Peasant Food: In the soup

As I've been working on these Peasant food posts, I've gotten a lot of good ideas from readers. Carol, a truly impressive home economist, pointed out that having a "soup night" once a week was a great way to save on groceries, use up leftovers, and provide your family with a delicious, nourishing, and easy-to-prepare meal.

She makes a fair point. After all, what can be better than a warm bowl of soup on a cold, miserable day? What's more, because soups, stews, and chowders tend to use inexpensive ingredients, they can save you a great deal of money. Below are a few basic tips for maximizing the ease and nutritional value of your soup night.

Stocks and Broths

Officially, the major difference between stocks and broths lies in the bone-to-meat ratio of the meat used to prepare them. Stocks are made with a great deal of bones and not very much meat, while broths are generally made with a lot of meat, but not very much bone. The upshot is that stocks have a much higher gelatin content, so sauces made with stock will thicken up more quickly.

For most recipes, however, this doesn't really matter; I, personally, tend to use them interchangeably. Personally, I try to make a couple of huge batches of stock once or twice a year. To make beef stock, oil a roasting pan and fill it with five pounds of meaty beef bones; two large onions, coarsely chopped; three carrots, peeled and sliced into 1" pieces; and two celery stalks, chopped into 2" pieces. Roast at 425 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until the bones are browned. Transfer to a stockpot. Use water to de-glaze the roasting pan and add drippings to the stockpot.

In the stockpot, add enough water to cover the bones and vegetables, bring to a boil over medium heat, and reduce heat until the stock is at a soft simmer. Add a bay leaf, a thyme sprig, and a couple of sprigs of parsley. Simmer for four hours or so, skimming impurities as they rise to the surface. After simmering, use cheesecloth to strain out all the vegetables and bones (if you wish, you can save all these ingredients and make a second batch of stock. It won't be as flavorful as the first, but will still be useful as a soup base).

After straining, continue to cook the stock until it reduces to about eight cups. Take off the stove, allow to cool, and refrigerate overnight. The fat will harden and can be removed. At this point, you can use your stock, freeze it, or reduce it to a glaze. To reduce stock to a glaze, heat it over medium-high heat until it reaches a vigorous simmer. Allow to cook down, skimming impurities. As the stock reduces, switch it to progressively smaller cooking vessels and lower the heat to avoid burning. When it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it, cover it, and refrigerate. It will form a dense gelatin. Cut the gelatin into small (one-tablespoon) blocks and freeze. When you need stock, add a block to a cup of boiling hot water. also has recipes for chicken stock, veal stock, vegetable stock, and fish stock. The value of making your own stock is that it is cheaper than commercially-available stocks, has fewer artificial ingredients, is low in sodium, and is very convenient. One word to the wise: whatever you do, don't substitute bouillon for stock or broth. It is exceedingly salty, and generally has a cloying, artificial flavor.

Having made stock, making a soup is incredibly easy. Basically, add meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, or whatever other ingredients you want. Experiment with flavors and textures until you find a recipe that you like. In the meantime, here's a soup recipe that my family enjoys:

Chicken Vegetable Soup

2 boneless, skinned chicken breasts

1 large onion, chopped

1 teaspoon light olive oil

4 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

6 cups chicken stock, preferably reduced sodium

1 can great northern or navy beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup corn

1 32-ounce can peeled tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped basil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a soup pot or dutch oven, cook the chicken and onion over medium-low heat until the onion is light brown and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add the stock and beans. Bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes, with juice, breaking them up by hand. Add the corn, basil, and vinegar. Reduce heat to a simmer and allow to cook until the chicken breasts are cooked all the way through. Turn off heat and remove the chicken breasts. Allow to cool. Shred chicken and return to pot. Turn heat back on and warm up the soup. Serve.

This soup is particularly good with a slice of hearty bread, and leftovers keep quite nicely in the refrigerator. Also, keep in mind that this is just a springboard to a soup of your own. If you don't like some of the ingredients, feel free to replace them. Above all, make this soup your own!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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