The long hot summer, which thankfully relieved some of the stress of living through the pandemic as we all learnt to meet in gardens, whether private or public, has fast moved into a wet and windy autumn. If the sun was a comfort in the summer, soup steps in to warm us up and comfort us as days shorten, temperatures drop and cold winds blow.
Soup has been a staple in my house for pretty much as long as I’ve been cooking, from elegant soups to serve at dinner parties to wholesome, Italian-style minestrone soups full of vegetables in season, beans and pasta to serve as a family midweek meal with fresh bread and a board of cheeses.
The origin of soup goes back about 20,000 years and of course wasn’t an option until man learnt to make waterproof pots to cook it in. Originally known as pottage, meat and vegetables were thrown in with water to make a humble meal. It was the Romans who really took to soup making (as many other things) and the Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes dating from about 1AD, included a good recipe for lentil and haricot bean soup. The Romans also introduced ingredients like onions, cabbages, pulses, beans and peas to us, making the way for more tasty soups.
However, even into the 19th century, soup – at least in Great Britain – was regarded as peasant food, as Eliza Acton wrote in her famous book of Modern Cookery published in 1845 when soup was mainly thin gruel which the ‘charitable’ gave to the poor. It’s the French she praises with the art of making good soup.
Some of the most wonderful soups I’ve eaten in recent years were the glorious minestrone soups in Genoa in 2018; fabulous soups made from seasonal vegetables and usually served with a great blob of pesto on top.
The soups I make these days are mainly geared to providing a quick and easy lunch in wintertime. I make enough to freeze single portions for another three or four lunches. As we go further into winter, I’ll make sure there’s a choice of at least two or three so I’m not eating the same soup for days. When I take a break from work, or arrive back from wherever I’ve been in the morning, and heat a portion of soup (straight from the freezer into a saucepan and slowly defrosted then heated through), there is little more soothing on a cold winter’s day. For this I eschew ‘elegance’ and prefer a thickish soup that feels all the more comforting than a thin one, but a simple soup can be made to whichever consistency you prefer.
Here’s what a I made a couple of days ago. I had a fancy for tomato soup and it’s literally a few decades since that famous canned tomato soup has passed my lips! Today I chop up large vine tomatoes full of taste, with some potato and red onion and put in a large shallow, ovenproof dish. I sprinkle over some dried chilli flakes (or not, depending on my mood) and some dried oregano or perhaps some fresh thyme. I season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper then drizzle over a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. Then I carefully fold it over with my hands and mix everything together before placing in a 200C/Fan 180/Gas 6 oven for about 40 minutes. Timing depends on how small you cut your veg. Give the veg a good turn once or twice during cooking so the top doesn’t burn and they cook evenly.
Take it from the oven when all the vegetables are soft and slightly caramelising.
Spoon the vegetables into a saucepan then pour hot stock or water into the pan you cooked the veg in. Stir over heat and scape all the caramelised bits off the side and bottom – they’re so tasty! Tip the liquid into the pan with the vegetables, making sure there’s enough to just cover then. Blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Add more liquid if it’s too thick. Check seasoning.
And there is lunch! A glorious, soothing bowl or richly flavoured homemade soup.
I like to make some cheat croutons by toasting some bread, drizzling olive oil over it then cutting into cubes (you can always rub garlic over it before adding the oil if you want garlic croutons). I lay then on top of the soup, grate over some Parmesan and drizzle over a little more oil. Really, what more could you want for a simple and soothing lunch on a cold winter’s day?
For more of my soup recipes, click here.