Sing a song of soup
Sarah Morgan Jones
The old fable of stone soup is one which has stayed with me since childhood. According to European folklore, it all starts with a large pan, some water and a stone.
As folk gather round, intrigued, they begin to contribute, a carrot or two here, a stick of celery there, a little bit of meat perhaps, or some bones, some herbs, a spud or two, some grains.
Invested in the process and adding to its volume, they loiter round the fire or the stove and enjoy some companionship while the soup becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.
The simple stone that forms the basis of the soup that will feed the little community is finally removed before everyone settles down to a hearty supper which they could not have made individually.
Soup, cawl, broth, borscht, dahl, chowder, ramen, goulash, harira, laksa…soup may vary in content and consistency, in sweetness or heat, but it is a dish that is global, crosses class and wealth and can be made with very little in the way of effort and ingredients and can feed many mouths.
Although there are thousands of recipes laid down in as many books, from great chefs to great grandmas – everyone has their favourite – the basis is pretty much the same.
Onion base, veg, protein of choice or none at all, seasoning, water and some form of heat to make the magic happen.
What goes in will dictate the magic – whether its thin or thick, starter or main, served in a bowl of bread or in a cup at your desk.
Lloyd George’s fancy
During a recent visit to Tŷ Newydd, the final home of David Lloyd George, I happened upon a little book which claimed to include some of the man’s favourite recipes.
Published originally in or around 1919, and reprinted by the WI in the 70s, the cover of the book features a line drawn, pipe smoking DLG admiring a freshly baked pie, or mayhap even a fruit tart, next to a hot paned o de on the table.
Beyond his attention, but trying her hardest to intercept his thoughts, another of his favourite dishes, a supine beguiling beauty, looking for all the world like she’d just stepped out of a saloon.
“Containing ten of Lloyd George’s favourite dishes, five supplied especially for this publication. Including REAL OLD WELSH RECIPES and THINGS USEFUL TO KNOW” it says on the front cover.
It would seem that his top five comprised of a soup, a pudding (spotted dick), two cakes (picau ar y maen (Welsh cakes) and bara brith) and a piece of fish. Stuffed sole to be precise (with a cheeky shrimp sauce added as an addendum, really speaking, a recipe in its own right, but on this occasion, we can overlook that).
At the back of the book, another five recipes, offered up by his housekeeper, inform us that he was also fond of brawn, herrings, cheese straws, steamed pudding and cacen gri (also Welsh cakes) (but only if Lady Margaret made them).
In between the bookends of his favourites were all manner of dishes, mostly blessedly simple, carefully economical and using ‘everything but the squeak’.
These were different times. Innovative ways to make everything go further, using the same store cupboard standards in different ways to produce a range of tasty treats. No waste, nothing superfluous.
Milk soup, bone-broth-and-brown, lentil soup, tomato soup, none of it complicated or expensive, all of it comprising fresh food combined with ingredients already in the pantry or leftover from other meals.
Leek and potato
His favourite soup, I was delighted to find, was a very simple leek and potato soup – made with the white parts of the leek, mind you – and passed through a sieve.
Delighted why? Because of course there really is nothing simpler and tastier and more impressive, whether at a fancy dinner party, served in an espresso cup with a whisper of cream, a sprinkling of Himalayan rock salt, a solitary mini-crouton and a sprig of thyme on the saucer… or dripping off a hunk of buttery homemade bread and your chin over a massive bowl in the kitchen while listening to The Archers.
Loved by all layers of my family, and being the only veggie dish my other half will eat (as long as it is garnished with bacon bits) it made me feel strangely connected to the man who definitely didn’t know my father, or my mother – whose own recipe for this has become part of the handed-downess of us all.
When my own daughter flew the nest to uni land, she sent me a text one day saying she was making the starter for the house-share dinner party, which went along the lines of:
She: Mam, in Lidl, what do I need for L&P soup?
Me: Four leeks, two potatoes, one onion, large. Chop veg, sweat in butter, lid on, heat low – don’t burn them. Just cover with stock – veggie or marmite. Simmer til spuds soft. Add pot of crème fraiche or a splash of milk. Blitz, season, eat, simples.
She: Legend. Thanks Mum xx
Bones and bulk buy
Traditional bone broth my auntie still makes, saving the bones from joints of meat, collecting them in the freezer and then boiling them up to create a batch of nourishment which she can call on when she or my uncle are under the weather.
I’m a big fan of cawl of course, and of chicken soup and if I have the chance to boil up the carcass and go the whole hog, I will. I don’t follow a recipe, I bung in what I have to make the stock – onions, celery, carrots – and then do much the same for the second stage but chopped with a little more panache, as I like my chicken soup chunky.
