Photo by Tarnle/Flickr

Photo by Tarnle/Flickr

By Lia Jonsson

The French actor-playwright Moliere is said to have said, “I live on good soup, not on fine words.” In that spirit I’m writing about soup – good soup – made with readily available, simple, hearty, nutritious components; great soups do not need fine ingredients.

Soup can be made quickly of whatever is available; it is forgiving, and often the best results come from substitution and improvisation. Soup can be an entire meal, or it can start a meal. Pack soup in a thermos for a warming school lunch, or take soup on a fall hike, for nutritious energy. Soup is warming, for the body and the soul. Soup is comfort food. And, soup is best when homemade, just like bread.

Fall is the perfect season to experiment with soup making – when the temperatures dip and the last of the summer garden needs to be harvested.

The Season for Soup

The beauty of soup is its simplicity. While Americans tend to think of soup-making as a day-long process that requires hours of dicing, chopping and simmering time, the truth is that most soups are relatively easy and require minimal prep time. Peasant soups rely on only a few ingredients, simple broth and, often, leftovers. Think French onion soup, potato-leek soup, beet borscht or tomato bisque.

Photo by Jeffrey W/Flickr

Photo by Jeffrey W/Flickr

Many ethnic soups use whatever is available from the garden or in the kitchen. They are economical as well as delicious. Seaside cultures have devised a number of ways to highlight fish and seafood in clear broth or creamy chowders. Many of them are particularly appealing, from New England clam chowder to Chinese corn and crabmeat soup, from gumbo to Mediterranean cioppiano or bouillabaise, or Yucatan Lemon Soup with Shrimp. Try any or all of them: I can almost guarantee your approval.

At the grocery recently, I discovered a new-to-me variety of products that immediately became “pantry favorites” – flavored and ethnically-inspired boxes of broth. As a base for experimentation, these rate “A+” in my book. A Thai-inspired broth means that I can put together an authentically-spiced quick supper in just minutes, perfect for the busy life and odd schedule that sometimes characterizes our household. Here is one suggestion, prepared totally from what was available in my refrigerator:

Thai Fish Soup

2 carrots, peeled and diced in small pieces

½ white onion, finely diced

5 or 6 finely chopped fresh mushrooms

6-8 small white and red fingerling potatoes, cut in small pieces

3 small tilapia filets, cut in bite-size pieces

1 32 oz. carton Thai Ginger Broth

Saute the carrots and onions in a Tbsp or so of oil until softened; add potato pieces and broth; let simmer on medium for 15 minutes or so.

Add mushrooms and fish; turn to low simmer, stirring occasionally.

Had I had coconut milk, I would have added a bit at this point. I did not, so instead I added about ¾ cup of half and half and the juice of 2 small limes (dropping the squeezed lime halves into the soup as well). As I was setting the table, I spied some Romaine lettuce leaves looking lonely in the refrigerator. Since I had nothing else to go in a salad, I tore them into bite-sized pieces and dropped them in the soup. They added color and a new, wilted vegetable texture that was appealing.

With a loaf of country sourdough, this quick soup became a perfect late supper in front of the TV on a chilly evening. From start to finish, it took just over 30 minutes – now that’s easy cooking! Plus, there was enough left for 2 lunch servings the next day. This amount would serve 4 adults nicely for dinner, or more people as a dinner starter.

Soups for All Reasons

Photo by Ruthie Hansen/Flckr

Photo by Ruthie Hansen/Flckr

Now that the temps are dropping, I will get out the crock pot and plan many more one-pot meals, from soups to stews to “start-in-the-morning-and-forget-all-day” main dishes. But, I will also keep some of those newly-discovered flavor-infused broth boxes in the pantry for days when a quick, hot soup seems the best option. Next on the list to try will be Mexican Tortilla and Louisiana Cajun. Can’t wait.

By the way, there are low-sodium and unsalted, certified organic, seafood and vegetable broths available as well. While it’s easy to make your own broth if you regularly cook meals at home, it can be just as satisfying and healthy to give yourself a break and purchase prepared stock. With so many options available in markets today, you can find the variety that suits your budget, your taste and your nutritional needs.

More on fall and holiday cooking ideas next week. Until then, stay healthy and eat well.