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Even when the fridge is bare, soup comes through

Soup isn’t just a meal. It’s a magic trick. When my fridge features floppy carrots, half a can of coconut milk, and basically nothing else, I take down my Dutch oven and start to simmer. The next thing I know, dinner is served.

“My family eats a lot of soup in the winter, but it’s definitely not a planned thing,” says cookbook author Hetty McKinnon. “Soup tends to be the thing I pull together with pantry staples because I’ve left it too late to shop or think about.”

To the uninitiated, coming up with stew or soup recipes on the spot seems to be a daunting task. But keeping a few pantry (or freezer) staples on hand can guide your cooking process and develop deeply delicious flavors, all while cleaning out your fridge in the process. Here’s the breakdown.

Start With a Good Base

Most good soups start building rich flavors by sauteing a few aromatics. Italian soffritto uses a foundation of celery, carrots, and onion, while Puerto Rican sofrito relies on a mix of garlic, onions, peppers, and culantro. “I find you can nearly always make a delicious soup with the holy trinity of onions, garlic, and chile,” says cookbook author Meera Sodha. “My secret weapon is time, meaning that it’s a good idea to cook them out properly to extract the most amount of flavor before you add everything else.”

If you’re making homemade curry paste or another blended base, consider making a double batch and freezing some for later. “I often freeze a pureed mixture of onion, red pepper, and tomato, which is the base for a lot of African soups like obe ata,” says ‘Yemisi Awosan, founder of the West African jarred stew brand Egunsi Foods. “When I’m ready to use it, my soup’s cooking time is cut from two hours down to thirty minutes because I already did most of the heavy lifting.” She either boils her ingredients in a bit of water or roasts them with a little oil until soft for an extra-smoky charred flavor, and then purees or freezes them.

Finally, there’s no shame in starting with a store-bought base. Instant dashi made from powdered bonito and MSG gives water a jolt of a deeply savory, umami-packed flavor, especially when paired with miso and a shot of soy sauce. McKinnon relies on Brooklyn Delhi’s simmer sauces to build fast flavor before adding a mix of vegetables, proteins, and starches.

Add in Vegetables

Hearty root vegetables are a soup-season boon: They’re plentiful, keep for weeks in the pantry, and can easily be simmered into creamy submission. I keep carrots, potatoes, and thin-skinned squash at the top of my winter grocery list, plus hearty greens like collards and kale. Don’t neglect the frozen-foods aisle either. “The freezer is a real gift all year round but particularly in the winter,” says McKinnon. “My staple frozen vegetables are peas, corn, spinach, edamame, and those bags of mixed vegetables.”

Don’t Forget Protein

Remember the great dried-bean boom of 2020? Legumes still reign supreme as one of the best ways to bulk out a soup or stew, from quick-cooking lentils and canned chickpeas to long-simmering dried gigante beans. Many dried bean varieties create their own rich broth while cooking, which can be boosted with dried mushrooms and Parm rinds for even more umami. Freeze any extra cooked lentils or beans to add them into your next broth.

Tofu is a fantastic last-minute addition because it doesn’t need to be cooked, only warmed through. McKinnon doubles up on packets of firm and silken varieties to rotate into curries, simple miso broths, and kimchi jjigae.

Craving extra creaminess and meat-free heft? Awosan adds a dollop of creamy peanut butter diluted with a splash of water to her tomato pepper stews for a take on groundnut soup, a West African classic. “You get a nice mix of acidity and sweetness from the red pepper and tomato plus a meat-like protein from the peanut butter,” she says. “The combination is so stewy and comforting.”

Something Starchy

Whether you’re craving chicken and rice or chubby udon, adding some kind of grain is a great way to round out a broth. Noodles like soba and vermicelli are the quickest route to dinner, while wheat-based pastas and whole grains will need to simmer a bit longer.

All of The Toppings

“I think finishing touches are really underplayed in food — the finishing touch is often the whole difference in making your meal mediocre or absolutely spectacular,” says McKinnon. For soups, toppings are an opportunity to layer in contrasting texture and complementary flavors alike.

Shower on tender herbs like cilantro, dill, and parsley. Add a sprinkle of sesame seeds, toasted nuts, or crunchy fried garlic. Top with quick-pickled onions for a burst of acidity, or at least add a good squeeze of citrus. Finish with a generous drizzle of fiery chile oil, whole spices sizzled in oil, nutty sesame oil, or Sodha’s favorite, chipotle oil.

“Heat a good generous slug of oil in a pan until hot, then add a couple of tablespoons of chipotle flakes and some big pinches of salt, swirl and stir, then take off the heat,” she says. “It adds smoky-sweet delicious heat to anything it touches.”

Mix and Match

Combining all these potential factors into one harmonious soup is a balancing act, and you don’t have to use all of them. Start by piling all your ingredients on the counter, then pull out anything you’re especially craving or need to use up ASAP. Next, think about what flavor profile will form the base of your broth, whether it’s a curry paste or softened scallions and ginger.

Cook it down and have a taste to ensure it has the right level of seasoning before adding a liquid like coconut milk, stock, dashi, canned tomatoes, or even just water with a few leftover Parm rinds. You want a good mix of salty, tangy, and sweet. Add any vegetables, starches, and proteins in decreasing order of cook time, and simmer until everything is cooked. Finish your soup with a squeeze of citrus or drizzle of vinegar to brighten up savory flavors, then add all the toppings. And then, finally, sit down and enjoy.

Aliza Abarbanel is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She loves compost, em dashes, and eating too many plums.

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