After a cold, windy walk in the woods this morning, I realized that this is the perfect time for winter soup. Something about a hearty warm soup puts me back into an ancient hunter-gatherer place where we are sitting around a campfire in a cave, with something nutritious bubbling hot in some hand-crafted container hung on a tripod over the flames.
Short of that, it makes me look in the refrigerator for what I have to throw into a pot for my own soup.
Making soup is so creative, each time unique. There are hundreds of variations. But the basic process is simple; once you understand that, you can vary it to make all those well-named special soups in the cookbook or those special soups you sample at your favorite restaurant. Your don’t even have to know all the technical names: bouillon, consommé, stock, broth, bisque, chowder, etc. These all are variations, depending on how thick or thin, how strained and clear or thick and chunky, how creamy or how jellied or whatever. Don’t worry about all that. Just get down the basics and soon enough you’ll be making every kind of soup imaginable!
I speak of winter soup because there are other kinds of soup, those especially delightful in summer, for example, cold, light, refreshing, vegetarian, whatever. All good. But those aren’t so agreeable me when the temperature is 30 degrees outside. So, for now, here’s ideas for hearty winter soups made with meat.
Read all the way through before beginning. Retaining the most vitamins and minerals for the most nutrition is an important part of the process. I’ll give the basic process first, then list some usual variations at the end.
1) Making the basic broth
For making soup, choose meat that has the most flavor, not necessarily the most tenderness. The process of soup making will tenderize even the tough cuts of meat, and ironically, the toughest cuts of meat often have the most flavor and sometimes the most nutrition. (If you don’t know the difference in the cuts of meat in this regard, query me in the comment section below, and some time later, I’ll elaborate.)
Preferably choose meat with bone in it, as the bone has the most concentration of minerals, and again, the soup making process extracts the minerals out into the broth of the soup where it is accessible to our digestion, one of the reasons for making soup in the first place. Markets sell “soup bones,” with most of the meat cut away, and these are comparatively inexpensive, and a good idea to use, even along with other cuts of meat. The more bone the more minerals.
It doesn’t matter what meats you decide to use, really—beef, chicken, turkey, fish, ham, etc. The process is basically the same. You can even use them all (each added at different times in the cooking). If you are mixing several meats in one soup, you just need to put the toughest meats in first and let them cook for awhile, and then add the more tender ones later so they don’t cook to pieces before the tougher meats get tender.
My own soup making usually starts with rummaging in the freezer to see what bits and pieces of meat—cooked and uncooked, bones and boneless—I have stashed away for just this occasion. Left over chicken, turkey, beef, pork, whatever. I usually have a few soup bones in the freezer, ready for any occasion.
So. Put the bones and toughest cuts of uncooked meat in a big heavy duty pot, preferably stainless steel. (If the pot is not heavy duty, the soup at a later stage is more likely to burn on the bottom, not a good thing; heavy duty pots hold the heat differently so that things don’t burn as easily.)
Depending on the amount of meat and the size of the pot, add enough water not only to cover the meat, but about three times that amount if you have bones and tough meats. (Don’t worry about being exact here; you’ll probably add more water as needed as you go along.) Bring the water and meat to a boil. (Don’t add anything else yet.)
When the ingredients have boiled for a few minutes, a foam will gather at the top of the pot. For some reason I don’t remember now, I was taught to remove this foam and discard it. Then turn the heat under the pot down to a slow simmer.
Add a whole onion chopped, a carrot or two, a stalk or two of celery sliced into chunks (along with the leafy bits of celery tops), several stalks of parsley chopped, a bay leaf, several peppercorns, some salt, and for some soups, some whole cloves (see below).
Here is now a particular place you can choose for yourself. Salt and vinegar together will extract more minerals from the bones and this is desirable, but you don’t want a vinegary tasting broth when you are done. If everything cooks long enough (up to an hour or two), the vinegar taste dilutes and goes away; if the cooking is too short, the vinegar taste may linger and disturb the flavor of the soup. You have to decide, depending on the type of meat and bones you are cooking whether to add the vinegar. If I am using big beef bones, I add salt and some vinegar here at the start of cooking (I’d advise you to use a teaspoon of vinegar the first time, just to be sure you don’t overdo it). I rarely add vinegar when I am cooking chicken or fish since it cooks so quickly.
Put a lid on the pot and let everything simmer slowly, until the meat begins to be tender (for raw beef at least about an hour, possibly two). While this time is happening, check occasionally, stir, add more water if necessary.
Now take the lid off the pot and bring the heat up to boil for just few minutes, just to dispel the last of vinegar taste. Then set the pot off the heat. Strain the broth into another container, removing bones , meat, and whatever else, and setting the bones aside (for the dog or even to boil again for more broth later). Add the strained broth back into the cooking pot. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then remove the fat that accumulates at the top of the broth.
