Soup is personal. Soup is of the heart. You grow up with your momma’s soup, which is different from your mamaw’s soup, which is different from your best friend’s mom’s soup. They are all stupendous, the stuff of some of your best memories, but every one is different. They seem to have a secret. My mom can turn just about anything into wonderful soup.
A part of that secret is the experience that goes into them. This soup has gone through revision after revision. I’ve been making it regularly for over 35 years. It is one of my favorite things to eat, and I make it at least once per month. It might be a little bit different every time. It is based on my mamaw’s vegetable soup; an impossibly rich stew with a flavor I could never quite match, though I did discover the “secret” just a few years ago (Oh, sure, like I’m going to tell you!). I can still remember how her soup tasted, though I am certain I have not had it since at least 1982. It underwent a major revision in the 1990s when some friends served me what they called soup burgers, a vegetable soup made with finely diced veggies, ladled over burger rolls. I realized how much difference the size of pieces can make in the satisfaction you get from soups, and you should feel free to experiment with this. I like smaller pieces, around 1/4 to 1/2 inch in size. Maybe you prefer your soup to be a bit chunkier. It has also gone from having meat to vegetarian to vegan to whole-foods, plant-based with no oil.
I am still learning new things that make my cooking and my recipes—including this soup—better. I encourage you to make soups a regular part of your repertoire of recipes, and to develop your own ways of making them.
The instructions for this soup may seem a little complex. Really, they are simple, but thorough and detailed for people with little kitchen experience. I am going to explain things that may seem obvious to some if they have more cooking experience. I want whole-foods, plant-based, no-oil cooking to be accessible to everyone. Despite my explanations, some people may still struggle. Keep at it.
Making soup is a fantastic way to learn about cutting vegetables, combining flavors, seasoning, and cooking. Soup is forgiving; sometimes you can make what you might think would be a grand error, and come up with something you love.
This is a GIANT pot of soup. The pot I use holds 12 quarts, and most of the time, I fill it to the brim. Please feel free to halve or even quarter the size of this recipe in order to (a) fit it in your pot, and (b) make a more reasonable amount of soup, especially if you are still working on techniques and flavors. Adjust the herbs and spices as you wish.
Top left: Herbs and spices. Clockwise from top left: bay, thyme, and sweet basil; fresh minced garlic; freshly ground black pepper, coriander, and Aleppo pepper; paprika. Top right: Tomato paste and canned diced tomatoes. Bottom: Vegetables. Clockwise from top left: frozen peas and frozen corn, Yukon Gold potatoes, celeriac and turnips, yellow onions, celery and carrots, sweet potatoes, frozen green beans, cabbage.
Joseph’s Very Famous Big Pot of Love
Vegetables essential to the soup:
Vegetables good in the soup (pick at least a few):
I almost always use green beans, cabbage, and beans. I rarely add cooked grains directly to the soup, but will sometimes make them on the side and ladle the soup over them.
Vegetables terrible in the soup:
Tip: Cruciferous vegetables tend to bring out a dry, burnt flavor to soups, but can be added in the bowl and be quite delicious. Some larger greens are strongly flavored and dominate if added to soup. Peppers also overpower most soups with their flavors.
I suggest that you do all of your vegetable washing and cutting before you begin applying heat to anything. Doing this means that everything you need is ready to go, and you can concentrate on assembling and cooking the soup without having to rush to get something ready.
You don’t need to portion out your herbs and spices as I have here. I only did that because it makes a great photo! But you can do that too if it helps you. It makes me feel like a real pro chef.
Tip: Your knife should be clean and sharp. I want to put a plug in here for investing in an excellent chef’s knife that you like and fits your hand well. I will be posting soon about knives and cutting boards, but there are plenty of other places to learn about them and how to use them. Holding a chef’s knife properly is easy to learn, but is not intuitive; you need to see how to do it. You really only need two knives; a good chef’s knife ($80-150), and a good paring knife ($40-80). Your cutting board should be made of hard wood or thick plastic, and be heavy. Glass, metal, and stone are not acceptable cutting boards and will destroy any knife. Your cutting board should be a minimum of one and a half times the length of your longest knife in each direction. Please spend some time learning how to hold food to protect your hands while cutting. Your fingers should be curled back away from your knife, and never extended toward the blade. Even the best chefs get a nick every now and again, but knowing how to cut safely can mean the difference between small cuts and larger, more dangerous ones. Go as slowly as you need to, to be mindful of where your hands and your blade are, and to cut safely.
Cut all vegetables to roughly the same size. You may combine onions, carrots, and celery in one bowl, the potatoes and other starchy vegetables in one bowl, and the other vegetables in one bowl. They will be added to the pot in that order.
You may also pre-measure and combine the spices together, and the herbs together (but separately from the spices). I never actually measure the amounts, and eventually you won’t, either. But it is helpful if you are new to using them.
Heat your soup pot over medium low heat.
Tip: It is best if your pot has a thick bottom. The pot in the photo above has a two-centimeter-thick sandwich of copper and stainless steel. I purchased and have been using it since 1992. If you have a thin-bottomed pot, you will need to stir and scrap the pot almost constantly to keep the soup from burning. Once any soup scorches, it will never taste good, so be attentive. Like an excellent knife, a good-quality, heavy soup pot is an every day workhorse. A cheap, thin pot is not worth much in the kitchen.
