Unless we write recipes for future kitchens, there’s no reason to think we’ll get food we like.
—Gerry Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?
In several springtimes past, we taught together and ran the communal kitchen at a literature program in the woods of New England. Every night, with a group of college students, we cooked for sixty students and teachers. This interpretive recipe is based on that experience: teaching students cooking skills that they could apply not just to that night’s meal, but to all future meals. The hope was that cooking might become for them what it is for us: a mindful and sensory process for the cook that engenders a future offering for a collective; the power to make something that was not there before, and to share it.
To start, think about what you like. Consider your own taste. What is your perfect soup? Is it clear? Creamy? Spicy? Thick? Think about its components. What ingredients do you have access to? We will offer some suggestions and a simple road map, but this is not an edict; improvisation is an essential part of cooking.
Who are you feeding? Reflect on this with every step.
What do you like to bite into? Imagine how you and those you are feeding would like to encounter onions, celery, and carrots in your soup. Garlic too. Cut accordingly. When chopping onions, hold a mouthful of water in your mouth to ward the tears away. Or wear sunglasses. Or hold matchsticks in your mouth. Or make sure the onions are cold. Use the remedy that you prefer.
This foundational trio of vegetables—onion, carrot, celery—is called a mirepoix or soffritto, but there are other holy trinities you can use instead: onion, bell pepper, and celery; or corn, beans, and chili; or ginger, scallion, and garlic.
Heat fat in a pot big enough to hold the amount of soup you would like to make. Pay attention to the sound of sizzling; listen for a hum, not a sputter.
There should be enough fat to cover the bottom of the pot. Add vegetables to the humming hot fat. Stir. Watch the carrots deepen in color, and the onion and celery turn translucent. Add the garlic.
Make sure the heat is where you want it. All stoves are different. Too high and the vegetables will burn, too low and they’ll languish. Stir regularly, though not constantly, for their sake and for yours. Note their color and their texture. Pay attention when you’re stirring. Knock the spoon against the side of the pot to send anything that stuck back in. If you stand at the stove to cook and are short, stand on a stool so you can see into the pot. If you sit at the stove to cook, lift up a spoonful of the mixture so you can see it. Rest the spoon on a plate, not just on the counter.
Add a little salt and pepper, but not too much. Stir it in and taste it if you’re not sure. You can always add some later. Oversalting is harder to fix.
What other vegetables do you like? Now’s a good time to add them. What protein makes sense for you and the people you’re feeding? Beans? Chicken? Lentils? Tempeh? Sausage? Again, imagine how you and those you are feeding would like to encounter this protein and additional vegetables in your soup. Prepare them accordingly.
When you thought about your own taste, what did you imagine? What spices can help create that taste? Open up jars and smell them. Taste a tiny pinch on the tip of your tongue.
Add a broth, maybe one you’ve boiled down for hours from the bones, onion skins, celery ends, and carrot tops that remain from other soups fed to other people, or maybe one you’ve brought home from the store in a carton. Or pour in an equivalent amount of water, then enough bouillon cubes to add up. Stir. Stir again. “Bring to a boil” means to leave the heat on hot enough that, after a while, the liquid starts to bubble.
Now you might choose to add other things: milk or cream, coconut milk or nut butter, fresh herbs or greens, mushrooms, more salt and pepper to taste. What about beer or wine? Soy sauce or vinegar? These can help add more complexity to the flavor. Experiment a little. Most mistakes at this stage—Too thick? Too thin? Too much of one thing? Not enough of another? “Oops, I spilled in the whole bottle”? “Wait, I thought it was cumin, but it was actually coriander”?—can be fixed.
Simmer, turning the heat down so that it still bubbles occasionally, but not vigorously. At this point you can cover the pot and move away a little, maybe put your feet up, do some dishes, talk to the people you’re cooking for. The liquid will start to condense, so keep an eye on it, paying attention to the consistency, the ratio of liquid to solids. Do you want a stew or a soup? Taste each time you stir. Does it need more salt? Spices? Broth? Fat?
There is a point at which you will think, “Okay, this is going to work. It is now recognizably soup.” Important to note this, and keep working. There is a later point at which you will think, “Okay, now this is delicious.” This is success. But remember: as long as everybody gets to eat, there is no failure.
Use a ladle to get the soup from the pot to the bowls. Join your people at the table.