heirloom kitchen 01 > make soup

I really loved all the chat about dinner time in your homes. Foodie information is one of my very favorite items to catch and give.

My cousins and I each have a share of my grandma’s recipe cards, her handwriting unmistakeable in it’s light touch and airy spacing. I think she hummed while she wrote. I call my mom to hear her speak Aunt Sally’s Bread recipe each time I make it, even though I have it written down. A few of my most cherished objects include Andy’s grandma’s rolling pin and my grandmother’s silver. I store all our food in old jars, imagining the history with each vessel.

I spend a lot of time over food with my kids. They like to guess what is next. These days, they are usually right.

Should we add some baking soda mama? 

I think chopped carrots would be good in there! And some sage? 

It is time to knead? I’ll get the flour ready. 

Exactly, to the day, three years ago: Ruby, 1 and Margot, 3

This is how intuition is developed. It is not biological; it is inherited. Cooking confidence is gently handed from one person to another, a kitchen heirloom.

Developing intuition and an explorative approach in my kitchen comes from practice and curiosity. Every year I gain new tools, tips and tricks simply by reading, watching and asking questions. My kids too.

This begins a new series where I give you my secrets — where I share what has been shared with me. I hope to also share your secrets: to bring in guests who will tell how they learned to perfectly cut a grapefruit, cook beans over a campfire, clean cast iron or gracefully feed an army of after-school children.

HEIRLOOM KITCHEN

For the inaugural installment, I’ll talk about soup. We make a lot of soup in our home, at least twice a week. It’s my favorite way to clean out the fridge and present a healthy, flavorful meal in 30 minutes or so.

I developed my soup expertise when I worked in a health food store in Red Lodge, Montana during the summer of 1997. The owner trusted me more than I deserved or felt comfortable with and within a few weeks of my hiring I was opening the store, balancing the till, placing bulk orders, planning the daily lunch menu and cooking all the food for the café.

No smart phones, no internet. Just me in a store full of wholesome food with people coming in for lunch in an hour.

We made a daily soup, informed by whatever produce was limp. Every day we made magic beginning with an onion and olive oil. From there, Shelley taught me to add what was there, tasting frequently and adjusting. Tasting and adjusting until it was great. Never from a recipe, always from inspiration and aroma. I may have only made minimum wage and may have felt taken advantage of more than once but the lessons I learned in soup-making have changed my culinary life. I can make an awesome soup in your kitchen right this minute.

Components of Soup:

  1. fat (olive oil or butter)
  2. onion
  3. liquid (stock or water or milk)
  4. guts (vegetables, grains, beans and/or meat)
  5. flavor (herbs, spices etc)

my awesome stash of wooden utensils, made by my friend at earlywood

Shelley always started with a healthy pour of olive oil or generous scoop of butter in a pot over medium-high heat. Then, she’d add a chopped onion. Always this for the start and usually without knowing what came next. To this day, this is how I begin dinner most nights.

From here I add vegetables in whatever combination I’ve got. I then immediately add water or stock. I cook until the vegetables are tender and decide if I will purée or leave chunky. I taste and add herbs and garlic and taste more. This is when I would add milk or cheese or beans or grains. We rarely eat meat but it would get added at the end, cooked or the beginning, raw. I always cook beans and grains in a separate pot to avoid overcooking in the soup. I add them last.

So. Soup, basically.

  1. Look in your fridge and pull out a vegetable or two or three. They will go beautifully together. Chop them and set aside.
  2. Decide if you want a bean* or grain and begin cooking in a separate pot.
  3. Over medium-high heat, add a few tablespoons of oil or butter and one whole chopped onion into a big pot.
  4. Once onion is soft and fragrant, add chopped vegetables. Add water or stock – enough to cover vegetables. Don’t worry about amount; you can add more later. Add tomato paste or sauce now if you want a tomato-based soup. Reduce heat.
  5. Cook until everything is barely soft. Add minced garlic.
  6. Add beans and/or grain. Purée if you’d like a totally smooth soup. Or purée vegetables and liquid before you add bean/grain for a different texture.
  7. Add spices and herbs. Try basil, dry mustard, sage, parsley, cumin, curry, oregano or celery salt. Begin with one or two. Allow yourself to develop a taste for combinations. Cook for a few more minutes to let flavors saturate food.
  8. Serve and marvel at the meal you invented that is completely wonderful.

* The flavor difference in fresh beans (versus canned) is extraordinary and totally worth the time. And they are more affordable to boot. We cook with this pressure cooker.

