Who was it who first threw a few bones in a pot, filled it up with water and watched it bubble away until all the senses agreed that what was water had magically become soup?
A benefactor, to be sure, that unknown cook who discovered that just as wood warms twice -- once in the cutting and once in the burning -- so, too, does soup, filling the house with its comforting smells and filling up everyone who tastes it.
A truly good soup is one of winter's greatest pleasures, the center of a Sunday night supper served forth with a homemade loaf, a salad and dessert.
If you are the kind of person who plans ahead, you can prepare and freeze the beef, chicken or fish stocks which are the base for most soups. The stocks are simple to make, although the first one I attempted was not.
It was prepared under the instruction of a Tartar of a teacher -- a man who explained to us that as a young apprentice in France he had been allowed to do nothing but break eggs for the first six months of his service.
At his command we scurried to a restaurant supply house and bought out their 20-quart stock pots. The neighborhood butcher, a man who but a week before had had to explain to me how to cook a lamb chop, watched in amazement as I ordered up boxes of marrow bones, veal knuckles and pork rind. I chopped onions, carrots and celery. I wrapped bouquet garni in delicate little cheese cloth packages. And for three nights I canceled all engagements to stay home and watch my simmering pot.
The broth smelled heavenly, and I strained and refrigerated it only to be told, at our next lesson, that now it must be boiled away, cooked down into a thick, gelatinous glace de viand. Our teacher assured us it could be reconstituted; this way, he said, it took up less storage space. But after four days in the kitchen I wanted more to show for my efforts than a small container of gluey, flavorful gelatin, and I never made glace de viand again.
Nor have I ever taken quite so much trouble to make a stock. Although any cookbook will provide a recipe for stocks or broths, and you can be as elaborate as you choose, all you need are bones, onions, carrots, celery, perppercorns (eight or ten), five or six whole cloves, a bay leaf, a sprig or two of parsley, a little dried thyme and a long, slow cooking (although for fish stock, half an hour to 45 minutes will suffice).
Then the stock is strained and degreased, which is easier to do if you refrigerate it since the fat will congeal on the top and can be peeled off. If it lacks flavor, boil it down a bit, though not to glace de viande, and add salt to taste. Then freeze it or turn it into a Sunday night soup.
The beef stock can be the base for an onion soup, kept hot by a cap of melted, crusty parmesan. The chicken stock can become a thick vegetable soup or a delicate cream of mushroom, thickened at the last moment by heavy cream and egg yolks. The fish stock converts to a chowder or a garlicky bourride.
Invite a few friends, open a bottle of wine and be warmed twice over.