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The Consoling Alchemy of the Humble Winter Soup




Few words in the English language pair more congenially than ‘winter’ and ‘soup.’ 


The very construction evokes warmth, comfort, and a homely sense of contentment. A winter soup is the culinary equivalent of a fleece throw or a woolen sweater: unpretentious, unassuming, and unapologetically cozy. As a means of preventing waste, no other food is so universally relied upon; every culture has its version, I suppose, of “end-of-the-week soup,” into which is tossed the week’s carefully saved carrot tops, herb stems, and cheese rinds along with whatever meat and vegetables need using up. But soup is not merely utilitarian. A good soup is an art form at once modest and consequential, blending thrift and ingenuity with a liberal helping of taste.


A humble masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterpiece all the same.      

Ask anyone you know and they will be able to tell you of a soup that has taken the chill off of both body and soul, gladdening an otherwise gloomy day with a consoling alchemy of vegetables and herbs simmering in a bath of savory broth. I remember once whipping up a pot of cauliflower-leek soup on a late December afternoon. We had been feasting on rich fare for days—Christmas goose with all the trimmings, oyster pie, cookies and candy and leftover chocolate mousse—so that the prospect of so ordinary a meal felt like an inverted luxury. I browned the leeks in my new Staub cocotte, filling the kitchen with what may easily be regarded the most inviting aroma on earth (“If you don’t know what to make for supper,” an older woman once told me, “just cook a little onion in a pan of butter. Your kitchen will smell so good your husband won’t care what you end up putting on the table.”). After that, a roughly chopped head of cauliflower, some garlic, about 4 cups of broth, a couple of bay leaves, salt and pepper. So simple it was almost amusing. At serving time, I removed the bay leaves and threw in a handful of fresh parsley, touching it lightly with an immersion blender to thicken the stock without breaking down the vegetables too much. 


I was just pulling the toast out of the oven—sourdough, with a thick mantle of melted sharp cheddar—when my husband, accompanied by his brothers and our nephew, Wesley, came in the door. They had been out for a long tramp in the winter woods and they were tired, cold, and hungry. Everyone was eager to dish up a bowl, ladling it generously over those golden toasts, and when we sat down at the table the simple plentitude of it all enfolded us in a ring of happiness and love. The candles flickered and danced against the darkening day outside and tendrils of steam curled from cups of strong black tea as we talked and laughed, savoring our modest meal for the impromptu gift that it was.


“This soup tastes,” my brother-in-law Michael said meditatively, “like something you’d have by the fire at an English pub after a long walk through the countryside and spend the rest of your life trying to replicate.”


I thought I understood him. I, too, have known those moments of culinary felicity (a venison pie on my honeymoon beside a Scottish lake; toasted pound cake, sliced thick and slathered in butter, paired with hot chocolate and a lively late-night chat; moules-frites at a tiny table in a Breton bistro) in which the satisfaction of a particular circumstance flavors the food consumed with a nameless relish. I understood, as well, the power of food to communicate love, linking us to people and places with an invisible chain, tethering us by way of taste and texture and smell to the things that matter most in life. What I did not know at the time was how all of these components—this soup, this kitchen, this tea, this December day, these beloved faces around my table—would merge and fuse into a timeless little interlude of golden-hued joy, a near-perfect harmony of the domestic and the deathless, penetrating the seen with unseen significance. 


Looking back, it is easy to see why this meal stands out to me now with such sweetness and clarity: Wesley’s cancer was in remission. He was strong, and we were breathing easier. If a shadow hovered beyond that merry nimbus of candlelight, it was only that—a shadow, deepening the warmth and color of the present moment. When Wesely died eighteen months later, it was to this scene I would return in my mind, again and again, not so much to convince myself that he had been alive and we had been happy, but to anchor myself in all that endured—our eternal hope and our undying love. To say that cauliflower-leek soup was somehow an embodiment of that hope and that love may seem like a stretch, particularly in retrospect, for the scene in my kitchen that winter’s day may very well have unfolded over any other soup, or no soup at all. I can only say that it was an embodiment, in a way that time cannot diminish and death cannot steal.


For me, a good soup goes hand-in-hand with what I like to call ‘wintering with a holy intent.’


Winter is often synonymous with grief, and with good reason, its bleak, barren expanse mimics the inner landscape of a life marked by loss. Grief is not the final word, in nature or otherwise, for death itself must always yield to the resurrection burgeoning beneath winter’s frozen crust, a joy to which every snowdrop or crocus bears witness. But winter, like grief, cannot be hastened. Before the green onrush of spring, we must have fallow days, dormancy, and rest. If sorrow, as the writer of Ecclesiastes insists, makes the heart better, we may safely assume that winter makes our world better, as well. To winter with a holy intent means to accept all of this with equanimity and faith. It means to gather around us the comfort of good words: books, conversations, poetry, Scripture. It means the tangible solace of candlelight, quilts, a new pair of slippers, perhaps. It means, above all, to give ourselves permission to rest—even amidst life’s responsibilities—throughout these darkened days. 


To rest well, however, we need fortification. And no food is so fortifying, in my opinion, as soup.


I love the way that making a pot of soup slows my body to the speed of my soul, forcing me, if only for a few moments, to fully attend to a colander of vegetables, a cutting board full of herbs. I love the feel of kosher salt sifting between my fingers over a bubbling pot; the twist of the pepper grinder; the goodly glugs of oil. I love the bouquet of garlic, pressed or minced into fragrance (a metaphor in itself), and the last triumphant foray into the fridge which reveals a couple of carrots or a forgotten zucchini just in time to grace my soup instead of the compost pail. I love, above all, the foundational substance of bone broth, that glutamine-enhanced, mineral-heavy mainstay of soups immemorial. Broth is the command center for a healthy, healing soup, and bone broth—for the non-vegetarian, at least—is its noblest iteration. The ultimate measure in conscientious frugality and grateful thrift, bone broth gathers up the fragments of other meals into a final flourish of liquid, lifegiving gold. Thus, it follows, that before I make a pot of soup, I need to roast a chicken. 


