I'm sure everyone here is familiar with the old fable called Stone Soup. There have been many iterations of it through the ages, in almost all cultures. It has been made into a children's book several times.
The story is basically the same. A poor traveler is in a village. No one will give him any food, and the villagers are pretty solitary and selfish. The traveler proceeds to fill a large pot with water, light a fire, and places a large stone in the pot.
When villagers come by to ask what he's doing, he says he's making stone soup, but that it's not quite right, and needs a little extra seasoning and flavor. One villager brings a carrot, one brings an onion, and so on. By the time the whole village has contributed, the traveler has a pot of very excellent soup, which the entire village shares.
This becomes a great project for kindergarten classes, as each student brings something from home and they make their own version of stone soup.
The moral of the story is all about sharing and community, of course, but culinarily speaking, it's also about the history of soup.
NOTE: All photos used are stock (Oh look--a pun!) photos and do not reflect either my cooking style or my finished products, which I feel are far superior to what you see in these photos.
Basically, soup is what happens when you cook by immersing food in water. The water extracts and absorbs the flavors of whatever you put into it. This includes nutrients and fat. While roasting and grilling were the first forms of cooking, cooking in water was the second. And cooking in water has a happy side effect: Not only is what you put into the water cooked, but the water itself changes and becomes a flavorful and nutritious food.
There are, of course, may many styles of soups out there. I'm going to talk about the most basic kind. A good, hearty broth. You know the kind--the kind that makes your lips sticky. You KNOW that just that liquid is packed with so much protein and other good stuff that you don't even need meat.
So let's begin at the beginning. A BIG pot of water. So now you have a pot of water. What do you do with it? This is where the magic of water happens. You begin with a bone.
What kind of bone?
Whatever you want. For beef, I prefer the big knuckle bones. There's lots of connective tissue on them. Also, shank bones are good because of the marrow in them. With regards to chicken, you have the wings, neck, back, and the carcass after you trim your whole raw chicken. Did you have a ham for dinner the other day? Did you save the bone (with some meat on it?) How about a leg of lamb? Did you save that bone as well? Bones are the beginning.
Bones such as beef bones can be pre-roasted for extra flavor. Just heat an oven to 350, and place the bones in a roasting pan. Roast until the bones get browned. Deglaze with a bit of water to pick up any tasty brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add to the pot of water.
Leftovers such as ham and lamb leg bones, and chicken necks wings and backs can just be thrown in the pot.
Now, while bones are good, meat is better. So if you're doing chicken, just add a whole cut up chicken to the pot. For beef, I like to add a rump roast. Chuck and sirloin also make great choices, but they are fattier cuts, and that means more work later on, as you will see. I always leave a bit of meat on my ham and lamb bones. But, I will add ham hocks or another cut like pig knuckles or feet to the pot. Hocks have some meat, but they are also chock full of connective tissue which means flavor and fortification. I use raw hocks when I'm dealing with a regular broth. For something like a split pea soup, I'll use smoked hocks, to add a bit of that salty smoky flavor.
So now I've got my meat and bones in the pot. Time to fire it up. Do NOT season the water now. There is one more important task to accomplish. As the water heats to a boil, a strange thing happens. Various proteins and particulates break down and are agitated by the water movement. It forms a foam like substance on top of the water. That foam is called scum. And if you want a nice clear broth without a lot of particulates clouding it up, then you have to skim it. And the reason you don't add anything before scumming the pot is that this stuff is STICKY. And whatever you add will have particulates all over it, clouding the broth.
The scum itself is theoretically edible and supposedly doesn't change the flavor, but appearance is half of the eating experience, and nothing says home like a nice clear broth. So scum carefully and thoroughly.
NOW it's time for seasonings and flavorings. If I'm working with beef (my favorite) I do the following: I'll add a whole onion, a halved green pepper (seeds removed, of course) and one or two halved seeded jalapenos. I also add a few minced cloves of garlic. As far as herbs, I really don't add too much, if any. For chicken, however, I'll add an onion and some dried parsley and oregano. And of course, salt and pepper to taste. Yeah, I know many traditionalists like to do the whole carrot and celery thing, then drain and strain everything, but I like to eat the carrots. Which is why things like that come later in the soup making. It's all about timing. The whole onion, as well as the peppers I put into my beef broth practically dissolve by the time it comes to remove them. If you want to eat veggies in your soup, you add them in later, so they're tender, but not mush. Before serving, I would take out the whole onion and peppers and discard them.
And speaking of veggies, you will notice I haven't talked about using only veggies to make soup. That's just because of personal preference.
Anyway, the only veggie I really like to eat in my soup is carrots and celery. Carrots, to get the right consistency, need to be cooked for probably an hour. Celery, depending on how big your pieces are, not quite as long. And, when it comes to carrots, if I'm making a beef broth, I don't use as many carrots as I do when I make chicken soup. The reason is the sweetness. The sweetness of carrots pairs very well with the chicken. With beef, it can take away from that deep dark savory flavor. Plus, it also neutralizes the bite I get from the jalapenos. But to each his own. You can add whatever veggies you like. I also like cabbage in soup, as well as mushrooms. Sometimes, I will add some tomato to give it a different depth of flavor.
