When my sweetie caught a cold recently, he asked me to stop in at our favourite Chinese restaurant and bring home some hot and sour soup.
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “No way. I’ll make you some.”
Next time you slurp some of this Szechuan soup at your fave joint, look at it closely. It’s actually pretty simple to make: diced protein, vegetables, and maybe noodles in a good broth bolstered with some heat and some acid – chili of some sort, and lemon juice or a pleasant vinegar.
Soup has come to mean many odd, disconnected things, including slang for nitroglycerine, especially used, says the Oxford dictionary, for blowing up safes. “In the soup” means to be in difficulty; “soup and fish” is Cockney rhyming slang for fancy evening dress. All of this from the French, and that from a Late Latin term for “sop”, a piece of bread soaked in water, broth or wine. Strange are the ways of the English language.
In the kitchen, soup means a collection of foods cooked in liquid. Larousse Gastronomic, the reliable workhorse of culinary definition, devotes twenty pages to soups, among them cold pureed blend of leek and potato (vichysoisse), and chowder, made in a pot (chaudiere) on a French fisherman’s schooner. But just to complicate things, chowder can be a thick white soup in New England or a thin red broth in Manhattan.
In any case, the healing and nurturing attributes of soup are universal. Soup has the mythic power to heal broken hearts and cracked bones, to thaw skiers’ frostbitten noses and to mend, like Time, all wounds, as per the wondrous qualities of apocryphal Jewish grandmothers’ chicken soup, Japanese miso soup or Chinese hot and sour soup.
To a cook, the soup pot is as varied as this week’s fridge contents. The temptation always looms, though, to empty the entire vegetable drawer into the soup pot. Such cluttering with odd’n’ends is a death knell to the best soup, which needs focus and direction, translated into a finite number of ingredients. Add ’em all and the pot veers off into uncharted territory, its boundaries undefined and its character unstable or unstated. The other side of the coin is the ease with which soup accepts last-minute lineup changes and substitutions. Slide onions in for leeks, use carrots for roasted red peppers, yams instead of Yukon Golds.
To my mind, the best soups arise from cold-weather cooking, when the slow simmer fills a chilly home with a blanket of comfort. When it’s too cold to venture outdoors, scenting winter like my skittish cat at the door, wanting out but shy of the weather; too dark too early and for too many hours… these are prime soup-making conditions.
Don’t fret. Soup is an all-day proposition. Most soups cook inside an hour while delivering the same comfort as your Great-aunt Tilly’s ever did, but with a reduced degree of difficulty, perfect for those days when the dog, the boss, the kids, the weather, are not as you would like them to be. Soup is an undemanding companion, seeking only to warm and restore, asking nothing in return. Baby, it’s cold outside. Snuggle up to a hot stove. First we eat some soup, then we can put some records on.
Squash, Pear and Parsnip Soup with Maple Croutons
Puree this soup into a smooth and velvety texture, or leave it chunky. Make the croutons just before serving to avoid eating them all in advance! From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap Books, 1997).
1 T. butter
1 leek, sliced
4 medium carrots, sliced
4 medium parsnips, sliced
4 T. ginger root, minced
1 ripe pear, peeled and sliced
1 t. dried oregano
½ c. dry white wine
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
6 c. chicken stock
2 oranges, juice and zest
1 t. lemon juice
4 T. honey
a dash of Tabasco or hot chili paste
salt to taste
1 T. minced fresh oregano or chives
1 T. whipping cream
3-4 slices crusty French bread, cubed
butter for the pan
a drizzle of maple syrup
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the leek, carrots, parsnips, pear and ginger, and cook until tender without colouring. Mix in the dried oregano, wine and squash. Add the chicken stock and simmer until all is tender. Puree. Adjust the balance with orange juice, lemon juice, honey and hot chili paste and salt. Stir in the reserved orange zest, fresh oregano or chives, then serve, drizzling each portion with a teaspoon of heavy cream.
Make maple butter croutons for garnish by sautéing diced bread in butter to crisp. Drizzle with maple syrup and caramelize to brown. Serve on the soup.