Over the top: how to liven up soup

Anna Berrill

What can I do to soup to make it more interesting?
Helen, Oxford
“You could really go down the rabbit hole with this,” says Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes of Lisboeta in London. Soups are transformed by the addition of crunchy, creamy, fresh and/or herby things, he says, but you can go as simple (yoghurt, soft-boiled eggs, toasted nuts) or fancy (fish tartare) as you like. Smooth vegetable soups always welcome some extra veg at the end, Mendes says – he suggests finely dicing some more of the veg you used as the base for the soup, then mix it with fresh herbs and lemon zest and spoon on top. “Or blitz raw cauliflower or broccoli into ‘couscous’, season and add herbs,” he adds. Veg scraps, too, can give many a soup a lift, says Lucy Carr-Ellison, co-founder of Wild by Tart: “Use carrot tops to make a pesto, or shred raw beetroot tops and mix with olive oil and lemon juice.”

Root veg soups pair happily with fruit in various guises. Mendes floats orange segments on top of his borscht-style beetroot soup, then tops it with a little olive oil and chervil, for instance, while Ramael Scully, executive chef and co-owner of Scully in London, suggests a scattering of pomegranate seeds pickled in red-wine vinegar, pomegranate juice, sugar and a touch of water to go on top of pumpkin soup. Ferments, too, will give the likes of rich parsnip soup a welcome kick, with Mendes adding chopped kimchi, brown butter and toasted pine nuts to his.

Dukkah is Noor Murad’s main trick for adding texture to soups that “get boring after a while”. The co-author of Ottolenghi Test Kitchen’s Extra Good Things says: “Use whatever nuts, spices and seeds you have. I toast cumin and coriander seeds, dried oregano, paprika and a combination of nuts [hazelnuts, pine nuts, peanuts and/or almonds], then roughly crush.” Sabrina Ghayour, author of Persiana Everyday, meanwhile, rubs chickpeas with garlic granules, curry powder and a swig of oil, then roasts them until they’re crunchy and strews on top for a “chewy, crispy vibe”. As an added bonus, “You can use them in sandwiches and salads, too.”

And that’s the nice thing about soup toppers: they can be repurposed in a multitude of dishes. Scully’s mixed seed cluster is another example: “Mix pumpkin, sunflower and nigella seeds in a bowl with light olive oil, maple syrup, salt and chilli flakes, then toast in a pan,” he says. Transfer to a greased tray and bake low for 20-30 minutes. “The trick is to stir the seeds, so they don’t burn. Treat them like granola.”

Leftover roast chicken could be shredded and used to top pho, for example, Carr-Ellison says, while crisp pancetta is a winner when mixed with walnuts, olive oil and parsley, and spooned over all manner of root veg soup. Chouriço is Mendes’ preferred way to crown caldo verde (Portuguese potato and greens soup); he’s also been known to top toasted broa (cornbread) with spreadable smoky chouriço and floating that on top. Croutons deserve an honourable mention, too. Murad lightly fries sourdough in olive oil and za’atar (“you could toss them in roast chicken dripping, too”), while Melissa Hemsley favours halloumi cubes fried in butter, ghee or oil until golden.

Essentially, there are almost as many ways to top a soup as there are soups themselves, but if Helen’s still in doubt, Ghayour suggests “going to your favourite snack”, be that toasted corn or crisps. Just be sure it won’t disintegrate (I’m looking at you, Quavers).