Is It Soup Yet?
The True Test of a Chef’s Artistry
I grew up, like most of us thirty-somethings, believing that soup came in little red-and-white cans. Then it started coming in little red-and-white foil envelopes in little red-and-white boxes. We were red-and-white with wonder. Both versions said to mix with water, heat, and serve. Wow! Food even a college freshman could cook.
By the time I was 18 or so, I must have tried chicken with or without vegetables, rice, noodles, or matzo balls, beef with vegetables or barley, split pea with ham, and French onion with cheese and croutons. I hated cream of tomato.
I’m not 18 anymore (sorry, guys) and I’ve tried soup that comes out of a real pot. I realize it’s not as simple as opening a can or box, but the little bit of inconvenience is worth it. It’s not hard. Put solid things in liquid things. Cook or not. Soup.
Okay, so there are a few things that might not qualify. You won’t find me simmering pebbles (the stone kind, not the fruity) and chocolate chips in basil vinegar. Really. I’m not even sure we could get anyone to agree that it’s soup, even if it fits the technical definition. I’m also not putting it on the lunch menu. Trust me.
Soup fills the world of literature, from the Mock Turtle’s tribute in verse to “Beautiful Soup” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Robert Browning’s Hamelin rats lapping it up left and right. Whether it is the creation of a culinary genius like Fritz Brenner in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, or the production of the entire village in Marcia Brown’s Stone Soup, soup is a mainstay of the dining table.
To the best of my knowledge, every human culture on this planet and two others makes soup. There are simple ones, like Italian Stracciatella, with its flakes of egg and cheese sprinkled through chicken broth, or Kaeng Tom Yam Kung, from Thailand, with beautiful shrimp and lemongrass simmered in hot spices. There are thick soups – New England Clam Chowder, Vermont Cheddar Cheese, English Mulligatawny, and Algerian Cherbah. Even life itself started in a primordial soup.
In the professional world, a chef’s soups are considered a mark of his or her abilities. The French chef must have perfectly seasoned broths, crystal-clear consommés, and rich, unctuous flavors. The Japanese kokku is noted for stunning presentations of sea life in clear dashi, with simple, clean flavors. And Aunt Edna is noted for bowls of fresh chicken broth, each with a matzo ball you could knock down tenpins with.
There is an old Spanish proverb, “Of soup and love, the first is best.” (Well, actually, it’s “De sopa y amor, el primero es mejor.”) Whomever first said it was obviously experienced in such matters. It is spring, and it’s clear to me that if spring is a time for love, it is, even more, a time for soup.
Gazpacho is the perfect spring or summer soup, served cold, with crisp, clean vegetable flavors. Not only that, but it’s easy to make. This version serves six.
3 ripe tomatoes
1 yellow onion
1 green pepper
2-3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons really, really good olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¼ cup good sherry
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup fresh herbs, like mint, marjoram, or parsley
1 cup ice water
Finely chop the tomatoes, carrot, garlic and herbs. Peel and seed the cucumber. Dice the cucumber, onion and pepper. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, and keep cold until ready to serve. Adjust seasoning to taste; add additional ice water if needed to thin the soup.
Okay, you have to cook this one, but it’s worth it.
2 large leeks, coarsely chopped
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon mace (the spice, not the spray…)
4 teaspoons butter
thick sliced whole-wheat bread
brick cheese, grated
parmesan cheese, grated
Sauté leeks in butter until limp but not browned. Add milk, stock, and seasonings. Simmer 30 minutes. Put slices of bread in individual oven-proof soup crocks. Fill with soup, top with grated cheeses. Broil until brown and bubbly. Serves four.
Genre is a gay “lifestyle” and travel magazine. It was launched in 1992 by three entrepreneurs, two of whom shortly thereafter left to found QSF magazine. I went with them…