Soup. That short word has endless variations. A walk down the canned soup aisle, a price check of a gourmet carton, or a search for a soup recipe is enough to convince anyone that making a steaming, scrumptious pot from scratch is a complex, challenging process. But soup is as simple as the word. This dish is an excellent place to take the leap from following a recipe to improvising a meal.
At its most basic, soup is four components: a base, a thickener, a liquid, and a main ingredient. The liquid and main ingredient can be thought of as the essence: add 3 parts liquid to 2 parts main ingredient, and it’s soup. Add a base to boost the flavor and a thickener to improve the texture, and you’re competing with that gourmet carton. But it’s likely you’ve never seen a recipe that puts it this way—until now.
Fresh Improv Soup
1/2 cup base
1/4 cup thickener
3 cups liquid
2 cups main ingredient
Gather your ingredients. For your base, add a bit of olive oil to a stock pot and sauté an onion, or any member of the onion family for about 5 minutes, or until is translucent; add garlic, spices, and herbs as desired to round out the flavor and cook another 30 seconds. If your thickener is fat based, such as a roux (see below), or needs to be precooked, such as a raw potato, add it to the pan next and cook until soft and slightly browned. Add the liquid, and bring the soup to just below a boil. If your thickener needs liquid to rehydrate, such as polenta, or has been precooked, such as mashed potato, add it now instead and return the pot to a simmer.
Chop your main ingredient and add it to the pot. Return the pot to a simmer, and cook until the main ingredient is tender and done. Serve as is, or puree to your desired thickness for a smoother soup. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- I think of the base of a soup as its bass note: it adds depth and flavor. My preferred bass note for a soup is a member of the onion family: onion, leek, shallot, and so on. Raw onion has a sharp flavor, but one that has been cooked—sautéed, roasted, grilled—takes on a sweeter, rich flavor that comes through even the heaviest soup. From there you can add additional flavors as desired: carrot if you want to boost the sweetness; smoked paprika, ginger, or curry powder if you want a regional flavor; and of course garlic for its own sake. You can add dried herbs with the base as well, but save fresh ones for the finishing touch.
- Thickeners change the texture of a soup and include flour-and-butter roux (as in 30-Minute Cherry Tomato Soup), potato, polenta, rice, pasta, beans, and even stale bread. Your chosen thickener dictates when you add it to the soup. If you could heat the thickener in an empty pot without burning it, add it before your liquid; otherwise, add it afterward.
- The options for liquid in soup are nearly endless, ranging from water, to stock, to wine, to milk, to cream. You need to heat the liquid enough to let the thickener do its work, but it’s best to keep it below boiling, particularly if you’re using dairy.
- The main ingredient is your headliner. A solo act can carry the evening, so don’t hesitate to stick with 2 cups of tomato, mushroom, or squash. But duos such as broccoli and cheese, corn and tomatillo, or bell pepper and shrimp can also star in your meal. Think of minestrone or seafood chowder as a full band, complete with a horn section.
Twice as Tasty
The recipe for Fresh Improv Soup is intentionally vague. It’s ratios rather than ingredients. As Michael Ruhlman explains in his excellent book Ratio, “When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.” If this idea is daunting, you’re not alone. This is part of the reason pressure-canned soups, which must follow a strict recipe to be food safe but in the end put a ready-to-eat meal on your shelf, are increasingly popular. And it’s part of the reason I’m against them: You’ve locked yourself into a single recipe, sacrificing a thousand variations.
If I want to use what’s in season, have a quick meal on hand, I don’t pull out a pressure canner—I open the freezer. A freezer filled with vegetables at the height of the season offers endless options for making a soup from scratch in under 30 minutes. And once the pot is made, the freezer is the perfect place to stash a container or to for a sick day or last-minute meal. This recipe is just one example.
30-Minute Cherry Tomato Soup
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup frozen chopped grilled onion (about 3 ounces)
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons dried basil
2 cups milk
3 cups frozen whole cherry tomatoes (about 1-1/2 pounds)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Prepare a roux by melting the butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Let it bubble for about 30 seconds, and then add the flour. Cook, stirring thoroughly, for about 2 minutes, or until the flour darkens slightly. Add the frozen grilled onions and cook 3–5 minutes, or until they are just defrosted. Peel and smash the garlic; add it and the basil to the pot and cook another 30 seconds. Pour in the milk; bring to a low simmer, stirring often to blend in the roux and thicken the soup. Add the frozen cherry tomatoes, salt, and pepper; cook about 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes defrost and pop, releasing their liquid into the soup. Serve as is or puree to your desired thickness before serving. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- This recipe has all of the basic soup elements: a base (onion, garlic, and basil), a thickener (roux), liquid (milk and juice from the defrosting tomatoes), and a main ingredient (tomato solids). Because roux is part of the “no-burn” category, so it is added before the liquid.
- Tomatoes contain a lot of liquid; although the amount released varies depending on the variety of tomato, cherry-sized ones, like Sweet 100s and Sun Golds, are about 1 part liquid and 2 parts solids, rounding out the liquid-to-solid ratio given in the Fresh Improv Soup recipe.
- If you did your prep work in the summer, you can make this soup in under 30 minutes. If you’re using fresh produce, tack on an extra 15 minutes to the process to chop the onions, sauté them in a bit of olive oil, and cook down the tomatoes. Fresh basil is best added at the end of the recipe, reserving a little as garnish.
- Because everything is based on ratios, this and any other improvised soup can be easily scaled down for a quick lunch for one or up for a party. Leftovers can be stored in the fridge to be eaten later in the week or frozen for a quick meal later in the year.