The Seduction of Soup

From broth to vichychoisse, there’s something seductive about soups. The various names alone take you on a journey to different lands, tastes and traditions. There are bisques, consommés, chowders, gazpachos, goulashes and stews. All satisfy nurture and sustain. Entering this “pot au feu”, can be as seductive to the palate as any culinary dish. For some it may take a mentor or soup maker guide, but all you really need is the will.

My mother made soup, nothing fancy, just the regular ones found in Jewish cooking. Split pea, chicken, bean and barley and of course, the traditional matzo ball. I grew up on home cooking and an adolescence of aromas. Although I didn’t start making soups until much later, the basic mentoring that entered my pores was the infusion of those memories and a love of basic food, cooked in a pot.

I have a bank of memories, spurring on confidence to replicate, if not the aromas, to pay homage for the nurture of so many years. I don’t make the same kinds of soup my mother did, but I preserve her memory and my garden’s harvest. It is part mission to preserve the fruits of a summer’s labor and to honor what grew no matter what the shape or size.

Soups are my bank, my financial security, and my rock. I don’t buy stocks on the market. All my commodities are in edible liquid and solid forms. They are my form of gold. I have carrot, potato, leeks and squash, swiss chard, onion and curly kale. All are transformed into creamy potages, chunky vegetable stews and smooth purees.

Soup is not just a four-letter word. Its origin came from the English word “sop”, meaning bread soaked in liquid. Its etymology can be traced to the Latin “suppa” and “suppare” meaning to soak, and the German root “sup” which meant to drink. The word “sup” then slipped into English as supper and into French as soupe.

When I think of soups, a lexicon of names and words from other countries opens up an alphabetic compendium of the soup world.

B for Bisque for example, is a rich creamy puree of seasoned shellfish, usually lobster, crayfish, or crab. Dating back to the 17th century, the word was borrowed from the French “bisk”. Originally a bisque described a dish of highly spiced boiled meat or game, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that crayfish became the principal ingredient according to Larousse Gastronomique.

Broth, on the other hand, refers to the liquid in which meat or vegetables have been boiled. It could be said that broth is the middle child between a stock and a soup.

Stock can be thought of as the foundation, or base layer of a soup. It is what one keeps for further use, something to build upon. Early dictionaries of cooking prescribe preparing stock simply, without the use of flavouring or spices.

Consommé is derived from the French consommer, meaning to consume. It is generally a clear soup, usually served at the start of a meal. The flavors of the soup are concentrated by a slow cooking process.

Then there are the chowders. Just the ring to the word sounds chunky and hefty. Chowders date back to the early 17th and 18th centuries and the dictionary of American English gives the origin of the word from the French chaudiere meaning cauldron, into which sailors threw their catch. Chowders evolved according to place and tastes. One of the most popular types is clam chowder with the distinct varieties of milk-based New England and the Manhattan variety, which is tomato based.

Stews are yet another category in the world of soups, the word coning from the French word “estuir” meaning to enclose. A food and culture dictionary defines a stew as an assortment of foods cooked in a liquid within a container with a lid. Some stews are named for their origins, liked “Irish” stew, and some for their main ingredient like a beef stew.

Making soup is akin to going on a journey. The end result is a combination of flavors, part mystery, part discovery and revelation. Making soup starts by combining selected ingredients and ends by stimulating the palate .It is not just the end product that satisfies, however, but the processes involved that instills the meditative comfort that takes hold. The slicing, dicing, and stirring become the yoga and the body becomes used to those motions, not difficult, but repetitive and calming. The recipe dictates the moves and the aromatic essences are released into the air as a simmering soup releases its ambrosia. The culmination of this meditation is a pot of liquid sustenance, the reward from a series of practiced movements and creative composition.

I’d like to say that anyone can make soup. I’d like to think that, and be positive, but sadly that may be untrue. The desire to make soup, comes from a desire to nurture, and a love connection to the appreciation of food.

When you enter the world of soups you enter the world of other cultures. Some soups reveal themselves just by their names some reveal the methods implied to make them like purees. Others reveal a bit of their history and give clues to their composition.

Bouillabaisse, Borscht, Vichysoisse, all distinct soups with their distinct signature taste.

Bouilliabaisse, a seafood  soup of  French origin, is a sailor’s catch of several types of fish and shellfish cooked simply in a pot with water .

Borscht, announces its European roots and boldly features beets in one variety, but there is also the Russian Doukhobor recipe for Borscht with cabbage, dill and sour cream.

A Vichychoisse, on the other hand, reveals a French origin, but its name alone reveals its historical link to the town of Vichy, but gives not a clue to its composition.

Hungarian Goulash not only reveals its origin but also gives us clues about its signature spice, Hungarian paprika.

Another variant in the categories of soup is a gazpacho. Revealing its Arabic roots and meaning “soaked bread, the gazpacho reflects a Spanish recipe that incorporates Middle Eastern roots. The main ingredients are garlic, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, olive oil and breadcrumbs. It is generally served cold. There are now many variations of gazpacho.

Food historians link the word soup to the word “restoratif,”as soups were one of the earliest dishes served in restaurants. Easily digestible, soups were restoratives for the sick and restaurants in 18th century Paris started with the serving of soups. The name restaurant is historically tied to the restorative powers of soup.

Some soups are smooth and creamy like a Bisque, some chunky like a chowder, some thin as a consommé or thick as a stew. Some are hot, some cold, some spicy some plain there are vegetable bean, pasta and fruit soups. They are all distinct. From historical beginnings to modern day fusions of flavors, soup and its many variations are as much a culinary statement as any entrée.

Some may take you on a voyage, an awakening of the palette, some are just meant to calm and soothe. Some are meant to make you sweat, some ready the palette for what is to come. Others are the main course, the main act, the signature and the spice all in one. From broth to vichychoisse, soup is definitely not just a four-letter word.