COTIB soup. It goes by many names:
Clean Out The Ice Box soup.
Clean out Your Cabinets, or COYK soup.
Kitchen sink soup (as in, “Everything But The …”).
They all describe the same thing: A soup recipe that’s really more of a suggestion. In my opinion, it’s the most wonderful soup of all, particularly because it’s never the same and almost always delicious. It’s a soup that, for me, reminds me of my dad each time I make it.
Dad always had a vat simmering away on the back of his stove in the kitchen of the little building beside the farmhouse where I grew up. We all called that building “The Shop.” It’s where he cooked, greeting customers and hung out with all the other old farmers of the county that would come to visit.
Dad was born in a farmhouse my grandfather had built in 1900. As the 11th of 12 children, and a child of the Great Depression, Dad hated to see anything — and I mean anything — go to waste. There were always collections of things lying about: paper bags, glass jars, string, rubber bands, extra boards, Ziploc bags — you name it. Christmas mornings took FOREVER because he would want us to “save that nice paper.” But I digress.
Dad’s shop was his lair. There, he cured hams, made homemade sausage, scrapple and various other old-school pork products. He’d pickle … and can … and experiment. Many experiments were done only to be able to keep things from going to waste. We had, oh, five acres of tomatoes and he wouldn’t want to waste a single one. He was often found meticulously cutting up the unsellable vegetables — those that were a little droopy, were beginning to go bad, had spots or were oddly shaped. I could always find him out in the retail area of the farm, digging around in the baskets of “bad” tomatoes, grumbling, “There’s nothing wrong with these.” He’d then take them to his shop and create something wonderful.
I have a very distinct picture of my father in my head. He’s sitting at his sink on a beat up bar stool with his apron and red suspenders on, salvaging the good bits out of tomatoes, onions, peppers and potatoes — whatever was in season. It was from stuff like this that he made his trademark “Bloody Mary Mix”: a concotion of tomato juice, bell peppers and onions to which he added some cayenne pepper to give it a kick. He’d write on the lid with grease pencil to let you know how hot it was. “Creepy” and “Sneaky” were my favorite descriptions. Washingtonian Magazine actually named it the best bloody mary mix in the area. But again, I digress.
I was Dad’s “surprise” child. He was 50 when I was born, and though he and I had a great cultural gulf between us, we also shared a great love for each other. It took me a while to figure out that the way he showed how much he cared was through his food, his joy of cooking and life. Taking humble, overlooked ingredients and making something great. This was a great life lesson for me. Quite often it’s the humble things — ingredients, ideas, people — that often create the most amazing things.
This soup was one of those creations, rich with ham bone stock and packed with vegetables. It wasn’t anything fancy, but somehow, it was always the best soup ever. And it was never the same. Sometimes the soup would have summer squash and onions, sometimes turnips (not my favorite, by the way — sorry, Dad!) But most of the time it was filled with tomatoes, peppers, beans and potatoes. Dad liked to add a bit of kick with that dash of cayenne to the soup, too.
So, this soup-without-a-recipe has become my go-to when I want to have something warm, wonderful and comforting. And when I have a bunch of veggies that are just not worthy of serving by themselves, but are still salvageable in soup form.
As much as I try to keep quantities in check, I often end up with a large pot simmering away on the back of the stove, just like dad did. It freezes well and makes wonderful lunches.
And, just like Dad, I like to give it to people I love.
Clean Out The Icebox Soup: General Suggestions
Approximately 4 cups chicken broth (or beef, or ham … or vegetable)
14 ounce canned tomatoes (whole, peeled or crushed are my preferences)
leftover rotisserie chicken, ham, sausages, etc.
leftover cheese rinds from parmesan or good hard cheese, chopped fine
salt and pepper
preferred spices (I say this because sometimes I want it more Italian (oregano), or more French (herbes de Provence), who knows … I’ve even used old bay! And of course, I have to add a bit of cayenne like Dad did.)
Look in the corners of the refrigerator for bits and bobs of vegetables and leftovers that may be good when used in soup. If some of the vegetables look a little sad, it’s okay, just chop off the sad part and put in the soup. But if they are completely rotten, don’t use! It’ll ruin the soup.
Chop the veg into roughly the same size pieces.
If I’m feeling ambitious, I will sautée my onions in olive oil and a little bit of butter until soft and golden. Then add the broth, tomatoes (with their juices) and the potatoes.
Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium, simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and the meats. Add a bit of water if the soup is getting too thick (stew-like). Simmer for bit – about 15 minutes – and taste. Add salt, pepper and spices to taste. I try to be light handed with the salt, nothing is worse that a too-salty soup!
Simmer until the liquid thickens a bit, the potatoes are fork-tender and you can’t wait any longer. Serve piping hot with yummy bread or crackers.