I posted a couple of photos on Urban Cottage Life’s Facebook page recently of a soup I was making from cleaning out the freezer and pantry. Readers responded with quite a few comments and a request for the recipe. I didn’t have a recipe, so here’s a post to guide you in making your own odds and ends soup, using that Vegetable and Bean Soup as a case study.
(Non)Disclosure: I mention a couple of brand names in this post to let you know products that I like to use in my own kitchen. This is not a sponsored post.
The Knack of Flavourful Soup Making
I’ve always been a pretty intuitive soup maker, maybe because my mother had a real talent with the soup pot. But even so, it took me some time to figure out how to consistently create soups with a good depth of flavour. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a watery soup lacking in flavour. Here are a few of my main flavour tricks:
- Lay down a good base of aromatics (like onion, garlic, peppers and the like)
- Use a rich, flavourful stock (it may surprise you to know I usually use vegetable bouillon cubes — I favour the GoBio brand of organic, gluten-free bouillon, and I buy the salt-free version when I find it)
- Add in enough spices and herbs, either fresh or dried
- Use wine or vinegar at the end to brighten the flavour if the soup seems a little flat (careful, a little goes a long way!)
Free Yourself from the Recipe
Yes, I do sometimes use a recipe for soup. That would be when I come across a new soup I want to try. Or sometimes when I’m making one of my own soups and I want it to turn out just like before. But most of the time, I start with an idea and just wing it. That’s what experience and having some ground rules will do for you. For guidance on soup making, see the soup tutorial that accompanies the Golden Cauliflower Soup post.
Sometimes I start with a flavour idea in mind, or there’s a particular ingredient I want to highlight. Other times, I just want to make room in the freezer and pantry, and a pot of soup is the vehicle that meets that objective.
Speaking of the Pantry
There are a few essential ingredients I usually have on hand that are helpful for soup making (and other cooking, too). These are:
- Onions and fresh garlic
- Stock or bouillon cubes (I look for low sodium products, and am mindful that bouillon cubes take up a fraction of the space of boxed or canned stock)
- Vegetables (frozen or fresh)
- A selection of your favourite herbs and spices (dried herbs are fine)
- Legumes and pulses (canned or dried)
About Those Frozen Vegetables
In recent years I’ve relied heavily on fresh vegetables. That’s fine during harvest season, but in winter their cost can be prohibitive. And, given how far they travel to Ontario grocery stores, their nutritive value may be compromised (not to mention the carbon footprint!). Not only that, but my optimistic ambition is often thwarted by a busy schedule, and fresh veg sometimes come to a sorry end in the back of the fridge.
This year, in an effort to tame the budget and reduce food waste, I’ve started using more frozen vegetables. I buy the President’s Choice brand, and find the best prices at the No Frills stores. I try to always have frozen corn, kale, peas and cauliflower on hand. (One of these days I’ll share how I use the first three with eggs.)
There are some recipes where fresh vegetables are preferable (obviously I won’t use frozen kale in a salad!), but when it comes to soup, frozen is usually a good way to go. Frozen vegetables are processed and packaged right after being picked, and as a result are nutrient-rich. And, I don’t have to wash and trim them before use, saving a lot of time and effort. I’ve been including a lot more vegetables in my diet since I started using frozen.
Vegetable and Bean Soup
So, now let’s get to this odds and ends soup. I think you can see from the picture of the finished soup being served how packed it is with vegetables and how rich the broth is. Did you also notice the beans in there? Let me tell you a little trick: shortly before the soup finished cooking, I ladled about a quarter of it into a bowl and then puréed it with an immersion blender. Returned to the pot, that purée thickens the soup nicely. You’re welcome.
I’m providing a recipe guide below for your own odds and ends soup. I say “guide” because how you make this soup will depend on what’s on hand and your preferences. Obviously, if you don’t like beans, you don’t have to include them. No bell pepper in the fridge? Oh well. Maybe you don’t have stock or bouillon on hand, but you have some tomato paste and a can of tomatoes you can use for extra flavour. And maybe there’s a zucchini or two making a mockery of the name “crisper drawer” — chop ’em up and toss them in! You get the drift.
It may take a bit of practice to be able to throw together delicious and satisfying soups without a recipe or even this guide. But it’ll be so worth it when you, too, are an intuitive soup maker!
This soup turned out so good that I may try to replicate it. But the reality is that it came together with whatever odds and ends were on hand in the pantry, fridge and freezer. Developing the knack for cooking tasty soups from “nothing” is a skill to be thankful for.
