My wife's great aunt is a hot ticket. She's not afraid to speak her mind and she'll tell you like it is, whether you want to hear it or not. We love going to visit her whenever we can.
One day, we stopped-in to see her and she had just finished eating lunch.
"What'd you have?" we asked.
"Ahh, I made some Shit Soup."
Turns out that shit soup is what some people might call "refrigerator soup." It's made from old bits of chicken from Sunday's dinner, last night's steamed veggies, and some leftover pasta or rice. It's a great way to use-up whatever you have and, of course, the recipe varies quite a bit. That's not to say you shouldn't use a recipe at all...
I make a lot of soup and most people really enjoy my soups and can't understand why mine often come out better than theirs. The fact is, there are some rules to making soup if you want it to taste right. You can't just fill a pot with water or chicken stock and start tossing things into it. We've all had soup like that and it often tastes like dirty dishwater.
So what are the rules?
Rule #1 - Sweat the Veggies
There's a reason every French chef learns about "mirpoix" in chef class 101. The simple act of slowly sauteing a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, and celery in some oil or butter is what builds the flavor foundation for your soup. Leave it out and you'll get the dirty dishwater taste whether you use canned chicken broth or homemade.
Rule #2 - Size Matters
Make sure all of the bits of food going into the pot are roughly the same size. I'm not a fan of soup with everything minced into tiny bits, so I go with larger pieces for a chunky soup. However, make sure that you chose a size that still fits on a spoon.
Rule #3 - Order Matters
The ingredients all need different cooking times. That means you can't just toss them all into the pot willy-nilly and expect soup with great texture. Here're my rules for order of operations:
1) Sweat the veggies first. Once they begin to soften but not turn brown, add the liquid.
2) Add any hard veggies and cook them until fork tender. This includes raw veggies, potatoes, etc.
3) Add frozen veggies and cook until heated through.
4) Add cooked/leftover veggies and meat and simmer briefly until heated through.
5) Last, add your pasta or rice (see rule #4 below).
Rule #4 - Hold the Starch
Nothing ruins a soup like mushy noodles that disintegrate on your tongue or white rice that has exploded and sucked-up all the broth so that your soup looks like risotto. There's a simple fix for this:
1) Cook your starch (pasta, rice, etc.) separately in plain water and drain thoroughly and undercook it slightly because it's going to suck-up some of the soup broth.
2) Add the pasta or rice at the end, off-heat. Better yet, add it just before serving. This will prevent it from overcooking and discourage that sponge effect it can have.
3) Add the pasta or rice a little at a time. It's hard to judge just how much rice or pasta is too much so go slowly, adding more until you reach the consistency you're looking for.
4) If you make a mistake and it gets too thick, add a little hot water. I often keep a tea kettle on low near the pot specifically for this.
Rule #5 - Good Stock
I'm not going to lie to you--store-bought chicken stock is just fine. If you've done your mirpoix right, it'll spruce-up just about any stock you throw at it--even water. Looking for a tomato-based stock? Open a can of seasoned stewed tomatoes, mash them up a bit with your hands or a knife, and dump the can in with the chicken stock. It's that easy.
That's it. Five simple rules. Follow them and I pretty much guarantee you'll have fantastic soup and a hearty, healthful lunch.
Bonus Rule - Wow Them With Toast
Nothing goes with soup like good crusty bread. I'll often take a couple of slices of Italian or artisan bread, lay them on a sheet tray, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and some Parmesan cheese. Bake them until they're gold and crunchy and serve with the soup. Your guests will think you've gone all gourmet on them. You'll know it's just fancy toast. :-)