November 29, 2023 at 5:45 am EST
But I couldn’t give him a recipe. The ones for all my breads and sweets are written in a little book. Children’s favorite beans and broccoli – there are recipes for them. For cookies, a whole disquisition.
Soup, though? No. Soup is a combination of what you’re hungry for, what’s in the fridge, and what happens while you cook. “Start with a chill in the air and half a cup of rice from last night’s dinner,” an honest recipe might begin.
To the Laurie Colwin once wrote, a soup made with leftovers is “a kind of lost chord that no one will find again.” So don’t even try to look for it. Instead, use memory to inspire you to compose something new.
Soup “is by its nature eccentric: no two are ever alike,” Colwin wrote. But every homemade soup evokes similar feelings. For the soup eater: warmth, comfort, restoration. For the soup cook, the pleasure of feeding their loved ones well and the joy of creating something from almost nothing.
Explore these feelings and you are exploring something universal.
Recently in Minneapolis, I crossed the Mississippi for a bowl of borscht. The Twin Cities are not a cauldron, but rather a six-burner stove with bubbling pots next to each other. Wanting soup, I could have gone towards Hmong Village in São Paulo for khaub piaj or the Somali neighborhood in Cedar-Riverside for Maraq Fahfah. But it was very windy, so I chose the closest restaurant: an Eastern European restaurant founded by Ukrainian immigrants.
Every culture has soups because every culture has people whose ingenuity is greater than their means, and the soup spreads too thin to accommodate a crowd. A pound of cod divided between six is insignificant on a plate but sufficient in a pot of soup.
Soup responds to hunger, abhors waste and rewards skill. This is why everyone should learn how to do this.
Start with a jump, I told my son. Heat some fat and add an onion cut into cubes or slices. Salt a little and let it rest while you chop the next vegetable. Carrots. Celery. Fennell. Winter pumpkin. Potatoes. Green beans. Cabbage. The rest of the chives you bought in bulk when you only needed two.
Let each vegetable sit and soften, lightly salted, while you chop the next one.
Before the liquid goes in, you can direct your future soup in a certain direction by adding something: one or two spoons of tomato or curry paste, harissa or chili powder. Bay leaves or dried thyme or red pepper flakes. Maybe a parmesan rind. If you want a soup with more body, add a little flour or cornstarch. Stir everything again. Then let it sizzle while you clean and think.
What would you like this soup to become? It can be creamy and with chicken; it can be spicy and tomato-flavored; could play a supporting role to sliced sausage and chickpeas. Add the appropriate liquid: water or broth or tomato sauce. Coconut milk or clam juice. Lower the volume and let it bubble. Go away for an hour or two.
Things you can add a few minutes before serving: Chopped roast chicken. Leftover cooked pasta, quinoa or farro. Raw shrimp or raw fish cubes. A can of drained and rinsed beans. Baby spinach. The half bunch of parsley that remains soft in the produce drawer, finely chopped.
So prove it. Maybe it turned out to be the soup you planned, maybe it didn’t. Adjust. Too spicy? Add fat and something sweet. Too flat? Add miso or oyster sauce. Very white? Sriracha or gochujang or Tabasco. Very annoying? Salt, of course. Maybe lemon juice or vinegar too.
Vinegar and dill were probably the final additions to the borscht in Minneapolis, which was smooth and slippery with fat, and which I will forever remember in harmony with the view of the Mississippi River. I had already seen Mississippi from the south, in New Orleans. Standing on the north end of the river, flanked by old flour mills and new parks, made me feel the connection of this great country: a sustained, ever-changing flow of people passing by, from borscht to gumbo.
Is this metaphor too much to ask for soup?
I do not think. After all, it is whatever it becomes.