Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Food We Eat,

Save the bones for Henry Jones

...Cause Henry don't eat no meat

I love soup. I love to make it, eat it and serve it. It  pleases me to dice carrots and potatoes just so. To fry bacon at the start of a chowder.  The aroma of bay simmering with celery, tasting for salt, to find the one addition that takes it home. I have powerful, indelible memories of the way in which a soup has returned me to life. 

Once I was caught in a unseasonable blizzard, high in the Cascade mountains. We struggled through the snow for hours, dressed  for July. (For a year I had almost no feeling in the tips of my fingers and toes.) Finally, after huddling together overnight, we were led down the mountain to the safety of a large, warm barn. Someone fed us tomato soup and saltines. At the time, it seemed as if I were literally thawing. That soup is forever with me.

It is hard for me to believe how perfectly delicious reconstituted bouillon is after weeks of NPO, nil per os - nothing by mouth. Yet it is certainly true, even lukewarm from a plastic mug. 
The word, 'restaurant' originally named a cheap, strong soup available at street stands in France. It meant "that which restores." Soup recharges us, it can give us virtually everything we need to survive. When those of us have enough, we give soup to those who do not.

We have been eating soup for 20,000 years. In the beginning we cooked with hot stones. Pits in the earth, rocks with natural hollows and bags made of animal skins were filled with water and meat. Stones were teased from a fire to the mix and renewed until the soup came into being.

Ah, yes. The feet.

Soup is a metaphor for community, family and home. An ultimate soup would be built with what each neighbor brought to the pot. Animal, vegetable and mineral. Anything that is edible. It warms us, fills us, fuels us. Cool soups even refresh us in the heat. Soup does, in fact, restore us.

clam or cod?

"But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt." Moby Dick, supper in Nantucket. 

Every culture has a soup at its heart. Vietnam has Phở, pot-au-feu for France (technically a stew but served with its glorious broth), here in the Yucatan it's sopa de lima, Portugal has caldo verde, bean soup, minestrone, avgolemono, cock-a-leekie, hot and sour, miso, borst, dal and schi. I don't recall much soup in Hawaii but they probably do something with pineapple and spam.

I think I love soup so much because of way it blooms and concentrates flavor. I'm just going to say this once...canned soup is less than the shadow on the wall. I am not above using some but my expectations are very low. Sometimes, we do have a Proustian moment with chicken noodle or tomato soup (yes, from the red and white cans.) Still, not much truly good comes from a can.

stop talking

The pace of cooking soup is forgiving. It is best on low heat for a long time. I am referring to meat based broths for the most part because, to me, they seem the most restorative. Over time the collagen and gelatin in meat, fat and connective tissue melt and leach from the bones into the soup. It isn't just flavor, as these thicken the liquid and soften it to silk. As the soup deepens the aroma begins the meal as it fills the house with anticipation. Chicken broth, in the later stages begins to smell like honey. There is nothing like it.

B was feeling under the weather which is rare but always sends me to the soup pot, such as it is. We are leasing a furnished house and the cramped and awkward kitchen is barely "equipped." Instead of a nice stock pot I have a smallish stew pot. This presents a problem. It is tedious but I make the broth in layers.

one doesn't share soup. sorry.
The first layer is the meat. I like to use more than one sort, this one included beef shank (a nice inexpensive cut with bone, fat and gristle), the remains of a roast chicken and three flanken-cut pork ribs (cut across, rather than in between, the bones.) There isn't room for many vegetables so I squeeze in half of an onion. garlic cloves, slices of ginger and whole pepper corns all covered in water.  I hold this at a slow simmer for about 3 or 4 hours or until the meats are very tender.

When I can easily push the point of a knife into the meat I take it all out of the broth. As the meat cools enough for me to handle, I add the vegetables to the pot. Carrots, celery and more onions. If I have them I might add turnip, rutabaga, fennel, even radishes (which taste like turnips when cooked) When the meat has cooled, I slide it off the bone and set it aside. All of the bones, sinew, skin and gristle goes back in the pot for another few hours.

Foot note?

Well, actually...a note about feet. Because hocks (sort of like ankles) and feet need to be the most flexible part of an animal's anatomy, they are full of small bones, gristle, tendons and skin. These, as I have said, are good things in a stock. As the collagen breaks down it forms gelatin. It was once common to serve calves foot jelly as a dish both both sweet and savory. Gelatin itself has no flavor, only structure. The jellied broth was also considered nutritious and often served to the ill to help them regain strength.

One reward of gelatin is a miracle of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai or, soup dumplings. A strong and flavorful stock is chilled until solid and cut into cubes. These are added to the stuffing in pasta purses. When the sealed purses are boiled, the gelatin melts and reforms the broth. I use the technique to make sure pot pies remain juicy.

Basta for the feet! Trust me, throw in a couple of chicken feet or a pig trotter. Your soup will be better...hands down.

So,,,back to B's soup: When I feel as though I've gotten everything out of the carrot and bones (a couple of hours, I strain it through a colander into a large bowl. Because we only have the one pot I wash it and put it back on the stove. Next I strain the soup again back into the pot, this time with a wire mesh strainer.

There will be a layer of fat on the surface. If I have the time, I let it cool and shove it in the fridge. The next day it is set like jello and the fat will have formed a layer that I scrape off. If I'd rather not wait, I have three more options. If there isn't a lot of fat, you can actually blot it off with a paper towel. Or, there are fat separators: cups that have a spout which pours from beneath (I don't know why, but I have never owned one).

More commonly I skim the fat with a cooking spoon. Placing the pot mostly (but not completely) off the fire helps. When the soup begins to boil the fat collects opposite the heat and it's easier to skim. If I have not allowed the stock to boil but kept it to a lazy simmer, it will be clear.*

Soooo, I now have a rich broth which can be seasoned with salt and pepper to taste and drunk or spooned from a mug. It is more likely that I will begin adding freshly diced vegetables (almost anything), herbs and a starch (rice, beans, corn, potatoes or pasta.) Occasionally the vegetables I've used to make the soup will still have flavor and texture and those go back. And greens are wonderful additions.

I trim the meats that I have set aside and add them. As an extra treat I often shred the pork and beef with my fingers and fry them in a bit of oil until crisp and chewy. If I have made a bean soup (worth a devoted posting, some day) I might brown some flavorful sausage to add.

And when it has become soup, it helps B to feel better, to feel and be nurtured. That is exactly what I like to do.



* There is another way to produce a clear broth. It is a method used for Phở (truly one of the great soups of the world). Before you begin the broth, place the meat and bones in the pot and cover with cold water. Gradually bring to the boil, then drain and discard the liquid, rinse everything off. Then start again with fresh water and add the vegetables and herbs. This blanching does not weaken the final broth.

I never salt my broth until it's reached the final strength.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying-pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half of the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a spoonful from the plate. 'Chrise,' Nick said, 'Geezus Chrise,' he said happily."