The Soup Dragon

If you follow my regular  #souptweet on Twitter, you’ll know that I am something of a seasoned (see what I did there!) Soup Dragon. My soup-making career goes way back to when I was wee. I’m the eldest of seven children, so soup featured regularly on our family menu, and I started helping my mum in the kitchen at an early age – hence also my love of baking. My ‘classic’ recipes all have their origins in my mum’s go-to soups, though of course none of them taste as good as hers.

Old-Fashioned Lentil Soup

When I left home to go to university, a pot of soup would feed me for the better part of the week, but as I started earning, my soup habit waned and the world of ready meals beckoned. It was when I was living in Cyprus that the Soup Dragon in me came to the fore, and I started making soup for lunch most days. You might think that hot soup in a Mediterranean climate is an odd choice, but I actually found it refreshing, provided the soup itself wasn’t too heavy. The fresh produce available in Cyprus is absolutely amazing. It was there I invented my ‘Summer Soup’ – which is quite simply a melange of seasonal vegetables, with the addition of a huge bundle of whatever fresh herbs were to hand, including things like mint and dill that you don’t normally associate with soup.

Returning home to Scotland and trying to make a living from my writing, economy was high on the scale so I brought my soup habit with me, and it’s remained with me ever since. I make soup at least twice a week. It’s cheap, healthy, much easier than you might think, and remarkably versatile. Since so many of us are working from home at the moment (or not working at home!), I thought I would share some of my favourites with you.

So let’s start with the basic building blocks.

Stock

Of course soup is miles better when you use home-made stock, but let’s face it, that can be a real faff to make. I was taught that you always have to make stock first, and then make soup. In fact what I’ve discovered over the years is that if you are choosing to have a meat-based stock you can simply cook the meat in the soup and get (almost) the same result. The butcher I use does something called a soup pack, which has an excellent selection of stock ingredients: lamb flank; smoked ham hough or ribs; boiling beef and chicken legs; but you can use off cuts of almost anything. Another go-to ingredient for me is smoked bacon, the streaky version.

Even if you have home-made stock, I find stock cubes are a must. I use good quality organic stock cubes, and no matter which kind of soup I make, it’s nearly always the chicken variety which I think deliver much better flavour. I do use beef occasionally, but never  the vegetable ones – it’s very much a personal choice, but I find they simply don’t give the same depth of flavour. Of course if you’re a Vegetarian, then that’s a different matter entirely.

I do, however, always make stock if I have a chicken carcase, mostly because I can’t stand food waste, but also because it’s delish. Stock recipes are almost as individual as Mum’s Soup or even Granny’s Soup recipes, but for what it’s worth here is mine:

Chicken Stock

Put the whole carcase, skin, bones and all the bits, including the giblets if you have them, into a large pot. Add a whole onion (skin and all) quartered. A couple of stalks of celery with the leaves. A halved tomato. A carrot. The green trimmings from leeks if you have them. A handful of fresh parsley. A mushroom (this is one of my secret ingredients, it really makes a difference) or a couple of dried mushrooms. About 10 whole black peppercorns. A star anise (my other secret ingredient). 2 bay leaves. A clove of garlic. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently in a covered pan for about an hour and a half. When cold drain through a fine sieve and leave overnight in the fridge. The stock will become a jelly, with the fat set on the surface and easily skimmed. You can use it to make soup or freeze it in smaller portions for sauces etc.

The Base

I make pretty much the same base using the same method for every soup. If I’m using meat for flavour, I brown it first using a little rapeseed oil. Then I add chopped onion, celery and leek, turn down the heat, put on a lid and let it saute gently for five or ten minutes. If there’s carrot in the soup, it goes in at the same time.

I am astonished at how little the common leek features in published soup recipes. For me, it’s an absolute must, and I put it in everything. I use the green as well as the white

By saute-ing the vegetables first, you get a much better flavour. You don’t want to brown them, just get them soft and translucent – be patient! I’d even go so far as to say that would be my very top tip for producing a tasty soup.

The Veggies

Almost anything works in a soup, and best thing about soup is that it is brilliant for using up leftovers. Be careful of veg with strong flavours such as turnip or swede, unless you want them to dominate the flavour. I don’t like ‘sweet’ veg and so never use squash, parsnip or squash, but that’s a personal thing.

Think about texture. ‘Hard’ veg can be grated or diced Tougher leaves such as cabbage and kale take a lot more cooking and should go in early, while softer leaves such as spinach and Brussel sprouts can be added later.

Frozen and canned veg such as peas and sweetcorn are great standbys, and can always be added at the end if you think your soup needs a little extra something.