Combo ideas:

:: squash and spinach with rice (sage, salt, little bit of cream)
:: black olive, tomato, kale and white bean (basil, oregano, salt and cumin)
:: broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, cheddar (celery salt, curry, cumin)
:: mushroom, carrot and celery with hearty grain like kamut, farro or barley (basil, salt, mustard)
:: tomato, corn, cabbage, pinto bean, rice, cilantro, toasted pine nut (cumin, salt, basil, chili powder)
:: tofu, mushroom, green onion (garlic salt, sage, parsley)

And on! Being brave in the kitchen is as simple as getting out of your own way. There will be a few fails that lead to great triumphs. Soup is the perfect place to begin with lassoing “instincts” and enjoying creativity.

50 Responses to heirloom kitchen 01 > make soup

  1. Yum. Mouth watering. I know what our final meals in mexico will be, inspired by this post. Well, I know it will be soup, per se, but I don’t “know” what it will be. Thanks for secret sharing!

    • dig dig says:

      I hope you’ll share what you make! And, Molly, I look forward to you giving one of your secrets here. xoxo

  2. Dakota Nyght says:

    Oh this is lovely. And starting a chopped onion in olive oil is what I remember my Mom doing all those years growing up. It’s what she still does.

    I’m at the beginning of growing a food section on my blog too, and I’d love to share a secret for your readers sometime. :)

  3. pj says:

    I also learned at Garndma & Mom’s side, which I passed on:kids (both boys) are also great intuitive cooks.

  4. Love the old pictures of the girls! When I saw that first one of Ruby now, I didn’t even recognize her! She’s such a big girl now. Cooking with my kids is something I also enjoy and try to do often even though some nights I don’t always have the time and patience. I love hearing my son tell me all sorts of interesting combinations that he thinks will make a good meal (they usually don’t go together, but it’s still fun to listen to).

    These are great tips for throwing together a good pot of soup. I’ll have to be more brave with my experimentation!

  5. Jenn R. says:

    Yum… soup! I tried the Smitten Kitchen recipe you posted last time. It was delish. Looking forward to giving soup a go this week. Thanks for the tips! Oh, and yay Earlywood! I first learned about them here, and have bought myself something new each Christmas :) They really are fantastic. So much better than stinky plastic.

  6. joy says:

    thank you for sharing and I love my wood pieces from Earlywood:)

  7. Staci says:

    Your mention of your grandmother’s recipe cards reminded me of this. We too have grandmother recipes, I’d love to do something like this with them!
    http://blog.spoonflower.com/2012/07/turn-recipes-into-tea-towels.html

  8. Sara says:

    What a great new series! A few years back I made your carrot&beetroot soup and it changed my cooking. My mother did not pass on much culinary effects, and even though i am sufficuent in the kitchen in most other areas I had never made soups (well packed ones do not really count?) ..butter and onions have changed my food :)

    I dont comment often here on your space, but I always come back to read

    Xo

  9. Tatiana Sciancalepore says:

    This was super helpful in both a confidence boosting and basic training sort of way! Thank you :)

  10. Denise says:

    You know those things you read, and it seems like the perfect message at the perfect time? This is it!
    We live off of soup in the winter. All types, all the time. It is my go-to, easy meal. As the weather warms, we are sick of soup and have to mix it up. I’ve seen some creative salad recipes that I want to try, but I need some stand-by recipes. I went back to your last post, which I read quickly, and started looking at the comments about the mushroom dish, so I took a minute to click on the link. WHOA! We are eating that! I’m all about fresh goodness, but my husband shops and I cook, so I HAVE to plan ahead. So, I guess it is time to pull it together and start some loose planning again. I think the changes in seasons/temperatures are the hardest planning time because what we eat changes as the temperature changes. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • dig dig says:

      Oh you will die over that mushroom dish. And, yes, I know just what you mean about the right message at the right time! I get that from you readers all the time. :)

  11. Sally says:

    I recently stumbled upon your blog, and it is such an inspiration to me! I find your writing authentic, thoughtful, and beautifully crafted. Looking forward to reading more on the Heirloom Kitchen. Keep up the awesome work!

  12. I LOVE your blog. Great new series idea! I’m excited to try this “recipe” for soup. I’m such a recipe person and it ends up being such an expensive way to cook– I really need to be more free and trust my instincts in the kitchen, so I hope that this exercise in soup making will set me on the right path :)
    FYI your pressure cooker link seems to be broken.

