During the summer cooking classes I teach, I've come to expect that at least one person each session will ask how to use up those bulging bags of zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes we've either grown, bought cheap, or been given. When I tell them about my summer soup idea, their eyes light up. My summer vegetable soup is not just a single recipe-it's a formula; all you need is a pound and a half of vegetables and a few pantry staples. Regardless of which particular vegetables you want to use up, you can make a soup that's substantial enough for a meal, yet light enough for warm summer weather. The flavors are fresh and inviting, and the soups come together in no time at all.
The formula for making a summer soup is simple—1 onion, 1 cup diced tomatoes, 1 quart chicken broth, 1-1/2 pounds vegetables, 1/2 pound meat (or 2 pounds vegetables and no meat) , a starch such as potatoes, rice, or canned beans, and fresh herbs or dried spices for extra flavor. When the weather cools down, I make the formula slightly heartier by using 1 pound meat to 1 pound vegetables.
How do you determine which vegetables and meat to toss into the soup kettle? I start by calling on the summer vegetables begging for attention: the zucchini a neighbor gave me from his garden; the couple of leftover ears of corn from the half-dozen I bought yesterday. But I also look for the loners: that pair of shy leeks sitting in the vegetable drawer or the lonely cabbage quarter on the bottom shelf.
To keep cooking time short (and flavors light), I avoid long-simmering meats like whole chicken, beef shanks, or ham hocks. Instead, I buy cuts that cook quickly. I flavor my summer vegetable soups with boneless, skinless chicken thighs (they're more flavorful than chicken breasts) , turkey cutlets, fully cooked poultry sausage, boneless ham, shrimp, crab, and mild fish fillets.
Are there vegetables that only go with certain meat, poultry, or fish? Though some combinations are more obvious than others (chicken with carrots and peas; crab with com and bell peppers), I can't think of any combinations that really clash, so this is the perfect opportunity to get creative. These soups can also easily make an all-vegetable dinner. If you skip the meat, use 2 pounds vegetables as mentioned above, and add plenty of herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice or other acidic ingredient when you season the soup.
Saute an onion
Making one of these soups is the one time you don't need to have all your ingredients prepped before starting to cook. To save time, I get the onion going in the oil while I gather and start cutting up the vegetables I want to use. If I'm not finished preparing the vegetables by the time the onion has softened, I simply add the chicken broth to stop the sauteing and get a head start on simmering.
In a 3- or 4-quart Dutch oven or soup pot, heat 2 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil over medium heat. Add 1 chopped medium-large onion and cook, stirring, until softened. Add 4 cups homemade or lower-salt canned chicken broth, and 1 cup diced fresh tomato (or drained canned diced tomatoes) and bring to a simmer.
Add the vegetables, meat, and starch
Besides the onion and tomato, which I always include in the soup, I usually select three vegetables to make up the 1-1/2 pounds. I also find that while you could skip the starch and make an all-vegetable soup, the rice, potatoes, beans, or pasta really gives the soup body and staying power. No matter which starch you use, add it along with the other ingredients once the onion is sauteed.
Add 1/2 lb. of each of your chosen vegetables (see options below) to the soup pot, along with 1/2 lb. of your chosen meat (see options below), and your starch selection (see options below). Four exceptions: if you're using peas or spinach, scallops or shrimp, hold them back for now. Return the soup to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. If using peas, spinach, scallops or shrimp, add them to the pot in the last 5 minutes.
Choose three vegetables (1/2 lb. of each)
bell peppers (about 1 large), diced
cabbage (about 1/4 small head), coarsely chopped
carrots (about 2 medium), cut into 1/4-inch-coins
celery (about 4 ribs), sliced 1/4 inch thick
corn, kernels cut from 2 cobs (abotu 1-1/2 cups kernels)
curly endive (about 1 small head), coarsely chopped
escarole (about 1/2 medium head), coarsely chopped
fennel (about 1/2 large bulb), chopped
green beans (about 1-3/4 cups), but into 1-inch pieces
leeks (2 medium), sliced (white and light-green parts only)
lima beans, shelled (about 1-3/4 cups)
sugar snap peas, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
Swiss chard (leaves from 1 large bunch), coarsely chopped (about 5 cups)
zucchini or summer squash (about 1 medium-large), quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
peas, shelled if fresh (about 2 cups)
spinach (one 10-oz. bag), stemmed and coarsely chopped
Choose one meat or seafood option (1/2 lb.)
boneless, skinless chicken thighs, left whole (remove after 15 min., shred, and return to the pot)
turkey cutlets, left whole (remove after 15 min., shred, and return to the pot)
ham, shredded or cut into bite-size pieces
boneless fish fillets, such as cod, snapper, grouper, tilapia, catfish, or salmon, left whole (they'll flake apart as they cook)
fresh or pasteurized crabmeat, picked over and shells discarded
shrimp, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces if large; left whole if small
bay scallops or sea scallops, cut in half if large
Choose one starch
New potatoes, raw: 1 lb., cut into medium dice
Long-grain white or basmati rice, raw: 1/3 cup
Orzo pasta, raw: 1/3 cup
Egg noodles, raw: 2 cups
White beans: two 15-1/2- or 1 6-oz. cans or one 29-oz. can, drained and rinsed
Chickpeas: two 15-1/2- or 1 6-oz. cans or one 29-oz. can, drained and rinsed
Hominy: two 15-1/2- or 1 6-oz. cans or one 29-oz. can, drained and rinsed
Finish the soup
Not only do fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and basil perk up the flavor, they also brighten the soup's look. And don't forget about acidic ingredients: Hot red pepper sauce, vinegar, or lemon juice always brighten flavors in a soup pot. Give the soup a few minutes to rest so that the flavors have time to marry.
Let the soup rest of the heat for 5 minutes, then add a finish (see options below). Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Choose one or more finishes
Minced fresh basil: 2 Tbs.
Minced fresh parsley: 2 Tbs.
Minced fresh cilantro: 2 Tbs.
Minced fresh mint: 2 Tbs.
Minced fresh tarragon: 2 Tbs.
Fresh lemon juice: 1 to 2 tsp.
Red wine vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
White wine vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
Sherry vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
Cider vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
Rice vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
Hot sauce: 1 to 2 tsp.
Photos by Scott Phillips