The Bulk

If you’re making a general all purpose fridge soup, there are loads of things you can use to bulk it out. Any sort of bean (except the kind in tomato sauce!) works, though if you are using dried, make sure you’ve soaked them overnight. Red lentils don’t need to be soaked, just rinsed well, and you can use puy or green lentils too. Barley is great in small quantities, broth mix and split peas, yellow or green – again all need to be soaked overnight. Any small pasta, any rice (except pudding) work.

I have edamame beans in the freezer as a handy store cupboard ingredient, and though you can use frozen broad beans too, I don’t recommend them unless you go to the trouble of pre-cooking them and taking of the tough skins. Things that don’t work well, in my view (and I’ve tried them all) are couscous, bulgur wheat and quinoa.

That Critical Depth of Flavour

For me, herbs are absolutely vital. My ‘go to’ herbs are thyme (dried or fresh), bay leaf (always fresh if you have it but dried is fine) and oregano (always dried). Fresh parsley always goes in at the end, but if you’re using dried then put it in earlier. I don’t tend to use softer herbs such as tarragon, mint and dill unless I’m making my Cyprus Summer Soup, they can dominate and in classic veg soups frankly taste a bit weird.

Anchovies, sauted with the onions are absolutely brilliant in broths – you don’t end up with a fishy taste, I promise. Lemon zest (not the juice) is also a really good addition to brighten up a soup. Cloves give warmth and smoked paprika is brilliant in tomato-based soups. Curry powder works really well for a bit of background heat (especially in potato and leek) – though be sparing. And dried garlic granules, onion salt and celery salt are great additions if your soup ends up tasting a bit meh, which can happen sometimes.

Old Favourite Soups

Soup isn’t a science, it’s all about trying and testing and seeing what suits you, so please just treat these recipes as a guide. I cook soup for much longer than I’ve found in any recipe book – that’s how I was taught by my mum, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s cast in stone!

All my recipes are based on a full large soup pot. I can’t be too accurate about the stock quantities because I basically fill it up to the brim once I’m done the prep, but my pot usually holds about 2 – 2.5 litres of water/stock.

Lentil Soup

Ingredients for old-fashioned lentil soup

You can use ham ribs, ham hough or smoked bacon for the base of this soup. Whatever it is, brown on a low heat in oil.

Add 2 sliced leeks, 1 large chopped onion, 3 sticks of sliced celery, cover and cook on the low heat until soft – about 5-10 minutes.

Grate about 4 large carrots and either two small turnips or about half a small swede and add to the mix. It works perfectly well without the turnip if you don’t want it.

Add in 3 chopped fresh tomatoes for preference though tinned will do, and about 200-250 grams of well-washed dried red lentils, stir well and saute for another minute or so – this stage is really important because it stops the lentils sticking. You can use green lentils if you prefer, or even tinned.

Then add 3-4 cloves, a couple of teaspoons of dried thyme or a bunch of fresh, 2 bay leaves, chicken stock (I use three stock cubes) and cover. Simmer on a low heat for 1-1.5 hours. It’s important not to add salt until the lentils are cooked – adding too early makes pulses go hard. Also, if you’re using the smoked ribs or ham hough be sparing because they can be salty. So seasoning with salt and black pepper is the last stage. Then remove the cloves and the bay if you can track them down. Pick the meat off the bone and put it back in the soup. Add a generous amount of fresh parsley, and serve.

Tomato, Lentil and Bacon Soup

This is a spicy store-cupboard soup. Saute some bacon in oil. Then add in the usual mix of two leeks, one large onion and three sticks of celery along with 2-3 large diced carrots, cover and soften.

Next, wash 200-250 grams red lentils (I’ve never made this with green, but I’d like to hear from you if you do) and stir in to the mix with a tin of tomatoes and a carton of passata and cook for a couple more minutes to make sure the lentils are dispersed and not sticking.

Then stock, thyme, bay, a generous teaspoon of smoked paprika and a half teaspoon of chilli flakes. Season at the end with salt and pepper. If you want a smoother soup, this one lends itself to being blitzed.

Scotch Broth

Steep broth mix overnight in cold water to soften it – if you don’t do this it will simply not cook properly. If you forget, you can put it in boiling water and steep it for a couple of hours, this does just about as well.

Scotch Broth classically uses lamb flank, but I have also made it with boiling beef. Whatever you’re using, saute it on a low heat with 2-3 anchovy fillets. Then add the mix of 2 leeks, one large onion, 2-3 sticks of celery, cover and soften – about 5-10 minutes.

Next add in 2-3 diced carrots and about half a small diced swede – or you can use turnip if you prefer. Add thyme and bay leaves and the stock – this is one of the few soups where I use beef. Scotch Broth needs a lot of cooking, and you might find it needs topping up with water every now and then – about 1.5, even two hours. Remove the meat and put the choice cuts back in. Season at the end and add loads of fresh parsley.