  13. Jodi says:

    I love how naturally you cook, and bring the kids in the kitchen. Beginning around age 13, I became chief cook and bottlewasher on our farm, often cooking for 8. As a young adult, I got The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen, Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas and a bit later several books from the Greens restaurant. Deborah Madison is such an inspiration. I cook very differently than my mom, but because of my upbringing, I was just very comfortable and confident in the kitchen.

    I am definitely checking out earlywood, too! Thanks for reminding me of them.

    • dig dig says:

      What a beautiful history in the kitchen you have! I also cook differently from my mom. And I credit her for my love of good, wholesome food and the togetherness of a shared meal.

  14. Jill says:

    Oh, thank you for starting this series! I LOVE to cook but lack that “instinct.” I work much better on recipes. However, I love to experiment and try new foods (last summer: eggplant) and I have always been in awe of your cooking style and recipes. I feel like I’ve just been given permission to peep into your kitchen as you cook. Thanks Nici!

  15. Mike says:

    Great post! I clicked through your pressure cooker link, and it gets confused. Would you be willing to un-confuse it?

    I’ve set out to learn how to become a better Thai food cook (so I can try and recreate the flavors and textures from a trip to Thailand a number of years ago), so I bought a 14″ carbon steel wok from The Wok Shoppe’s website, which has made all the difference. I’m currently using just a regular wooden spoon, but holy moly those wooden spatulas from earlywood look like they’d be perfect for wok cooking–and cast iron and my paella pan over the summer while car camping. Thanks!

    My wife and I have been following along for some time now. We love your writing and the simplicity of your lives. Thanks for sharing–and keep up the great work. If you guys ever come through Bellingham, drop us a line and we’ll have you guys over for dinner.

    All best,

    Mike

    • dig dig says:

      Hi Mike,

      Oh Thai food! I’d love to know about cooking Thai food! I know I enjoy it so much. The link is fixed, I believe. Thanks for reading.

      Warmly,
      Nici

      • Mike says:

        On Thai food, I vividly remember this one food stall by the river ferries in Bangkok that I ate at 3 times in 3 days. It blew my world. I had been on a hunt for those flavors for years, and this year I finally got serious about it. I ended up making a number of different recipes, but a gal with a blog called The High Heeled Gourmet absolutely nailed it: http://highheelgourmet.com/2012/08/03/padthai-trilogy-authentic-recipe/. I’ve now gotten my Pad Thai down, and surprisingly Pad Thai was an excellent foundation to begin building my understanding of Thai flavors, textures, timing, etc. She has an excellent blog if you’re interested in learning how to cook Thai food. But you MUST get the $25 14″ flat bottomed wok from The Wok Shop. It made all the difference. Now I freaking love my wok, and I’m starting to use it whenever I need to stir fry or sauté anything.

        In any event, thanks for fixing the link.

        All best,

        Mike

  16. Britta says:

    Love this series!

  17. Erin McAleese says:

    Thank you! I love fresh soup but have always found the idea of making it intimidating. I am excited to try it. :)

  18. Jen D. says:

    Love soup! My two favorites are both tomato based. I also use homemade veggie broth in all my soups.
    Fav soup 1. Diced: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, red bell pepper, celery, and chickpeas with garlic, black pepper, oregano, and cayenne
    Fav soup 2. Ground turkey, diced onions, diced tomatoes, and cannellini beans with garlic, oregano, basil, black pepper and cayenne.

  19. Sara says:

    I love this post so much – bookmarking it for the day when it’s my turn to cook dinner and I have no idea where to begin!

  20. Kellyn says:

    lovely post! I see a lot of similarities in your kitchen and mine. I out some of the wooden utensils made by your friend on my wedding registry :-)

    There’s no better kitchen smell to me than an onion cooking in butter….favorite way to start a meal!

  21. trbholt says:

    Hi my Burb~I too cook differently from my mom, she always amazed me that she could put in a day at the doctor’s office, as a private RN, never have dirty clothes piled up, always a clean house, perfectly tended gardens and 3 squares a day for a family of six! & Dad, he was a good cook especially soup! Maybe that’s where you got it…I so remember his navy bean & ham, chicken soup with home made dumplings, beef stew & split pea with ham. I credit both of them with the love and understanding of pickling & preserves…..to this day there is nothing I like better than to stand back & look at my perfectly filled shelves at the end of a canning season! Confidence is everything, just try it, change it, put your own spin on it…& call it your own! Bon Appétit Dig readers!
    Love you tons….Mom

  22. Honey says:

    I’m so intrigued by adding the spices at the end. I was taught to add spices with the fat and onion at the beginning and dry saute all the veggies in that to infuse flavor then add liquid to cook, with any herbs going in with the liquid. I am curious about how the flavors would develop with just veggies and then slightly infused with spices and herbs. I’ll be experimenting this week!

