This winter I’ve been relearning how to make soup. I’ve done it before but it’s been a good while and, for some reason, I felt nervous about reembarking on this process. So I held off, ignored it, pretended it really wasn’t necessary. But the truth is soup is a great, and thrifty, way to fill a family of permanently hungry chaps and when I was faced with the $3 per box price tag in the store (knowing I would need at least 2 boxes, that there would be no left overs and it wasn’t going to be packed full of nutrition like my own would be) I caved. I started making soup again.
Then of course I kicked myself for delaying because it is pretty easy, very tasty, very thrifty and smugly satisfying to put yummy soup on the table. I started with one of my all time favourite soups, broccoli. I just love the vibrant colour and deep earthy taste of broccoli in the middle of an icy winter, it’s a vegetable that can be bought all year round, stores well and provides tons of goodness. What’s not to love?
So I thought I would share with you my recipe for broccoli soup. This exact method isn’t going to be a recipe that will work for everyone, because I use some home made stuff (like stock and lard) that makes it much less expensive for me. But I’ll show conversions and suggest ways to make it work with store bought ingredients too.
But before I get down to the actual recipe part I want to take a moment to reflect a little bit more on the philosophy part, the musings that are constantly running through my mind as I spend regular hours in the kitchen producing not just food, but ingredients for my family’s consumption.
The other day I was talking to my friend about cooking, I offered to help her learn some basic skills, and it struck me how worried she was about it. Her anxiety was palpable and it made me feel a bit cross. Not with her of course, but with the idea that many of us are infected with that cooking is difficult. That it is just so much easier to go to the store and buy something ready made, heat it up, and voila! Dinner. Cooking, for many, has become something far off on the distant horizon like spinning wool or basket weaving. It’s complicated, difficult and hard to understand. And a lot of actual cooks don’t help with this. Cook books filled with ingredients you’ve never heard of, cooking shows that make us all feel inadequate (no I don’t have time to have a haute cuisine meal on the table with a perfect flower arrangement made out of organic kale Martha) and magazine after magazine and website after website telling us of all the wondrous possibilities which, when you get right down to it, is just too exhausting to contemplate.
And that is before you get into the minefield that is the ingredients themselves. Organic or biodynamic? Whole grains or gluten free? Paleo or fermented homegrown organic saur kraut? Which one is best, which one should I choose? Will my children be permanently stunted if they don’t eat kale grown by organic pixies under the light of only the fullest of moons? Will they?!
Before Christmas, at our solstice party in fact, I was chatting with my friends about this very subject, about how easy it is to get caught in this strange mind trap of comparison and faddishness. I was relieved to hear that I was not the only person to stand in the grocery store thinking “Oh I read that regular spinach is not as good as organic spinach and they don’t have organic spinach so I think I’ll just buy this pizza instead”. It may not seem rational but when over faced with competing and conflicting information without any one source we can truly trust, it is easy to get so lost that a frozen dinner really seems like the only safe choice.
So I’m going to lay out the rules I’m learning to live by, the rules I stick to when I get confused and worried and begin panicking that I’m just not doing it right. I hope other people can take a little comfort from them too.
1. Home made is best.
This really could be the beginning and end of the list. It isn’t but it is the most important part of how I choose to live. How far you take it is up to you, it depends on so many very personal constraints. Time, budget, taste, life style…and on and on. We all have very different limits. But I believe that anything you make yourself is an improvement on shop bought. If that means using white flour and sugar to start with, go for it. At least you are cutting out preservatives and additives as well as artificial fats and flavourings. And if that’s as far as you ever get, that is still better than shop bought.
2. Whole Foods are where it’s at.
I won’t deny that organic is, to my mind, the best standard for foods. It is what I think the body needs and what we would all benefit from. But the reality is there are restrictions on availability and sometimes organic is not going to be the best choice for you. There might be a cost restriction, you might prefer to buy foods that use less air miles, things may be out of season in your area…there are lots of reasons why conventionally grown vegetables may work better for you. Rather than getting caught in the ‘oh there are no organic parsnips I’ll buy a bag of chips instead’ trap, I remind myself of the Michael Pollan quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” I do not believe that pesticides are something we should ignore, or gmo or air miles, but sometimes it’s important to cut through the chatter and just do the best you can with what you’ve got. So whether that head of broccoli was grown under your own loving gaze and sprinkled with fairy dust or flown in from Mexico and of potentially suspicious provenance, in my opinion it is still a lot better than any processed food, no matter how groovy it might declare itself to be.
