One of my favorite folktales is the beloved “Stone Soup” because it exemplifies just how easy it is to make a delicious soup out of almost nothing at all. A little rice, some dried beans, a winter squash, a few fresh herbs; anything and everything is fair game in a soup, whether it’s one simple ingredient or a mélange of scavenged odds and ends. From the proverbial pot-au-feu—bubbling away for days on the back of a French housewife’s stove as scraps from each day’s meals were tossed in, ensuring that nothing edible went to waste—to the creations we whip up in our kitchens today using a slow cooker and an immersion blender, soups are a surefire way to make comfort, economy and warmth pervade even the most humble of homes.
Slow Cooker Soups
Good for the Planet, Palate and Pocketbook
I wrote the book 50 Simple Soups for the Slow Cooker partly because I love soup so much and partly because I feel that many consumers today are looking for meals that are easy to make, soul-satisfying, and easy on the planet, the palate and the pocketbook.
There is no question that soup can be inexpensive. A great soup can often be put together using nothing more than a bag of beans and some good spices, or a few leftovers with some bright vegetables. And I can usually get several meals out of a slow cooker full of soup, eating some now and freezing some for another day. A simple bowl of soup will fill a hungry belly for just a few pennies’ worth of ingredients.
A good vegetable-based soup is far easier on the planet than is a beef stew. It takes a heck of a lot more resources to put a pound of flesh on a steer than it does to grow an acre of lima beans or corn. The recipes here focus on fruits, grains and vegetables, all of which offer a greater array of colors, flavors and textures than would meat, and all with minimal impact on the environment. When I taught cooking to middle-school students many years ago, we talked about how meats basically have one color theme, and not a lot of variation in texture, whereas the plant kingdom offers reds, yellows, blues, purples, greens and oranges, and variations in texture that range from very soft like a banana to hard like an apple to the seeded insides of brightly colored pomegranates, all kinder to the environment.
I don’t mean to say that if you think you would enjoy one of these recipes more with some of last night’s roast chicken, a leftover ham bone, or a bit of fresh shrimp that you shouldn’t be encouraged to add it. My neighbor Kathy, who eats every soup I make, sometimes adds chicken (which she loves to grill) to the soup for extra protein. But I did want to demonstrate that a soup based on vegetables alone can be very rich in flavor and texture without relying on canned chicken stock and chunks of meat or bone. Some of the best compliments I’ve received have come from people who were just sure you couldn’t make a good soup without meat.
Much has been written about the value of organic growing methods. Put simply, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were not created with your health in mind. While they have enabled us to produce large quantities of food, they have also contributed to the destruction of the environment and wreaked havoc on human and animal health. This is not to say that many hardworking farmers would deliberately harm your health, but it is to say that your health is not the farmer’s bottom line. Running his or her business is the bottom line. Keep this in mind and support those farmers who are willing to go the extra mile in the interest of keeping both you and the planet healthier for all concerned by using organic farming methods.
Pump Up the Flavor
Professional chefs use a variety of cooking techniques to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The soups featured here include a limited number of ingredients, but you can build flavor using a few simple techniques. One of the simplest ways to add flavor to a soup is to brown some or all of the ingredients before committing them to the pot. You can certainly chop onions and add them to the soup raw, but if you’d like an extra dimension of flavor, brown them in oil or butter first. If you have a slow cooker with a cast-aluminum insert suitable for use on the stovetop, you won’t even have to use an extra pan for browning. Better still, brown the vegetables, then cook them in your slow cooker with a little oil but no water for anywhere from two to six hours before you add the water. This method gives the vegetables an opportunity to further brown or caramelize, adding even more flavor to your soup.
You’ll notice that I’ve left the matter of how much salt to add entirely up to your taste. A rule of thumb is to add about a tablespoon of salt to any recipe here as a starting point. If the soup still tastes a little bland to you, try adding more salt, a little at a time, until you’ve reached optimum flavor. You’ll be amazed at how all of the flavors in the soup jump out at you with just a little additional salt.
When it comes to spices, I love to grind mine fresh right before adding them to a dish. This may sound formidable, but it is actually very easy and adds flavor to your soups, because spices quickly lose their flavor when exposed to air, light and heat. I also like to keep a healthy supply of fresh herb plants in my garden so that when I need a nip of rosemary, mint, thyme or tarragon, I have only to step outside the kitchen door with a pair of scissors in hand. I generally add fresh herbs at the last minute to retain their color, texture and flavor.
Quick, Easy Prep and Storage
Those of us who work a full-time job rarely have time to do any prep work in the morning before work. Fortunately, for these soups, you can do it all in advance to prevent stress and strain in the morning. Chop up your ingredients ahead of time and store them overnight in the refrigerator for ease of assembly in the morning. Onions can even be browned and stored ahead of time, and spices can be ground and stored in sealed containers. Then in the morning, consign everything to the pot and turn it on before you walk out the door.
One of the great joys of making a big pot of soup is that you often have leftovers to freeze. I frequently freeze individual portions of soup in small glass jars. It’s great to be able to pull out an individual portion of soup when you’re really hungry and too tired to cook. While two of the soups in this article freeze well, potato soups generally do not, so prepare to eat that one on the spot. And when freezing soups that require the addition of cream, milk or cheese, try freezing the basic soup first, then adding the dairy only after the soup has been thawed and reheated. Most soups should be good in the freezer for four to six months, though using them within a month is best. Reheating food in the slow cooker is not recommended because of the possibility for bacterial growth. Always reheat your soups on the stovetop or in the microwave.
Tools of the Trade
For years, I have used and recommended inexpensive slow cookers, which are easy to find at home and kitchen stores. They work wonderfully well and often lack the complex parts that can break on more expensive models. However, you may find more expensive models that suit your needs if you use your slow cooker frequently. Cookers with aluminum inserts are particularly convenient because you can brown ingredients on the stove, then lift the insert into the cooker casing without dirtying another pan.
All the recipes here were tested in a 7-quart slow cooker. If you are using a smaller slow cooker, these recipes may take a little longer than the recommended cooking times. The slow cooker is a forgiving tool, but keep in mind that different manufacturers and different sizes can make a difference in cooking times, so keep your eye on the pot, and if something does not seem to be done by the time the recipe says, keep on cooking.
A handheld immersion blender is another tool I would not be without. Gone are the days when soup or sauce instructions read “purée in batches in your blender.” With a handheld immersion blender, puréeing a soup is the work of but a minute or two. Just hold the head of the blender beneath the surface of the soup and move it from spot to spot until the whole pot of soup has been puréed to the texture you desire.
Excerpted from 50 Simple Soups for the Slow Cooker by Lynn Alley. Lynn Alley has taught cooking throughout the western United States and in southern France. She has contributed to articles on food and wine in The Herb Companion, Natural Home & Garden, Organic Gardening, Cook’s Illustrated and more. She has been a regular contributor to Wine Spectator for more than 12 years and is the author of five cookbooks.