November 2009 Archives

Stitch and Boots Etsy Shop


Here on Stitch and Boots my main objective is to help people learn as many of the skills an urban homesteader might need to know that are within my realm of expertise to share.  I want to be a conduit to DIY success in cooking, sewing, fixing, cleaning, and growing.  Sometimes with the help of much-loved and respected friends, often on my own.


In my former life I have been many things including: fast food cashier, electronics salesperson, shipping manager for Weston Wear in San Francisco, custom costume designer, needlewoman, assistant designer at Mulberry Neckwear, color swatcher at Mulberry Neckwear, coffee jerk (several times), technical writer, unpaid novelist, retail store owner, product designer and manufacturer for my own retail store, metal grinder (very briefly wonderfully satisfying), housewife, stay at home mom, and currently I am a headline editor for an online ad network.


I shut down my Etsy shop that followed my retail brick and mortar store because I wanted to be done with sewing for commerce.  I have a good job and not a ton of time.  Having a good job at this time must be counted as one heck of a blessing and I couldn't be more thankful that I have one.  However, in spite of both my husband and myself being employed, like so many people we know we make very little money together and we are facing the tough prospect of a winter with no extra room in our budget for things like heating our house*.

I have some wonderful back-stock from my retail store that I made myself and I have decided to reopen my Etsy shop to sell what I have and to make some new things for it as well.

I have thought a lot about what my purpose is, what my usefulness to people is, and I believe that the real service I can offer to people is to help them learn to do things for themselves.  Trying to sell people ready-made things isn't my main goal nor my ultimate gift.  The service of helping to teach others to do for themselves needs to be free.  I need to offer this as a real service.  A thing I do not for commerce but for sheer joy and personal fulfillment.  Money, just to have lots of it, is not an end goal I have, though I admit that like most people I don't despise the dream of being  comfortable.

Most of the things I am listing in my Etsy shop are things I'd like to do as tutorials  here so that everyone can, if they want to, make them for themselves.  What I would ultimately like to do is to offer tutorials on how to make all these projects for yourself and then offer patterns only for sale at some point.

One pattern I will be working on this coming week is a little pattern for the mushroom applique I designed for the men's shirt smock project.

I hope that all of you will visit my shop if only to say hello and see what's going on there.  I know that so many people are in the same situation that I am financially and aren't in a position to be shopping.   I am going to include links to my Etsy shop in any post where it seems appropriate but I ask you not to feel importuned in the least nor pressured to buy.  If I have something for sale that is exactly what you need or want then I will be delighted to provide it to you, but what I really want is for you all to continue visiting to see what new recipes, projects, and plant profiles are being added to this urban homesteading database.  I want all of you to continue to feel empowered to do things for yourselves.

Here is a link to my newly minted Etsy shop:

Stitch and Boots on Etsy

I have some new recipes to post in the next few days so come back soon!  Thank you all so much for spending time reading Stitch and Boots, this is one of my greatest achievements in progress!



*I'm not kidding.  The interior of our house has been between 53 degrees and 56 degrees all day.  We've always been known to keep our house at a fairly crisp cool temperature but this is ten degrees lower than we usually go.

6 Tips To Help You Sew Like A Professional


I remember when I was a kid that it was pretty much a popularity killer to wear home-made clothes.  My mom made me some clothes for a while and I thought they were pretty snazzy but I have never forgotten the attitudes of scorn that others had about it.  Then when I went to Fashion Design School I learned to use industrial sewing machines and how to draft patterns and over the years of sewing professionally and working in other capacities in the garment design field I have come to understand where the attitudes have come from with regards to home sewing.

One of the major issues with making clothes from commercial patterns is that they generally use really large seam allowances.  They do this to give the home sewer more room for adjustments and errors.  Unfortunately the wider the seam allowance the bulkier the seams and the more clumsy a garment or project will look.  For commercially made garment the standard seam allowance is 1/2".  It's details like these that can make a big difference.

While most home sewers can't draft their own patterns and don't have control over the seam allowances (you can't just use a 1/2" seam allowance where a wider one has been given in a pattern because then the pieces won't come together properly) there are a lot of things you can do to make your sewing look more professional.  Attention to detail is, as always, is the key to excellence.


