here, but rather some suggestions and possibilities for someone who has never cooked soup (or anything!) before. I don't claim to be an expert, but my mother's cooking has made me picky and I think my soups have turned out pretty well.
Here is my Fundamental Theorem of Soup (FTS):
Soup is made by putting a bunch of stuff in a pot so that the flavors blend together.
What could be simpler?
Stuff you will need: Vegetables; vegetable oil, olive oil, canola oil or butter; some kind of herbs and spices; water and/or chicken broth and/or soup stock (stock is probably a good idea once you get the hang of things. sneff claims stock is "the lifeblood of good soup," and I'm not going to disagree with him. Check here for helpful information on stock); a frying pan; a big pot; a long spoon.
To make soup, first get some vegetables from among the following. Note that if you despise any of these vegetables when served raw or in other dishes, that does not mean you will despise them in a soup. One thing I neglected to mention in my tirade above is that soup surprises you. Proving this is left as an exercise to the reader (proof by example is legitimate); it follows directly from the FTS.
- Onions: Onions are important. Learn to love the onion. If you have been in a house where cooking goes on, you may be familiar with the smell of sauteed onions without even being aware of it. There is a good reason for that. In my experience, most basic vegetable-oriented soups have onion in them, and plenty of casseroles and other dishes do too. I do not recommend making soup without some onions; they are cheap and important.
- Potatoes: Potatoes absorb flavors. They are therefore perfect for soup in that all the other flavors will combine and realize their full potential in the potato, in a synergistic kind of whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sort of way. If you want to have soup that eats like a meal, decent quantities of potatoes are practically a must. Finally, if you have a blender, many creamy soups contain potatoes as a key ingredient.
- Other starches and grains: Caspen and Txikwa both pointed out my having foolishly overlooked barley. It does indeed show up often in soup and plays roughly the same role as potatoes; other grains such as rice and pasta are also very feasible indeed. Geez, how could I forget barley and pasta?
- Celery: Aside from having negative calories, which actually might be a bad thing if you're a starving college student, celery's flavor is very distinct although not too strong and a nice addition to vegetable soup.
- Carrots: Few vegetables will make your soup more beautiful to behold than the vibrant carrot, and as with celery, carrots lend a flavor to any soup that is difficult to achieve any other way.
- Tomatoes: If a soup is red, there is a good chance it's because it has tomatoes in it. Adding tomatoes to a vegetable soup changes the whole tone of the soup, if I may use a vague term such as "tone" to describe their effect. Whereas you can add celery to a soup without any drastic effects, adding tomatoes tends to result in a completely different flavor. You can buy whole tomatoes and chop them yourself, or buy pre-diced tomatoes in a can. For soup, it probably won't make too much of a difference, although real cooks might say otherwise.
- Beans and Legumes: Beans go pretty well with tomatoes and very well with ham and bacon. Be warned that if you get dried beans, you will want to soak them for a long time (24 hours, typically) before trying to cook anything with them, and even then you will have to boil them for a while before they get soft. The mighty lentils fall into this category.
- Cabbage: Essential for minestrone.
- Spinach or Kale: Spinach will become slimy like it does when steamed, if you add it to soup; kale will maintain its leafy appearance and texture.
- Garlic: Garlic is sometimes used almost as a spice, if you dice it real small, but it's not unheard of to chuck a few whole cloves of it into a pot of soup. I know people who swear by garlic. In most cases, you will be doing yourself a favor if you use it liberally.
- Countless other vegetables: Once you feel comfortable with the general soup-making process and have a good idea of what a vegetable (or fruit!) does when you cook it, don't hesitate to try adding it to a soup. Veggies that I have no specific information on, soupwise, but have tried or would like to try in a soup sometime: bok choy, mushrooms (ok, not technically a fruit or vegetable), eggplant (I don't like eggplant, but everything is good in soup), bell peppers, squash (including zucchini), cucumber, leeks (commonly pureed with potatoes), asparagus, broccoli, corn, ehgo.
