A bowl of soup can certainly brighten up the dark, chilly winter evenings

Butternut squash soup, spiced with Ras El Hanout, for a winter warmer.
Butternut squash soup, spiced with Ras El Hanout, for a winter warmer.

The composer Beethoven is quoted as saying “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.” I would add the caveat that while you don’t necessarily have to be a good person to make a great soup you definitely need quality ingredients to end up with something delicious.

When I started working in professional kitchens stock pots were the basis of many dishes, including soup. Vats of bubbling liquid with roasted bones and aromatics permeated the air. The longer they were left to simmer, the better the layers of taste. I’m not averse to using stock cubes, but the difference between fresh stock and using one from a packet is the difference between sublime and acceptable in a finished soup or sauce.

Roast bones and then simmer with carrots, celery, onion, leeks and herb stalks for a few hours and strain. Alternatively you could use the carcass left over from roast chicken.

Carol Banahan is an ex-financial stock trader who now makes great beef, chicken and vegetable stocks in the maiden city. She uses vegetables from White Oaks, a rehabilitation centre that grows produce with patients as part of the healing process. I used some of Carol’s vegetable stock last week and it tasted of properly grown celery and onions. She also produces chicken and beef stocks that are available in good butchers and delis throughout the province.

Thirty years ago when I was making soup at college it was all about thickening it with a roux. The result was often gloopy with a horrible skin on top. It’s better to let the actual ingredients thicken the soup or add a potato to do the same job. When blended you’ll end up with a natural, silky product.

To get the most flavour out of vegetables, roast them first with a little oil, salt and some aromatic herbs like thyme or rosemary. The key to any good soup is to start with what the French call a mirepoix and the Italians call a sofrito. Chopped onions, garlic, celery, leek and carrots are cooked gently in butter or oil until golden and fragrant. This is not a quick process – it will take about 20 minutes but will make a magical difference to the end result. Add the stock, main component and simmer gently before blending.

If you boil soup the starches burst and you’re left with something that looks like it’s got measles, rather than a smooth velvety finish. In a soup as well I’ve used a floury potato to thicken the soup as well as a bit of cream to add a little richness.

When you’ve made a beautifully silky soup add something crunchy to give it some zip. My first recipe is for a roast pumpkin soup. Pumpkins shouldn’t be just for Halloween. Source a good heavy one from a market garden. I buy mine from Slemish Market Garden in Ballymena. Their Crown Prince is my favourite – duck egg blue on the outside that belies a rich orange flesh. Cut it up into wedges and roast with some oil and seasalt and then whizz into a soup. I top it off with the roasted seeds made into a pesto with oil, smoked paprika, garlic and parsley.

Butcher Peter Hannan, in Moira, produces a wonderful sugar pit cured ham hock that is a perfect base for a soup. Cook it in a pot with some cider, celery and onions and then use the resulting broth for a deliciously creamy cheese soup. Shred the meat and stir in for a warming and luxurious treat.

Louis P. De Gouy was the chef in New York’s iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1940s. He summed up how wonderfully versatile soup is, saying: “Soup is cuisine’s kindest course. It breathes reassurance; it steams consolation; after a weary day it promotes sociability, as the five o’clock cup of tea or the cocktail hour.”

Definitely something to brighten up the dark, chilly winter evenings.