Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they’re formalized or not.
The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I’ve been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there’s always soup on offer, and generally it’s eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant –soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot’s good for me and company for three to four days. It’s splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It’s filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I’m making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.
In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup’s good if you’re sick or if you’re well, whether you’re old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It’s even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d’être the provision of soups for the public. The staple’s been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you’re free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn’t need.
There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren’t totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you’ve got to have some ingredients. But there aren’t really any absolutes. It’s a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn’t seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it’s some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I’ll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what’s in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven’t quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.
Then you’ll need liquids. This summer and fall I’ve been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven’t yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there’s a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won’t touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you’ll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.
By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you’re done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here’s a soup I’ve been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I’ve slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.
Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 – 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I’ll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.
Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.
*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don’t especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.