In college I lived in a house where I was the only female resident among a largish group of guys. Along with assorted boyfriends, girlfriends and hangers on, our house became a hang-out for a lot of people, and we regularly sat down with 15-20 people for dinner. Our food budgets, however, were not of the sort that made this easy – but we managed mostly by feeding everyone soup, more or less all the time. The household was vegetarian and kosher, and we were young and experimental, and almost nothing seemed weird. As one of the chief cooks in the household, I made soup out of nearly everything. I count this soupy education of mine – pleasing many palates cheaply and imaginatively – as one of the best lessons I ever learned.
I made miso soup rich with mushrooms, ginger and tofu, roasted garlic soup, cream of carrot, cream of broccoli, curried cream of cauliflower and parsnip, perfected a vegetarian soup broth that tasted like turkey stock (the only problem is that I didn’t record what I did and I no longer remember how I did it!) and made matzah ball soup, made cabbage soup, rich, hearty winter borscht and tangy cold summer-style, hot and sour soup, Tom Kha Kai, mulligatawney and bean soup every which way.
I still make soup all the time, especially in winter. Meat is now part of our diet so there are Laotian-style chicken soups, and polish-style sausage, cabbage and potato soup, along with rich North African-style lamb broths, and once in a while, a deep, deep beef broth that gets made into wine-laced onion soup. When there is sustainable fish I make a clear fish broth or corn and fish chowder that my children beg for. In the cold months if I don’t know what there is for dinner, most likely there will be soup, because the ingredients are always in the root cellar. Chop some onions and brown them, add carrots, parsnips, maybe turnips, some cabbage, certainly garlic, maybe celery root, green herbs from the windowsills – parsley, fresh bay and lovage, perhaps or a bit of dill or mint, some sage and rosemary instead, add some leftover broth or roast some vegetables and cover with water to make vegetable broth, add in any thing else that seems wise – beans, a bit of meat (you don’t need much to make soup for six that will give you lunch the next day as well), coconut milk or curry paste for some soups, citrus or vinegar for others, some kale from the garden turned sweet with cold, simmer on the back of the cookstove, and you’ve got soup.
All it needs is bread (which we always have) or biscuits (which we have if we don’t have bread, since they are so quick), or maybe a muffin or pumpkin loaf. Or it could just have brown rice stirred into laotian chicken soup or avgolemono, or noodles – dry pasta if I’m lazy, but if I’m feeling energetic, or it is too cold to go far from the stove, homemade noodles, sliced and tossed in. Or dumplings – one has to have a kind of ambition, but the rewards of kreplach or wontons are terrific.
Dinner is done, and dinner can be smelled from the top of the house now where I work in my chilly office. If we will be out for the day with no fire it can go in a crockpot in winter or the sun oven in summer (and even often in spring and fall). If guests come to dinner unexpected, I can add some more tomatoes or noodles or rice or broth and make it stretch from feeding six to feeding 20 in a matter of minutes.
There is something about soup that feeds both your body and spirit in winter. Why else then would soup inspire the universal gesture, in which we break our bread above it and speak the blessing “Ah” as the steam rises up to meet us?
Anyone want to share a favorite soup recipe? Lentil-kale here tonight!