See how puckered this hemmed edge is?  I pressed the fabric under first and it still has a puckery appearance after sewing.  It needs to be steam pressed again.  (See photo below)


1.  Pressing is vital. This is the single most important tip I can give you.  Unless the fabric you're using was just bought off the bolt a half an hour ago, you need to press your fabric before cutting your pattern pieces out of it.  If you don't you may end up with irregular pattern pieces that won't fit well together.

Press your seams open.  Use steam on all fabrics and use the hottest setting allowable for the fabric you're working with.  I can't emphasize this enough: press open ALL of the seams you sew in any project as you go along.  Don't wait until the end.  After each step in a project- PRESS THE SEAMS OPEN.  Also press any edges you're turning under for hemming BEFORE you stitch it.  Your stitching will look much nicer.  Then press again.  Please see the difference this can make in the photos I have provided.

The first photo is how some sewers leave their edges.  It looks unprofessional.  This photo shows what  a difference pressing makes.

I have used many irons over the years both expensive and cheap and aside from the incredible industrial steam iron I got to use at my first industry job, the best one I've ever used in 20 years is the Black and Decker metal based iron I bought for $30.  It's heavy, simple, and has few parts that can break.  I highly recommend this iron.

2.  Thread Color. Matching your thread to your project may seem like an unimportant detail but I assure you that the closer your thread matches the fabric color the less anyone will notice the thread at all.  Unless you are purposely using a contrasting thread for design effects, the thread is something no one should notice.  If you use a thread that's darker or lighter than your fabric then any mistakes you make, such as uneven top stitching, will become more noticeable.

3.  Machine Tension. Your machine comes set at the average tension that is appropriate for sewing most things.  Over time the tension wheel can shift or the tension may need to be recalibrated by a professional sewing machine mechanic.  If the tension is off it's almost always the upper thread tension that needs adjusting.  The middle setting is generally appropriate (around 5).  Read your sewing machine manual for information on what settings are appropriate for different projects and test it out.

How to know if the tension is off?  If your thread is so tight that it puckers the fabric as you're sewing it, the tension is too tight.  If the seam is so loose that the thread is slightly loopy- the tension is too loose.

If you don't have a manual for your machine, take it in to get a tune up and make sure you ask the person who works on your machine to explain to you how to use the tension dial.

4.  Top-stitching give the whole show away. Any time you have to do top-stitching you have a chance to make your project/garment look more professional.  Top-stitching should almost always (unless specifically directed otherwise) be 1/8" from the edge.  It takes practice to make a clean even stitch but pay attention and you can do it well.  When you're just learning to do top stitching: go slowly!  Use a seam gauge to help you keep the stitching at the length from the edge you need until your eye learns to judge it without measuring.  Set the gauge at 1/8" and every couple of inches of sewing check the gauge against where your stitches are.  Pretty soon you won't need a gauge.

5.  Bulky seams are gauche. Although I have never been sloppy with my drafting or sewing when I'm doing it professionally, I have been known to get quite lazy with the projects I do for myself.  One the steps I have occasionally skimped on is trimming the corners of seams when a pattern directs me to.  Or trimming the seam allowance around curves where typically more bulk in the seam prevents it from laying flat around a neckline or armscye.  The lesson I learned is that neglecting to take these little steps resulted in a visibly bulky seam that looked bad.  Whenever instructions say "trim the fabric..." do it.

6.  Making the fit. One of the greatest benefits of sewing your own garments is that you can make clothes that actually fit you.  If you are able to buy a commercial pattern, sew it up with no adjustments, and fit in it perfectly you just might not be human and I am most certainly extremely jealous!  What you need to remember is that patterns are designed to fit average body types.  Most people aren't actually average.   The more you adjust a pattern to fit your figure specifically, the more professional it will look.  Each pattern includes instructions on how to make basic changes in fit.  Read these through.  Do test fittings as you sew your project.  Don't wait until you've sewn a waistband on to see if the waist size is really a good fit on you.  Hem length is easy to adjust in a pattern so if you're a little taller or a little shorter than average this is an easy detail to adjust.