    • dig dig says:

      I do that too, sometimes! Here I am trying to simplify/demystify with the basics. :) It really does make a flavor difference when you add certain spices. Like garlic, I so prefer it added at the end and many prefer the milder flavor of it being sauteed with the onion. Happy experimenting!

      • Honey says:

        I’m thinking maybe I wouldn’t use a bulb every time a recipe called for a single clove if I put it in at the end. We’re big garlic lovers here!

        Oh – also, I am going to be in Missoula in June and was wondering if you had any “best of the local cuisine” to recommend. Based on the recipes you post, I totally trust your foodie instincts.

  23. Alannah says:

    Fantastic idea for a series!

    We were raised on a mostly-macrobiotic diet and my mother viewed food as fuel for our bodies, so not much emphasis was placed on flavor. The upside is that she cooked with us the way you do with your girls and encouraged us to improvise in the kitchen. Perhaps because there were 4 kids and she was overwhelmed, our mother turned over kitchen duties to me at a young age. I was cooking for the whole family by the time I was 11 or 12 (using an old wood cookstove, no less!) I taught myself to cook by thinking first of flavors I wanted to incorporate and moving on from there. I taught myself that a perfect meal has balance – something crunchy if everything else seems soft or mushy, a little sweet to balance salty, sour, or spicy, something light and bright (Top Chef taught me that is usually an acid of some sort) to cut through richness.

    I too adore soup. In fact, for my birthday dinner on Monday I made spicy, sweet roasted butternut squash bisque with a warm quinoa salad, a big green salad, and a loaf of crusty sourdough. I love using whole spices and grinding them myself with a mortar and pestle. For this soup I ground up coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, allspice, and red pepper flakes and sprinkled them on the big sheet pan of chunked butternut, red & yellow peppers, and carrots. Meanwhile, in the soup pot I had the olive oil, onion, garlic, and ginger sizzling away. I had some good, hearty, gelatinous chicken stock I’d made earlier (but veggie stock would be just as delicious if cooking vegan/vegetarian) that I poured in with a can of coconut milk. That was bubbling away for a while until the roasted veggies were done. I scraped the veggies, including the blackened spices, into the pot and at the last minute added a peeled, chopped honeycrisp apple. I let all the veggies and flavors meld and bubble for about 20 minutes and then blended it in batches in my blender. A handheld blender would work just fine but I like this bisque to be smooth and creamy and not so chunky.

    I had chopped cilantro, green onions, and plain greek yogurt to mix in as well as the aforementioned salads and bread. A big hit!

    It hits ALL the right marks – filling, just the right amount of spicy, creamy from the coconut milk. healthy, and a hint of natural sweetness.

    I love your cooking posts -because you cook the way I like to cook – throw open the fridge and cabinets, take a quick inventory and see how you can throw it all together with the right spices or condiments. So fun! Cooking is my creative outlet and it relaxes me.

  24. Alannah says:

    Fantastic idea for a series!

    We were raised on a mostly-macrobiotic diet and my mother viewed food as fuel for our bodies, so not much emphasis was placed on flavor. The upside is that she cooked with us the way you do with your girls and encouraged us to improvise in the kitchen. Perhaps because there were 4 kids and she was overwhelmed, our mother turned over kitchen duties to me at a young age. I was cooking for the whole family by the time I was 11 or 12 (using an old wood cookstove, no less!) I taught myself to cook by thinking first of flavors I wanted to incorporate and moving on from there. I taught myself that a perfect meal has balance – something crunchy if everything else seems soft or mushy, a little sweet to balance salty, sour, or spicy, something light and bright (Top Chef taught me that is usually an acid of some sort) to cut through richness.

    I too adore soup. In fact, for my birthday dinner on Monday I made spicy, sweet roasted butternut squash bisque with a warm quinoa salad, a big green salad, and a loaf of crusty sourdough. I love using whole spices and grinding them myself with a mortar and pestle. For this soup I ground up coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, allspice, and red pepper flakes and sprinkled them on the big sheet pan of chunked butternut, red & yellow peppers, and carrots. Meanwhile, in the soup pot I had the olive oil, onion, garlic, and ginger sizzling away. I had some good, hearty, gelatinous chicken stock I’d made earlier (but veggie stock would be just as delicious if cooking vegan/vegetarian) that I poured in with a can of coconut milk. That was bubbling away for a while until the roasted veggies were done. I scraped the veggies, including the blackened spices, into the pot and at the last minute added a peeled, chopped honeycrisp apple. I let all the veggies and flavors meld and bubble for about 20 minutes and then blended it in batches in my blender. A handheld blender would work just fine but I like this bisque to be smooth and creamy and not so chunky.

