Have a soup-er New Year

Once upon a time, soup was something that only came from a can and in a handful of flavours.

pretty evergreen shrub Parahebe 'Avalanche'

Once upon a time, soup was something that only came from a can and in a handful of flavours.

After deciding whether you wanted tomato, cream of chicken, oxtail or mulligatawny, all that was left to do was warm it through, put it in a bowl and tear off some white bread to dip in it.

Comforting, definitely, but not exactly inspiring. There's also the connotation, because soup was often given to poorly children, that it's something you consume when you're ill. To this day, I can't eat Heinz chicken soup without thinking I'm missing school with a bad cold...

Soup has moved on since then, and we're familiar with all manner of varieties from all over the world. We have the big British broths and country farmhouse types, chunks of vegetables floating in delicious liquid. There's the robust, like French Onion soup, served with islands of toasted baguette and covered in melted cheese, or pea and ham - the rich pea texture cut by the saltiness of the pork.

Soup can be delicate, too, typified by the Japanese miso soup, or perhaps one using vegetables such as courgette, fennel and, perish the thought, nettles, which take on a gorgeous cabbage-like taste when cooked. Soup doesn't always have to be hot either, proved by gazpacho, the chilled Spanish vegetable variety.

Yep, soup really has been, well, souped-up.

There are a few things to bear in mind when making soup. First of all, the core veg at the base of it, known in French cuisine as the mirepoix and usually consisting of diced onion, celery and carrot.

If you dice a large onion, two carrots and two sticks of celery and gently fry in olive oil 'til soft, you have a base for many a soup. What you add then is entirely up to you.

You could throw in three or four sliced leeks and as many potatoes, then add a pint or two of stock or water and simmer for half an hour, whizz in a blender or use a handheld stick blender, and you'll have a delicious leek and potato soup.

Or instead of the leek and potato, add a load more carrots and a few liberal teaspoons of ground cumin before adding the stock, and you'll have a delicious carrot and cumin variety with a deep, almost curried flavour.

Alternatively, leave out the cumin altogether and, shortly before serving, finely chop up a big bunch of coriander and add that.

Think about what you're adding and be imaginative too. For example, if you want to make broccoli and Stilton soup, take your base veg, fry 'til soft, add the stock and bring to a simmer, then add the broccoli and cook for just a few minutes before allowing to cool slightly and blending. Don't over-boil the veg; it'll lose its flavour and, most importantly, with something as vibrant as broccoli, its colour too. When the soup's at the consistency you want, return to the pan and add crumbled chunks of Stilton.

There are a few ways to make soup fit for entertaining, too. A knob of butter stirred through before serving will add a glossy, restaurant-like lustre, while croutons look professional and add a pleasing crunch when eating. To make them, cube some bread, preferably a bit stale as it absorbs oil more easily, place in a roasting tray, drizzle with plenty of olive oil, season heavily and place in a moderate oven for 25 minutes or until crisp.

Some snipped chives and a swirl of cream also elevate the humble dish to new-found territories.

If you want to save a bit of money, soup's the perfect lunch to take to work with you. Make it in advance, invest in some plastic containers and freeze in portion-size batches. As long as your office has a microwave, you're going to see the savings in no time, and you'll have a more satisfying lunch than your colleagues!

Let's not forget the health benefits either. Soup's a great way to pack in your five-a-day and, providing you leave out the cream, croutons, butter and extra cheese, is very low fat and low-calorie, too. At the same time, you can make it as hearty a dish as you wish.

Here are three tasty recipes from the January issue of Good Food Magazine (Available now, priced £3.90).

Creamy chicken soup

(Serves 8)

1kg pack free-range chicken thighs, skin removed

300ml dry white wine

2 large onions, cut into large wedges

4 celery sticks, quartered

3 leeks, quartered

2 sprigs thyme, plus extra leaves for sprinkling

2 bay leaves

1tsp salt

½tsp ground white, or black, pepper

40g plain flour

300ml double cream

2l water

Put the chicken thighs in a very large, heavy-based pan and fry for a few mins, turning frequently to lightly colour them. Providing the heat's low, there's no need to add any oil. Pour in the wine, turn up the heat and boil rapidly to evaporate the alcohol. Pile in the veg and herbs, add one teaspoon of salt and the white (or black) pepper.

