A Soup for When You Just Want to Be Alone

I’m at theworst stage of writing a cookbook. After working hard at it — the food, the words, the pictures — for so long, I realize that the time has come to cut. Books can’t go on forever, I know. Page counts need to be respected. Introductions need to be tightened; great anecdotes have to go! Does every recipe need a photo? Will people still cook it without one? Entire dishes are culled. We tell ourselves they’re to be saved for another day, another project. At the time, though, it feels like putting food into the freezer. We tell ourselves we’ll see it again, but really, will we? For someone who is all about the food, the words and the pictures, it’s brutal. It’s called “killing your darlings” in publishing, and it does slightly feel like that. See you later, sausage stew! Bye-bye, leek pie!

Recipe: Herby Sweet Potato Soup With Peanuts

I’ve been at this stage enough times to know one thing. If any recipe needs to fight for its right to survive, it’s soup. In terms of not making it into print, the stakes for soup are high. “How many soups can we get away with?” my team and I ask. Is one soup for each season too many? Not enough? “And soup is so hard to photograph, isn’t it?” someone points out, sealing a poor soup’s fate.

The thing I find so interesting, though, as we talk ourselves out of matzo balls or mulligatawny, is that soup is so often the very thing we’re most likely to love and cook for ourselves at home. How to square this: that the food we get the most comfort from and feel most relaxed and confident to make can be the very food we don’t quite have the confidence to make permanent on the pages of a book.

In her latest book, “Cook, Eat, Repeat,” Nigella Lawson tackles this discrepancy head on. Introducing her “soupy rice with celery root and chestnuts” (in a chapter brilliantly titled “A Loving Defense of Brown Food”), she writes of the “modest demands” the soup makes of the eater: “You will not get blown away by this. It won’t be the most electrifying thing you have ever eaten.” Disclaimer aside, she then comes out with the paradoxical truth. “This is not to disparage it: It is a favorite in my home,” she writes, adding, “There is just something quiet and lovely about it that seems to still the air around you as you eat.”

This is the paradox I have in mind, when deciding which recipes get to stay in the book — and therefore be shared — and which make their way into the metaphorical freezer. Soup, for some, is absolutely a communal dish: something to make and share. Matzo-ball soup, for instance, is so tied up with family, for me, that I would never think to make it for just myself. When I think about cooking and eating and being alone, however — when I want that quiet comfort and “the air to still around me,” as Lawson conjures — it’s absolutely and only a bowl of soup in hand that I imagine.

In this sense, soup could be seen as the culinary equivalent of an introvert. A dish eaten when alone is what’s needed to charge the batteries. I’m a signed-up culinary extrovert: I spend my days and nights with people and food. If I’m not eating with colleagues at work, I’m eating at home with friends and family. I love nothing more than street food, one of the most communal ways of eating. Cookbooks — mine and so many others — are so often mainly filled with “extrovert” recipes: those that feed a crowd, celebrate, are pored over before friends come around.

This is my world — my bread and butter! I do sometimes wonder, though, as we ponder how many soups we can “get away with” in the book, about all the quieter dishes that don’t quite make it in. Those dishes that we actually want to be hunkering down with as the nights draw in.

My “Cookbook of Soups and Other Introverted Recipes” might not be hitting shelves anytime soon, but soup(s) will make it through to the next Ottolenghi book. I have to say that it’s the gift and joy of columns like these, as well: providing space for the recipes we actually, quietly, easily, simply and joyfully make for ourselves, day to day and week to week, at home.

Recipe: Herby Sweet Potato Soup With Peanuts

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