Addie Broyles of the Austin American-Statesman recently interviewed me for a story on improving your soupmaking skills. Unfortunately I didn't have my thoughts entirely, cohesively together, so I'm re-cobbling them together here:
Cook Longer: Just because it takes longer to make doesn’t mean you have to work harder. Soups perform very well on autopilot. For example, with ten minutes of attention a stock can be put on before bed and be ready without another thought for dinner 18 hours later. A vegetable soup can be put on Sunday morning and stew all day with scant attention and be glorious by dinnertime. This is the #1 way to make your soup taste better, it’s the secret behind the alchemy of soupmaking.
Don't Shop For Soup: all the essentials for soup have great shelf life and your home should never be without them: carrots, onions, garlic, celery, potatoes, rice, noodles. From there you’re never too far away from having soup. All the great soups of the world are cucina povera, from the poor kitchen, using the scraps. This should be the spirit behind your soupmaking. Look at the larder and figure out what soup can come from it. It's that alchemy again... How to turn lead into gold.
Cook Like Bob Ross: Don’t paint by numbers. Develop a feel. Choose where you want to put that happy little tree. You start with a big brush, setting the background, the mood, with your stock and aromatics. As you move along, you add layers to the painting, you move to smaller brushes, adding details like featured ingredients which may be highlighted by a separate or shorter cooking process. Then you finish with a tiny little detail brush, adding those little shimmery bright spots like lemon, parsley, salt, finishing oils, etc.
Take Recipes With A Grain Of Salt: Soup is a particularly tolerant medium, so recipes are great for inspiration, but they should be thought of as a lead sheet in music. The chords are there, the melody line is there, but the song can become realized an infinite variety of ways. Think about interpreting a recipe as if it’s a piece of music. That parsley is in the recipe to freshen up the flavor, right? You happen to have only cilantro and mint on hand (shame on you for not always having parsley)... go with what you’ve got. Those shallots and leeks are there to provide a deep savory flavor, but you’ve only got garlic and onions... go with that.
Be Like Michael (Pollan): Don’t Put Anything In Your Soup That Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food". Use only whole ingredients. With the exception of pasta, canned tomatoes, maybe a can of coconut milk here and there, your ingredients shouldn’t come from boxes or cans. This provision is primarily intended to enforce against use of store-bought stock/broth, which is with VERY rare exception pure trickery.