It's the scenario that haunts us all from time to time: you come home from work, you're hungry, it's late, you open the fridge - and there's nothing there. Maybe the supermarket is closed or too far away, maybe you're just too tired to go, but in any case there's no question of acquiring more ingredients. Don't panic. And don't pick up the phone to call for a pizza just yet. Do you have any vegetables hidden away at the back your fridge, or maybe in your freezer? If not, I'm afraid I can't help you, so go ahead and order that pizza. But if you do, you might want to try my formula for concocting a soul-warming soup from the dregs of your refrigerator and cupboards. It's nearly foolproof, because it allows for infinite variations based on what you have on hand. And I like the results so much I even use it when my fridge is full!
I haven't given any exact measurements here, because everything will depend on the quantity of vegetables you have. The best strategy is to add things sparingly if you're not sure, and increase the quantity later on if you want more. As far as the stock goes, it's better to have too little than too much, because you can always add more to thin things out, whereas it can take quite a while to boil off what you don't want (and you run the risk of things getting too salty with over-reduction).
Step 1. The vegetable. This can be whatever you have on hand, including a mixture of different things. Great options are zucchini, winter squash, sweet potato, leeks, corn, spinach, peppers, parsnip, turnip, eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, beets, onions...
Step 2. The caramelization. This step primes the vegetable to release as much flavor as possible in the soup. For most vegetables, just cut them into manageable chunks (not too small), toss them with olive oil in a roasting pan and put them in a 375-degree oven for as long as they need to get a bit crusty and caramelized. Things like eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, winter squash and sweet potato can be roasted in their skins (peppers, tomatoes and eggplant can even be charred under the broiler if you like) and then peeled before proceeding. I also toss several *unpeeled* cloves of garlic in the pan with the vegetables. When the veggies are nicely caramelized, put them into a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Don't forget to peel the garlic.
Step 3. The stock. Honestly, I use
Step 4. The herbs and spices. Fresh or dried - it's your choice. There are the usual suspects, such as basil, thyme and curry, and untraditional ones, which are only limited by your imagination. Try chipotle chiles, or even chocolate! Toss in as many as you like and let everything simmer until the vegetables are starting to get soft.
Step 6. The enrichment. This brings it all together, gives the soup some richness and thickens it up. Traditional is of course cream, but there are other possibilities: cream cheese, yogurt, coconut milk, butter... The only thing to remember here is that some of these don't take too well to boiling, so heat the soup gently after this step.
Step 7. The emulsion. If you have a hand blender, this step will be a cinch. If you only have a normal blender, carefully pour the hot liquid into it and cover the top tightly with a towel before you turn it on. Trust me on this one - if you don't keep that lid down with all your strength, you will have new decor on your kitchen walls!
Step 8. The final tweak. Check to make sure the balance of salt is to your liking; think about also whether a pinch of sugar or a squeeze of lemon would enhance the flavors. Correct the seasoning, heat for another couple of minutes, and serve to hungry people in big steaming bowls.
Some of my favorite combinations:
zucchini with rosemary and walnuts
sweet potato with curry, cashews and coconut milk
corn, yellow pepper and basil
cauliflower, almond and parmesan
eggplant with cumin, cilantro and lemon
butternut squash with sage, pecans and browned butter
broccoli, thyme and blue cheese
roasted red pepper with cilantro, feta and lime
mushroom (try a mixture of fresh+dried) with marsala and hazelnuts