I was thrilled when I saw that one of the foodblog events for this month is on soup. Soup is one of my favourite forms of nutrition, as a meal substitute, complement or just an in-between snack. In fact, in winter in Delhi, when the supply of vegetables is bountiful, soups are a part of every single meal for us, and there are endless variations on each theme that one could come up with.
Soup is also one of the easiest types of food to experiment with, and all one is limited by is one's imagination. One of my favourite fairy tales is the one about Stone Soup. A broke soldier is wandering around the countryside and begs a night-shelter at the home of an old woman. He is extremely hungry. She however is miserly and does not offer him any food. Then he entices her by saying that he can make stone soup - all it needs is water and a stone to make the most delicious soup. She is intrigued by this and sits by to watch as he puts water on to boil, adding a large grey stone to the pot, and a pinch of salt. Then he says it tastes delicious but some potatoes would make is superb. She digs into her larder and finds some potatoes. Then he suggests adding some tomatoes, then some carrots and so on. The gullible old lady readily supplies each new ingredient in her greed to discover a soup made of nothing until he finally dishes up a flavourful broth, 'made of nothing but stone and water'.
I have a version of stone soup too, born of ingenuity. All it requires is rooting around in the fridge and the larder and artful editing!
2 carrots, cut into 2 inch sticks
Handful of French beans, cut into 2 inch sticks
4 tomatoes, diced
Yellow bell pepper, cut into 2 inch strips
Handful of green peas, fresh or frozen
Cup of haricot beans, soaked over night and cooked until soft but not mushy
4-5 spring onions, cut small including the green
2 shallots, finely diced
2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1.2 litres water/ chicken stock
Salt to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
Sugar to taste
Paprika or cayenne pepper to taste
Mixed Italian spices
2 tbsp pesto/ arrabiatta sauce/ sun-dried pesto
Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan.
Add the garlic and onions and stir. Cook until the onions are transparent.
Add the shallots and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, then the green beans. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes, then add 1.2 litres water and the bouillon cube.
Let it come to a rolling boil, then add the carrots and cook for a few more minutes until the carrots are al dente.
Add the bell peppers, then the peas and lastly the beans.
Add the spices and the seasoning and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Turn off the heat and add the pesto/ arrabiatta sauce and stir to mix.
You can add a garnish of cut chives or scatter torn basil leaves on top before serving.
Serve hot with crusty bread.
This soup turns better with keeping, and works really well as a meal in itself, with a salad of greens on the side. You can add any number of vegetables - courgettes, diced pumpkin, cherry tomatoes or sundried ones, mushroom, baby corn, spinach or kale stir-fried in a little oil...You can also substitute the pesto with any number of things - rasam or sambar powder, thai nam pla sauce, thai sweet ginger-chilli sauce...
Another of my favourite soups, and a truly sophisticated and refined one in contrast to the rustic and earthy flavour of 'Stone Soup' is Red bell pepper soup. This one is always a hit with everyone whom I've served it to and makes a delicious accompaniment to a festive meal.
Red Bell Pepper Soup
Ingredients (for a 4 person serving):
4 Red bell peppers - count one pepper per person
3 Tomatoes, pureed - count 3/4th the number of tomatoes to the number of peppers
1-2 onions, diced
1 blob butter
2 Fresh rosemary sprigs (use 1 tsp if using dried rosemary)
120 gm heavy cream
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
1 tsp red chilli powder
1.2 litres water/ veg stock
Roast the bell peppers in an oven and then peel. The best way to do this is to stash the bell-peppers in a ziplock bag immadiately after roasting, zip it shut and put away to cool. This way you don't lose any of the delicious juices oozing out of the pepper. Once cool, the skin comes off easily.
Chop them roughly.
Puree the fresh tomatoes - I usually just grate them, using the finest holes on the grater, which gives me a good puree and saves me the bother of fiddling with the blender and skinning the tomatoes beforehand - the skin comes off while grating.
Put the butter into a heavy bottomed pan and let it melt. Add the onions and cook until translucent.
Add the bellpeppers, the rosemary and the stock. I like to tie the rosemary up in a muslin cloth, as the needles shed otherwise and it's a pain to fish them out.
Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for 15 minutes.
Let it cool down, remove the rosemary and then blend in batches.
Put the soup back on the stove and add the tomato puree. Let it come to a simmer, and add the seasoning. The sugar is required if the bell peppers or tomatoes are not sweet. In India we tend to get more sour tomatoes, so I usually add a spoon or two of sugar. Add half of the heavy cream, stir/ whisk to blend and then turn off the heat.
Serve hot, using the rest of the cream as a decoration, delicately swirled into each bowl, with a sprinkling of paprika on top.
This soup has a lovely, elegant and rich taste, so I find it does best by itself, without any bread on the side. The quality of the ingredients really makes a difference to this soup, so shop for the ripest, sweetest tomatoes and bell peppers you can find. The soup should have a gentle, sweet taste, with no hint of sourness from the tomatoes.
I do have my shortcuts for this soup - I find it tastes just as well if I add just a tiny bit of the stock to the bellpeppers and blend after simmering, and then pour in the rest of the stock. This is mainly because I'm a disastrous blender of larger quantities of liquids ( mostly because I don't have the patience to process it in batches) and have learned my limitations after turning my kitchen walls parti-coloured over years of soup-making. Also, you can make it without the rosemary at a pinch, but its addition takes the taste of this soup from delicious to sublime.
Tip: I like the contrast between the soft, velvety sweetness of the vegetables and the punch of chilli powder but if you're not a chilli person, you can use just paprika for the flavour and for its colour.