It's a gray Monday evening near the end of March -- the last day of winter, no less -- and I'm leaning over my stove, contemplating the rolling waters of a stockpot. Dental surgery has left me with a face like a bruised melon.
In my bathroom mirror, I am oddly reminiscent of Marlon Brando a la The Godfather. And at the grocery store an hour or so ago, children averted their eyes, silenced, after catching sight of my misshapen face: What was that monster in aisle 9 clutching a bagful of lemons and a 12-pack of Diet Sprite?
It was I, the humble food writer who could not eat solids.
And so, more through necessity than design, this column is an ode to soup. Yes, soup, for in the past few weeks I've become a soup specialist, a broth technician, a chowder scientist.
I have become an enthusiast of all things boiled, simmered, reduced or puréed, blended, minced, mashed or smashed. I'm a connisseur of bisque, borscht, bourride, broth, chowder, gumbo, potage and stew.
I have tried them all, provided none of their ingredients were too large to swallow whole. In fact, I'm now CityBeat's official soup correspondent. And it's not a titular position. I have earned it.
A point of interest: The American Heritage online dictionary provides several definitions for soup, the first and most familiar of which is: "A liquid food prepared from meat, fish or vegetable stock combined with various other ingredients and often containing solid pieces." Ephemerally enough, though, among the less familiar definitions listed is "dense fog," which is what I was in when I left the dentist's office, and perhaps my favorite, "A chaotic or unfortunate situation," which is what the prospect of several weeks of eating soup feels like at the moment.
And so on the last day of winter, with an Arctic wind whistling tunelessly around the eaves of my apartment building, I'm making soup. In fact, as part of a personal challenge I've set myself, this is the first night of a week of homemade soups.
Call it an attempt to give my week of healing some structure and to shape it around the presence of something rather than its absence.
A storm is moving toward Cincinnati across the plains, dumping snow as it comes and making it the perfect night for a hearty stew. Despite this, I'm standing in my kitchen mixing egg yolks with the juice of one large waxy-skinned lemon, preparing a delicately flavored Greek soup called avgolemono, a dish much better suited to the spring. It might be cold outside and snow might be lurking in the low, pale clouds, but here in my kitchen, it's springtime.
I found the recipe for avgolemono on page 126 of Barbara Kafka's wonderful recipe book, Soup, a Way of Life. A couple of hours later, after concluding that traditional Greek soup has all the flavor and consistency of hot vomit, I briefly consider throwing her book in the trash with the thick yellow avgolemono.
And I might have done just that, if not for page 128: Jean-Georges Vongerichten's chicken soup with coconut milk and lemongrass. Laden with chunks of fresh ginger and shiitake mushroom and thickened with minced onion and red curry paste, the previous night's soup had been deliciously memorable. It first required me to make my own chicken stock, studding an onion with whole cloves and then adding water, garlic and herbs, carrots, leeks and chicken wings to a large stockpot. All afternoon, I simmered the contents of the pot, filling my apartment with a thick fragrant smell that lingered until the following morning.
Using the stock as a base, Vongerichten's chicken soup is a complex mix of flavors, a pleasantly spicy jumble of mushrooms and scallions in creamy coconut milk, with pale stiff stalks of lemongrass floating on the surface. Then, 24 hours later came the avgolemono, quickly followed by a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.
It is now a day after The Avgolemono Incident, and I'm making a soup better suited to the season, slicing leeks into compact striated discs and chopping potatoes into cubes while the snow falls softly outside. Tonight it's page 94: potato and leek soup, a rich mix of puréed vegetables in chicken broth thickened with heavy whipping cream and garnished with freshly cut parsley.
The next night: Hungarian goulash soup, page 182, a thick warming stew of beef and potatoes sweetened with paprika and cayenne pepper.
Each night, after I've eaten my soup and cleaned my dishes, I sit with Kafka's book balanced on my belly and leaf contentedly through the chapters, selecting a soup for the following day. The possibilities are almost endless: mussels with sauerkraut and Riesling on page 273, or the oxtail soup with fava beans on page 172, or turn to page 151 for turkey soup with fennel or page 180 for Korean beef soup or back to page 104 for Bourbon corn chowder or to the sour cherry soup on page 41.
Suddenly, my inability to eat solid foods has instead become an opportunity to prepare dishes I might never have attempted otherwise. And nothing is more contemplative and reflective than making soup.
By preparing soup every day, my cooking has become patient and meditative. I slowly prepare and arrange my ingredients, adding them to the pot one by one, layer upon layer. I watch a full boil subside to a gentle simmer. I taste. I add. And I wait for my soup.
On Day Five, I clean 3 pounds of fish heads and bones to make an aromatic fish stock for the fish soup on page 252. Following Kafka's instructions, I attempt to cut the gills from the fileted frames of three glum-faced flatfish, to remove the blood that makes a stock bitter and unpalatable. Holding a slippery fist-sized fishhead in my hand, I contemplate cooking something else entirely. Anything else. Maybe even something with lumps.
The next day, I roast nearly 4 pounds of red peppers in olive oil and use a food processor to reduce them to a thick paste. Mixed with a little vegetable broth and half a cup of buttermilk and topped with dill seed, the red pepper soup (page 44) is a deliciously satisyfing and vibrant meal.
By now I'm mostly healed. It's more than a week since my surgery, and I'm ready to attempt a chunkier soup.
I sit with Kafka's book on my lap, searching for the right recipe. The next day, I buy a pound of dried salt cod to prepare Portuguese cod soup (page 279). The fish is shaped like a brick. Wrapped in paper and packaged in a wooden box, it's heavy and solid in my hand.
The soup is a rich mixture of thinly sliced potatoes softened in olive oil with spinach, cilantro and garlic and flaky chunks of desalinated salt cod.
I have spent a week with soups. Perhaps tomorrow I can finally try something other than soup.
Just in case I don't quite feel up to solid foods yet, though, I reach for Kafka's book. I set it in my lap, open it at random and slowly start to turn the pages. ©