Please use this guide simple as that, a guide. Substitute ingredients and proportions according to what you have on hand and your own tastes. Happy soup making!
If you’re using bouillon cubes, prepare the bouillon according to the package directions and set aside. Here’s a trick for you: sometimes I make it a little more concentrated than the directions call for, for extra flavour. That’s another important reason to use a reduced- or no-sodium bouillon. For this recipe, I used two cubes of the GoBio brand vegetable bouillon, which made 6 cups of stock.
What aromatics do you have on hand in the kitchen? I’m talking about things like onions, garlic and chilies. And also other traditional flavour bases like bell peppers, celery and carrots.
For this soup, I finely chopped a large onion, minced two cloves of garlic, diced a red bell pepper and sliced several limp stalks of celery that were hiding out in the fridge. I heated up a couple tablespoons of grapeseed oil in my big pot and then cooked these vegetables over medium low heat until the onion was translucent.
Some herbs and spices benefit from “blooming” in oil. Essentially this means cooking the rawness out of them, which deepens their flavour. (See the note about tomato paste.)
Since I was using ground turmeric, which benefits from blooming, I added a couple of teaspoons at this point. I also tossed in 1.5 teaspoons or so each of dried chopped sage, marjoram and basil. I just stirred it all into the veg and let it cook for a few minutes. I also added a bit of salt and lots of freshly ground pepper, because that’s how I roll.
This is a good time to clear the freezer of partial bags of frozen vegetables. If any are showing signs of frostiness, rinse them in a colander first. I threw about 3 cups of frozen corn into the pot, along with the rest of a bag of frozen leafy greens (maybe a cup or two … I don’t really know). I let those cook down with the base mix while I foraged for other ingredients. I also added about 3 or 4 cups of frozen cubed butternut squash and a whole 500 g bag of frozen cauliflower florets. (I adore cauliflower in soup.)
After pouring in all the prepared stock, I added in another cup or so of water, so the liquid came just to the top of the vegetables. My aim was to create a thick and hearty soup. For a thinner soup, use more liquid. If I’d wanted more of a stew-like soup, I would have only used the stock. While you can adjust the consistency later in the process, it’s more challenging to thicken a thin soup than to thin one that’s too thick.
I put the lid on the pot and brought the soup to a boil, immediately turning the temperature to low. Then I let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.
I was using canned beans, so I added them after the soup had boiled (I didn’t want them to go mushy). I used one 540 mL can of cannellini beans (white kidney beans) and one 398 mL can of butter beans, rinsing them well first.
If I’d been using dried lentils, I would have picked them over and rinsed them, and added them right after the stock, before boiling the soup. A longer cooking time may have been needed to ensure they became tender enough. It’s all a matter of playing it by ear and checking progress frequently. (See the note about dried beans, etc.)
After the 20 minutes of simmering, test that the vegetables are tender (but they don’t need to be mushy!) and check for seasonings, adding more salt and pepper if needed.
I then ladled about a quarter of the soup into a large bowl and puréed it with an immersion blender. I could have used a regular blender, but that would create more cleanup work. Returning the purée to the pot and stirring it in gave the broth more body.
If the soup's flavour seemed somewhat dull or flat, I would have added a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar or white wine, a little at a time, stirring and tasting until it seemed right. It's important not to overdo it. This really brightens the flavour, but the trick is not being able to tell that the vinegar or wine is there.
Finally, if I’d had fresh parsley on hand, I would have chopped some and added it at this point. Originally, it was my intention to add a cup or two of frozen peas for a pop of bright colour and texture, about 5 minutes or so before serving. But … I forgot! Oh well, maybe next time.
- If you’re using tomato paste, add it in at the point you would add spices that need to bloom, to cook out the sharpness.
- Dried legumes like split peas, beans and chickpeas require a lengthy soaking period before cooking, so I don’t use them in quick soups like this one.
Two More Odds & Ends Soups and a Bonus
Has anyone you know ever gone away and given you the contents of their crisper draw to use up? That was the genesis of this “Neighbours’ Vacation” Celery & Mushroom Soup with Chickpeas. Another recipe that illustrates the goodness that ensues from cleaning out the fridge is this aptly named Clean-Out-the-Fridge Spring Soup. And on a somewhat different note, here’s a delicious and very quick to make soup that’s handy for when people are dropping by for lunch: Creamy Parsnip & Sweet Potato Soup.