A steaming, hearty bowlful of homemade soup, freshly baked popovers or crusty warm bread in a basket to the side -- what could be better on a chilly fall day? Only, perhaps, the enjoyment of preparing the meal.
There's a pleasant satisfaction to tending the soup pot, swirling a wooden spoon through the contents, and catching warm, savory drafts as the ingredients simmer toward their final transformtion.
The comes that first taste-test, adjusting the seasonings to just right -- a little freshly ground paper, a squeeze more a lemon juice, or some sweet marjoram.
Finally, the warmed tureen is filled and the hot soup ladled into bowls. No wonder Fannie Merritt Farmer instructed students in 1896: "It is the duty of every housekeeper to learn the art of soup-making" ("The Boston Cooking School Cookbook," Original 1896 edition).
Take as much care in preparing soup as you would any other dish. For the best flavor, only top-quality ingredients should be used. Tired, overcooked vegetables won't produce an interesting taste no matter what the seasoning.
Broth, or stock, a liquid base for many soups, can be made easily, but it requires long simmering. If you haven't the time for this, a good canned broth can be subtituted.
However as with all canned soups, it can be bland an is enlivened by simmering some chopped carrot, onion, celery, and a bay leaf in it for a few minutes before use.
Use seasoning carefully -- it should enhance, not dominate, the basic flavor. When experimenting with a new state, add just a little a first until you're familiar with its potency and compatibility with the dish.
Fresh herbs are preferred over dried -- they're brighter and zestier. Dried herbs are more concentrated in flavor than fresh, however, so bear this in mind.
Salt should only be added at the end of the cooking time. Since the liquid condenses, the salt that was just right to start could be too much in the finished in product.
Compare different recipes for the same kind of soup, and come up with your own version. In the cream of tomato soup recipe that follows (which ended my search for tomato soup with character), I substituted a coupled of fresh basil leaves for the garlic and it worked well. Also, I used less broth to make a thicker consistency.
Garnishes complete the perfect soup, and there's a wide variety to choose from. Possibilities include fresh herbs, chopped eggs, grated cheese, blanched vegetables such as tiny broccoli florets or carrots, dollops of whipped or sour cream, and small dumplings. Croutons are a favorite, and they're simple to make at home, but be sure to use a sturdy bread.
Time-Life Books volume on "Soups," part of The Good Cook series, is a thorough, clear text for learning basic and complex techniques of soupmaking. It includes a collection of recipes reprinted from a wide range of cookbooks. Here is a recipe from Louis Diat's "French Cooking for Americans." Cream of Tomato Soup 6 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped 1 cup canned tomatoes 2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped 1 carrot, chopped 3 tablespoons flour 1 quart chicken stock or water 1 small clove of garlic 2 leeks, thinly sliced, optional 4 white peppercorns 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar Chicken carcass, optional 1 cup light cream
Mealt butter in a deep saucepan, add onion and carrot, and cook slowly until golden brown. Add flour and mix.
Add stock or water, the garlic leeks, white peppercorns, salt, sugar, tomatoes, and chicken carcass (if using). Cover and cook over low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, skimming as needed.
Remove chicken carcass and rub soup through a fine strainer. Combine cream with strained soup and correct seasoning.
If soup is too thick, add a little more cream or stock to obtain desired consistency. Serve with croutons or rice. Serves 4 to 6.
The following recipe is from Antonin Careme's "L'Art de La Cuisine Francaise au Dix-Neuvieme Siecle." Cauliflower and Broccoli Soup With Parsley 1 Cauliflower, stalks removed, divided into florets 2 heads broccoli, stalks removed, divided into florets 1 bouquet of parsley, tied together 1 quart consomme
Croutons, recipe follows
Blanch cauliflower in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then plunge into cold water and drain.
Put into a pan with a little consomme and parsley, and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender.
Meanwhile, blanch broccoli in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and place in a warmed soup tureen. When cauliflower is done, remove parsley and pour cauliflower with its cooking liquid into tureen. Bring the remaining consomme to a boil and add to tureen with croutons.
A smooth, thick pureed soup from Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book is simply made with onions, stock, and milk. White Soubise 4 medium-sized onions (about 1 pound), chopped 4 tablespoons butter 1 1/4 cups light stock or water 1 1/4 cups milk 1 cup fresh white bread crumbs Salt and pepper Croutons, recipe follows
Stew onions in butter in covered pan, without browning them, for an hour. Keep heat really low, or use a fireproof pad. The idea is that the unions should gently dissolve into a puree.
Mix in stock or water, milk, and bread crumbs. Increase heat and bring soup just to boiling point. Sieve through medium blade of food mill; a blender will make puree too smooth. Season.
Return soup to heat to simmer for a further hour; again, keep mixture barely at simmering point. Check from time to time and give soup a stir. Add more water if mixture becomes too thick.
Serve with croutons. Serves 3 or 4. Croutons 2 bread slices, 1/2-inch thick, cut from day-old, firm-textured white loaf 4 tablespoons butter 1/4 to 1/2 cup oil
Remove crusts from bread and cut slices into cubes. Combine butter and 1/4 cup of oil in large skillet. Melt butter over medium heat and, as soon as butter and oil mixture is hot, add bread cubes and increase heat to high.
Turn cubes frequently with a broad metal spatula so that they brown evenly on all sides, and add more oil as necessary to keep cubes from burning. Before serving, drain croutons on paper towels.