How To Replace Weather-stripping On Doors

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old weatherstripping 2

If the weather-stripping on any of your outside doors looks like this, you need to replace it and now that the cold weather has arrived, if you haven't already done so, now is the time to tackle this easy project.  That gap between the door and the floor is big enough to let a lot of warm air out of a house which wastes energy and makes it harder to be comfortable inside.  It may seem that a little detail such as this can't make a big difference but the truth is, all the little ways your house lets heat out adds up to a big expensive picture.  Big gaps under doors is a great place to start sealing your house against the cold.

 tools for the job 2

The tools you will need: Power drill (or screw driver and hand drill)*, hack saw, metal file, scissors, pencil, replacement weather-stripping (door sweep) for doors, and possibly a tape measure.

 pencil marking 2

First Step: Using the reverse mode on your power drill with the appropriate sized screw driver bit, remove the screws from the existing weather-stripping and pull it off the bottom of your door.  Carefully line up one end of the old weather-stripping with the new and if they aren't the same size use a pencil to mark the difference in the size.  In my local farm store there was only one size of weather-stripping available ("standard") which fits a standard sized door such as a front door.  My kitchen door is narrower than a standard door so I had to cut my weather-stripping down.  If you don't need to cut yours to size, skip to the last step!

 cutting rubber 2

Second Step: Before you cut the metal part of the weather-stripping with a hack saw you need to cut the rubber sweep with scissors, as shown above.

hack sawing 2

Third Step: Use a hack saw to cut through the metal part of the weather-stripping.  I balanced mine over my sink but you can also use two saw horses to do the job if you have them handy.  Start sawing slowly and straight, once your cutting line is established you can go more quickly.  The main thing is to saw in a smooth straight motion, if you angle your saw at all it will get stuck.  When you've cut all the way through the metal, carefully feel the edge- if it's rough and there are any jagged bits, use a metal file to smooth them out.  You don't want to have anything sharp protruding from the bottom edge of your door where it can catch on socks or skin!

 marking the spot 2

Fourth Step: weather-stripping comes with pre-drilled holes, if you cut it down you will almost certainly need to add one to the cut end so that both ends of the weather-stripping are securely screwed to the door.  Use your old piece of weather-stripping to determine where the end hole should be.  Line it up evenly with the new piece and using a pencil, mark where the hole needs to be.

drilling 2

Fifth Step: Use a drill bit that matches the size of the hole.  You can figure this out by fitting drill bits into the pre-drilled holes until you find the right size.  Start drilling the hole.  Be sure to hold the drill with a steady hand because the metal will give some resistance at first.  Put some downward pressure on the drill but not so hard that it can bend the metal you're drilling through.

 drilled hole 2

Be careful to clean up the metal dust because it can be sharp!

weatherstripping 2

Sixth Step: Position your weather-stripping on the bottom of the door so that the rubber sweep just touches the floor.  You don't want the rubber to be low enough to bend or drag on the floor because it will be ruined quickly with all the opening and shutting of the door.  You want it to just make contact.  My floor is uneven, being an old house means many surfaces are not even, do the best you can.  Screw it into place using the holes provided (and the one you drilled if you had to customize the size).    That's it!

Project Notes: As you can see, if the door your working with is standard size, replacing old weather-stripping is unbelievably easy.  You just remove the old and screw on the new.  You may notice I didn't include any uses for the tape measure- yet it's on the list of tools.  This is because there may be rare instances where you are putting weather-stripping on a door that doesn't already have it.  In this instance you will need to carefully measure the bottom of your door to determine if you need to cut down your weather-stripping or not.


*We are a family who appreciates old  hand tools but having a power drill was one of the best home investments we've ever made.  If you don't have one, you can still do this project, but it will simply take more muscle power.  (Not that that's a bad thing!)

Cooking For Beginners: Shopping For A Recipe

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canned haggis 2

Before you head off to the store to shop for a recipe you need to pick an appropriate one.  If you are truly a beginner in the kitchen you may not know what to look for.  I am going to assume that you have got your hands on one of the books I recommended that every beginner should have on hand.  Decide first what type of recipe you're interested in making: a vegetable dish, a meat dish, dinner recipe, dessert?  Once you know what you have in mind look at the index of your all-purpose cookbook.  Most cookbooks are arranged by type of dish: meat, sides, mains, vegetable, will be able to see how it is arranged by reading through the index.  Open to the section most likely to have the type of dish you're interested in.