    I had chopped cilantro, green onions, and plain greek yogurt to mix in as well as the aforementioned salads and bread. A big hit!

    It hits ALL the right marks – filling, just the right amount of spicy, creamy from the coconut milk. healthy, and a hint of natural sweetness.

  25. trbholt says:

    ps….here is a question for you Burb, ( & your readers), I keep hearing all the wnderful benefits of Coconut Oil. SO here I am with a Costco size jar and not a clue how to use it, what do you use it in/for? :)

    • kellyn says:

      in my hair and on my face/hands…I love it….but I have a feeling that’s not what you meant!

      • Abby says:

        Oh, it’s the best skin moisturizer!
        But we also use in in place of vegetable oil in baked treats. You have to melt it, but it is really good in banana bread, brownies and cakes.

    • dig dig says:

      Mom, it is THE BEST high heat oil. For frying tofu, cooking popcorn, egg rolls etc. Use where you’d use canola!

  26. Abby says:

    Our last minute go-to is Fried Rice. I start with olive oil and onion, then add any veggies we have. You’d be surprised what you can put in and how much! We usually even chop up kale to add in.
    Scramble some eggs in there and add the rice that was cooked in the rice cooker (so easy!). Then just add soy sauce and sesame oil.
    My girls (3&4) eat it without complaint.

  27. oh Nici the new look on the blog is awesome and damn Im so excited about this series.! My husband has always done most of the cooking because he is amazeballs at it. But these days he works late so I’ve been doing it and really really enjoying it. Your food secrets series has come at the perfect time to help me get out of my own way and step out of his cooking shadow too ;)

    xoxo

  28. Victoria Parker says:

    This is fabulous! Cooking with my kids is something I really love but I am still learning how to be brave about it :) Soup is a favorite here as well and this really helped me figure out what was missing! Sauteed onion EVERY TIME!!! And keep tasting, sometimes I wait til the end… bad idea! So excited, might go home and make soup now. The new layout is great, thank you so much for sharing and adding this section! Enjoy the spring days :) Victoria

  29. Becky says:

    LOVE this. I love your recipes. Your coconut tammy rice is one of our staples. My husband says it tastes just like the African ground nut stew he grew up on. I love soup but often forget about it for a staple dish, mainly because I don’t keep lots of stock/broth around. I’ll have to order that bullion you like. Tonight I made a wild rice soup with chicken thighs, carrots, celery, onion and garlic, lots of sage, chicken broth and whole milk. It was absolutely divine. Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  30. Jennifer says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this heirloom section of your blog. I feel that we learn so much when we have the platform to share beyond just a recipe.

    Have you seen where you can have a recipe card etched into a wooden cutting board (Etsy)? Oh, I’m going to do that with one of my grandmother’s and one of my mother’s recipes.

  31. Meghan Eagan says:

    This series is such a lovely idea. Your post reminds me of a fantastic book, which I think you’d love, called An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. The book really changed my approach to cooking and I found it inspiring much in the same way as this post. Cheers!

  32. Jenny says:

    This – ” I can make an awesome soup in your kitchen right this minute.”
    And this – “Look in your fridge and pull out a vegetable or two or three. They will go beautifully together.” I can’t decide which I love more, but I love it all. This might be one of my favorite posts from you ever. I’m so looking forward to these new posts!
    While my boys played this morning, you inspired me to make a creamy tomato and wild rice soup with peppers, carrots, tomatoes, basil, parsley and sage. I would have never tried this on my own without your encouragement. You are a genius. And, thank you for making it seem easy and doable. It is! And my husband loves the soup!

  33. Carey says:

    Wow, your blog updates look wonderful! Nice and fresh. I am just going to love this new series. I’m already inspired to try an end of the week, whatevers left in the fridge, soup. Also, your food jars, wooden spoons, and home phone are lovely:-)

  34. Carrie Heider Grant says:

    As a never-wings-it-in-the-kitchen girl who depends on recipes, I was so excited tonight to serve up a spinach, squash and quinoa soup, all inspired by your Soup Theory. Baller.