As the old story about stone soup illustrates, you can make a good chowder out of almost anything. For those of you who haven’t heard that tale, it usually concerns a hobo or other stranger who claims to a suspicious housewife or to his fellow hoboes that he can make soup with a stone. He then slyly hints that the broth would be even better with just a few vegetables or other ingredients thrown in.
Of course, it is those contributions which actually flavor it, but the stone makes the whole process look like magic. And there truly is magic in all that “boil and bubble” accompanied by enticing odors. It's no wonder that Old Testament Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage.
I make lots of soups because they warm up winter--and are hard for an absent-minded type like me to mess up. Since they include plenty of liquid, they seldom burn. And, if I accidentally over-spice them, I can just add more liquid to compensate. Also, my elderly father seems to eat them better than he does anything else. I’m not sure whether that is the fault of my cooking or of his bad teeth!
One of my favorite soups is old-fashioned chicken noodle. For that, I generally just boil several pieces of chicken for about an hour prior to making the soup, then remove the meat from the bones and return it to the broth with the remaining ingredients. Theoretically, I should skim off some of the fat too. But Dad objects to that, since he grew up during the Depression when fat was a good thing.
My recipe is an adaptation of Betty Crocker’s chicken noodle soup. I often add the vegetables to the just cooked chicken and broth and simmer rather than sautéing them, which makes the oil unnecessary. I also use regular onions rather than green ones and add 1/2 cup of chopped celery and 1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme to the recipe. I usually simmer the vegetables for at least 20 minutes, too, since celery can take a while to soften—and longer simmering makes for more flavorful soup!
Dad also is fond of a cream of potato soup that my late mother used to make. In our family, we generally don’t peel potatoes, since many of their vitamins are in the skins. So I just scrub them well with a vegetable brush, pare out any sprouts or brown spots, and slice them by hand for a more "rustic" look. (You can tell that I don't like having to clean the food processor.)
Following the recipe in Mom’s 1953 Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking—which truly was modern when she and Dad married in 1955—I use about 5 cups of sliced potatoes and 1 large sliced onion. After barely covering the vegetables with water and adding 2 teaspoons of salt, I simmer them until they are tender. I then add 2 2/3 cups of milk and 3 tablespoons of butter and heat the soup to near boiling again. The original recipe called for pureeing the vegetables, but I don’t do that because Mom didn’t. Besides, I prefer my soups chunky!
A couple other of our favorites are Fannie Farmer’s oyster soup, minus the cayenne pepper, and cream of tomato soup. I think my recipe for the latter came from an old Pillsbury cookbook. But since the cover has since fallen off, I can’t be sure! At any rate, it includes both chopped tomatoes and tomato paste, as well as basil and thyme, so it is ideal for gardeners who like to grow their own ingredients.
I’ve learned from experience that soups which include tomatoes generally are going to require some sweetening, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it. However, a little baking soda—generally no more than 1/4 teaspoon—should temper the acidity and reduce the amount of sugar you need.
As for thickening soups, I'm too lazy to make the roux for that in a separate pan. And just adding the flour directly to the broth often leaves me with lumps. So I’ll use a gravy shaker to combine the amount of flour specified with 1/4 cup of whatever liquid the recipe calls for. I then thicken the soup with that thin paste.
In one of Dad’s poems, he writes about his youth on the farm and
“cold winter nights long ago,
When we came in from the barn and the milking
To the supper that steamed on the stove.”
And nothing else steams quite as cozily as soup does!