November 7th, 2012
By Craig Fear
One of my biggest challenges as a Nutritional Therapist is making traditional foods practical for people in the context of modern life. Truth be told, I struggle with it myself sometimes. Eating real food requires time and preparation. I don’t have time to spend all day in the kitchen and I don’t know anyone who does either. And that’s why I’m constantly trying to simplify things not only for myself but for my clients as well.
One of the best ways to do this is to get in the habit of making homemade soups.
This past weekend I wrapped up the final video shoot for my new online video class, The Fearless Eating Plan. It will be part educational but part practical as well with many home cooking demos. A big part of the demos will involve making homemade soups. I chose to emphasize soups for many reasons.
From a pure nutritional perspective they’re a vital source of nutrients such as minerals, gelatin which is great for our digestion and chondroitin and glucosamine which are good for our joints.
Another reason is that they’ve almost completely vanished from our modern kitchens. Instead, most people now use canned soups and bouillon cubes which are an absolute horror show of chemicals such as hydrogenated oils, MSG, GMOs and artificial flavors.
But the biggest reason I chose to emphasize homemade soups is that they can be made into an almost infinite variety of simple, nourishing creations. Better yet, with a little practice, they can be made quickly and without the use of recipes.
Imagine that! You see, the more I learn to cook, the less I use recipes. Once you get a few basics down, recipes aren’t needed anymore and you might even start to come up with your own creations. This is especially true when it comes to making soups. All you need to learn is a few basic steps. Once memorized, the world is your soup pot!
If you look online or in any recipe book, you’ll rarely see the same recipe prepared the same way. And the same goes with even simple homemade soups. There are infinite variations around a simple theme. Some people add herbs in the beginning, some in the middle, some at the end. Some add different spices and seasonings at different times. Some add vegetables in at different times and at different levels of heat. Same for meats. Everyone has their methods and their reasons.
So what I’ve tried to do is to boil everything down (no pun intended) to simple steps that can be memorized and then used to create variations.
And that’s what I did in The Fearless Eating Plan. I took all the variations, all the differing opinions on when to do what and condensed into three basic steps.
OK, ready? Here’s the basic formula:
Step 1. Sautee hard vegetables in butter and/or good quality olive oil for 5 – 10 minutes.
Step 2. Add stock, bring to a boil and simmer another 5- 10 minutes.
Step 3. Add soft vegetables and soft meat and cook another 5 -10 minutes and season to taste.
In step one, “hard vegetables” means any vegetables that need a little heat to soften. Those are usually your root vegetables like onions, garlic, carrots, celery and leeks. This initial heating will also soften the sharper flavors of these vegetables and add more depth and complexity to your soup.
Step two is pretty straightforward. Heat up the stock and simmer. You can bring out more flavor in these vegetables by simmering a lot longer than 5 – 10 minutes. But only if you have the time. I rarely do.
If you’re really in a rush you can even combine steps one and two. That is, heat the stock first and then throw in your harder vegetables.
In step three “soft vegetables” means any vegetables that only need a little heat to soften. For the most part that’s greens. I always add them at the end. But I like most of my veggies fairly crisp, even in my soups so I’ll also add things like brussel sprouts or string beans towards the end as well. If you want to cook them longer, by all means, go for it.
And by “soft meats” I mean things like chicken, fish and shellfish. They cook through fairly quickly. Harder cuts of meat like tougher cuts of red meat are better for stews that need a longer cooking time to break down the fibers and gelatinous connective tissue.
Now I know some hard core chefs out there might roll their eyes at this basic three step process. I know this summary is not exactly fine French cooking. But I’m not interested in the finer points of cooking. And you know what? Neither are the majority of stressed out/overworked parents, working folks, students and well, basically everyone I know who lives in America.
That why I like to say that to eat well you don’t need to be a chef but you do need to be a cook. We’re not trying to be Julia Child here. But we are trying to be realistic. And to eat well we do need to spend a little more time in our kitchens.
Learning to make your own soups can go a long way towards reducing the amount of time you spend in your kitchen preparing meals from scratch.
So let’s put this in to practice. Let me show you how easy it can be. Right now I’m gonna make up a soup on the spot using my three-step method. OK, here we go.
Now I love fish stock. I fell in love with fish stock in my travels through Asia so I always have some frozen in my freezer. Here’s a basic Asian fish soup:
Step one – Sautee ginger and garlic in sesame oil for a few minutes.
Step two – Add fish stock and simmer a few minutes longer.
Step three – Add kale and mushrooms and cook a few minutes. Add shrimp and simmer til shrimp is cooked. Season to taste with soy sauce, fish sauce (or both!) and a squeeze of lemon or lime (or both!).
Don’t have kale or mushrooms? No worries. Add whatever veggies you like.
Don’t have shrimp? No worries. Add any seafood you like.
Don’t like fish stock? No worries. Sautee garlic and onions in step one. Use chicken stock in step two. In part three use chicken instead of shrimp and salt and pepper instead of the soy sauce or fish sauce.
Prefer beef stock? No worries. Substitute beef stock. Use beef strips or maybe some ground beef made into meatballs or maybe dice up some sausage. Maybe add some thyme and/or rosemary. Add whatever veggies you like. Season however you like it.
You know what’s coming next…
Experiment. Have fun. Learn from your mistakes.
Now of course the real trick is to have homemade stock on hand so any soup can be made within a matter of minutes. Stock is beyond easy to make. The Fearless Eating Plan will show you how to do it.