Hearty soups consist of layers

Generations of working people have maintained their health with substantial soups.

As the wife of the village butcher, my grandmother was used to making do with the cheapest cuts, usually what she called “boiling beef”.

She simmered the beef with lumps of carrot, turnip and potato, and seasoned it with salt. We saved some of those savoury hunks of vegetables cooked in beef broth for the second course: tender beef.

It was not haute cuisine, but the flavour was wonderful and the textures were satisfying. None of the canned soups that emerged in my teens were a fit substitute for Grandma’s real soup.

Soup is a traditional first course, and as “soupe” was the staple of the French eateries called restaurants, or restoratives.

Generations of working people have maintained their health with substantial soups based in stocks from meats, seafood and vegetables.

It’s a bit dispiriting to note that the first industrial soups were made by companies that also made soaps.

The Unilever corporation began with Sunlight Soap and ended up owning Knorr and Hellmann’s. All admirable products in many ways and what do they have in common? Fat.

Without fats, the other three soup essentials – aromatics, salt and heat – cannot release the full flavours we love.

I buy large cans of dried chicken bouillon to overcome the sinking feeling I get when I reach the bit in a recipe which calls for stock.

Stock isn’t enough for the flavour that a proper soup base delivers. Real cooks also make soup bases by sweating and caramelizing succeeding layers of vegetables in hot fat in pots so thick that they can be de-glazed (incorporating the reduced mixtures into broths) without sticking to the pot forever.

There are some commercial soup bases emerging which are pure and good but I haven’t tried them yet.

I confess my brand contains a lot of salt, MSG, corn syrup and starch, along with chicken stuff. But the curries, risottos, soups, stir-fries and stews that are made with this instant stock join with other ingredients to provide tasty meals without the work that professionals rely on to produce the real thing.

Having made my confession, I encourage purists to have a look at two websites that would scorn my shortcut.

At www.instructables.com you will find beautifully clear instructions for how to use that expensive new pot to make true soup bases.

A compendium of soup lore can be found at http://soup

song.com, along with recipes for the classic soups, clear and thick: French onion, Vichyssoise, bisques, etc. The author also introduced me to a couple of books I’m going to track down: Love Soup, by Anna Thomas, for vegetarians, and The Soups of France, by Lois Anne Rothert.

Farmers’ markets will soon be with us again, starting with fresh greens. Poultry sellers should have packages of chicken backs and other off cuts to make stocks. I simmer them with carrot bits, bay leaves and dried celery leaves, which I chuck in a hanging wire basket to dry as I use up the stalks.

Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at: marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.