Week of Soup: Anything Goes
Wow, I can’t believe it’s Friday. Know what that means? We’ve reached the end of SFTF’s Week of Soup – already! I have to say this has been one of my favorite weeks to date here on the blog. I mean, how could it not be? I love soup. And many of you do too, it seems, from all your great feedback!
Back on Monday, when this whole affair started, I mentioned that I’d be ending the week with a little self-challenge to prove that making soup doesn’t require a fancy recipe as long as you have the basic blueprint for building your own. While I observed that anything can go into soup from watching my mom, I really learned this basic soup blueprint from a wonderful woman named Mary. About a decade back (gosh, writing that makes me feel old), I did a stint in Northern Ireland – Belfast to be exact. I was studying at Queen’s University and just soaking up life in my favorite part of the world (I’d been there before and I’ve definitely been back since…there’s just nothing quite like it).
Since renting a flat there wasn’t cheap and my savings were meager, I needed a job and set out looking for one right away at some of the cafes with “help wanted” signs in their front windows. I guess my accent turned them off as I didn’t get a single bite. Dejected, I walked the 20 or so blocks back home to save the cab fare. Just across from the university’s campus where I’d be studying in a few weeks, I saw what I thought was a used book store. Nothing, save for a good piece of chocolate cake, cheers me up like browsing the dusty shelves of a used book store. I pushed open the heavy red door and entered a world that would, over the coming months, literally re-shape who I was.
Bookfinders, as it turned out, was really a tiny bookstore in the front and a cave of a café in the back, presided over by Mary, a chain-smoking, outspoken, aged-beyond-her-years, passionate-as-heck cook/owner. I sat down for a bowl of her Five Spice and Courgette Soup and, even though there was no sign in the window, immediately knew I had to work there to learn how to make that soup.
Back then, I was a timid country mouse, not used to going after the things I wanted with the same bull-headedness I possess today. I shyly approached Mary, who was obviously in charge, and hesitantly asked if she might be looking for some help. I’m not sure why she hired me. I came to find out she didn’t need the help. I think she wanted to see what I was made of…to see if she could put some fire in my bones. Or maybe it was just because she, unlike the rest of the Belfast population, enjoyed hearing the American accent.
Someday I’ll write the novel that my time at Bookfinders deserves, including its entire cast of characters – Jo (crazy Aussie trying to find her way home), Neil (ridiculously talented concert pianist gone slightly mad), Maeve (second-tier British royalty with the most lovely personality) and the other Mary (wizard behind finding the most obscure old books for the operations up front). But all you really need to know about now is the way my time in the tiny kitchen in the back changed my cooking habits forever.
Remember that Five Spice and Courgette Soup that lured me in? There was no recipe. It just followed the blueprint, as did all of Mary’s other ridiculously addicting soups that brought our regulars back day after day. So much of what Mary served just came from the heart – what was she in the mood for that day; did she feel like running to the shops; was Neil coming for a visit and would he be wanting one thing over another; could she really be bothered to cook when it was so damn cold/hot out?
Each day we wrote out the ever-changeable menu on the chalk board and almost always sold out of everything. By the end of my tenure there, I was practically running the kitchen while Mary was fluttering about, loving her customers and loving life. See, she taught me how to cook with passion, instead of just following recipes, and that’s all I needed to know to duplicate her soups and more. Well, that and the blueprint.
1. Heat your fat (oil or butter or lard) in a large soup pot
2. Sauté any combination of garlic and onions
3. Add pinches of salt and pepper with each addition of ingredients in order to build your flavor
4. Add any combination of vegetables and continue sautéing
5. Add your dried herbs and spices and continue sautéing
6. Add your stock, at least enough to let the vegetables swim freely
7. Bring to a boil
8. If you want any pastas or grains, add them now.
9. Reduce to a simmer and cook until everything’s soft and happy – usually about 30 minutes
10. Add fresh herbs during the last ten minutes of cooking
11. Blend if you want a smooth soup and/or add cream if you want
12. Taste and season with more salt and pepper
13. Taste again!
14. If you wanted meat in there somewhere, depending on if it’s cooked or raw, add it in either step two (to brown beef), six (to cook chicken), or ten (for cooked anything)
Which brings us right back to the evening of January 17, 2008, and my challenge to myself: No recipe. No planning/shopping. Make soup. And darn good soup it turned out to be!
My Week of Soup Challenge: Herbed Tofu and Vegetable Soup
Definitely a Straight from the Farm Original
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 small onions, chopped
1 c. chopped carrots
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 c. diced tomatoes (I used canned)
2 t. dried marjoram
1 t. dried oregano
1 T. frozen basil puree or 2 T. fresh chopped
4 c. vegetable stock
1 c. small noodles or other pasta
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, finely minced
1 package of extra firm tofu, drained and diced
1 large scallion, sliced thin
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large heavy sauce or soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion. Stir and add a pinch of salt. Keep an eye on the onion and garlic while you chop the carrots and celery; when onion is translucent and garlic is browned, add the carrot and celery. Stir and add a pinch of pepper this time. Saute vegetables for about four minutes until they are beginning to soften. Add the diced tomatoes, oregano, marjoram and basil (if using frozen, otherwise save any fresh herbs for later in the process), stir and cook for another minute or two. Add another pinch of salt and pepper.
Add vegetable stock, raise heat and bring soup to a boil. Add pasta and turn down heat to medium again. After pasta begins to soften up (about 2 minutes), add the tofu, white parts of the scallion, and rosemary (if using fresh basil, add now too). Allow soup to simmer for about 10 minutes so the flavors meld. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as needed. Serve garnished with the green slices of scallion.