A few pointers on picking a recipe:

  • Look for a recipe with fewer ingredients. Fewer ingredients usually means a simpler recipe.  Try to find one with 6 or fewer ingredients for the first one you try.
  • Skim the instructions.  If the instructions have 25 steps to them, it is probably not a good recipe for a beginner to start off with.  Look for simple instructions.  Simple instructions are only a few paragraphs long.
  • Pick a dish that you are already familiar with eating and love.  This is important for two reasons: if you learn to cook all your favorite foods first you will have a much more rewarding cooking experience and will want to learn more and if you start off making dishes you are very familiar with you will be able to tell if you have made them well.  You will know what it should look and taste like.
  • Choose a dish with easily found ingredients.  As you become more experienced some of the excitement of cooking (for me) is to locate interesting sometimes exotic ingredients.  Trying new things is great- but when you're at the very beginning of this adventure you should first stick with ingredient lists that can easily be found at your grocery store.
Once you've picked the recipe you want to try you need to take a quick inventory of what you have in your cupboards before dashing off to the store.  When I was a very beginner cook I didn't have many staples in my cupboard because I mostly ate things like toast and boxed pasta and I also ate out at cheap diners quite a lot.  So I found myself having to buy a lot of basics for my "pantry" (which was nothing more than a couple of cupboard shelves).  Acquiring pantry items as you go along is the only way to do it.  I will (at the end of this lesson) list what I consider to be the bare bones basics of any pantry but every person who cooks has individual preferences and tastes that will directly affect what herbs and spices you will need to have on hand and what kinds of oils, condiments, and vinegars you might need.

My co-headmistress here at The Farmhouse Finishing School (Mrs. C) loves to cook Indian and Mexican inspired dishes and so she keeps more curry and exotic seasonings like tamarind paste on hand than I do.  You are more likely to find things like corn husks and masa harina on her pantry shelves than on mine where you will find more dried thyme than in anyone else's pantry because I can't get enough of thyme as a seasoning.  My preferred style of cooking is Mediterranean so I keep a lot of polenta, Kalamata olive,  and pasta on hand.  So don't buy a lot of things for your pantry ahead of time.  Build it slowly based on what you find you like to cook as you learn to make what you love eating.

Here are some tips on shopping for recipes:

  • Always make a list of what you need before you head out to the grocery store.  This is especially true for beginner cooks.  I remember when I first started shopping for recipes I was going to try and when you're not buying crappy boxed food anymore a whole crazy world of choices opens up.  It was so exciting and fun to me but also sometimes overwhelming.  I remember standing in front of the salt choices feeling stunned that there were so many kinds.  Having a list with you will help you focus on what you actually need and prevent you from forgetting essential items or overspending on things you don't actually need.
  • Buy herbs and spices in small quantities until you find yourself using them frequently enough to run out of them.  Buy them from the bulk section of the grocery store.  If the store you shop at doesn't have a bulk herb section, change where you shop!  Only buy enough for the recipe you're planning to make plus a little extra in case you need to remake the recipe or if you find your personal tastes demand a little more.
  • Even if it's much cheaper to buy an ingredient in a larger quantity, don't do this unless you know for sure it's something you'll be wanting to use a lot of.  It is easy to get excited about saving some money but if you don't use what you buy then you've actually wasted money.
  • When choosing produce: be choosy!!  Wait, let me say that again: be very choosy!!  How can you tell if the produce you're looking at is at its freshest and highest quality?  It can differ from item to item but there are some universal guidelines to follow.  If an item of produce has any of these: soft spots in an otherwise non-soft produce item, discoloration such as browning, sunken spots on the surface, limp to the touch, dry appearance, mold, insects hanging out on the surface, or a withered appearance- don't buy it.    If all the produce in the store you shop at looks like I have just described- find a new place to shop.
  • Choose organic everything whenever you can afford the option.  I (like so many I know) cannot afford to buy everything organic.  It is my opinion that everything should be organic in the first place but since it's not and since organic can be very costly, start with  your produce.  I am terribly fortunate to have a very reasonably priced organic CSA that is generous with their weekly portions.  If there is a farmer's market where you live- shop there.  You can usually find organic producers and sometimes you can find producers who don't have an organic certification but don't spray.  Ask farmers about their practices.  Farmer's markets are one of the very best places to shop for produce because what you will find at them is ALWAYS seasonal and fresh.
  • Read ingredient labels.  If you're going to bother cooking food for yourself you should choose the best quality ingredients you can afford.  Quality means the least amount of processing necessary for any given food item.  The following is a list of ingredients you should avoid bringing home to your kitchen:
1.  Artificial flavorings
2.  High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, etc.  (stick to plain sugar).
3.  MSG  I'm not allergic to it myself, though many people are, but I still avoid it because good     quality food doesn't need this flavor "enhancer".
4.  Preservatives.  There are a few preservatives that aren't harmful but most of them are.
5.  Unnatural coloring.  (no real food is bright blue, not even blueberries)

