24 September, 2008

Soup, from scratch.

Winter is coming; the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and I've got soup on my mind.

It's one of my favorite foods. I prefer homemade, but there are some canned soups I'll enjoy without hesitation. Campbell's Alphabet, for example: My mom used to give us that for lunch on cold, rainy days when I was a kid, and I still associate it with warmth and comfort. And I can be perfectly happy with a soup based on premade broth and a half-hour of simmering.

But my favorite kind of soup of all is the kind that's made "from nothing," as my mother says.

Soup is not just food, it's a kind of culinary alchemy. One starts with little more than water, salt, and the humblest of scraps and roots. Time and seasoning and a careful hand transforms them into an ambrosia that nourishes the body and the soul.

I'd type in a recipe but it would be pointless. That kind of soup isn't made from a list of ingredients and an instruction sheet; it forms slowly, at a simmer, from cast-off bits and overlooked trimmings and sometimes, from necessity. It gradually reaches the fullness of its flavor and fills the kitchen with an aroma that speaks directly to the blood, summoning memories across generations from the earliest open fires driving back the cold and the darkness from the edge of the hearth. The best I can do is take pictures so we can imagine we're together in my kitchen, spending an afternoon making a pot of beef vegetable soup. Pull up a chair. This kind of soup is the epitome of Slow Food, and we're going to take some time.

We'll start with some bones. I use whatever is cheap at the market, or whatever I have stored in the freezer from trimming a larger cut. For this pot of soup, I'm using a beef knuckle that has a decent bit of meat clinging to it, as well as some gristle, cartilage, and fat. The butcher has sawn this bone in half down the middle to make it easier to brown.

We'll need a little fat to brown the meat in, so first off let's trim some of the extra fat off the bone and put it in the bottom of a heavy stock pot over medium heat. We'll render out some of the fat, slowly so it doesn't burn, turning the chunk of fat frequently as it browns. When we have a couple tablespoons of fat in the bottom of the pan, we'll take the fat out and put the bones in.

Keep the heat on medium as we turn the bones to brown all sides. We want a nice dark brown all over, even on the cut sides of the bones, to give the soup flavor.

While the bones are browning, peel a largish onion and two or three carrots. Chop them up, along with a couple of ribs of celery - leaves and all.

Dump the chopped vegetables into the stock pot with the bones and turn up the heat a little. Cook them, stirring occasionally, until the onions are turning amber and translucent.

Then add enough water to cover everything. Also put in a scant tablespoon of salt, a couple of bay leaves, and a bunch of whole black peppercorns. Turn the heat up to high just long enough to bring the pot up to a boil, then turn the heat down to keep everything at a simmer. This is a great time to chop up a few tomatoes and add them to the pot, too - there is nothing a beef broth likes better than a touch of tomato.

With the tomatoes in and the broth simmering, cover the stockpot and allow the fire to work it's magic. Check it every so often and give it a stir.

About an hour into the simmer, you can give the broth a taste for seasoning. A splash of Worcestershire might be nice, or some more salt. I like to use Vegeta, an Eastern European seasoning (careful, though, it contains some MSG) and Maggi Seasoning from Germany. Did you know that the Maggi Seasoning we buy here in the USA isn't the same formula as the one they sell in Switzerland and Germany? True. The German version is made with an extract of lovage and other herbs - it's fantastic in soups, stews, gravies...anything you can cook with moist heat. The American version tastes more like soy sauce than anything else.

Anyway, after the soup has been cooking gently for awhile, give it a taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Tasting as you go is an important part of cooking. Many people don't do it, though. If you normally don't, making soup is a great way to develop the habit.

Here's the broth three hours or so after we started. That rich ruddy color is from the tomatoes. Use a big slotted spoon to lift out the bones and set them aside to cool. Leave the pot on the simmer and the fat will be pushed to the sides of the pot, making it much easier to skim off. (Or, if you prefer, you can cool the soup and refrigerate it, and lift off the hardened fat after the soup is chilled.) When you skim off the fat, don't take off every little bit. Leave a couple of teaspoons in - it improves the flavor of the broth a whole lot.

Pick off the meat from the bones and set it aside.

Now that the soup is skimmed off and seasoned just the way you like it, add veggies. For this batch, I put in shredded cabbage, some leftover succotash (corn and lima beans), green peas, some chopped up leftover broccoli, and a diced potato. You can pretty much put in anything you like, either bought fresh at the store or leftover from the fridge. I used leftovers and cabbage because we had a bunch of bills to pay and there wasn't a lot of money left for groceries. That's one of the best things about soup: it doesn't care if you only have three bucks in your pocket, it'll still feed you like a king.

After you put the veggies, add the meat back into the pot and the pot back onto the fire. Simmer for another fifteen or twenty minutes - long enough to cook the veggies through - and serve it up.

Bon appetit.

And thanks, Michele.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Dave...YUM!

It's funny. I wrote about making beef stew last night in much the same manner. I make soups and stews the same way you do, I think: by taste and feel.

I actually stopped last night and measured out my ingredients as I went so I could put together a "recipe." And it felt a little, well, wrong.

Well done, sir! Thanks for sharing.

a.k.a. The Hungry Mouse

Laurie said...

Your soup makes me want to make my own soon. I've been sticking to the easier, quicker soups so far, but this storm on the Eastern seaboard is making me crave a good slow simmered soup.