Minestrone

This recipe is based on one from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking, and it’s all about the order in which the veg are sauted. It is undoubtedly a bit footery and time-consuming but always worth it, and a meal in itself. Minestrone is a leftovers soup, so the veg can vary and the quantity of each very much depends on personal preference, so do experiment.

You can use a meat stock such as bacon or ham ribs, but you don’t actually need it – though it’s the first thing you saute if you do. Next, in order, saute the following in olive oil for 2-3 minutes each:

  • Onion and/or leek
  • Celery
  • Diced carrot
  • Turnip – if using, I only rarely do, and I never use swede it’s too strong
  • Courgette

Then add parmesan rind (this makes a huge difference), some dried thyme and oregano, two tins of tomatoes, one carton of passata and some chicken stock, cover and simmer.

About an hour later, add in whatever fresh beans you are using – French, runner, broad, it doesn’t matter, and the tinned beans – again your choice. You can also add in cabbage at this point if you want.

And finally add in the pasta – small is best, or simply broken spaghetti works. Cook for another 20-30 minutes, then season and serve.

Pea and Ham

Ingredients for Pea and Ham Soup

I use split peas for this, yellow or green or a mix, and I soak them overnight. About 200-250 grams.

The best pea and ham soup uses a ham hough, but smoked ribs or smoked streaky bacon are perfectly good substitutes. Whatever you are using, brown on a low heat in oil.

Next add 2 sliced leeks, one large chopped onion and 2-3 sliced sticks of celery, cover and soften for about 5-10 minutes. Then add a couple of diced carrots and a diced potato works well too, though it’s not absolutely vital.

Then add the dried peas, mix well and continue to cook on a low heat for a few minutes to stop them from sticking.

Then it’s thyme and bay and chicken stock, and cook for about an hour. Next, I add in some spinach, fresh or frozen, a good quantity, and a good quantity of frozen peas. Remove the meat when it’s cooked and put the choice cuts back in. Then finally season, add in a handful of fresh mint and parsley, and serve.

Potato and Leek

Saute diced onion, celery and a clove of garlic in oil. Add a knob of butter and four sliced leeks. Cook for ten minutes.

Add chicken stock, diced potatoes and simmer for an hour.

Season, add a pinch of curry powder and a splash of milk.

Finally, the inevitable parsley. This one really benefits from home made chicken stock.

Cock-a-Leekie

I use a large free-range chicken leg for this stock, which I brown along with about a half teaspoon of fennel seeds – fennel and chicken work really well.

Then add in 2 sliced leeks, a large chopped onion, and 2-3 sliced sticks of celery, cover and soften for 5-10 minutes.

Next grate 2-3 large carrots and chop 2-3 large fresh tomatoes, add and continue to saute for a few minutes.

Then chicken stock, thyme and bay leaf. Classically, you also add in 3-4 chopped prunes, which really does add to the flavour but since prunes aren’t one of my store-cupboard ingredients, I usually do without.

Cover and for about an hour. Then add the rice. Be careful about the quantities – a generous handful is more than enough. You can use brown or white, long grain or basmati but not short-grain. Add a little salt at this point and cook.

Then finish by removing the chicken leg, flaking the meat off before adding it back in. Season, add a generous helping of fresh chopped parsley, and you are good to go.

And that’s it, my first ever soup blog. I hope it inspires you to have a go. As you can see it’s not rocket science. I will be back soon with more, newer recipes. If you make any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought, and of course I’m always looking for new recipes, so do share them with me.

Bon apetit!

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. I love making soup but have to confess it’s usually just whatever veg I have to hand with chicken stock, although I now do a version of spicy tomato soup using the recipe from the Tesco advert. I find it really difficult to get ham ribs nowadays and they are usually very expensive when I do, but they make a great lentil soup. My mother called the stock from boiling ham ribs and spring cabbage, “cabbage brae.” More power to your soup making Marguerite

    1. I’ve never heard of cabbage brae, what a brilliant name. My mum taught me to boil a ham hough separately before using it for soup, and to pour away the first lot of water which was too salty. Don’t know if hough is less salty these days, but I never have to do that.

  2. Wow. What a treasure trove of recipes! Fascinating that you put star anise in your stock. I’ve used it in a tisane for upset stomach, but I will definitely try it next time I make chicken stock.

    1. Star anise really makes a difference Barbara, but it’s quite subtle, not too fragrant. I tried it once when I bought a huge bag from my local shop by mistake. I’ve never had it for a tisane though, I must remember that

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