Haven't you heard? It's fall. You officially have permission to slow down, don your fuzziest slippers, and read a novel or two with a steamy drink in hand. Although...there's also all the apple picking, and back-to-school decluttering, and travel planning, and (early, mind you) Thanksgiving prep. I guess fall's not so slow, after all.
But the temps are cooling, and cozier soups, stews, and braises are calling. And those take a little time to put together (for starters, you'll want to dust off your slow cooker). But what's someone gotta do to cozy up when they're short on time? Turns out, they've gotta make soup. In her fully revised, updated, and reissued edition of bestselling How to Cook Without a Book, 17 years after its initial publication, author and former Executive Editor of Cook's Illustrated, Pam Anderson, shows us how to make the easiest, heartiest, comfiest main course soup—in under 30 minutes, with no need for a recipe. I, for one, am here for that.
To get started, you'll just need the handy formula and tips below—straight from How to Cook Without a Book—and some staples from your fridge and pantry. So much soup for you!
The formula is easy to remember:
1 pound protein + 1 pound vegetables + 1 quart broth + 1 onion + 1 can tomatoes + a starch (potatoes, rice, pasta, beans) + herbs, spices, and/or flavorings
The technique is simple, too: Sauté an onion until softened, add the remaining ingredients, bring it to a simmer, cook for about 20 minutes, and serve it up.
To get dinner on the table fast, buy cuts of meat that cook swiftly. Depending on the cut, the preparation and cooking will vary slightly. Some cuts go straight to the pot, either at the beginning with all the other ingredients or at the very end. Others you add at the beginning but fish out and shred or cut into bite-size pieces.
Just Add As Is
Ham: Cube or shred and add with the broth.
Smoked and cured sausages of any kind: Slice and add with the broth.
Fish fillets: Add with the broth and use a spatula to flake them as they cook.
Peeled shrimp: If large, cut into bite-size pieces and drop into the soup the last few minutes of cooking.
Bay scallops: Drop into the soup the last few minutes of cooking.
Brown & Slice
Fresh sausages of any kind: Brown in the hot soup pot (no need to fully cook) before sautéing the onion. Slice and add with the broth.
Simmer & Shred
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: Cut into thirds crosswise, add with the broth, remove the last few minutes of cooking, shred with two forks, and return to the soup.
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs: Add with the broth, remove the last few minutes of cooking, shred with two forks, and return to the soup.
Pork tenderloin: Cut crosswise into 2- to 3-inch chunks, add with the broth, remove the last few minutes of cooking, shred with two forks, and return to the soup.
Do certain vegetables go with certain meats? Some combinations are a natural—sausage with cabbage and potatoes or chicken with carrots and peas—but there’s not a bad match between any of these suggested soup vegetables and meats, poultry, or fish.
Common Soup Vegetables
Asparagus: Snap off tough ends and cut into 1-inch lengths (halve thick asparagus spears lengthwise).
Broccoli or cauliflower: Cut into small florets. For broccoli stalks, remove the tough outer peel and slice 1/4-inch-thick. Or, buy packaged florets.
Brussels sprouts: Trim root end and halve lengthwise.
Turnips, rutabagas, and all winter squash: Peel and cut into bite-size chunks (seed winter squash).
Cabbage: Halve, core, and thinly slice.
Carrots or celery: Cut into medium dice (peel carrots).
Green beans: Trim ends and snap into bite-size pieces.
Green peas, frozen: No prep.
Beet, turnip, collard, and mustard greens, Swiss chard, kale, and large spinach: Stem, wash, and coarsely chop (or buy bagged prepared greens).
Bok choy: Thinly slice crisp edible stem; coarsely chop leaves.
Broccoli rabe: Peel stems, if tough, then coarsely chop leaves and stems.
Curly endive and escarole: Trim root end, wash, and coarsely chop.
Baby spinach: No prep (just make sure they’re clean).
Bell peppers: Cut into small dice.
Fennel: Trim the fronds and stalks and reserve fronds. Halve, core, and cut into small dice.
Leeks: Trim off the tough dark green tops and discard. Quarter lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Wash thoroughly.
Mushrooms, domestic white and baby bella: Trim stem ends, rinse, and slice.
Yellow squash and zucchini: Trim and cut into small dice.
Unless you’re using potatoes (an easy-to-remember 1 pound), starch options for the soup formula aren’t as neat and tidy. We've outlined some options below.
Bonus!: If you like, you can add two different starches to the soup. For example, 1/2 pound potatoes plus 1 can beans, or 1 cup corn plus 1 can beans. Also, if you have cooked pasta or rice, you can use it instead of raw. Figure a generous 1 1/2 cups cooked pasta or 3/4 cup cooked rice, and add it to the soup the last few minutes of cooking.
- 1 pound potatoes, any kind, diced
- 2 cans (16 ounces each) beans or hominy, drained
- 2 cups fresh or frozen corn
- 1 1/2 cups wide or extra-wide egg noodles or 3/4 cup bite-size pasta
- 1/3 cup long-grain white rice
Herbs and spices add some character to your soup. While this list of herbs and spices is not comprehensive, it's enough to get you comfortable with flavoring your own soup. Add dried herbs and woody fresh herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, as well as spices at the beginning with the broth. Add soft fresh herbs and other flavorings during the last few minutes of cooking.
Dried Herbs, Woody Herbs, and Spices
- 1 tablespoon curry powder or garam masala
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, thyme, or chopped fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme, basil, or tarragon, or ground cumin or coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or caraway seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
Fresh Herbs and Flavorings
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, cilantro, or mint or lemon or lime juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or tarragon
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Once you've chosen your ingredients, here's how to turn them into soup:
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté to soften slightly, 4 to 5 minutes. Add your choice of vegetables, protein (except shrimp and scallops, which are added the last 5 minutes of cooking), and starch, as well as tomatoes, broth, and your flavorings (if using dried herbs, woody fresh herbs, or spices). Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables are tender and the flavors have blended, 15 to 20 minutes. Add any fresh flavorings (like herbs, or citrus juice or zest) and extra broth or water if needed: the soup should be thick, but juicy. Adjust seasonings, including salt and pepper, to taste. Serve.
- If you prefer the green vegetables brightly colored rather than fully cooked, add them during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
- If you prefer the green vegetables fully cooked but want bright color, add a handful of chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, or cilantro at the end of cooking.
- To make the soup vegetarian, substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth, omit the meat, and add a second starch (grains, beans, or potatoes).
- To decrease the amount of meat and use it just as flavoring, increase the vegetables from 1 to 1 1/2 pounds and decrease the meat from 1 pound to 1/2 pound.
- Vegetable weights don’t need to be exact, but allow a little more than a pound, so by the time you’ve trimmed them, you’ve got close to a pound.
- Time permitting, boost a shrimp-based soup’s flavor by simmering the shrimp shells in some of the broth a few minutes. Strain them out before adding the broth to the soup.
- For an even quicker chicken soup, add 2 to 3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken instead of chicken breasts or thighs.
Reprinted from How to Cook Without a Book. Copyright © 2000, 2018 by Pam Anderson. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
What's your favorite comfy-cozy, hearty soup? Let us know in the comments!