Let the pot come to temperature over low, not high, heat. The key here is patience. There are times when you want the pan hotter, to sear your vegetables quickly. This is not one of those times. The way you are going to add ingredients for this dish is standard practice for a lot of cooking. Mirepoix first; harder, longer-cooking vegetables next; and quicker-cooking vegetables last.
Tip: Mirepoix [MEER-pwah] is a mix of vegetables that serve as the basis for many European- and American-style dishes. There are several different blends for mirepoix. The one for this recipe is the most basic French-style, roughly equal portions of onions, carrots, and celery heated together to create a flavor base for the soup. The vegetables are cooked on low heat, slowly, to develop sweet flavors, but not so long that they caramelize. Once you learn how to make a few different kinds of mirepoix you are well on your way to cooking a lot of different dishes.
Tip: I like to use flat, paddle-shaped wooden spatulas for most of my cooking because it mixes things well and makes it easier to scrape the bottom of pans. I prefer wood even though I rarely use non-stick cookware, but if you are using stainless steel or iron pots and pans you can certainly use metal utensils.
Add the onions, carrots, and celery to the warmed-up pot. Begin stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. The vegetables will begin to release some water (sweat), and this should be enough to keep the vegetables from sticking and burning. Your goal is to warm and soften the vegetables, not to brown them. If you are having trouble with sticking, add a few tablespoons of water or broth and scrape the bottom of the pan (deglazing). If you are unsure about your skills starting off, then go ahead and add a little liquid when you add the mirepoix vegetables, and more as needed. As the vegetables soften, they will eventually stop releasing water, and this will be the time to get moving with adding ingredients (or add more liquid). Do not worry if you get a little browning on the vegetables, but do not burn them.
Tip: Deglazing is releasing sticky, dark bits of food from the bottom of a metal (not a non-stick) pan with liquid. No matter what you are cooking, if you let the food brown, you will start getting bits that stick. It is important not to let what sticks burn. Putting in a little water or broth and scraping the bottom of the pan will almost magically release these bits and create a wonderful, flavor-rich broth. Deglazing is not dependent on using oil.
When the onions are translucent and softened, add the garlic and stir it into the mirepoix for about one minute. Add the spices (paprika, coriander, black pepper, and Aleppo or cayenne pepper, not the herbs) and mix, allowing the spices to warm for about 30 seconds more. Here, again, it is important not to allow the spices to burn, so use a little liquid as needed.
Add the diced tomatoes and tomato paste, rinsing the cans or jars into the pot with a little water or broth. Add 4 cups of the broth and mix. Add the herbs, being careful not to crumble the bay leaves while they are dry. Bay leaves just float around in the soup while it is cooking, and should be removed when the soup is ready.
Tip: Spices that are warmed and mixed into the mirepoix will release their best flavors into the natural oils of the vegetables and will be distributed easily throughout the soup. Herbs need to be mixed into a greater amount of liquid to keep them from burning, and are most commonly added toward the end of cooking—and you can do that here, if you prefer. Basil and thyme work wonders with tomato products, which is why I put them in at the same time. I want them to start releasing their flavors into the tomatoes. Others will say that herbs lose their flavor in cooking, but I have not found this to be the case. And you can always add more at the end if you like.
Add the potatoes and other diced, starchy vegetables and enough broth or water to just cover. Allow to come up to a simmer. Add the remaining vegetables except the beans. It is fine to add any frozen vegetables without thawing them first. If you are using cabbage—use cabbage; it is so yummy in soup!—add it last, on top. Add more broth and water, but not quite enough to come to the top; maybe about a half to one inch below (the vegetables will cook down some). It will probably be difficult to stir the pot at this point, which is fine. Keep the heat low, and scrape the bottom every once in a while. The vegetables will loosen up as they come up to temperature. Bring the soup up to a simmer. Reduce heat to the lowest setting, and cover tightly.
Continue to cook the soup for about one hour, opening the cover occasionally to scrape the bottom and mix the soup. Again, if you do not have a heavy-bottomed pot, you will have to do this more frequently to keep the soup from burning. Do not be tempted to increase the heat. Allow the soup to simmer until the vegetables are tender and the peas are wrinkly (that always seems to be an indicator of well-cooked soup, to me). Add the Bragg Liquid Aminos and maple syrup, and mix thoroughly. Remove the bay leaves. Finally, add the beans and mix. At this point, the soup is ready! I suggest allowing it to sit, covered, for 30-60 minutes. As it cools, the flavor will develop further.
Yes, you can cook this soup in a slow-cooker, though you will need to size it down the volume you have. Use a pan on the stove to sauté the mirepoix. Transfer the mirepoix and other ingredients to your slow cooker. Heat on high for 1-2 hours until the soup comes to a simmer. Reduce to low and allow to cook for another hour until all vegetables are tender. If you want a long, slow cook, skip heating on high and cook for 4 to 6 hours on low.
You can also use a programmable pressure cooker (and if you’ve read this far, here is your reward: using a pressure cooker was my mamaw’s secret to amazing soup). Sauté the mirepoix, then add the other ingredients. Do not fill the pressure cooker more than 2/3 to 3/4 full. Seal the pressure cooker and set to cook on normal pressure for 10 minutes, with a slow release. Using a pressure cooker forces intermingling of flavors in the vegetables, giving a great result for a smaller volume of soup.