Pour in two litres of boiling water. Cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes until the chicken and veg are tender. Take out the bay leaves and thyme sprigs and cool for about 30 minutes.

Remove chicken from the soup, then strip the meat from the bones. Put all but 140g of the chicken back into the pan. Blitz the soup with a hand blender or in batches in a food processor until very smooth, then return to the pan.

Blend the flour and cream together with a couple of ladles of the soup, then stir the creamy mixture into the rest of the soup and heat, stirring continuously, until thickened. You can blitz again if it looks a little lumpy. Chop the remaining chicken and stir into the soup. Scatter with thyme leaves to serve.

Per serving: 347 kcals, protein 2g, carbs 10g, fat 23g, sat fat 13g, fibre 2g, sugar 5g, salt 0.9g

Red lentil, chickpea & chilli soup

(Serves 4)

2tsp cumin seeds

Large pinch of chilli flakes

1tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

140g red split lentils

850ml vegetable stock or water

400g can tomatoes, whole or chopped

½ x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Small bunch coriander, roughly chopped (reserve a few leaves to serve)

4tbsp 0% Greek yogurt, to serve

Heat a large saucepan and dry-fry the cumin seeds and chilli flakes for one minute or until aromatic. Add the oil and onion, and cook for five minutes. Stir in the lentils, stock or water and the tomatoes, then bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes until the lentils have softened.

Whizz the soup with a stick blender or in a food processor to a rough puree and pour back into the pan. Add the chickpeas, heat gently, season well, then stir in the coriander.

Serve with a dollop of yogurt and a few coriander leaves.

Per serving: 222 kcals, protein 13g, carbs 33g, fat 5g, sat fat none, fibre 6g, sugar 6g, salt 0.87g

Roast carrot soup with pancetta croutons

(Serves 2)

700g carrots, cut into batons

2tbsp olive oil

4 garlic cloves, skin on

Few thyme sprigs, plus extra to garnish

Small knob of butter

2 onions, finely chopped

700ml chicken stock, made up with 1 cube

6tbsp double cream

Salt and pepper

For the croutons:

6 slices pancetta

2 thick slices rustic bread, cut into soldiers (or sourdough)

Drizzle olive oil

Black pepper

Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Put the carrots, half the oil, the garlic and thyme in a roasting tin. Season and toss everything together. Pop in the oven and roast for 45 to 50 minutes, or until tender and beginning to turn golden.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil and butter in a large saucepan. Tip in the onions and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes until soft. When the carrots are done, remove from the oven. Squeeze the soft roasted garlic cloves out of their skins and pop in the saucepan. Tip in the carrots and discard any woody thyme stalks. Pour over the stock, bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

To make the croutons, wrap the pancetta around the soldiers, leaving the ends of the bread exposed. Put on a baking tray, drizzle with a little oil and grind over some black pepper. Bake for 10 minutes until the pancetta and bread edges are crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

While the croutons are cooking, blitz the soup with a hand blender, then sieve into a clean saucepan, pressing to get as much liquid through as possible. Add five tablespoons of the cream, heat through and season. Adjust the thickness with a little water, if you like. You can chill the soup for up to one day at this point, or freeze for two months. Reheat before serving. Serve drizzled with the remaining cream and the croutons, and garnish the soup with thyme.

  • The January issue of Good Food Magazine is available now, priced £3.90

Three of the best

Ready-made Yorkshire puddings

  • Tesco Everyday Value 15 Yorkshire Puddings, £0.49, Tesco
  • ASDA Chosen By You Yorkshire Puddings, £1 for pack of 12, Asda
  • Aunt Bessie's Golden Yorkshires, £1.64 for 12, available nationwide