6.  Any "ingredient" that could only be replicated in a factory setting.

  • Be careful with sale items.  If you are on a budget and need to try to save pennies wherever you can, just be sure to check expiration dates on packaged foods, avoid old "clearance" produce (not usually worth the savings), and be sure that nothing has compromised the item such as a hole in the packaging or a banged up appearance, or dents in canned items.
If it would be helpful for you to have the above pointers with you while you're shopping, print this article out and bring it with you.  These are the kinds of things I would be telling you if I could go with you to shop for your first few home cooking adventures.

As I mentioned earlier, a pantry is a highly personal thing.  Building it up should be gradual and reflect how you like to cook, however there are a few items that nearly everyone should have on hand.  I will list them below, but keep in mind that this is my opinion only and every experienced cook will have different items they consider essential.  As always, if you have a really experienced cook helping to teach you then you should listen to them rather than me.  Having someone experienced at your elbow is the best possible way to learn to cook.

Pantry Staples (the bare necessities list):

Olive Oil

Vegetable Oil Wine

Vinegar (or rice vinegar if you prefer)

Salt (I prefer a grey salt or a kosher style salt with no additives but plain table salt is fine)

Pepper (it's best if you have a grinder and can grind it fresh, but preground is fine)

Baking Soda

Baking Powder (non aluminum kind is best)

Tomato Paste

Soup Broth (home-made is best but canned/boxed or bouillon is fine)

All Purpose Unbleached Flour (a couple of pounds of it to begin with is adequate)

Cane Sugar (a pound is enough to begin with)

Honey (8 oz jar is enough to begin with, make sure it's raw)

Mrs. C's particular pantry recommendations:

Italian Seasoning


If you missed the first lesson in the series "Cooking For Beginners" here it is: Cooking For Beginners: Cookbooks and Equipment

Soup Philosophy

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Every year, just when I'm in the middle of mourning the end of summer tomatoes, wearing my black band and draping my windows with the evidence of my sinking tomatoless spirits, a brisk shiver of cool air brushes across my skin and I drop the banners the flags and the weeds of loss as a single word crosses my mind in a kind of breathless joy:


Suddenly I have forgotten all about the tangy sweet tomatoes I've been in love with for weeks and I am happy again.  Soup!  Soup is absolutely one of the very best dishes on earth.  It is everything humble, simple, nourishing, inexpensive, hearty, healthy, uplifting, and homey.  I am aware that a soup can be made of $100 a pound lobsters and mushrooms that people have been shot for.  This doesn't change its humble nature.  Its simple entreaty to nourish yourself and heal your spirit when the winds are howling and the wolves are baying outside your door.

Soup is a chameleon, changing into whatever you need it to be: you  can devise a torturous 20 step soup that calls for 17 hard to find ingredients and takes 24 hours to make; you can make a soup with 5 ingredients in just a half an hour; you can use up all manner of old-ish vegetables from the cellar and feel like a king.  It's what you want it to be.  It's whatever you need it to be.

I'm not sure how old I was when I learned about the magical powers of soup but I do know that it was the first thing I learned to make completely on my own.  Split pea soup is one of my favorites and I have been known to make it when I feel low simply because making it uplifts my spirits, infuses me with renewed hope and calm.  The scent of the garlic and fresh dill is intoxicating and improves my health before it ever reaches my mouth.  Making soup is like  saying a prayer in the kitchen.  It is the only kind of prayer I know.

