Many cooks will say that it’s the stock or broth that’s the keystone of a great soup—and they’re right to a certain extent. But if fretting over making the perfect liquid base for a soup is preventing you from getting a pot onto the stove, it’s just not worth the effort. Turn the focus, instead, to the soup’s substance, and create dishes that are thick with chunky vegetables, beans and grains, and bite-size pieces of meat and fish. Soups to sink your teeth into. These are the soups that are going to get you and your family through the gloomiest days of winter. As for the stock, well, for soup in a hurry, purchased organic broth—or even water (with a little extra seasoning)—works just fine.
What’s so wonderful about soup is how forgiving it is. Just about anything can be tossed into a pot and stretched to make a meal. In fact, humans have been feeding themselves this way since harnessing the power of fire. Look into the fridge, pantry, and freezer and see what can be simmered together to make a meal. This is a long tradition among soup makers that crosses cultures, countries, and centuries.
What unites the following four recipes, from four different continents, is their architecture: a sturdy structure of texture, tradition, and timing. They are also predominantly vegetarian because that’s the way I enjoy a bowl of soup, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be enriched with some meat. What’s especially fitting about these dishes is that their construction continues after being ladled into bowls, in the form of flavorful garnishes, which turn the making of the soup into a communal project, with everyone adding their own touch at the table.
These soups are truly hearty, not just in texture but also in composition. They can take almost any amount of tinkering. Can’t find yuca for the sancocho? Use potatoes instead. No smoked haddock for the Cullen skink? Opt for smoked trout, as I’ve done many times before (but note that the trout does give this otherwise white soup a rather rosy hue). If harissa proves hard to find, go here for Deborah Madison’s harissa recipe from our April-May 2010 issue. You can avoid such substitutions, however, with some planning. Freeze cut-up cobs of corn at summer’s end to have them ready months later for the sancocho; try preserving lemons for the lablabi or pickling cabbage for the kimchi chigae. Flexibility and forethought will help you become a master architect in the kitchen.
The success of a soup lies in the warm memories it conjures up. We fondly recall the love implicit in a bowl of homemade chicken-noodle soup when home sick from school. In another country, that bowl might take its warmth from spicy harissa instead, but it was constructed with the same love. The culinary ways of a particular country or family are what ensure that the raw materials of the soup shape up to something special.
Photography by Michael Harlan Turkell