just add water

Just add water

Not everyone has the time to have a traditional stockpot simmering away on the stove. However, commercial stocks can be either disappointing in flavour or just very expensive.  So here are three simple, classic soups that don’t require ready-made stock -just the addition of water. This ‘back to basics’ approach relies on all the flavour coming from the raw ingredients: not a stock cube in sight. Experienced cooks understand how to extract the most flavour out of every ingredient. The result is an incredibly flavourful dish made from simple ingredients, cooked well.

A few tips to start: chop the vegetables into small pieces to extract the maximum flavour from each. Remember to cook off the vegetables for a little longer than you might be used to. There is a very good reason for this, explained by food scientist, Harold McGee.

Quite simply, heating makes the taste molecules in the food more prominent. Heat also makes the aromas more volatile and therefore more noticeable. And heat creates new molecules, too. So by cooking for longer, the food changes and develops more complex and cooked flavours and aromas. When browning the meat for the lamb shank and barley soup, the shanks will begin to undergo browning reactions, which produce characteristic roasted and caramelised flavours. When chefs talk about “sweating” the vegetables, they are referring to a technique of slowly cooking over a low heat with the finely chopped vegetables coated in oil, to develop a flavour base for the dish. Both the vegetables and the oil are infused with each other’s flavour and richness.

A final tip: remember to season well. Use herbs for flavour and add freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

Molecular gastronomy at its simplest with three easy and delicious soups to try.

*For a thorough explanation of the food science involved, go to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”.

lamb shank and barley soup with lots of vegies


Ask your butcher for some large hindquarter shanks, which are perfect for this soup. There are lots of vegies, as this is where the flavour is.

2 tbsp olive oil

50g butter

2 large meaty lamb shanks (hindquarter)

2 large onions, finely sliced

2 large cloves garlic, sliced

4 medium carrots, halved lengthways and thinly sliced in half rounds

1 leek, halved lengthways and sliced

2 sticks celery, sliced

sprig thyme

1 parsnip, peeled, cut in half lengthways and thinly sliced

2 large waxy potatoes, peeled and diced

½ cup pearl barley

fresh bayleaf

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup fresh parsley sprigs

Heat oil in a large heavy based pot. Brown the shanks on all sides, remove from pot and set aside. Melt butter, then add onions, garlic, carrots, leek, celery, parsnip and thyme. Cook over low heat for 15 minutes until softened. Add potatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Add 2 litres of water, pearl barley, shanks and bayleaf. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 60 minutes, until the shanks are tender and the meat is falling off the bone. Remove the shanks and shred the meat with your fingers or a fork. Discard the bones. Return the lamb to the pot. Season with salt and pepper, add chopped parsley and serve.

Makes approx. 2 litres

pea and ham soup


The split peas thicken this soup as it stands, so don’t worry if it appears thin whilst cooking. Any leftovers may need to be thinned down. Be careful with seasoning, as the ham hock may be quite salty.

2 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, peeled

4 sticks celery, sliced

2 x750g ham hocks, skin on

2 cups (375g) yellow split peas

3 lt cold water

bay leaf

sprig fresh thyme

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat oil in large heavy based pot, add onions, garlic and celery and cook over low heat for 10 minutes.

Add ham hock, split peas, water and herbs. Bring to the boil, reduce heat then simmer for 1½ hours.

Remove hock, discard the skin and bone, then shred meat and set aside.

At this point, you can use a stick blender to roughly puree the soup, if you like.

Return the ham to the pot, and season well with salt and pepper.

Ladle into deep soup bowls and serve with warm crusty bread.

Makes approx. 3 litres

potato and leek soup with parmesan


The addition of parmesan gives this soup a creamy, cheesy flavour. You’ll never throw out the end bits of cheese again.

3 large leeks

50g butter

500g (approx.3) floury potatoes

1-2 parmesan rinds (about 300g)

1.5 lt water

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 slices prosciutto

1 cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped

Cut the dark green ends from the leeks, trim the bases and discard. Slice the white part of the leek in half lengthways, then rinse well under running water to dislodge any dirt or grit. Drain on a tea towel, then slice thinly.

Heat butter in a large heavy based pot, add the leeks and cook over low heat for 15 minutes until tender.

Peel potatoes and cut into chunks. Add to pot and cook for a further 5 minutes, allowing them to soak up the flavours. Add the cheese rind and water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove cheese rinds and discard. Puree soup with a stick blender. Season well with salt and pepper to taste.

Place prosciutto under a grill or in a pan and cook until crispy. Crumble into rough shards, scatter over the soup with parsley and serve.

Makes  approx. 1.5 litres

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