What is it about a bowl of soup that makes everything better? Jewish households run on chicken soup, in Japan it's miso that delivers a sense of home and comfort, while in India a bowl of soothing dhal delivers the goods. When you're tired and cold and feeling a little frail, the undemanding simplicity of soup always hits the spot, with the bonus that it's usually a really cheap meal to prepare.

Chicken soup is sometimes called "Jewish penicillin", its reputed healing powers perhaps fuelled by the proteins and minerals extracted from the bones. Like all bone broths, chicken soup is rich in the amino acid glycine. Today glycine is thought to reduce symptoms in people suffering from conditions like ulcers, arthritis, insomnia and leaky gut syndrome, and research from Japan suggests it may also function as an anti-bacterial agent in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant H pylori infections that result in gastric ulcers.

Making chicken soup is as simple as boiling up a few chicken frames in water with a peeled onion, a bay leaf and a few peppercorns. A squeeze of lemon juice or a spoonful of apple cider vingear provides acid to help draw the minerals out of the bones. After a couple of hours, strain off and discard the bones, and either serve the broth as is, or add aromatic vegetables such as carrots, leeks and celery and carry on cooking until the vegetables are tender.

You can bulk it up with noodles or pasta, beans, chickpeas or other grains, and take it into numerous flavour pathways. Add pesto and tomatoes for an Italian-style soup, stir in canned tomatoes and chickpeas and Moroccan spices or smoked paprika for a Middle Eastern version, or go Asian with lots of shredded ginger, a splash of sesame oil and some chopped chilli, along with cooked noodles, bok choy and coriander.

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Dhal delivers its comfort in a different formula. A lot of the spices used in dhal are linked to ayurvedic remedies. Turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, mint, asafoetida (hing), black pepper, dried powdered ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne are among the ayurvedic spices that are considered to enhance digestion and metabolism, preventing digestive disorders such as gas and bloating. The lentils themselves cook up to silky smoothness, are easy to digest and a rich source of fibre.

Leftover bones and all those semi-dead vegetables in the bottom of the fridge are no longer throwaways when you know how to make soup. They can be transformed in so many fabulous ways, and when you're feeling hard up it feels extra good that you're not wasting anything. This week's recipes will set you on the right path.

Rib-Sticking Pea and Ham Soup

Ready in about 2¾ hours
Serves 8 as a main

1 large smoked ham or bacon hock
2 bay leaves
3 cups dried split green peas, rinsed and checked for stones
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Crostini or croutons, to serve (optional)

Place ham or bacon hock in a large pot with bay leaves and 14 cups (2½ litres) water. Bring to a boil, skimming off and discarding any scum that rises to the surface. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. While the meat cooks, place the split peas in a separate pot, cover with 6 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the water has almost evaporated (about 40-45 minutes). Lift ham or bacon hock out of cooking liquid, discard the skin, fat and bones and finely dice the meat. Return meat to the pot containing the cooking liquid and add the partly cooked peas, salt and pepper. Simmer gently until peas are fully broken down (about another 40 minutes). Adjust seasonings to taste and serve with crostini or croutons, if desired. This soup will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days or can be frozen.

Annabel says: I love the miraculous simplicity of this soup, which needs only two main ingredients. The peas break down in the last stage of cooking — suddenly the soup goes thick as they collapse and release all their starch. Make a double batch and freeze some.

Silky Pumpkin and Kūmara Soup

Ready in 30 mins
Serves 10

1kg pumpkin, peeled and cut into 3-4cm chunks
2-3 orange or golden kūmara, peeled and cut in 3-4cm chunks
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
250g mascarpone or cream (optional)

Place all ingredients except mascarpone or cream in a large pot, bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender (10 minutes). Remove from heat. Add mascarpone or cream, if using, and blend to a smooth puree with a hand wand mixer. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve.

Annabel says: This silky smooth soup is wonderfully soothing. You can take it in different flavour directions: for a Thai-style version add a spoonful of Thai curry paste and finish with fresh coriander, to make it Moroccan add a spoonful of ras el hanout or Moroccan spice mix and a garnish of dukkah, or to go French add a little grated orange zest and garnish with crispy fried sage leaves. If kūmara are expensive you can leave them out and use 1.6kg pumpkin.

Cabbage and Sausage Minestrone

Ready in 20 mins
Serves 4-6

400g can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed, or 1½ cups cooked beans
2 x 400g cans tomatoes or cherry tomatoes in juice
8 cups chicken stock
40g dried pasta shapes
1 tsp finely chopped fennel seeds
4 pork and fennel sausages
4 packed cups shredded cabbage
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp chopped parsley leaves, to serve (optional)
¼ cup finely grated parmesan, to serve (optional)

Sofrito flavour base
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 small leek, white part and half the green, sliced thinly
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme leaves

To make the sofrito flavour base, heat oil in a medium pot, add all other ingredients and cook until lightly softened (15-20 minutes). Discard bay leaf. (You can make this base in bulk and store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week or divide into cup-sized measures and freeze.) Add beans, tomatoes, stock, pasta and fennel and bring to a simmer. Squeeze small nuggets of sausage out of their skins into the soup, discarding skins. Simmer until pasta is almost tender (8-10 minutes). Just before serving add cabbage and cook until wilted (a further 3-4 minutes). Adjust seasoning to taste, ladle into warm bowls and sprinkle with parsley and parmesan if desired.

Annabel says: This soup is also great with diced chorizo instead of the pork sausage and kale instead of the cabbage. Replace the sausage with 200g diced chorizo and swap the cabbage for chopped de-stemmed kale or silverbeet. Be sure to add the vegetables right at the last minute so they don't overcook.