The rain over the weekend and at the beginning of the week suddenly jolted me back into the real world. Autumn has arrived and while I am reluctant to start putting away all the things that remind me of summer there are some lovely things about September that I can happily embrace. The evenings are drawing in for sure, but it’s not too cold yet. There are still sandals hanging around the bedroom floor and, optimistic of an Indian summer, I’ll leave them around for a little while longer.
One of my favourite things about the changing seasons is the changing food. While I’m no chef or would never claim to be, every season brings with it a glut of fresh ingredients. Orchard fruits, root vegetables and of course all the bramble fruits that are ideal for pickling and preserving. Anyone who hasn’t sampled the simple delights of blackberry picking and then transforming them into a simple jam or tart is missing out on one of the season’s most treasured pursuits. At the launch of the Waterford International Music Festival last week I met several people, men and women, who were about the business of collecting and preserving blackberries. There was even debate as to whether we should or should not add an apple to the process with the non apple side being very vociferous. The stakes were seriously raised however when someone suggested making Blackberry Liqueur! It’s new to me and so maybe before the end of the month I’ll let you know how my blackberry moonshine making is progressing.
While blackberries are fleeting, soup on the other hand is a staple for autumn and winter. Of course it would appear that the only clean jokes in the world are about soup.
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!
That’s not too surprising, sir, the chef used to be a tailor”
Silly jokes aside, the main reason I am re-birthing my interest in soup is that I recently caught a television programme a few weeks ago that conducted an interesting soup experiment. They gave a meal consisting of the same ingredients to a mixed group of people. One half consumed the food as a plate of solids and a glass of water while the other half of the group ate the food as a soup. Using proper scientific methods of measurement they found that after several hours the soup group still felt fuller and more satisfied than the others. This is good news for dieters. Mind you the dieting end of things is blown out of the water when you start adding thick crusty bread to the equation.
Soup is just a universal dish that has the ability to lift your spirits on a wet day and, as Jewish mothers will tell you, is a cure all for everything. Actually scientists discovered that there is, in fact, something to the chicken soup theory for colds and flu. Apparently the curative properties are in the chicken fat. The other wonderful thing about soup is that it is a marvellous way to get vegetables into children. A mug of steaming liquid can often be a great deal more appealing than a big plate of vegetables.
Obviously you can buy soup tinned or in packaged, but if you have the time, it’s easy to make it from scratch. If you can use a knife and you own a pot you can make soup. There are only a few rules to follow, but generally soup making is possibly one of the simplest culinary arts to master. It is also pretty much a one pot affair and so the washing up is minimal. Potatoes are invaluable to the soup maker as while adding flavour they also provide a natural thickening agent. Herbs are also a great taste booster; a little coriander with carrot or basil with tomato makes all the difference. Be brave when it comes to herbs and experiment wildly as herbs are not only flavoursome but also add colour. If you have to cheat at anything, do it with the stock. Preparing stock is a job in and of itself and there are really good ones available to buy but just remember you do get what you pay for and the cheap versions can contain ridiculous amounts of salt so read the labels. As a general rule of thumb all soups use a minimum of about one to one and half pounds of ingredients (450-675g) to every one and half pints of stock (1 litre).
In the language of soup making the terms ‘sauté’, ‘sweat’ and ‘soften’ are often used in recipes to describe the initial cooking of onions or vegetables in oil or butter. They all practically mean the same thing. The idea is just to soften the ingredients rather than browning them. Always a use a gentle rather than a high heat for this and you should be fine. If the recipe calls for ‘frying’ at the initial stage then the higher heat is required.
When it comes to consistency it’s a personal choice. Some soups call for lumps and chunks where the texture of the ingredients can be enjoyed but I personally like mushroom soup for example to have a smooth texture and therefore I always purée it at the end of the cooking process. It really is a matter of taste, do whatever you like best. Most soups will also freeze really well and so it’s easy to batch cook.
Soup is one of the oldest dishes in the world and every culture had its own; New England chowder, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borscht, Italian minestrone, French onion, Chinese won ton and Vegetable broth popular with Celtic traditions. They are all just variations on the same theme. According to food history the modern restaurant industry was built on soup. ‘Restoratifs’ (also where the word ‘restaurant’ comes from) were the first items served in public restaurants in 18th century Paris, suggesting that they might ‘restore’ the body if you were weary. Maybe that’s the reason why all the soup jokes involve a waiter!