Soup is basic. It shows up in every cuisine and spans millennia of human history. One pot. Rich, poor, simple, complex. The best of a culture’s food are often highlighted in distinctive soups. Layers of flavors can be cultivated and nuanced over days or one bold ingredient can shine in a few minutes preparation. Soup can set the stage for a magnificent multi-course feast just as easily as a stew can contain the feast in a spoonful. A good soup is magnificent. It should have a perfect balance of flavors, the right ratio of ingredients, a suitable thickness and texture. On Top Chef Season 4 Tom Colichio said “Want to show me you can cook, make me a good soup”. The best soups take skill, patience, a developed palette, passion, maybe even obsession. And there is room for variation, improvisation, and personality. Soup is home cooking at its best.
When I began to learn to cook some 12 years ago I was drawn to soup as a practical way to feed a large group. One big pot of chili is enough to satiate a group of 20. For several years we hosted a Thanksgiving Eve movie night for around 30 friends who would be tied up with family for the actual holiday. We wanted to see our friends on a holiday often reserved for family, and soup seemed simple enough to not spoil the giant feast that marks Thanksgiving. I made 2-3 big pots of soup and let the house fill up with wonderful smells all day. The meal is so simple one does not even need a table.
Then soups and stews became a way to feed my family for a few days. A Sunday afternoon soup still tasted excellent on Wednesday and with enough skill we didn’t tire of the same soup. In my desire to learn new things I learned the popular basics. I picked up red chili, green chili, chicken and wild rice, beef stew, potato soup, 7 bean, beef and barley. Then I started exploring foreign dishes like pazole, curries, pork vindaloo, Pho, beef bourguignon, French onion, South China Portuguese chicken stew. My soups were good. Sometimes they were amazing. I picked up books like America’s Test Kitchen and learned the reasons behind the various steps. I didn’t cut corners and took great care in the early steps of each soup to build a good foundation. I browned beef bones, patiently caramelized vegetables, toasted the spices, built up glorious fonds. I began collecting turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving and making all day broths. They would get frozen in batches and treated like precious caviar saved for the best occasions.
One year I attempted to recreate my grandmother’s Christmas Day oxtail soup and learned how to make a true French consume. I was proud and nostalgic when I served it to my family one Christmas Day some 15 to 20 years after we had last had it at my grandmother’s table. It was one of the most satisfying dishes I ever cooked and had the immense pleasure of sharing it with people I love.
Cooking soup satisfies core needs and combines many passions. It takes me around the world while learning the mysteries of ingredients and technique. I get to exhaust my creative urges with meticulous care and thankfully it is not my livelihood. Indeed it pulls me away from my studio (I am a composer by profession) where my paycheck and reputation are on the line. It pulls me to the heart of our home and allows the freedom of imitation, experimentation, and mistakes. Then the food must be shared with other people. The labor is for the pleasure of those who sit at our table. Soup is the pure expression of everything I love about cooking and food.
This is the beginning of a year of soups. Once a week I will make soup and invite people to share a meal. Once a week I will write about all of this. I won’t repeat any soups in the blog. There will be the bedrock of the soup and stew repertoire. I will include all of my favorites. There will be some new adventures internationally and many soups I have always wanted to attempt.
Thanks for joining me!
“Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.” — Auguste Escoffier