Soup is not only the first food I learned to make completely on my own, it is the first dish I learned to make by instinct and the first dish that my reputation for being an excellent cook was built on.

I have heard many a novice cook express the opinion that soups are difficult or a mystery to master.  I disagree in spite of the fact that someone once asked me for my recipe for vegetarian split pea soup and reported back to me that it didn't turn out.  When this curious person described what had happened I realized that there are many things about soup making that I take for granted and therefore don't think I need to explain.  I learned a lot from that exchange.

I am going to break down some of the components of successful soup making here for anyone who needs a little courage and knowledge.  These are merely my soup making rules and truths.  If you are learning to make soup and you have an excellent soup maker offering to teach you their own magic- trust them and let them teach you!  I am only putting my own soup philosophy here in case someone out there doesn't have a best friend or a grandmother to help them out.  I will be your guide if you need me.

In the beginning...

There is no soup in my kitchen that doesn't begin with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and an onion.  I saute the onion until it is slightly browned and transparent.  I often saute it with celery.  The reason I do this is because I often don't use a stock and browning an onion and celery at the start adds a little depth to whatever soup I'm making.

That's how all my soups begin.  If you don't like onions you can do exactly the same thing with leeks, scallions, or skip the alliums all together if you don't like them or are allergic to them.  If you're making a soup with many vegetables you can saute them all together at the beginning to get the same effect of deeper broth flavor.  Only do this if you aren't going to add beans or meat that needs a long cooking time.

The order of all things...

One thing to understand about soup is that most of them take between an hour and two hours to cook so it pays to be mindful of what vegetables should be added and when.  Some vegetables hold their shape longer than others.

Once you've sauted your onion and celery you add some water or broth.  If you're going to add beans to a soup that aren't pre-cooked then you will want to add the amount you need to the broth and cook them until tender.  You wait to add the other vegetables until they are tender so that you don't over cook anything.  Onions and celery can take the long cooking times.

Here's the order of things as they get added to my soup:

1.  Onions, celery, bay leaf, garlic.

2.  Carrots, potatoes, celery root, dried herbs, turnips, yams, rutabagas, parsnips, winter squash.

3.  Broccoli, Cauliflower, green beans, pasta.

4.  Summer squash, leafy greens.

Those lists may not be complete but they illustrate the hierarchy of ingredients and what order they should be added based on how quickly they cook and risk turning to mush.  Some things can be added at any time like fresh herbs.  The only fresh herb that should never be added until the very end is cilantro which tends to lose its flavor when cooked too long.

Liquid Assets: broth or water?

I have been making excellent soup for 20 years and it was only recently that I learned to make my own vegetable broth to use in soups.  You will read absolutely everywhere that using a broth of some kind is so essential to making soup successfully that if you use plain old water you will suffer such a deep disappointment that you will go into an immediate decline.  This is patently untrue.

I promise you: if you don't have any broth of any kind or any bouillon cubes to add to your soup you can still make soup that everyone will remember for a long time to come.

Don't be afraid.  Broth is generally made up of many of the same ingredients your soup will have in it anyway.  sauteing vegetables or meat and then deglazing with water will help deepen the flavor.  Use excellent quality herbs because these will also add a lot to the overall flavor.  Using the right amount of each different herb is something you develop an instinct for with experience.  Fresh is often the best.  Garlic is an excellent flavor enhancer in soup (be sure not to use so much of it that it overpowers everything else).

Having said that, I will say that it's absolutely true that using stock is ideal.  If you have a choice of using broth or using water: always use the broth!  I made two versions of the same soup in one week last year, one using no broth, the other using my homemade stock.  Everything was exactly the same except for that one detail.  Without knowing of my experiment my husband liked the batch made with the stock best.  So it does make soup better.  But he loved the other batch too- just not as much.

If you don't have broth a close second is to use a bouillon cube or two.  You can get them in beef, chicken, and vegetable flavors.

