A simmering pot both feeds the appetite and restores the soul -- plus, the leftovers freeze well enough to nourish you whenever you need it most.
After I divorced, I didn't have the heart to cook for myself. What had been my passion -- making fresh pastas, creamy risottos, and platters of grilled vegetables -- became a lonesome task, resulting in too many leftovers that went bad in the refrigerator. It was easier to have a sandwich or a bowl of cereal for dinner. But as the months turned chilly and desolate, I started to long for warm, satiating meals. Just when I needed it most, I rediscovered soup. It happened on a trip to Italy, where I was reminded of how important it is to sit at a table with a cloth napkin and wine -- especially when alone. Good food nourishes your spirit; it's impossible to feel depressed in the face of a great Italian meal. One chilly evening in Florence, I went to a trattoria and ordered minestrone. Its rich aroma arrived at the table first, then a smiling waiter placed in front of me a steaming bowl of soup sprinkled with melting shards of Parmesan cheese. The tomatoes tasted of summer, the beans were rich and hearty, and a swirl of pesto on top made me want to swoon. The soup filled my senses and my stomach, and left me feeling content.
Back at home, I began to make soup for myself. I found I would get out a stock pot when the afternoon was stormy, or when there was bad weather in my head. The repetition of chopping focused me on the task, leaving no room for the anxieties that simmer inside my brain.
When I am in a really horrible mood, I put on the opera "Carmen" and make minestrone. I start with stock and dried cannellini beans, pull out every vegetable in the fridge, add a chunk of Parmesan rind, and by the end, my emotions are calmed. My house begins to smell like a home, cozy and inviting. Carmen suffers her tragic end but I am still there, drizzling pesto on a fragrant bowl of soup, wholly satisfied.
So cooking soup has become a ritual that fortifies me in more ways than one. During the week, I roast a whole chicken. After a few meals, I throw the bones into a pot with celery, carrots, onion, a bay leaf, and some peppercorns, to make broth. Over the weekend, I turn the broth into soups to match my moods: a seafood chowder to evoke summer on a sunny afternoon, a cumin-and-cinnamon-spiced Moroccan beef stew to brighten a dreary winter day, earthy sweet potato and lentil soup after a long, brisk hike. I have a bowlful for Sunday dinner, then cool the rest to freeze in quart-sized bags. After a couple of weeks of making different soups, my freezer is full: When I return from a busy day, or need to grab lunch, my meals are right there, healthy and ready to heat.
Soup is the perfect single person's meal. But it seduces your company, too. Two years ago, when a nice man I'd known in college asked me out to dinner, I refused. I'd had plenty of cold, judgmental first dates over complicated restaurant meals, and was tired of them. I wanted to have a relaxed meal with an old friend. Just come over for some soup, I told him. When he arrived, I ladled out my minestrone with pesto and served it with a warm baguette.
Now I have someone to chop the onions for me.
Laura Fraser's most recent book is the memoir All Over the Map (Broadway).
- If soup includes rice or pasta, reserve it from the recipe -- you'll add when reheating. Cool soup to room temperature. Divide it among resealable one-quart freezer bags in two-portion servings, and seal bags most of the way. Smooth out any remaining air, then seal completely.