Soup is a comforting word. It conjures up thoughts of cold, dreary days warmed by steaming bowls of goodness. Rich and poor alike offer it to our sick and to our bereaved. Soup can be a simple broth or an complicated concoction with exotic spices and expensive meats and vegetables. There are very few pantries that do not have ingredients to make a tasty soup.

How was soup invented?

The history of soup is almost as long as the history of humans. Evidence shows that crude soups were cooked even before the invention of pottery. Hide bags were filled with ingredients and hot stones dropped in to boil the contents. This practice probably started shortly after early men started cooking their meat and was probably done to feed the young and elderly who could not chew their food as well as able-bodied adults. Cooking meat in liquid tenderizes it more than roasting and makes it more digestible, so this discovery most likely aided in the survival of more people. It was probably just a short time until some enterprising woman decided to toss in a few root vegetables and herbs.

The word 'soup' comes from the French word, soupe, which means 'a broth' and that comes from the Latin suppa that describes bread soaked in broth. And while the first soups were most likely variations on boiled meats, it wasn't long before grains and vegetables were added to the list of items added to the pot. We even have soup to thank for the invention of the restaurant because street vendors in 16th Century France sold a thick and inexpensive soup they called a restorative which was advertised to calm and restore health and strength. The restaurant evolved from there and soup was forever part of our culture.

Make your own vegetable soup

Today we have many choices. Soups from around the world are available just about everywhere. Most supermarkets have canned, frozen or dried soup ingredients and they do come in handy when time is short. However, it is much more nourishing to make your own soup and a hearty vegetable soup is a universal item on most winter menus and even though this recipe makes quite a bit, it seems to get better after it has mellowed a few days.

I start with chopping a small onion into a large stockpot containing a few tablespoons of olive oil. I add a couple of sliced carrots and a few ribs of diced celery. This combination is known as mirepoix and it should be cooked slowly over low heat until the vegetables are translucent. If cooked quickly, they caramelize (which isn't a bad thing either) but the slow cooking releases natural sugars and sweetens them. This takes about 30 minutes and I highly advise trying it. After the mirepoix is cooked, add a couple quarts of broth (your choice, chicken, beef or vegetable) and vegetables. I like cubed potatoes, (sweet and white) green beans, a little napa cabbage or bok-choi and a can of tomatoes or tomato sauce. I also add a cup of mixed dried beans and peas. You can add a bit of leftover holiday meat if you like. Turkey, roast beef or ham goes well in this soup. I season it with fresh ground pepper, a little rosemary and salt. Remember that the starchy potatoes will absorb salt, so add it to taste near the end of cooking to make sure you don't overdo it. Sometimes I even add chili powder or chopped garlic cloves when I'm feeling a bit spicy. Cook on low heat until the vegetables are soft and beans are done. This is usually 2 or 3 hours. Serve with hot buttered cornbread.

This is an easy soup and it can be adapted for whatever vegetables you have on hand. It lends itself to whatever you've harvested and preserved from your garden, or what looks appealing at the supermarket. Add peppers, okra, chopped kale, turnips or parsnips. They all work great in soup. Soup is easy and forgiving and even a novice cook can whip up a tasty pot full. Just remember to cook it slowly on low heat so it doesn't scorch. A slow cooker is great for soup as well.

A frugal soup recipe

Soup can be as easy or complicated as you want to make it. It doesn't matter whether you use expensive or humble ingredients, they serve the same purpose, they warm us and satisfy us from the insides out. One of my favorite soups I call 'scrap soup' and that is exactly what it is. I keep a large container in the freezer and whatever is leftover from a meal, I put in the container, a few beans, some mashed potatoes, a few chunks of beef, peas or carrots. A spoonful here and a forkfull there. When the container is full, I thaw it in the refrigerator, and add it with the mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery to my slow cooker with some broth and let it simmer all afternoon. Add some pasta or egg noodles to give it a little more volume if the soup seems thin. Season to taste and you have a hearty meal that costs almost nothing.

Soup has been nourishing and comforting us for thousands of years and it is a universal food that takes many forms across continents and cultures. We plant the vegetables in our gardens each year to see us through the winter, so Celebrate National Soup Month by cooking up a pot of your favorite!