When I was in college, I worked at a tiny little lunch place downtown. It had four tables and a lot of takeout business. There was a different daily special every day, and in the winter, it was often soup.
I was watching one of the owners make soup one day and realized she had no recipe, which kind of blew my mind. I made a comment about how impressive it was to just make up a recipe as she went along. At that moment, I was taught a cooking lesson that I have never forgotten.
She said, “It’s no big deal. You know you have to have a base — some kind of broth or cream — and then you just throw in whatever sounds good together. As long as you know what the elements are, you can combine them however you want.”
Obviously, this was an epiphany for me, because I still remember the conversation all these years later, even though I don’t remember her name.
So that is the approach I have to cooking and to soup in particular. This past weekend, I made two different kinds of soup for SND — one old standby and one brand new one.
Any time I make soup, my daughter always wants potato soup. It is her absolute favorite, so of course I can’t resist a request for it! (There’s just something about your teenager declaring that something you make as her favorite that is irresistible.) Potato soup is really easy (I’ve never understood how so many restaurants manage to screw it up) and will be a popular dish in your repertoire.
I will warn you, however, that this recipe is terribly inexact. Look at it as an opportunity to learn to experiment and trust yourself.
Start by preparing your potatoes. There are a couple of ways to do that. You can peel them first or not. I like to boil my potatoes unpeeled and here’s why. If you score each potato all the way around with a knife before putting it in the water, the skins will just slide off after they are boiled. You don’t lose any of the potato flesh that way. Just be sure to soak them in cold water before you try to remove the skins or you will burn your fingers, guaranteed.
You can also peel them first and then boil them. Or you can bake the potatoes in the oven or microwave. It doesn’t really matter how you cook the potatoes, as long as you do it. They need to be soft enough to mash with a fork easily.
“How many potatoes?” you say. That’s an excellent question. And there isn’t a really good answer. It totally depends on how much soup you want to make, how big the potatoes are, and how much you like potato soup. I like to make a lot at once, because I’m usually feeding a lot of people and because it keeps well for reheating if there are leftovers.
A good rule of thumb is to boil one medium-sized potato for each person you plan to feed. I usually fill a Dutch oven with potatoes and then cover with water. (Remember, I like to make a lot.)
Once the potatoes are cooked and peeled, transfer them to a large slow cooker. Mine is 6 quarts.
(Okay, a slow cooker isn’t required, but it will make your life much, much easier. Potato soup tends to stick and scorch in a regular pot and requires lots of stirring and attention. A slow cooker does not.)
Break up the potatoes with a potato masher, if you have one. If not, use a large fork. It’s okay if there are still some lumps. Just make sure that the really big ones are broken down.
Now comes the part where you get to experiment.
Add some chicken broth and a stick of butter. (Cut the butter into chunks before adding.) Use a hand mixer to blend the broth and potatoes. It should still be thick, more the consistency of thick mashed potatoes instead of soup, at this point. Now add some milk or half & half or heavy cream.
(It truly doesn’t matter which. Of course, heavy cream will be the richest, but milk works fine, too. Just don’t use 2% or skim milk, if possible. Those types of milk are so thin that they don’t really add much to the soup.)
Use the hand mixer to blend the milk/cream into the potato mixture. Continue to add broth and/or milk until you have the consistency you want. The broth adds more flavor, but the milk/cream makes it creamier. Completely your decision — it’s your soup; make it the way you like it!
Now for the seasoning. Potatoes, milk, and broth are pretty bland, so you will need to add salt first. Add it a teaspoon at a time, mix it in, and then taste it. Keep adding until it tastes good to you. Also add a little pepper, a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, a couple of splashes of liquid smoke, and whatever other spices sound good to you. Also add grated parmesan cheese and grated cheddar cheese. Finally, if you want to, add some ham or prosciutto.
Notice I didn’t tell you specific amounts of any of the seasonings or cheese. That’s because it completely depends on what you like. Think about how you like a loaded baked potato, then add those things. This can be completely dependent on what you have on hand, too. I have used leftover baked ham, smoked ham lunch meat, bacon, or whatever random meat I have in the fridge. The same goes for the cheese. Use whatever kind you like.
Once you have the soup seasoned to your liking, let it cook in the slow cooker on high for an hour or so. Stir occasionally. It can simmer on low until you are ready to eat it.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream and grated cheese on top for garnish if you want to look fancy. Then stand back and watch everyone slurp it up as fast as they can and ask for more!