For mothers trying to please their family, college students patching together a kitchen, or busy retirees who don’t want to spend much time at the stove, soup or stew can be the answer. Not only is homemade soup an inexpensive yet nutritious meal, it is also a time saver, a way to enjoy seasonal vegetables, and a tasty means to savor some warming fluid comfort.
As a child, I loved homemade tomato soup with chunks of grilled cheese sandwich or homemade bread dipped in it. It turns out that by dipping my bread in the soup, breaking it into the broth and fishing it out with my spoon (or fingers), I was participating in the precise ritual that helped create the word “soup.”
In the Middle Ages, peasants relied on thin soup from a stockpot, which was endlessly topped off with what was available at that moment. The broth was served over thick pieces of bread called ‘soppes’ and eaten without a spoon – hence the word soup.
But soup history stretches back further than the Middle Ages. It’s one of the earliest documented prepared foods, though exactly when humans first consumed hot liquid from a pot is unclear. Boiling was not a common cooking technique until the invention of waterproof containers about 5,000 years ago.
Historical records indicate that soup and porridge-style meals were prepared by many ancient cultures. Modern soup and stew definitions were established in the 18th century. Today, soups are usually more liquid, while stews tend to be thicker with more solid, chunky ingredients.
The simple beauty of this ancient cooking technique lends itself well to modern day living. You can chop up the ingredients, place them in a pot with water or broth and let them simmer, while you catch up on homework, chores or reading, and take breaks now and then to give the pot a stir. You can also let your soups and stews simmer all day in a slow cooker, and come home to the heady aroma of a ready meal.
The word squash is a shortened version of the Native American Narragansett word askutasquash, which means something that is eaten raw. It was a revered food for many Native American tribes and, as early as 3,000 B.C., it was referred to as the “apple of the god.” Squash is one of the three sisters, the other two being corn and beans. While squash is a beloved ingredient in countless dishes today and a Thanksgiving staple, it took centuries for Europeans to develop a taste for it.
3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onions
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 cans chicken broth
2 cups water
3 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt, optional
Partially roast squash in oven or microwave until squash is soft enough to peel and cut. In deep skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Sauté onions 2 minutes. Stir in curry powder and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Stir in squash, broth, water, ginger, salt and pepper. Increase heat to high and bring soup to boil; reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes until squash is tender.
Puree squash mixture in blender in batches. Transfer each batch to large pot. Simmer 5 minutes until heated through. Top each bowl with 1 tablespoon yogurt, if desired. Swirl yogurt and soup together with tip of knife. Yields 6 servings.
Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, by Sarah Tyson Rorer, published a recipe for peanut soup in 1902. But by that time the dish had likely been consumed in Africa and the Caribbean for hundreds of years. In his 1925 bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption, George Washington Carver devised six variations on peanut soup. Farther to the north, the Pennsylvania Dutch combined peanuts with pretzels in a soup. Today, peanut soup is still popular in Virginia, where peanuts are a main crop. This version is from the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg – famous for its peanut soup.
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 quarts lower-sodium chicken stock or canned chicken broth
2 cups creamy reduced-fat peanut butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups light cream
In skillet, melt butter; add onion and celery and sauté until soft, but not brown. Stir in flour until well-blended. Add chicken stock, stirring constantly, and bring to boil. Lower heat and add peanut butter, salt and cream, stirring to blend thoroughly. Do not boil. Serve garnished with peanuts. Yields 10 servings.
Pea soup has been eaten since antiquity; the Greeks and Romans were cultivating this legume about 500 to 400 B.C. During that era, vendors in the streets of Athens were selling hot pea soup. Many cultures, including Swedish, English, German, French, Dutch and American, name pea soup among their traditional soups. Some modern split pea soup recipes call for meat, usually ham, but the oldest ones do not. It’s easily added to this quick and simple vegetarian version.
2 cups green split peas
8 cups water or vegetable broth
3 vegetable bouillon cubes
2 potatoes, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon sage
1 teaspoon thyme
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for at least 4 hours, or until peas are soft.
Remove bay leaves before serving. Yields 6 servings.
Barley was, alongside emmer wheat, a staple cereal of ancient Egypt, where it was used to make bread and beer; together, these were a complete diet. The grain is now a common ingredient in soups and stews, and there are few countries in the world today that do not have a local recipe for barley soup.
One of the first writings about the cultivation of barley was by Emperor Shen Nung around 2,800 B.C., when he referred to it as one of China’s five sacred plants. The world’s best known barley stew, however, is from Hungary, which seems exotic, but the recipe is simple and created with familiar ingredients.
1 1/2 pounds beef, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons lard, butter or oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, undrained
3 cups water
2/3 cup barley
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon paprika, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, optional
1/4 teaspoon caraway seed
Sour cream, for topping, if desired
In 4-quart saucepan, brown meat in lard or oil. Add onion and garlic. Cook until onion is tender; drain. Stir in remaining ingredients except sour cream. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low and cover.
Simmer 45 to 50 minutes or until meat and barley are tender, stirring occasionally. Top each serving with sour cream, if desired. Yields 8 servings.
People have enjoyed oysters for thousands of years. From Great Britain to ancient Rome, people were eating oysters and writing about it. Native Americans of the U.S. coastal regions also ate them regularly, and the earliest European explorers marveled at oysters in the New World that were up to a foot long. This simple but delicious recipe was taken from Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook, A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley (Ten Speed Press, 2006). Willard was her husband – for whom she made this stew every Sunday.
4 cups whole milk
1 pint shucked oysters, liquid reserved
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch sweet paprika
In saucepan, heat milk over low heat. When milk begins to steam, stir in oysters with liquid and butter. Simmer gently for about 1 minute, just until oysters begin to curl at edges. Stir in salt, pepper and paprika, and serve at once. Yields 6 servings.
Mollie Cox Bryan keeps the home fires burning while writing – including her cookbook, Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook, A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley – from her home in Waynesboro, Virginia. She is currently working on a new cookbook.