Hey, millennials self-isolating and trying to feed yourselves for the first time? I see you. Getting into the kitchen can be daunting, but making something that’s relatively healthy and tasty is easier than you might think. Trust me; as an elder millennial raised like our latchkey kid older siblings the GenXers, I regularly make meals that have been hailed as “good” and “what is that?” To make things easy on you, I’ve stolen the concept of everyone’s favorite book series, Choose Your Own Adventure, and applied it to a food that is both easy to make and good to have on hand if you get sick: soup.

Step One: Getting the Gang Together

Tell me of an action movie without an “assembling the team” montage, and I’ll tell you to throw it in the trash where it belongs. If you’re going to make dinner, you need to get all the boys back in town (or in human words, you need to get the ingredients organized). Chefs call this the mise en place if you want to get French and impress people. In no particular order, here are the players you'll need:

The Wet
The most important feature of soup is obviously that it is, well, wet. Here are some options to make your soup wet:

  • Homemade stock: I don't make my stock because I'm fancy, I make it because I am lazy and a cheapskate. All you have to do is keep your vegetable scraps. Potato peels? Yes. Carrot tops? Also yes. Onion skin? You bet. If it's attached to the vegetable and you're not going to eat it, put it in the bowl. When it's full, dump it into a gallon-sized ziplock bag. When two of those bags are packed, drop them into a big pot, cover with some water, make it boil, and then cook it on the lowest setting while you binge watch something on WGBH Passport. Strain it, throw away the mulch (or compost) and voila: stock. You can also add animal bones if you're not a vegetarian.
  • Canned/boxed broth
  • Bouillon cubes and water

I don’t have broth, Jackie, who do you think I am, Julia Child? Do you have a can of diced tomatoes? Great. Put that in your pot, then fill the can up with water a few times and add that too. Don’t have tomatoes? Start with water. Either way, if this is you, you’re going to want to double down on the flavor.

The Veggies
We’re trying to be healthy, ok? I don’t need to tell you vegetables are good for you. You can choose whatever you want, try to have a mix of colors, flavors, and textures. Here are things I often include when I make soup:

  • Root veggies: potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets: if you’ve got them, these will add more substance and color. Potatoes don’t freeze great, so if you’re making this for a rainy day, avoid those.
  • Greens: fresh or frozen. If they’re fresh, wash and rough chop them (wack with a big knife, don’t cut yourself).
  • Other stuff: tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, peas - the world is your oyster here. Just put in things you like and don’t go too crazy.

The Protein
Look, you CAN have soup without protein. But, we’re making this bad boy to fortify our weak mortal bodies: you’re going to want some protein.

  • Chicken, beef, and pork: chicken is a classic for a reason, but you can put any meat in your soup. Cut it into bite-sized chunks or get it pre-ground up.
  • Sausage and bacon: Instagram food influencers tend to avoid these because they have more fat, but you know what? Fat is just fine in reasonable quantities, and it makes stuff taste good. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Beans: you probably have these in a can. Nice work! Take the lid off, drain, and rinse.
  • Tofu: take it out of the package, drain it, and cut into bite-sized chunks.

The Carbs
You don’t need to add a carb, but they make the soup heartier, so why not?

  • Noodles: a classic. I like egg noodles or small pasta shapes, but you know what, this is your soup. If you want to put spaghetti in it like a weirdo, who am I to judge?
  • Rice: it's delicious, and you probably purchased a big bag during your “I’m about to be stuck inside” shopping trip anyway.
  • Quinoa: this heavy-hitter has both carb and protein, so if you skipped the protein, no one needs to know.

You can literally add any grain or pasta to your soup. Couscous? Yum. Barley? Sure! Faro? Oh, you fancy, huh? Literally. Any. Grain. Or. Pasta.

The Flavor
You don't want to make flavorless soup. When you're sick, everything becomes bland because you can't smell; don't make it worse, or dinner is going to feel like drinking a whole Nalgene of warm water (i.e., gross).

  • Alliums: onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots all fall under this category. They might give you bad breath, but who cares, you’re self-isolating! It’s almost impossible to have too much of these guys, so load up.
  • Spicy: hot peppers, pepper flakes, cayenne powder, mixes like cajun seasoning, and ginger fall into this category. This is your soup, so make it as spicy as you want it to be. If you’re using a fresh pepper, remember that the ribs (the spongy white dudes inside) are where the spice lives, so you can keep that or remove it according to your preferences. When finished, WASH YOUR HANDS VERY CAREFULLY. You do NOT want to get that in your eyes or anywhere else.
  • Spices: surely you have powdered spices, chuck some in your soup! Classic additions would be cumin, basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.

Look, it’s 2020, everyone knows what umami is, right? This category will make your soup have depth and some funk. Some options: anchovies, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, marmite, capers, kalamata olives, miso.

And we all know too much salt is bad for you, but you need it to make the soup taste good. Add it after you’ve put in umami if you’re using that, so you don’t add too much.

Onions in Pot
Yes, my onions are frozen, don't worry about it.

Step Two: Getting the Job Done

You have assembled the most fantastic team possible. Now what? This is where things get very easy because you're just putting everything in a big pot and heating it. It's pretty hard to mess up, as long as you keep everything simmering (little bubbles) for long enough for everything to cook, but here's a basic order to increase your chances that the soup is good soup instead of just soup:

If you’re using meat, cook it in the pot first. If the meat has fat in it (most ground meat, bacon, sausage), you might not need to add anything. If it doesn’t (lean ground meat, chicken, turkey) add a splash of olive oil or butter. Get the pot hot, and then brown the meat, because that will add more flavor. If some sticks to the bottom of the pan and browns, that’s ok!

Add your alliums next so that they can soften and release their flavors. Then, add some of your liquid and use a big spoon to gently scrape the bottom of the pan to release stuck-on bits. Once you’re done scraping the pan, add the rest of the liquid.

Carbing up? This is your time to shine. Find out the cooking time for whatever you’re using, and let it boil in the soup for one minute less than that. You’re going to want to put in a lot of your carb. Resist that impulse. They will expand, and if you put too much, you’ll end up with a weirdly moist pasta dish or risotto, and not soup.

Next, you want to add vegetables in order from hardest to softest. So for example, if you’re using carrots, peppers, and spinach, but in the carrots first, let them cook until you can stab them with a fork, and then add the peppers and spinach. If you don’t do this, the soft items will get mushy or disintegrate, while the hard things stay crunchy, and that’s gross. If you’re using a non-meat protein, add it in using the same principle (so in this example, beans after carrots but before peppers and spinach; tofu after peppers but before spinach).

Now it’s time to go to Flavortown, population: YOU. This is where the soup gets fun, so enjoy it. Worried some combinations won’t go together? Smell them. If they smell weird together, don’t do it. Always add a little bit at a time, so you don’t add too much, and taste the soup after every addition. Get a new spoon every time if anyone other than you is going to eat this.

Happy with how your soup tastes? All done! Are you saving the soup for later? Freeze it in individual servings, so you don’t have to thaw a whole pot at once.

And there you have it: a Choose Your Own Soup-er Adventure. Enjoy your delicious nectar of health, and send me a picture of your recipe on twitter @jkbruleigh.