I like to spice it up a bit with some ginger grated in and a pierced chilli, but it can be as simple or as enriched as you like.
It feels good and is reputedly good for the soul. I can relate to this.
Once when I made it with the leftovers of a roast chicken dinner during the final days of my friend’s mum, it awakened her appetite and interest enough for her to ask for second helpings. It is a comfort to know that she enjoyed one of her final meals so very much.
I love to buy cheap over ripe tomatoes, the multi bags of orange and yellow peppers, quarter them and roast the lot with some garlic (roasting intensifies the flavour but is not essential), then add the resulting shrunken, flavoursome gems to some well sweated red onions, just enough stock to cover it all then blitz, sieve if necessary.
Or any kind of squash, scoop out the pips (dry, toast or replant, or throw out for the birds) chop, roast, boil and blitz. Or simply halve them, stick an onion where the pips once were and roast until lovely and caramelised.
My mum eschewed any peeling of the butternut variety, claiming the need for fibre outweighed the need for fiddle.
Tricking the kids
When the kids were little, red, orange and green soup became a way of tricking them into eating things they would never have consumed once they got old enough to hold a rebellious position on food.
Tricking your children is nothing new and certainly not against the law, on the whole. We only need to bear in mind Father Christmas, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy to know that the early years are a matter of basic survival, a prolonged period of carrot and (bread) stick and by foul means or fair, you must feed them.
Despite starting them off with sumptuous purees and star shaped pastas that you aeroplane into their happy faces, opening your own mouth as they open theirs, scooping any spillage up their chins and in as you performatively ‘NOM NOM’, they all reach that point.
Then, no matter how many vegetables you previously managed to get past them, they know full well that sweet roots are not the same as chocolate or biscuits, and they redraw the savoury boundaries so that only beige and beans will do.
My daughter once threatened to ring Childline because I downgraded the demand of a pizza from Dominos to shop bought, and when that was refused, I suggested a vegetable soup. I prepared the phone and entered the number.
So it was, at the walking, talking, tantrum stage, I had to employ the parental strategy of cunning plans and clever tricks to feed them some semblance of ‘balanced and nutritious’.
Despite being worn out, frazzled and despairing in the face of yet another day of Quorn nuggets and mash, in a moment of inspiration I announced: ‘Transformer soup!’
Transformers were the toy of the day and came in red (Optimus Prime), orangey yellow (Bumblebee) and green (Ratchet).
Soup chicanery can be adapted to incorporate any of their superheroes. You just need to be able to keep a straight face.
‘It’s something new and spectacular,’ I replied to their quizzical looks, ‘just you wait and see. It’s Bumblebee’s favourite! You go and watch it, and I will get it ready.’
Transformers – veggies in disguise
So, for Transformer soup… whichever colour you are going for, start as with any other soup, finely chop and sweat your onions.
If green is the goal, go leeks, broccoli, cabbage, peas – whatever you have – If there are some left behind florets of cauliflower, chuck em in. A lonely apple, peel, pip and chop.
Show no mercy, just keep the lid off when they are boiling so the greens don’t go grey and don’t cook them to death.
For the red or orange, chop up some carrots, a sweet potato, some tomatoes, fresh or tinned, a tin of sweetcorn. Chop up an orange or yellow pepper, strip out all the pith and the pips.
Peel those satsumas or that orange that they now refuse to eat. Trust me, it works fine. Break them up into segments and again remove the pith and the pips.
Add just enough light marmite / stock to drown it all and bring it to the boil, then simmer for a little while until everything is soft.
Take a good handful of red lentils and stir them in and bring it back to a gentle simmer. Keep an eye on them so they don’t steal all the liquid, top up as necessary. We’re aiming for tomato soup with muscle.
When it’s all a good runny mush, stick blender the hell out of it, and a little crème fraiche or milk if using, check for sweetness and adjust with a tiny teaspoon of honey if needed.
Serve in mugs or bowls with Dairylea toast fingers or toasted cheese sarnies and eat, kneeling around the coffee table while watching Transformers.
Nearly all soups can be frozen of course, and if you have the space and a pile of takeaway cartons using up the ‘could be useful one day’ cupboard, try and make your pot big enough to stick one or two tubs in the freezer.
Great for emergency meals or for nabbing on the way into the office, I get a weird satisfaction seeing a collection of colourful pots on the top shelf of the freezer.
Labelling helps, but if you want to be a real daredevil, it’s not the end of the world.
For maximum comfort, serve with a hunk of homemade bread.
But that’s another story.
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