Fortunately, I do this every Monday, so I can step through the process with relative concision: begin with a good-sized bird, 4—5 pounds or so, rinsed well and patted dry with paper towels. Don’t forget to remove the organ pouch in the cavity of the bird—ideally, these should be used for gravy or some other delectability, but, in our house, our dog, Luna, takes up her post beside the sink the very minute I take the chicken out of the refrigerator, and I can’t bear to disappoint her. Don’t worry, the raw chicken neck it invariably contains is very nutritious for dogs and entirely safe. But never, ever, ever give your dog a cooked chicken bone. Promise me. Place the chicken breast-side up in a large Dutch oven with a lid, and starting from the neck end, gently lift the skin to separate it from the meat. Rub the chicken, inside of the skin and out, with about 2 tablespoons of softened butter or ghee—don’t miss the tops of the drumsticks—then peel four cloves of garlic and quarter an onion. Stuff the cavity with the onion and two cloves of garlic and pierce the skin just where the drums meet the body, inserting the remaining garlic. Bundle up 4-5 sprigs of fresh herbs—parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, whatever you have on hand—and cram them into the cavity. Tie the legs together with a length of kitchen twine and season liberally with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast, covered, at 425 degrees for 1 hour, then uncover and continue to roast for another 15 minutes or so, until the skin is golden and the juices flow clear when the flesh is pierced. You can also use a meat thermometer, inserted at the thickest part of the thigh and roast to a temperature of 165 degrees. Let stand 5 minutes, then carve as you would a Thanksgiving turkey, slicing the breast from the outside in and removing the drumsticks and thighs. Serve with a couple of vegetable sides—roasted sweet potatoes or carrots, Brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli. Your choice.


A bird of this size will likely be polished off in one sitting by a family of four. Otherwise, use the leftover meat for salad or in an omelet. Now, and now only, are you ready to make bone broth. 


Place the carcass of the chicken, including all congealed drippings, onions, and herbs, in a large stock pot or slow cooker, reminding yourself as you do that the very word ‘carcass’ is a memento mori, recalling the frailty of all flesh and the death which invariably brings us life in the form of physical nourishment. Cover the carcass with water and add a generous splash of apple cider vinegar to help pull the vitamins and minerals out of the bones, but be sure to let your would-be broth sit for at least half an hour to allow the ACV do its work before turning on the heat. For a stock pot, bring to a boil and then reduce to low; for a slow cooker, turn on the lowest setting. In either case, simmer for at least 24 hours then strain and pour into jars for future use (bone broth will keep in the refrigerator for 5—7 days, or in the freezer for about 6 months) or translate immediately into the soup of your choice. Here is one I love:


Turkey and Vegetable Stew

Serves 6


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 pounds ground turkey

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon butter or ghee

  • 1 onion

  • 2 stalks celery

  • 2 bell peppers, 1 red and 1 green

  • 2 carrots

  • 2 cloves garlic

  • 1 teaspoon cumin

  • 1 tablespoon chili powder

  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1 quart bone broth 

  • 1 24-ounce bottle strained tomatoes

  • Zucchini, 2 large or 4 small 

  • 1 cup frozen white corn kernels

  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

  • Freshly ground black pepper   


Heat the oil in a large stock pot and brown the turkey, seasoning with the salt and crumbling with a wooden spoon until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Chop the onion, celery, pepper, and carrots into a ½-inch dice and add to the pot, along with the butter or ghee and cook for 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Mince the garlic and add to the pot, sautéing for another minute or two, then stir in the spices and toss constantly until fragrant, 1-2 minutes more. Pour in the broth and tomatoes, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. 15 minutes before serving, chop the zucchini and add to the pot, along with the corn kernels, and simmer until the vegetables are very tender. Taste for seasonings, adding more of anything, if desired, and serve with a garnish of parsley and a crank or two of pepper, preferably beside an open fire.  


This soup, and others like it, helps me to burrow down a bit into sensory comforts and the pleasures of home, arming myself and my household with a nutritious defense against the cold, common and otherwise. For to winter with a holy intent means that dormancy is a natural rhythm of life; I must hibernate before, in Wendell Berry’s phrase, I “practice resurrection.” I need stillness before I need springtime. I need the chastening beauty of winter’s stark lines and angled light; I need hushed rooms and a quiet calendar. Winter reminds me that even barrenness brings forth life and that death is a temporary arrangement. And so, one book, one candle, one bowl of soup at a time, I winter on, in faith that, couched between the glories of Christmastide and the joys of Easter, this, too, is a holy season.    


 

Lanier Ivester is a homemaker and writer in the beautiful state of Georgia, where she maintains a small farm with her husband, Philip, and an ever-expanding menagerie of cats, dogs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, and peacocks. She studied English Literature at the University of Oxford, and her special area of interest is the sacramental nature of everyday life. For over a decade she has kept a web journal at lanierivester.com, and her work has also been featured in The Rabbit Room, Art House America, The Gospel Coalition, and The Cultivating Project, among others. She has lectured across the country on topics ranging from the meaning of home to the integration of faith and reason, and in both her writing and her speaking she seeks to honor the holy longings of a homesick world.


 

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