Now you have your basic broth. You can proceed to add to it other ingredients (including the meat you just removed from the pot) and use the broth immediately, or you can freeze it for later use (I freeze some in ice trays to make cubes of seasoned broth to have ready to throw into various other things I cook).
2) Add other ingredients one at a time to make one of a variety of soups.
Here’s the fun part of soup making. You can add whatever you want or have on hand, experimenting as you choose. The broth you have already created is the basis of almost every other soup recipe you can imagine.
Possible additions: Add these one at a time, depending on how long they need to cook to get tender. You don’t want your tender vegetables cooked to mush before the tougher vegetables get tender, for example.
Already cooked meats.
Pasta, rice, or barley, (adding these uncooked add what I consider to be too much starch, so I cook them first and then add them; even cooked, they can thicken the broth, soaking up the liquid, so plan accordingly with plenty of broth).
Herbs and seasonings, usually added last, to taste.
Potatoes, Vegetables, etc.
Leftovers. get in the habit of freezing any and all leftovers, however small amounts, to have to add to the soup pot. More vitamins, taste, benefit to the budget, etc.
Milk or cream
Now here is a trick. If you throw all your vegetables in the soup pot and let it all cook together, you get a very nice soup. If, however, at the end of the broth making process, you have time and patience, you may want to sauté or steam each vegetable separately until it is just right and then quickly add to the soup pot at the very end. Doing this causes each vegetable to retain more nutrients and its individual flavor rather than all the vegetables tasting the same, as they do when they all cook up together. Either way is fine. (You’ll get the most raves if you do the latter….).
Also note that some vitamins can cook away in boiling liquid, so that is why we simmer the soup now rather than boiling it after the meat is tender. Also, it is easier to burn the soup if the heat is too high.
So, go at it. Now it’s your unique soup, each one different from the last, depending on what gets thrown in. Here are some categories, just for fun:
Onion soup: Hot broth with already sautéed thinly sliced onions, brought to a high heat , then quickly placed in serving bowls with a bit of toasted bread and grated white cheese (take your pick of flavors of cheese) on top. Serve immediately. (Quick and easy if you already have frozen broth!)
Chicken soup: The proverbial cure-all. Warm broth in a mug when you come in from the cold, so you don’t get sick. Warm broth when your abdomen is unruly and doesn’t want to be busy digesting. Broth with vegetables. Broth with beans. Broth with anything. Made with love.
White Bean soup with ham bone: I used to work in Washington DC, and I had the Senate’s traditional Navy Bean Soup for lunch in the Senate Dining Room, between sessions of listening to Congressmen in committee hearings, and I got addicted to this soup. I usually add about 6 to 10 whole cloves stuck into an onion in the water when I begin cooking the ham bone. Cloves are healthy and give the soup a distinctive flavor. After about an hour of cooking, do not remove the ham bone, but remove any fat that has accumulated. Add the washed and sorted beans. Cook until beans are tender (if you soak them ahead of time, they cook faster and give you less gas…). Stir frequently so as not to burn. Bruise a few beans before serving.
Fish soup: Cook the fish into broth in the same way as above, but fish cooks much faster. I like some fresh tarragon for seasoning fish. To the basic fish stock (CAREFULLY STRAINED) , add a variety of seafood, with or without vegetables, cream, etc. (Seafood gumbo is another matter, and will be addressed in a future recipe all on its own.)
Beef Barley Soup: To plenty of cooked broth, add uncooked barley and cook until the barley is tender. Be sure to have enough broth. Add vegetables if you desire, or just do beef-barley with small chunks of tender meat.
Creamed soups: To a small bit of broth add strained and blended vegetables of your choice, combine gently, and then add a bit of milk or cream. You decide on the proportions of each. Season. Do not boil (milk can separate). Make carrot soup, squash soup, whatever. Add seasonings to suit yourself. Think about adding a bit of savory seasoning, etc. This is so easy and quick.
Tomato Soup. Add just a bit of broth to your cooked tomatoes and season.
Tortilla Soup. Make it to suit yourself, spicy hot or gringo gentle. To your basic broth, add tomatoes, green chilies, and Mexican seasonings to taste (cumin, etc.). To serve, add on top of the soup in the serving bowl bits of broken cooked tortillas or chips, chopped cilantro, and grated farmer or Mexican flavored cheese. Serve hot.
And on and on and on. Be creative with ingredients and seasonings. Work in those herbs that doctors tell you are especially good for your needs. Make soup taste of India or Mexico or Maine. Serve with salad, good bread, and enjoy a hearty winter soup! Good Health!