Thursday, March 18, 2010

Make Soup With Whatever You Have

When I was younger and learning to cook, I used to follow a recipe for everything. I measured and weighed and ran out to the store any time I was missing an ingredient. Before I learned how textures and flavors work together, I really thought a half teaspoon of tarragon was difference between delicious and inedible.

I loosened up as I gained experience, and while I still follow recipes for baking, most of my main dishes are off the top of my head. I keep a running tally of what's in my cupboards, my freezer, and my vegetable drawer. I walk the dogs in the afternoon and daydream about what I'd like for dinner. Most of the time I can make it happen, but when things don't work out I usually learn something new.

As the weather warms up, my urge to clean includes emptying my cupboards of all the dried beans, rice, nuts, and pasta I bought in bulk and neglected. Soon it will be all I can do to keep up with local produce, so it's time to use up what I've got in storage.

Vegetable and bean soup is one of those easy, versatile dishes I can whip up with basic ingredients and almost no planning. It lets me finish off vegetables that are on their last legs, and the seasoning can go in any direction. Rather than give you a recipe (I'm sure you've got several!), I'll share my fast-and-loose method for vegetable soup.

Here is last night's dinner. It contained:

olive oil
minced garlic
chopped carrots
cooked, cubed sweet potato
cooked black beans
vegetable broth
chili powder
bay leaves
chopped tomatoes

I sautéed the vegetables first in olive oil, then added black beans and broth a cup at a time until the soup looked right. For the seasoning, I used the time-honored technique of add—stir—taste—repeat until the soup tasted right. I let it simmer for 20 or 30 minutes, adding the tomatoes toward the end. Voilà, soup!

Topped with sliced avocado and lime juice, it was deliciously sweet and earthy. Fresh cilantro would have been good, as would bell peppers and coconut milk, but this was a no shopping meal, and the soup was fine without (though I liked the combination of black beans, sweet potato, and cumin enough that I'm going to keep working with it, and maybe create a new recipe).

This is the way I cook all summer, when dinner is as simple as washing and chopping vegetables from our CSA and tossing them with beans and grains from the cupboard. In summer I like to use fresh herbs, but I'm limited to dried in winter. Unless I'm testing a recipe, I wing it, going wherever my taste buds take me. I rely on the following guidelines:

For Italian-style soups, I use:
• oregano
• basil
• thyme
• garlic

For Mexican:
• cumin
• oregano
• garlic
• chili peppers (fresh, dried, or ground)
• lime juice

• cumin
• coriander
• turmeric
• ginger
• cinnamon
• chili peppers (fresh, dried, or ground)
• lemon juice

• ginger (freshly grated)
• garlic
• coconut milk
• chili peppers (fresh or dried)
• peanuts or peanut butter
• kaffir lime leaves (or plain old lime juice)

Thanksgiving at Grandma's:
• thyme
• sage
• bay leaves

Vegetables, beans, and grains have flavors of their own; I strive for a balance between hot and creamy, sweet and sour, fresh and savory. These combinations have worked for me:

• winter squash, black beans, Mexican, Indian, or Thai seasoning
• chickpeas or cannellini beans, tomatoes, chopped kale, chard, or spinach, Italian seasoning
• leeks, potatoes, wild rice, garlic, Thanksgiving at Grandma's seasoning

The possibilities are endless, and soup is hard to mess up (just beware of red cabbage and beets: they turn everything magenta).

Which dishes do you like to make without a recipe?


  1. Tofu scramble is another great "clear out the fridge" meal. Tofu + spices + veggies = easy peasy. :3

  2. Hi Mary,

    Your soup looks and sounds super easy and delicious! Thank you for the guidelines of using herbs for each style of soup, I love it! I thought you talked about me because I always cook with "whatever I have" in my kitchen with no recipes, lol!

  3. I LOVE this post! So many great tips on how to transform simple ingredients we all have in our kitchen into a cozy, amazing bowl of soup. I LOVE soup and was thinking I might need to have some tonight...thanks for this post!

  4. I agree, this is a fun post, and your herb/spice lists were wonderfully handy reminders for reference!

    "Refrigerator Soup" is a great idea, and soup is my favorite thing to make without a recipe. Especially miso soup, I never make it the same way twice, but it always turns out delicious.

  5. I also love to make soups and stwes without a recipe!

  6. I really like this post - so many ideas for combining ingredients. Organized, too. The dish you created looks very satisfying, not to mention color-coordinated. :) And I LOVE the bowl!

  7. I love this! Pretty much everything I cook, except for baking (and even that to a smaller degree) is using whatever I have :)

    The cheat-sheet guide to world spicing is very handy, thank you!

  8. This is totally me! Are we twinsies?!

  9. Great post. I love using no recipe, it opens the door to creativity!

  10. I love making soups this way, though I love your flavor inspirations! I also make a lot of simple Chinese stir-fries without recipes. They're usually simply flavored with some garlic, ginger, and maybe a splash of soy sauce. I love how the flavor of the vegetables themselves get to shine.

  11. What a perfect little make-your-own post! I love soups because they are so easy to play with--same goes for pasta & casseroles!


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