April is the cruellest month, wrote T. S. Eliot.
But I say February is the year's Cruella de Vil, mean as hell as it teases us with glimpses of spring — a bit of warmth and brightness here, a green shoot or pink bud there — then douses high hopes with a bucketful of winter right in the face. Splat!
After one particularly cold, miserable ramble with our faithful, four-legged furry friend, all I wanted was soup. A bowl of delicious hot soup, not something from a can that delivers 25 to 35 per cent — or more — of your daily sodium in a single dose and, unless marked otherwise, is lined with plastics containing the known carcinogen, BPA (outlawed from plastic water bottles but still ubiquitous in the lining of canned goods).
Homemade soup was the only thing that would do. Lucky for us we had in the freezer a container of something I'd whipped up from odds and sods we'd had on hand. But it was based on one of my favourite recipes from my mom.
There are so many nice things about soup. Eternally warming and comforting — check. Easy to make and versatile (enjoy it on its own, or with a salad and good bread you have dinner) — check. And double check here — homemade soup is cheap (hey, half of it's water) and super practical because you can pretty much whip up a batch from whatever you have around. In fact, making soup, or just about anything in the kitchen is even more fun if you ad lib.
Whistler Recipes, from Whistler Museum & Archives, has a great collection of soup recipes: Florence Petersen's pumpkin soup with a touch of curry, perfect for using up fresh pumpkin or squash. Caroline Cluer's leek and potato soup. And one soup is made with Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes — those wicked looking root-y things they grow at North Arm Farm that you never know what to do with.
Most of these recipes are tried and true classics. Once you get the hang of them, you can easily branch out.
But I also wanted to see what our young hip "cooksters" were up to in the soup department, so I rang up The Bird's Nest, one of Vancouver's better secrets, a pop-up eatery run by "Chef Marika".
Daughter of long-time Whistlerites, Joan and Marcel Richoz, Marika was in the kitchen with her mom from the time she could walk.
Simply by watching, observing, and experimenting over the years she's become a super-cook, like her mom, hosting guests for amazing multi-course meals made from scratch.
Below is a delicious homemade soup recipe of her own creation based on a sauce Marika originally made for halibut, proving you don't have to stick to soup recipes for inspiration.
"Sometimes it's a big mish-mash of ideas, and sometimes I've had recipes I've tweaked along the way because a flavour will work really well, but I think something else will work even better," says Marika. "In the halibut sauce, three of the flavours were really outstanding and I thought, how would I get this into a soup?"
In a nutshell, look for equivalents. If you've enjoyed a dish that uses beets, consider what other sweet root vegetables might work, such as carrots or sweet potatoes. Then add the flavours you like — those are key words: "flavours you like". For Marika, that would be lime and cilantro with carrots, the lime mimicking the acidity of balsamic vinegar that goes so well with beets.
Whatever you do, look for what Marika calls that "great flavour burst" —and keep tasting your soup along the way.
For basics, use a ratio of about a cup and a half of liquid (water, broth or whatever combo might work) to about one cup of your "root" or base ingredient, sweet potatoes in the case below.
For seasoning, you'll probably want onions and/or garlic, says Marika. Then look to your spice cupboard. Marika loves ethnic cuisine so she's drawn to curry flavours, but you may prefer herbs like thyme or rosemary. Keep in mind you want flavours that go well together and with your base ingredient (you won't want curry and rosemary in the same dish, for instance).
Don't forget salt and pepper. And whatever you do, have fun.
"What's great about soups — especially if you purée them — is it's kind of hard to screw them up," says Marika.
With that emboldening thought, what are you waiting for?
One last note of insurance: whether you're riffing on a recipe or simply don't have every ingredient on hand, the internet is your best buddy for substitutes. Key in "cornstarch substitute" or whatever you're looking for, and you'll find suggestions that will help you keep the cruellest month at bay in more ways than one.
Coconut Sweet Potato Soup with Cilantro
- 3 tbsp butter or olive oil
- 3 minced garlic cloves
- 2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp Thai green curry paste
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 1 tbsp turmeric
- 3 tbsp fish sauce (or soy sauce if you are vegetarian)
- 1 can coconut milk
- 4 peeled and sweet potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch pieces (approx. 5 cups)
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 1/2 cup plus 4 tbsp chopped cilantro
- Optional: 4 tbsp green onions (garnish)
- Salt and pepper to taste
On medium, heat up olive oil or butter in a soup pot. Add garlic and sauté 2–3 minutes until slightly soft but not brown. Add ginger, diced sweet potato and sauté another 3–5 minutes. Add curry paste, curry powder, turmeric, fish sauce, broth and coconut milk. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low and continue to cook another 20–30 minutes until potatoes are soft. Let cool. Add 1/2 cup of cilantro. Once cooled, transfer to a blender and working in 4 batches, purée until smooth. Return purée to pot and reheat to serve. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper. Garnish each bowl with 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro and green onions as desired. Note: Substitutions could include carrots or yams in lieu of sweet potatoes.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who loves to ad lib.