Monday, February 8, 2016

Soup season

I'm a soup lover year-round, most especially in winter, but I make soups even in the warmest part of the year. Soup is easy, filling and cheap, and there are always lots of leftovers for the Bear to take for his lunch at work. This is good for his health and our budget; the work cafeteria is relatively expensive and the offerings are not known for their healthfulness. We're not fanatical about health or budget, but we are mindful of both and we aim for frugality whenever possible, as well as a simple, healthy diet most of the time. This is where soup comes in; you can make a very good meal around a hearty soup. Add a salad or some bread, and you have a nutritious, satisfying lunch or dinner for not much money or effort.

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

Olive oil
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).


  1. Hiya and thank you for this post. I love soup that is easy to make and can be left to tick over with people coming and going as they please to it. Home made bread and I'm a happy girl. I will try some of these, thanks.

  2. Soup lover here too, the little man and I love soup!! Thanks for all the recipes, can't wait to try them out.

  3. yum! I love soup, I never make in the slow cooker, I really must try x

  4. They all look absolutely delicious Jennifer, and I love the idea of making the food in the morning so that it's ready in the evening. I love split pea soup, and also barley, you've reminded me about both, I shall try them again soon. CJ xx

  5. I don't have a slow cooker but using it to make soup sounds perfect. I love meals that you can put on in the morning and leave to cook for the rest of the day! We eat soup year round here too :)

  6. I love soup - making and eating! - but I've never made it in my slow cooker. I might have to have a go this week! :o)

  7. Hi - just wondering what size Slow Cooker you use for your soups! Thanks.

    1. Hi there, that's a good question and I've edited my post to add the information. I believe my crockpot is a 4.5 quart capacity model. Thanks.

  8. Nice!!! I will have to look at these! I LOVE soup!!!

  9. We are big soup eaters here too, I love them all. My favorite is refrigerator soup, you know, the one where you clean out everything in the fridge, add some canned tomatoes and let it simmer all day in the crock pot, yum.

  10. I've just started making soups and I love them. Your split pea looks especially good. Thanks for the tips using the slow cooker.

  11. oh my goodness that recipe looks yum......guess what we're having for supper tomorrow???

  12. I enjoyed your soup story.. I also like soups and stews. We just make a beefy stew with celery, carrots and potatoes with lots of Thyme and Bay leaves. I loved that it fed all 6 of us for 3 meals! I make a pretty good homemade clam chowder and also a from scratch chili. Good stuff! ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

  13. We're big soup fans here too and your recipes look delicious. I've never heard about exposing a carrot's core before; I'll have to give that a try. Happy soup making. xx

  14. I often use my slow cooker for soup too, I prep the night before & turn it on in the morning before I leave for work. I really do think it's the most useful tool in my kitchen x

  15. I wholeheartedly agree with you, soups make a wonderful meal. Unfortunately my family doesn't think 'just soup' is enough, especially the teenager who seems to require as much food as the rest of the family together. He might be tempted by the tortillla soup though. My own favourite soup is minestrone. I like it with tiny pasta shapes. A slow cooker sounds like a good addition to a family kitchen. We have no space at the moment but maybe once our kitchen is bigger, I'll add it to the wish list. Thanks for sharing your family favourites. x

  16. I too am a soup lover, especially soups with lentils and split peas. I enjoy the mealy texture they bring to the soup. Thanks for the recipes, and the tips, I have never heard the one about exposing the carrot centre before. I always chop my carrots anyway, but now I will do it with extra knowledge on board! X

  17. I don't have a slow-cooker but I do love to make and eat soups. Like Christina, though, I don't think my family (especially my teenage sons) would consider soup a meal. Perhaps if it had pasta and beans in it and bread on the side... Your soups all sound absolutely delicious. Thank you for the tips.

  18. I love soup! All your soups here look really delicious Jennifer...thank you for sharing these recipes too. Now I will have to go and make some for my lunch :)
    Helen xox

  19. I love soup and often have it on my work days. The rest of the family are a bit indifferent (read here: soup is an 'accompaniment' to lunch not a big dinner) and my children are still small so soup could be very messy :) Your soups look delicious - especially the minestrone one and the tortilla one. Yum! I expect they could be adjusted to regular cooking as I don't have a slow cooker but it might be time to invest in one and make space on the ever crowded worktop! xx

  20. Actually i am sat reading this while eating a big bowl of soup! I think slow cooker soup is easy too once you get used to it, and great to walk in to a house after a long walk and smell dinner all ready to eat x

  21. Actually i am sat reading this while eating a big bowl of soup! I think slow cooker soup is easy too once you get used to it, and great to walk in to a house after a long walk and smell dinner all ready to eat x

  22. Soup is something I rarely make as it's something we rarely eat. Saying that, your recipes look absolutely delicious so I may have a go at making some in my slow cooker, something I've never done before.

