POCATELLO, ID – Winter is soup season. Curling up with a blanket, a good book or film and a mug of hearty soup is a popular zero fahrenheit pleasure.
Good soup is made from scratch. And when I make it, myriad cultural stereotypes filter through the ingredients into my mind.
Yesterday, I put together a simple chicken noodle soup, and I immediately thought of the Jewish stereotype so prevalent in stories and film. Jewish mothers make chicken soup when a family member is ill, the story goes. But I cheated. I didn’t boil a chicken with herbs and veggies. I took a shortcut. I sauteed a cubed chicken breast, diced carrot, chopped onion and celery in olive oil. When the chicken was well-cooked, I added a box of commercial chicken broth, let it simmer a bit, then added a handful of vermicelli noodles.
A satisfying meal with many pleasant accompanying thoughts of mothers comforting their children while a storm rages outside and a head cold is on attack.
Then there’s the hearty lentil soup recipe I found in a Mexican cookbook I was given as a gift years ago. Lentils and Mexico just don’t mix in my mind. Lentils bring on thoughts of France or even India, but here was a Mexican style Lentil soup using Chorizo sausage.
Snow was falling and the wind was blowing, so it seemed like a good day to give the soup a try.
I set a cup of lentils covered with water to simmer, and then the phone rang. A dear friend was suffering from a loss, so we chatted a while. Then my mother called. Usually, she states her business rather quickly and moves on. This time she wanted to talk. She bought a computer and was trying to figure out how to read and post on Facebook. She’s 93 and discovered she was missing out on photos and information about grandkids and great grandkids, so she is braving a foray into the digital world.
While we were discussing computer techniques, I smelled something burning. Yep, I had neglected the lentils, and they were burnt beyond saving. No lentil soup.
When my sons moved out on their own and got their first bachelor apartments, I was pleased when they called and asked for my recipe for potato soup, an Americanized version of Potato Leek Soup inherited a few generations back from the French side of my family.
I regarded the soup as a quickie dish that would feed everybody when I didn’t have time to make something more substantial. (The saying goes, if unexpected company arrives, just add another cup of water to the soup). Apparently, however, my kids regarded it as one of their favorites.
I guess I like it too because now that I live alone and pretty much have plenty of time to cook whatever I want, I still make it for myself. Sometimes I add a can of clams and turn it into “chowder”. My mother says a chowder must have corn, so sometimes I add a can or frozen package of corn and will even skip the clams.
After the onions or leeks are sauteed and the potatoes and liquid added, the soup is open to many interpretations and additions.
Over the years my recipe has evolved into a white vegetable soup with a chopped carrot and celery (the French mir pois) seasoned with either fresh basil from my garden or winter windowsill, a bay leaf, and/or dried oregano and pepper.
Of course all of these soups begin with chopping an onion. My favorite food writer (and one time correspondent) MFK Fisher once remarked at the number of recipes that begin “First, take an onion.”
Onions in all forms: Spanish yellow, sweet Walla Walla, red, or white bulbs; scallions and leeks, are the backbone of most soups and stews. Every fall, I buy a 25 pound bag of yellow onions and invariably, as I’m leaving the store someone will ask me what I could possibly do with that many onions, and I wonder how any kitchen could do without them.
If the last dozen or so start to go bad, there is always classic French onion soup to the rescue. I take pleasure in having an excuse to make it in my private Pocatello.