It was nearly a week into our Peru trip when Alex and I looked around and observed something important.
Everyone, everywhere was eating soup.
Now in the mountains, this makes sense. Though December and January are technically summer, certain areas of Peru suffer from what’s known as la clima loca. A foggy early morning might turn into a clear, blue late morning (the kind of clear that will get a pale New Yorker very sunburnt) only to devolve into early afternoon clouds and a late afternoon downpour. After that roller coaster, soup for dinner sounds fantastic.
At the markets in Cusco, everyone was eating chicken soup with noodles. At the market in Chivay, a town in the amazingly idyllic Colca Valley, they were spooning up caldo blanco, a parsley-laden broth with a generous portion of alpaca meat plopped in and a whole peeled potato. Somehow, in Lima, next to their nice cool ceviche, Peruvians also managed to eat more caldo blanco. Go figure.
On our hike down into the Colca Valley, Alex and I joined in. We stayed at pretty rustic lodges in tiny canyon villages only accessible by mule. Each lunch and dinner started with a bowl of vegetable soup. Really good vegetable soup. The broth was golden and rich, rounded out by carrots, potatoes, and squash plus some carbs–sometimes rice, sometimes quinoa, sometimes pasta shells or spaghetti. One night, the soup even had an egg mixed in, like garlic soup. I love brothy soups–I’ve never been the hugest fans of creamy ones or pureed types–but I don’t love them quite enough to have bothered making many for this site. Still, I was happy for my daily dose.
me with my soup
When I asked José, our guide in the canyon, what made the soup so particularly delicious, he answered that it was the fresh herbs. And it was true, there was a lot of very tasty fresh oregano floating around my soup bowl. But it was more than that–the broth was just kind of spectacular, as rich as chicken soup but only with vegetable flavors.
I got my answer later that night when I stopped by the lodge’s kitchen where all the guides and cooks were watching a pirated movie about pirates for a lesson on how to make quinoa the Peruivan way. There were packets of maiz-flavored bouillon sitting on the counter, ready to be emptied into big pots of boiling water for our evening soup.
I would have pulled up my nose at that discovery, eschewing my nightly bowl, but the soup was just too satisfying. Now that I’m back home, I figured I’d put a little elbow grease into coming up with a homemade vegetable soup and stock that could hold a candle to the mix-enhanced one from Colca Valley. Here’s my non-packaged, healthful result: a perfect appetizer or lunch, broth-based but not minestrone-like, tasty, herby, and awesome.
And, a note. There are a lot of forgettable, minestrone-ish soups out there. This is not one of them. It’s a vegetable soup that’s really worth eating.
From my kitchen, simmering soup, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Really Good Vegetable Soup
4 cups Really Good Vegetable Stock (recipe follows)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon white wine
1/2 small acorn squash, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
2 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch squares
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into sticks about 1 inch long and 1/4 inch wide
1 plum tomato, peeled and chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons white rice
3 tablespoons frozen peas
2 tablespoons frozen corn
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
In a medium pot, bring the stock to a boil. Add the wine, salt, potatoes, carrots, tomato, and rice. Simmer, partly covered, for 25 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked and the rice is soft. Add the peas, corn, most of the herbs, and the lemon, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the rest of the herbs. Taste for salt, adding more as needed, and serve.
Really Good Vegetable Stock
Makes about 9 cups
This stock gets its flavor from being totally packed with vegetables…it may look like you’re crowding out all the water. You can cut up your veggies into large, almost careless chunks–it’s not important how they look. You don’t have to peel carrots or potatoes–but do wash them. And not peeling all those garlic cloves saves a ton of time!
2 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil
2 leeks, cleaned, halved lengthwise, and sliced
3 large onions, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
1 head garlic, trimmed and cloves separated (but not peeled)
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
4 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 sprig fresh oregano
4 sprigs fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
In a large stockpot (you’ll need at least 7 quarts), warm the oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, until they sizzle. Turn the heat to low and let the leeks cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have wilted and are slightly golden around the edges.
Add all the remaining ingredients and toss gently to distribute then. Carefully pour in 12 cups of water (you should have at least 1 inch of space at the top of your pot).
Bring the stock to a boil, then lower the heat slightly so it simmers rapidly for 10 minutes. Cover the stock, turn the heat as low as possible, and simmer for 1 hour.
Cool until you can handle it, then drain the stock through a sieve, pressing on the vegetables to get out all the flavor.