I know that this might seem odd, coming from someone who makes her own butter and spends winter months poring over seed catalogues to choose which variety of heritage tomato to grow when the sun returns, but I do think that part of the obfuscation that surrounds food is deliberate. It is designed to make us throw up our hands and just buy what is available at the store. It is designed to make what is very simple, seem very hard. But I really do believe that a bunch of carrots, no matter how they are grown, is infinitely better for us than the snazziest pack of organic crackers in existence. Whole foods rule, get the best kind you can but pat yourself on the back if you manage to cut out any (or all) processed foods.
3. Be Proud.
This is my final and, I think, most important rule. We live in a culture that tells us to buy, buy and buy some more. Food, clothes, styling products, toys…an infinite array is available to us almost 24 hours a day. To step out of that culture, to move away from that paradigm can be hard, it can be frightening, it can feel like just too much work. But it’s not, it’s a little bit of freedom. Freedom to choose the ingredients you have in your food. Freedom from supermarket dependency. Freedom to spend your money the way you choose. Every time you make something from scratch, every single time, you are making a declaration about what you think is important.
It might be a birthday cake made imperfectly but with love. It might be a loaf of bread risen in the warmth of your own kitchen, lovingly tended, it might, indeed, be a bowl of soup. Whatever it is feel proud. Give yourself a giant pat on the back and know that you stepped off the beaten track a little. Even if what you cooked was roundly condemned by your children and the dog at least you tried, you took a risk. Next time it will go better, each and every time will be better. Be gentle with yourself, expect only small things at first. Choose one thing to change and then keep doing it until it is easy and natural and even a little boring. Then pick another thing. Small changes, over time, build up into all sorts of wonderful things. And, unlike in life, kitchen mistakes are usually not fatal and mostly yield something you can eat. Imperfect food can still fill tummies.
I could go on about this at great length (and lets face it I probably will) and have many more things I could say on this subject but I’ll leave it there for now. Instead I will continue my musings in my own brain as I potter about in my kitchen, knowing I potentially spend more time there than is rational but loving it all the same. And so, to soup…
Warming Broccoli Soup
1- 2 tablespoons of lard, coconut oil or olive oil
1 large onion (or 3 small), peeled and chopped
2 – 4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped (I use pre minced, it’s a lot easier but tends to lack the strength of flavour so use more)
2 heads fresh brocolli (about 20 oz) chopped, or 20 oz of frozen brocolli
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed (they need to be about the size of your fist, use more if they are smaller)
6-8 cups of chicken broth (home made is best here as it is more nutritious, lacks salt and is so much cheaper! If you don’t have any use store bought, but consider using less and adding some water to thin it out, also reduce the salt you are using by about half. Add a little milk to thicken at the end)
1 tsp of salt, a good sprinkle of pepper and thyme if you have it
1-2 handfuls of spinach (optional)
Cream (optional) to serve
1. In a large pot add fat, melt (if appropriate) then add chopped onion. ‘Sweat’ the onion, which means cook on a medium heat until it is soft. Add garlic.
2. Add in broccoli (chopped), potatoes and chicken broth.
3. Bring the mixture to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the broccoli and potato are tender.
4. Add in fresh thyme and season with the salt and pepper.
5. Add spinach, when it has wilted you are done.
6. Pour the mixture into a blender and blend the mixture until puree-like or creamy smooth. This is quite a large pot of soup so you may well have to blend in two batches or use an immersion blender.
7. Reheat gently to serve, adding a blob of cream to the finished bowl is always a welcome touch. Eat, enjoy, pat yourself on the back and pop the left overs in the freezer for another day.