I have shared many soup recipes here on my blog, largely because they are a staple of our daily life around here at the Thistlebear home. I like to share what we really do and, well, one thing we do a lot of is cooking and eating soup for dinner. I tend to make most of my soups in my crockpot, or slow-cooker, just because it's so easy. You throw everything into the pot in the morning, plug it in and switch it on, and by late afternoon, you have dinner ready to serve. Some of my soups may require a little extra help before serving, like cooking up some pasta to add, or adding faster-cooking veggies like mushrooms, which don't always fare well during a whole day of steamy heat. My slow-cooker soups are mostly my own recipes, cobbled together from various recipes I've collected or browsed, and tweaked along the way until they seem just right to me.
My slow-cooker soup recipes are among the most-viewed posts on my blog. I hope that means they've been helpful and interesting to readers. I thought I'd put a few of them together here in one post today. The small Bears and I have just come home from a children's theater production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and we're settling in for an afternoon of reading and math. It's windy and cool at my house right now, and there's veggie soup simmering away in the crockpot. It's a perfect time to talk soup.
We'll start with my most-viewed soup recipe, Slow-cooker Split Pea Soup.
This soup is my go-to whenever I have a leftover ham bone, or even just some slices or chunks of meat left from our usual Christmas-and-Easter spiral-sliced ham. Dried split peas are so easy to cook with; you don't have to soak them like you do most dried beans, and they take on a delicious creaminess that blends beautifully with the ham's flavor. I'll be making some of this on Wednesday, finishing off the last of our Christmas ham in time to bring in a new one for Easter in just a few weeks.
Next is my Slow-cooker Minestrone Soup.
This one is easily my favorite of all the soups I make. It's healthy and light, full of good veggies and beans, warm and rib-sticking. I like my minestrone to contain lots of tomato; I love the acidity and the texture of tomatoes, and I really enjoy a rich tomato broth, especially as it takes on some body from the starch in the beans and pasta. The best thing about a minestrone is that you can put anything you want into the pot; any veggie, any kind of bean, any shape pasta, meat or no meat, it's up to you.
My Slow-cooker Tortilla Soup is a newer addition to the repertoire, and it's becoming a fast favorite.
I often make this soup when I have meat left over from roasting a chicken. The roasted chicken is very tender and shreds easily, giving this soup a rustic style. Everything in it is a pantry staple, things I tend to keep around for easy meals. My family loves to dress their own bowls at the table, adding shredded cheese, crushed tortilla chips and fresh lime juice. You could add sour cream or avocado too. It's all the flavors of a chicken taco or burrito, in a bowl.
I have a few tips to share, after many years of cooking soups in my slow-cooker (which, by the way, is a bottom-of-the-line Rival Crockpot, 4.5 quart capacity, with a dial and just two settings - Low and High. No bells and whistles here, and that's just fine with me; I've had my crockpot for nearly 15 years and it's still going strong, cooking up delicious meals at least once a week).
- If your soup contains aromatics such as onions, carrots, garlic and celery, I recommend cooking them lightly in a skillet with a bit of olive oil before adding them to the slow-cooker. I think this gives the broth a much deeper flavor and also avoids the overpowering smell you get with boiling onions from raw.
- Similarly, when you slice the carrots, try to make sure you've exposed the core in the center, by slicing the carrot lengthwise first, to make two long halves, them slicing it into half-circles or quarter-circles. This helps the carrot release more flavor as it cooks (I saw this on America's Test Kitchen, and I was skeptical, but it really helps, and it's an easy way to boost flavor).
- Slow-cooking can dull the flavors in food, so you'll want to boost flavor by adding more of the savory ingredients in the recipe. I find that adding an extra clove or two of garlic, or an additional quarter- to half-teaspoon of dried herbs, will help the soup be more flavorful, without needing to rely on added salt.
- Instant rice is your friend in the slow-cooker; just add it to the pot about 30 minutes before you plan to serve the soup. You may need to add a bit of water along with it, but it doesn't soak up much water as it cooks. Pasta, on the other hand, never works well for me in the slow-cooker without being cooked separately first. One benefit is having all that pasta-cooking water you can add to the pot with the pasta if needed; it will give your broth a richer consistency.
- I can't taste any difference between good homemade broth, canned or boxed broth, or reconstituted bouillon after a day simmering in the slow-cooker. I use Knorr bouillon cubes, at approximately half-strength, with appropriate water. I think it works great. Go with your own tastes and budget.
- Experiment with your own slow-cooker to see what kind of cooking times and temperatures work best. For food safety, I prefer to start the pot on High and let the soup come to a boil, especially if there are any raw meat ingredients in the pot. I'll turn it to Low after cooking for several hours, leaving it on Low as long as the soup stays at a simmer. If it doesn't, I'll just turn it back to High. Some soups need more heat than others to keep simmering, I find. Again, you may need to experiment with your own pot. I'm not an expert, but I think that as long as there is steady bubbling, you're good to go.
- I like to add tender ingredients like mushrooms, zucchini or spinach in the last hour of cooking, with the slow-cooker turned to Low, to keep them from overcooking.
- Always taste your soup before you serve it. Add salt, pepper or other seasonings to taste. I find that some soups, like a hearty bean soup, for example, need a little something to wake up all the flavors. A squeeze of lemon juice, or a splash of wine vinegar, can make a huge difference. There's a lot to be said for the earthiness of beans, but I really like the lightening-up from a little acid at the very end of cooking.
About that veggie soup I mentioned earlier in the post...
Slow-cooker Veggie Soup with Barley
3 carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
6 cups veggie or chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage or marjoram
1 bay leaf
Vegetables of your choice: green beans, squash, corn, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, etc.
1 cup quick-cooking pearled barley
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook carrot, celery, onion and garlic in skillet with oil (just enough to coat veggies) for a few minutes, until onion is starting to turn golden and veggies are slightly softened. If you like a spicy flavor, you can add a few dashes of crushed red pepper to the veggies as they cook in the skillet.
Place veggies in slow-cooker with tomatoes, broth and dried herbs. You can add other veggies now, if they are of the longer-cooking type (others can wait until closer to serving). Cook on High for about 6 hours, letting soup boil in slow-cooker for at least a couple of hours. Turn the slow-cooker to Low.
Add additional veggies and barley to pot, let cook until barley and all veggies are tender. Season to taste and serve.
(You can of course add meat, beans or anything else you like to this soup, but I really enjoy having an easy all-veggie soup in my recipe rotation).