Now you have the meat, and you have veggies. What else will we put in our soup? Well, when it comes to beef, there is nothing better than barley. Barley is one of the ancient grains. It's high in protein, and it's also a low glycemic carb. That means that it's better for diabetics than wheat or rice. Barley takes at least 50-60 minutes to cook properly in soup. The starch will cloud the soup a bit, but all the flavor will still be there. I like my barley soup with carrot and celery. I know many people can't conceive of chicken soup without some sort of noodle. Me? I'm Polish, so I go with my grandmother's recipe for kładzione kluski.
And what exactly are kładzione kluski? Basically it translates as "laid" or "placed" noodles. They are basically a drop noodle. They are similar to spaetzle, but much thicker. You need two basic ingredients: eggs and flour. Other ingredients are added for flavor and texture. So. Begin by beating the eggs. I use about four. Once the eggs are beaten, you can add spices and seasonings. I keep it simple and add salt, pepper, and maybe a little grated Parmesan (from the green can). I'll also add some sour cream for a creamier texture. Then I add flour. And the amount of flour depends on humidity, how much liquid is in your bowl, etc. Basically I add flour until the batter becomes just about to thick to stir. You don't want it hard or dry. This isn't a dough or crust. I then cover the bowl and let it rest for about an hour. As we all know, this is to ensure that all the flour gets wet so there are no dry spots. When you are ready, take a spoon and scoop up portions and lay them into the simmering soup. Keep the spoon wet so that the kluski slide off easily. They should be don after approximately 15-20 minutes. This is usually the last step. Here are what the kładzione kluskis look like when they're done:
Now, the actual time of cooking can vary. For chicken soup, a couple hours or so is all you really need. If you cook it longer, you have to be wary of overcooking the chicken. For beef broth, I like to let it go all afternoon--like 4 hours or so. It's important to keep the soup uncovered, or partially covered. If you cover it all the way, there is no evaporation and the soup doesn't concentrate, and also the broth turns cloudy.
Now, when your soup is just about done, the vegetables you used to season the soup (onion, pepper, etc) are removed, but you leave the vegetables you're going to eat in the soup. Also, this is when the meat and bones are removed. For chicken and beef soups, I would slice the roast of beef and serve it and the chicken on the side. You did pre-carve the chicken when you were preparing the soup, right? You can, if desired, shred the chicken and add it back to the soup. This is what I do when I use ham bones and ham hocks. I'll pull the meat off and re-add it to the soup. Here is what a completed chicken soup with kładzione kluskis looks like, for instance:
Note the oczy in the soup. This is the mark of a soup well done. "Oczy" is Polish for "eyes". And the "eyes" we are talking about are those yummy little medallions of fat in the broth. This, along with all the connective tissue melted into the soup is what makes the soup feel sticky on your lips. It also helps the soup to gel while it's in the fridge for leftovers. Anyway, it is the mark of the good soup maker to have many small oczy in your soup. That means that there's not too much fat, but just enough. In fact, there is an old old story concerning them.
A Russian Tsar wanted to learn what life was like for other people in his country. So nobody could guess who he was, he put on some shabby clothes and then set off on a walking tour around the country.
He was hungry and cold when he came to a small old hut in a small village at the bank of the river near the forest. There was so much snow that it took him a long time to find the hut's door. He could hardly speak when he finally knocked. A peasant opened the door and saw a stranger who was cold and tired. So he invited the man into the house and sat him down in the warmest part of the only room, just near the stove. The peasant had many children and too little food. But when the family saw that their guest had a cough, they cooked soup from the only chicken they had.
It seemed to the Tsar that he had never tasted such a delicious dish! He was impressed by their generosity.
"I want to do something equal for you, but I am afraid I can't," said the Tsar. "You gave me the last chicken you had."
"Oh, never mind! It's too bad to catch a cold while traveling here in winter. And the hot chicken soup will help you to feel much better," answered the peasant.
"Thank you, kind man," said the Tsar. He counted all the tiny drops of fat in his chicken soup and handed the peasant a gold coin for each one. The astonished family couldn't believe that the guest in their home was the Tsar!
The Tsar continued his travel around the country.
A rich neighbor heard the story about the Tsar's visit and the money he gave the peasant's family for a bowl of chicken soup. So he decided to get some money, too.
When he saw the Tsar, he rushed into the street and invited the Tsar into his nice big house. His housekeeper cooked a delicious chicken soup, and the man treated the Tsar with it, pretending that he didn't know who the guest was. "Try our simple dish, my dear friend! You are tired and hungry after a long travel," said the rich man, smiling.
"Thank you, kind man," answered the Tsar. "You deserve something for your kindness and hospitality. I'll pay you as many gold coins as there are fat drops in my chicken soup bowl."
But the chicken soup had only one big, thick layer of fat, because it was cooked from the biggest and fattest chicken the rich man had.
So the Tsar left the house, and a small gold coin was left on the table.
Now the way I learned the story, it was a greedy peasant woman instead of a rich man, and she used a whole stick of butter in the soup. But it's still a good lesson, both in life, and in the kitchen.
So I hope you enjoyed this journey in basic soup making. And as the story Stone Soup shows, you can put anything in your soup and make it taste good. So let's play! I'll bring a pot, the water, and a big stone. In the comments, add your own ingredients, and let's see what our community can come up with!