Next get some herbs, seasonings and/or spices. I tend to make the heaviest use of those in the following list, but I recommend you experiment. Adding herbs and spices to your soup is, in my opinion, the best part. If you're nervous about ruining your soup with some random seasoning, don't be. Just smell your seasonings before you use them, and use your food intuition to decide which would be appropriate. And this is very important: you can always add more, but you can't take any out.. Add spices, etc. gradually if you're not sure whether they'll taste good. The following are some spices, herbs and seasonings that you might want to consider:
- Salt: Some people say there is no such thing as too much salt. They lie. That said, salt is absolutely vital to soup, unless you use bouillon instead. But it's safe to add it at pretty much any time, so feel free to wait until the soup is palatable before salting it. The rule above is vital here. Add salt gradually, as too much salt is unpleasant and not easily remedied. If you over-salt your soup, you can add more veggies or water, or try the trick of putting a peeled raw potato into the soup, letting it absorb some of the salt, and removing it. I have never tried this trick so I cannot verify its effectiveness, but jessicapierce has, and also informed me that the potato does not need to be cut up in order for it to work. Still, it sounds like a pain in the ass, so your best bet is just not to be too heavy-handed with the salt.
- Pepper: Do not underestimate the power of normal old black pepper, and of crushed red pepper (like what you put on pizza). That is all.
- Italian Seasoning: Italian Seasoning, according to this little container I have here, contains marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, and savory. Any or all of these will do well in your soup, and it's nice if you can get a combination deal like this. At least oregano, basil and thyme are very good to use if you're making soup with tomatoes, and I recommend using at least a few of these when you're starting out because they're easy and effective.
- Curry Powder: I'm just talking about the yellow kind (it's the tumeric that makes it yellow), because it would be folly to try to get into the intricacies of Indian cooking here, but you might want to give, say, garam masala a whirl too. If you're not going for a really Eastern flavor, it's probably best to use these in moderation.
- Paprika: It's red, and good. Smell it. If it smells vaguely like what you might get if you turned a bell pepper into powder, that's because that's sort of what it is. Paprika is the spice of Hungarian cuisine, which is considered some of the best in Eastern Europe. Visit the Paprika node for more information.
- Chili Powder: As the name implies, this is basically mandatory if you're looking to make any kind of chili. To get a tex-mex kind of flavor, use (at least) this, cumin, bell peppers and onions. If you're serious about making chili though, check out Saige's w/u in the chili node.
- Bay leaves: Unless you're making chili or using a recipe that doesn't explicitly call for bay leaves, it's probably a good idea to throw in two or three of them. They are not meant to be eaten, but they're easy to find and remove when the soup is done.
- Countless other spices and seasonings: Of course I haven't listed every possible spice. There are plenty more that I would like to try to use in a soup some time, such as: cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (all of which sort of fall into that eclectic apple pie-type category for me), ginger, fennel, stb.
So, you've chosen your ingredients. That's the hardest part. Here's what to do with them.
First, chop all your vegetables up into pieces; you should in most cases chop onions very small, but all others are left to your discretion. Then (optional, but recommended), sauté your vegetables with some or all of your spices (not bay leaves, if you're using them). When I started cooking, I didn't know what "sauté" meant. It means, basically, "fry them in a little oil or butter;" check here for details. Such an impressive word for such a simple thing. When they start to get slightly brown and smell really good, (not optional anymore) chuck them in a big pot and add enough water and/or broth and/or stock to cover them completely. Also add any spices you didn't saute before. Bring the soup to a boil (bubbles rising briskly), and then lower the heat to a simmer (bubbling but calmly, so that you're not afraid to leave it alone). Simmer until everything is soft enough to eat, stirring occasionally so that stuff doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. If it sticks anyway, you may want to add some more oil. If you want soup that eats like a meal, let the broth simmer away; if you prefer to have brothy soup, add more water/broth/stock whenever the soup starts looking too thick.
My rule is that it's done cooking when it tastes good. Eat some, and save the rest for later. Use your newfound joy in creating delectable delights to search out other recipes and increase your cooking skills far beyond what I could ever hope to teach you.
Valrus is noding soup
/msg me with additions or advice, please. But keep it simple; this is intended for cooking neophytes.