The composer Ludwig van Beethoven is credited with having said, “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.” There is considerable evidence that Beethoven was a curmudgeon and a loon, so who knows what he was thinking? I’m a proper monster half the time, with a heart as black as pitch and twice as smelly, and I make a damn fine pot of soup, thank you very much.
I know that soup seems like kind of a fallish-winterish thing to make, but let’s be honest here: it’s April in Newfoundland. We could still have a month of snow ahead of us. Aside from that, though, I have a deep-freeze full of little baggies of prepped, chopped veggies from last summer, and I need that sucker emptied out by the time this year’s harvest rolls around. I have also been on a campaign to chuck less food waste. When you have little kids, you end up having to toss a lot of food—there’s just no way to estimate how hungry they are going to be come supper time, or to know if they even like, say, carrots this week.
Soup stock (the brothy stuff that all the other stuff gets cooked in) is the first place you can use up a few bits and pieces from the fridge. Whenever I have good veggie trimmings, like the green parts of leeks or celery leaves, I stick them in a bag in the freezer, and then when I have a pile of chicken or turkey bones ready for the pot, I simmer the bones with the veggie bits, a quartered onion, some broken-up carrots, a few (a generous few) peppercorns, and call it done. By the time the simmering is finished I’m usually ready to go to bed, so I let the whole pot sit overnight, either in the fridge or, if it’s winter, between my two basement doors, where it’s every bit as cold as the fridge is. Then, the next day, I take out all the bones and veggie bits and peppercorns, and if there’s a thick layer of gelatinous goo on the top I take that off, too. Then I make soup with the tasty liquid that’s left.
I think that what makes for the best leftover-fridge-and-freezer-stuff soup is a measure of restraint. It is tempting to throw every little bit and scrap of food into the pot in the name of Depression-style thriftiness. But don’t do that. Sure, you can cook lettuce—the French have been known to do it—but should you? Likewise, cucumber is best left out of the soup pot about 98% of the time. And there are some foods that just shouldn’t go together: I can’t bear the thought of broccoli in the same pot as sweet potato, or as tomato, for that matter.
Here’s my advice: Rather than just going willy-nilly through the fridge or freezer, take a minute to assess your leftovers and come up with a theme. Say you have slightly wilty red or green peppers, some black beans, and half tin of tomatoes in the fridge, and some corn in the freezer, well, that adds up to something with southwestern flavours—fry up some onions and a lot of garlic, throw in some cumin seeds and chili powder (or chipotle chilis, if you have some), maybe a splash of brewed coffee and a ¼ teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa, add your veggies and beans, add stock (you can use store bought stock if you like, I do it all the time), and let it cook about 20 minutes. Stir in some shredded cooked chicken or beef if you have such a thing, finish it off with a squeeze of lime juice (out of a bottle is a-ok), and a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. Eat with corn chips. Happiness.
See how easy that was? Now, say you have carrots and sweet potato to get rid of. Peel them and chop them up (or not, if they’re already cooked), fry them with some onion, garlic, and ginger, grab your curry paste or powder of choice (Indian, Thai, Caribbean, however you like it), dollop an appropriate amount of that in, and cover it with water, or a combination of water and white wine (put the wine in first, then top up). Add a tablespoon of uncooked white rice, let everything come to a boil, simmer until everything’s cooked through, then purée it all in the blender. Same formula works great with squash and nice tart apples, with a warm garam masala blend instead of the curry powder. Top with chopped, toasted almonds, peanuts, cashews, coconut, whatever. Maybe some coconut milk to stir in.
It’s your soup, dude.
And really, the purity of your heart has nothing to do with it, thank goodness.
Soup advice for the impure of heart
Not all vegetables can hold up to a long simmer: broccoli and cabbage will stink up your house if cooked too long, so save them for last or leave them out altogether. Sturdy greens like chard and beet tops can stand about 8 minutes of simmering, and delicate greens like spinach should be stirred in just before serving. Likewise, pre-cooked leftover vegetables like green beans or peas should be added just long enough before serving to warm through.
If you want to add rice or noodles to your soup, but don’t want them to turn into slimy, starchy exploded yuckness, cook them separately (or use leftovers) and add them to the bowl before topping with the hot soup.
A tin of V-8 improves the flavour of almost any soup. V-8 or orange juice. I put them in soup all the time.
Soup always seems fancy if you dollop or sprinkle something on top. Kind of how drinks always taste better with a straw. Chopped herbs (green onions are cheap and pretty), a swirl of coffee cream, a spoonful of chutney, finely diced apples and raisins, whatever, so long as the flavours match up with what’s in the soup. It makes you feel like you’re in a nice restaurant and not at home eating leftovers.