Flip Your Kitchen: Deconstructing Soup

…one of the biggest barriers we’re facing, in terms of people eating healthier food, is that most Americans don’t know how to cook that well. It is absolutely possible to eat well and cheaply and quickly from scratch, but you have to be a very skilled cook.

~Tracie McMillan
Author of The American Way of Eating

When I tell people I went to culinary school, a large percentage sighs, “Oh, I would love to do that….” But what we really need, I think, is a cooking school for home cooks. As a professionally trained chef, I teach my clients what I learned and how to apply it to their daily cooking as well as to their dreams of putting on gourmet feasts.

I may be a classically trained chef, but I cook as my grandmother did – mostly without a recipe, using a handful of this and a pinch of that. (As a result, I am physically unable to follow a recipe – a sort of “I know this won’t work as written, and I know how to improve on that” immediately takes over – and writing down a recipe can be torture!)

As a health coach, I am frequently focused on helping my clients reclaim their kitchen – not just reclaim it but “flip” it so that they can make 21 meals from scratch a week using whole, close-to-the-source ingredients, even if – like me – they work (more than) full time and manage a family “on the side” (AKA the Mom shift, also more than full time).

Like Mark Bittman, I am deeply suspicious when someone says, “I don’t have time to cook!” – there’s always more to that story, and sometimes my “cooking inventory” – an exercise I do with clients – helps them discover what it is: a lack of organization? a fear of kitchen appliances? or just that nobody ever taught them to cook – really cook, without using boxes, bags, and cans of prepared foods?

Like Michael Pollan, I am frustrated by our country’s addiction to cooking shows – ultimately, I think they’ve done us a huge disservice. I love to watch them, too, but when clients claim “I could never cook like that,” I always ask, “When was the last time someone gave you half a pig and said, ‘I want you to butcher this pig and create a seven-course meal in which every course, from soup to dessert, contains some part of the animal?’”

My FL!P YOUR K!TCHEN program concentrates on teaching the basics – from what to stock in your pantry to how to buy a good quality knife, from how to choose ingredients to how to store them, from what “building blocks” to batch cook ahead to how to get three meals out of a single chicken.

IMG_0066Sewing by Gail Skubick Grady

Most of my clients fall into two groups: those who do cook but are wedded to recipes – terrified to try substitutions – and those who lack basic cooking skills, try to cook without recipes, and are inevitably disappointed with the results. (Frankly, I think this is the origin of what I call “bad 70s hippie food” – lentil loaf, anyone?)

I recently realized that perhaps the most important thing I do with my clients is deconstruct recipes – really pick them apart into a few core steps and techniques in order to – ironically – ultimately free them from recipes.

For example, I might spend a class “deconstructing” soup – read on if you want a taste of what that would look like.

Delicious soup starts with fantastic stock, so we start with a discussion of stocks – what defines them, what goes into them and why, etc., and then I teach you how to make an amazing vegetable stock. (By then you know that it’s actually a misnomer – what we make is broth, but let’s not quibble). You can find a link to that recipe at the end of this article.

Then we pull out the recipes for 6-8 soups: vegetarian or not, clear or thickened, creamed, … I try to give a good range. After reading through the recipes and making a few of them together, I can see lightbulbs begin to flash:

“Wow – every one of these starts by sweating some vegetables!”
“Yes – and then what?”
“Then we add dried herbs and spices – sometimes this one, sometimes another, sometimes a blend.”
“And then…?”
“Then we might add some thickener, or we might not. Then we add some kind of liquid.”
“Then we simmer it until the ingredients are cooked through.”
“And then what?”
“Then we might add some cooked grain or meat or tofu or pasta or fresh herbs.”
“And then…?”
“Taste it and adjust the seasoning. Then we eat it – or purée it and eat it!”
“Congratulations – you just wrote your first soup recipe. The next time you look in your fridge, because you have some amazing stock and you probably have at least one vegetable or some leftovers – you’ve got dinner!”

Tomato soup 102713Photo ©Ellen O’Malley McGee, 2013

Of course, this is overly simplistic. There are some important tips sprinkled in that can lead to even greater success – but if you can remember this basic process, you can make soup without a recipe. And – if you have a properly stocked kitchen – you can do it without wasting precious time running to the store. Perhaps even more importantly, you begin to realize that what you thought were leftovers – cooked meats, grains, and vegetables – needn’t spoil in the fridge: they are ingredients for a quick meal on a busy weeknight: soup!

You are on their way to flipping your kitchen and keeping an eye on the triple bottom line: the health of your bodies, of your environment, and your budget. Cooking from scratch at home can be the first step to changing your health – done right, it can save lots of money and chip away at the vast amount of food (40 percent!) that gets thrown away in America, cluttering our landfills, creating greenhouse gas, and wasting the precious natural resources that went to grow it in the first place.

Welcome (back) to your kitchen – here’s to your best health!

Want to make amazing veggie stock? Find the recipe here: http://is.gd/SHCVeggieStock.

Author’s note: A version of this article first appeared in Issue 10 of the digital magazine Health Coach Home. If you are interested in accessing this resource for health coaches, you can download the app here for Apple and here for Android.