Then there's the question of how much to add.  Soup i so flexible that if you add too much liquid to it at first you can cook it a little longer until it steams off and thickens.  If your soup is too thick- add more liquid.  You get a feel for how much to add as you get more experienced but when you're still a new soup maker it's wise to add water in 1 or 2 cup quantities.  It is amazingly difficult to translate a soup recipe so that it tells you exactly the right amount of liquid you'll need to add.  Never assume that the amount the recipe calls for is correct just because it's printed on paper.  So many factors can influence this such as how hot you're stove is, how large your vegetables/meat are, and how long you cook it for.

Always add more liquid when you feel the soup has gotten thicker than you want it or let it cook down when it's too brothy for your taste.  You are in control of this.  Get comfortable winging it.

Size always matters...

The larger you chop your ingredients the longer it will take to cook them.

The smaller they are the faster they cook.

The issue with size is that if you are making a soup that's going to cook for a long time and you chop all your vegetables really small they will eventually break down into specks.  So if you want them to hold some shape and have a presence...cut them chunky.

For quick vegetable soups it is appropriate to dice your vegetables very small.  This is true of any soup you plan to puree.  No need for chunks then cut them small.

Cream in the pot...

Always add cream to soup as a last step.  If you simmer cream it will curdle.  Curdled soup has little charm.  When you make cream of potato leek soup you cook everything first then you puree it using your blender (not recommended) or an immersion blender (totally recommended) and then you add the amount of cream you want.  To warm it up later be careful not to bring it to a boil.  Heat it up gently stirring frequently.

What substitutions fail?

I'm not sure how many times in this article I have already mentioned the flexibility of soup but it needs saying again.  If you see a soup recipe that sounds great except for one particular spice or one ingredient it is almost always possible to leave it out or substitute it for something you like a lot more.  I would say that this is more true of soups whose whole character doesn't depend on one particular ingredient.  If you don't like potatoes you should probably not try to make cream of potato soup...then can substitute the potatoes with celery root and get the same type of never mind.  Don't be afraid to experiment.  Experimenting is the very best way to develop your soup skills.  Herbs and spices are like color- develop your personal palette!

A very long time ago I thought lentil soup was always curried or cumined up to its neck and since I am only an occasional curry fan I almost never made lentil soup.  Then one day I was reading a French vegetarian cookbook (yeah, I know!  Crazy!) and it had a recipe for a lentil soup that used thyme instead of curry and it sounded so good.  I made it and it was a revelation!  I loved it so much I have never made a curried lentil soup since because I am in love with thyme as a soup seasoning.

To get a good idea of what kinds of vegetables-meats-and seasonings go well together read a lot of recipes.  I read cookbooks for the joy of it.  It's where I get a lot of my food inspiration.  Though I rarely follow recipes in them explicitly any more I turn to them to give me ideas of things to pair together and new flavors to try.  There are a gazillion great food blogs online that you can read for free and if you like the old-fashioned feel of paper and enjoy the sound of turning pages- go to your local library and see what they have.  I have collected many cookbooks over the years but I can rarely afford to buy them now and I depend a great deal on my library which has a great cooking section.  Explore yours!

When the love grinds to a halt...

This is my last bit of soup philosophy to offer for the day:  if you make a soup that fails to please on every level, do not let this ruin the magic of soup for you.  Soup is a lot more flexible than gratins, souffles, or bread.  You will have more successes while learning to make soup than you will with any other food but there will still come a soup that stumps you.  I've had a few of my own colossal let-downs over the years but I think the most depressing one was a curried cauliflower soup I made that unbelievably ended up having NO flavor.  It's almost impossible to achieve a flavorless soup- yet I did it.  How is it possible to put curry in a dish and then not at least taste curry?  I don't know.  I will probably never know how that happened.  You just have to toss it to the pigs or lump it and eat it (this one was really inedible) or pour it down the drain.  I am poor enough now that I would probably eat it anyway.  Or make Mr. Williamson eat it.

The point is- for any failed soup experiment there are hundreds of successes to be had.  Everyone is capable of making a great pot of soup. When everything else in life feels poor and hopeless, as long as you have a bowl of soup you can be sure you're going to pull through!

Yam and Kale Soup with Coconut Milk and Curry Recipe Try this great warming soup!

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