SANTA FE, N.M. — I have a crazy collection of soup bowls. Dozens of deep café au lait bowls I picked up at flea markets and brocantes across France. Terracotta ones from a family-owned pottery in Gascony. Shallow, more elegant bowls, hand-painted in blue and white, all of them a century old at least. Plus oversize vintage French spoons and smaller, rounder English ones, and a more modern set from Italy that I use every day.There are certain bowls and spoons for certain soups. I often put orange soups in blue bowls because I like how the colors look together, and I always serve chili or anything chunky in the deepest bowl I’ve got. But these aren’t rules. They’re just my ways of celebrating soup, of making it even more special.There’s a special kind of alchemy in soup-making, from the moment the onion begins to soften in the butter or oil. In that instant, you already know something wonderful is happening, because your nose will tell you. The key is to take your time and not just dump everything in the pot. A soup’s flavor must be coaxed out a bit. Add a vegetable or two at a time, let them cook, then add some more. And so on. Soups have a built-in wait time, and are often better the next day. Soups are great any time of year, but in my world, fall is the official kickoff of soup season, which is something I learned in France. (Soup nerd alert: The French are crazy about soups — first known as restoratifs, bowls of broth served to weary travelers in the 18th century, which is how restaurants came to be.) As the weather turns cooler and the leaves begin to turn, there are mushrooms to be gathered in nearby forests and made into a creamy, earthy soup. Potimarrons, the small red-orange pumpkins that taste like chestnuts, make the best soup (and fine-tasting tartelettes, too). And if I’m feeling too lazy to even go into the kitchen, there’s the best soup of all, available at most any brasserie — soupe a l’oignon, or French onion soup — but it must be made with the richest of broths and have the right kind of bread (a crusty, thick country-style piece) on top. Soup is all about the details. There are thin, brothy soups and consommés. Soups with cream called veloutés. Blended soups with or without cream, sometimes thickened with a starchy potato, beans or bread. Or chunky vegetable soups, called potages in France. Here in the U.S., we have stews, thick soups usually with chunks of meat added. All of them are healthy, filling and usually not very expensive to make.How to go from making so-so soups to spectacular ones? First, make your own stock. (Yes, really. It’s not hard at all.) Save carcasses, and make a great chicken stock from the bones — or start from scratch and make an even richer-tasting one with a whole chicken or parts (I’ve been making mine lately from packages of legs because they’re super-cheap, about $2.50 for eight).Ditto on the veggie stock. Use scraps — carrot tops, ends of onions, celery leaves, parsley stems — and let your stock simmer while you’re doing something else. Stock does take time, but once it’s on its way, it doesn’t need a babysitter.If you want a super-smooth soup, the blender is the way to go. It’ll give you the most velvety and elegant texture; otherwise, a hand blender will puree just fine. I often reserve some of the soup, like in the chipotle black bean soup (recipe follows), blend most of it, then add a bit of chunky back in. It’s prettier this way, and it lets you know what you’re eating (hello, little black beans). Sure, you can thicken soups with cream or a flour-water mixture, but I like to keep soups light and use a starchy potato, beans (such as cannellini) or lentils to give them added texture or thickness. Whatever you do, don’t serve soup naked. Whether you’re making a chunky veggie soup or a smooth one, remember to dress up your soup when you serve it, even if it’s as simple as crushed pistachios, as I use in the carrot-apricot soup.Think texture and color. Imagine what’ll be a nice contrast and what might complement the soup and its flavors. The broccoli soup is a straight-up blended veggie soup — but it’s anything but boring when you add a spoonful of ricotta to each bowl, along with tomates confites. The soup isn’t creamy on its own, but the ricotta added at the end makes it so, and the little roasted tomatoes give the soup a nice sweetness and pop of color. Pretty!But not fancy. I’m not suggesting that. No matter what kind of soup we’re talking about, soups are by nature comforting things, and they make you feel at right home no matter where you happen to be. I don’t know of anything else that’s as transformative as soup.
Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent” (Running Press, $25). Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on cowgirlchef.com.