Few meals have as high a self-satisfaction ratio (satisfaction : difficulty) as a hearty stew or soup. It’s coming up to winter now, so why not take this opportunity to make yourself feel just that little bit better than the people around you? A little bit of smugness will do wonders on a chilly night.
The first step is to remember that one of the main ideas behind making a soup is ease. So as far as implements, you will need a chopping board, a knife, maybe a plate, a really big pot and something to stir with. If that something to stir with could also conceivably be used to put it into a bowl when it’s done, that’s even better.
Next, you’ll probably need something to cook. Check the cupboards and the fridge first, and just look for something hearty, or a vegetable. Potatoes just on the edge of usable – they’re fine. An old bit of pumpkin that a bit dry on the outside – wonderful. Those various halves of onions that seem to pile up in the fridge – great, use ‘em. A limp carrot or zucchini – there’s some colour. Old baby spinach leaves you bought for a salad sandwich and didn’t use all of – even they’re perfect. Do you have some sort of leftover meat, maybe some bacon in the freezer or the remains of a ham or lamb leg in the fridge? If you don’t eat meat, well it’s even easier, just don’t put any in.
You probably won’t have enough ingredients lying around the house (if you do, well haven’t you got a well stocked larder!) so next it’s off to the shops. Remember we’re going for easy, and if you’re like me that means cheap too. So toddle on down to the fruit and veg section first and see what’s on special.
Using a little bit of common sense (durian is probably not a good idea) grab whatever you feel like. Onion is always good, and anything that kind of looks like an onion, like leeks or garlic. Cabbage makes a nice bit of bulk, and a few starchy vegetables add a bit of oomph. Really, pretty much anything will be lovely. Maybe grab a big tin of diced tomatoes too.
And then to the meat. Personally, a fistful or two of economy bacon is enough for me, but you could get all sorts of things; some diced steak or other red meat, maybe something with a bone in it like ox-tail or lamb necks, anything cheap-looking is fine. Don’t worry about it being tough, because you’re going to be cooking this for a while. The only other things you might need is a litre of stock or so, though water is fine, and maybe some pasta or soup mix if you feel like it, though both of those are optional too. Oh, and if you’re looking for an excuse to buy some wine, you can throw some in if you’d like.
Now go through the checkout. And as you stand in line look around at the people worrying that they’ve forgotten something, consulting lists and accidentally wheeling their trolleys into things and other people (I certainly haven’t done this, not at all, nuh-uh), and generally being stressed, and think about how you are so good in the kitchen that it doesn’t even matter exactly what’s in your trolley today, it’s still going to taste wonderful at the end.
Once you’re home, get all of your ingredients out on the table. If you’re one of the wine-drinkers, pour a glass just to make sure it hasn’t gone bad. Take a quick look in your fridge and cupboard and notice how nice and clean they are since you’re using the dregs. Put your big pot on the stove and turn it on, and get ready to cook.
The first thing you’ll want to cook is your meat, if you have any. If you’re using something other than bacon, put it in with a little olive oil or some other lubricant and seal it off. If you wanted to be fancy you could give it a little coat of flour first. Then take that out and put it aside. If you’re going with bacon, chop it all up roughly and throw it in your pot. Stir it a couple of times and if you’re using it lean you may need to add oil or something. Economy bacon doesn’t have that problem.
The first of the vegetables are the ones that look like onions, if you have any. Chop them up (no need to worry too much how fine or chunky, it truly doesn’t matter) and pop them in the pot with either hot oil or hot bacon, depending on whether you’re using bacon obviously. Give them a bit of a stir, and again in about a minute or so, and then throw in your carrots or celery or things that look like either of them (e.g. parsnips). Once again it’s up to you how big they are, though remember a whole carrot will probably be a bit cumbersome to eat, and would take a little while to cook. It’s at this point you might consider adding wine. Stir a little bit every now and then for maybe about five minutes.
Next comes your tomatoes if you have any, and stock if you have any, or otherwise some water, maybe about a litre or so, depending on how much you’re making. Stir and bring to a simmer-ish (it’s not really important whether it’s a simmer or a boil, though a really violent boil might be a bit much) and add your starchy vegetables, soup mix if you’re using it, and your meat again if you are using it. Then cover and leave it for a while, stirring every now and then. Probably about 45 minutes. Really big chunks of anything, but especially meat tend to lengthen cooking times, so if you’re not sure about something don’t worry, just test a little bit. It’ll get mushier the longer you leave it, but it’ll still taste really good.
Then, add all of your more weakling vegetables, pasta if you’re using it, and, heck, you could put some herbs in if you felt like it (oregano or thyme or the like), but there’s absolutely no need. Leave it for another 15 minutes-ish. Test a bit. If it’s cooked, then it’s done.
Dish up a bowl, maybe with a piece of bread or toast, or maybe with something like parmesan on top, maybe even with some sour cream. Sit down and marvel at what a wonderful meal you’ve made with really not that much effort. You’ve just played it by ear, made it up as you’ve gone along, and now you’ve made something that’s better than what you’d get in a pretty cheap restaurant. You did this and it is brilliant.
It might seem a bit odd to deliberately want to feel smug or superior. We’re always told these are negative things to be, and one of the least appealing ways to describe someone is stuck-up. I’m not saying you should start looking down on other people. But I truly believe that some people don’t spend enough time thinking good things about themselves. They’re scared of being arrogant, or they care so much about their family, or other people, or they believe it’s their duty, and they put other people’s opinions and needs above their own.
It’s important to me that my opinion is the one that takes ultimate control of my life, and that it is the most important voice in my head. I respect a lot of people, and recognise that they have skills that I don’t. And I love my family and friends and partner, and I take their opinions into consideration. But I will not put their opinion above mine. There are times I might do or not do something to make someone else happy, but that is because I want to make them happy. This soup, by being based entirely on one’s own opinion and tastes, is one little step in that direction I think.