  23. Great recipes and tips Jennifer. I especially like the idea of using the ham bone to flavour the soup. I always have soup on the go, a fantastic way of eating lots of vegetables. I don't have a slow cooker but I find a big pan of soup can be rustled up in less than half an hour, if the stock is to hand. We eat soup at lunchtime and although I could probably survive on a bowl of hearty soup for supper my off-road cycling husband couldn't. I make my own stock. It is just an unpeeled onion quartered, a couple of carrots, celery sticks, both roughly chopped, a bunch of herbs and whole peppercorns. Into a large pan, cover with a couple of litres of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 40 mins. Cool, strain and it keeps safely in the fridge for a week or two. It transforms home made soups, risottos etc into something really special.

  24. They look and sound delicious, I have promised Hubby some soup this week!

  25. Great post Jennifer! I'm a soup lover, and a fan of using my slow cooker whenever possible. Thanks for reminding us about some of the recipes you've blogged about previously. I might make the minestrone later this week.

  26. These soups all sound delicious! Thanks for sharing your recipes and all these crock pot tips. I love split pea soup :)

  27. You have me wondering how long I have had my slow my case it may be ancient since it seems I have had it forever and I will be 65 next Wednesday :) I just checked and mine is a Rival two quart crockpot, with hi and low settings. The handles have cracked due in part to the many times it has moved back and forth across the USA, I think. I made some soup in it last Sat. and somehow forgot to turn it off and put the leftovers in the fridge. Coming home from church on Sunday I was planning to heat up the leftover soup for lunch, but did not have to. It was more than ready...almost a disaster in the making and more of a stew than soup because it had cooked so long...thankfully on low! You have inspired me to pop a clove of garlic and a package of pork, which I rarely buy, into my crockpot today, and who knows what else I will add to it. We are collecting ATK recipes and tips in our household, too, but thanks for the carrot tip reminder I had not picked up on yet. I hope to try making lemon marmalade with your tangelo recipe today...some of us are fighting off sore throats here so we are majoring in citrus fruit consumption and since it is sunny getting out in the sunshine sore throats or not! Hoping you and yours are having happy days xx

  28. Brilliant post, Jennifer. As another soup lover, I've bookmarked the page for future reference. Better go and check on the soup which is simmering on the hob as I type. :)

  29. Absolutely LOVE soup and have really been in to making our own homemade soup the past few months. Very healthy. Thanks for sharing your slow-cooker veggie soup with barley.

  30. I am in love with soup any time of year, but right now when it is chilly it is so warming and yummy. Thank you for the hints.

  31. Soups are great aren't they.
    Thanks for sharing these with us.

    All the best Jan

  32. We eat a lot of homemade soup during the winter, but not at any other time. I'm one of those who can only eat hot foods (like soup, stew and chili) during the winter and cold foods (like ice cream) during the summer. All your recipes sound wonderful and I even learned something new...never knew that about the carrots! Will try cutting them that way next time. I have to disagree with you on the broth though. There is absolutely nothing on the market that tastes as good as homemade broth! I just made chicken bone broth in the Crockpot for 25 hours and it looks like rich liquid gold. My soups definitely taste much better using homemade broth like this than store-bought stuff (and I buy good broth - organic). There is no comparison!

  33. This is a great post Jennifer. We, too, love soups. Especially at this time of year. Dennis and Mandy are great split pea soup fans and I think I'll definitely be making this one when we're all together next time. The hints are all really great too. I never knew that about carrots. Don't you just love America's Test Kitchen? One of my favorite shows.

  34. We love soup here aswell and your tortilla one is one of our favourites. Thanks for sharing and I'll be sure to try your other recipes too xx

  35. Yum. I love the sound of all these recipes and ideas! I tend to think of soup as a lunch thing. I need to start thinking of it as a dinner thing too. I also need to dust off my slow cooker. X


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