Patti Bess: Dreaming of winter soups |

Patti Bess: Dreaming of winter soups

With a hefty oak tree leaning precariously over my propane tanks, my trusty Wedgewood cook stove as well as the hot water and wall heater were nixed for 20 days. We, of course, were not the only ones with complicated life stories the last few weeks. One thing I have definitely learned from that experience. I don’t ever want to see or taste or smell another turkey and cheese sandwich.

I did, however, enjoy reading cookbooks by candlelight and dreaming of great soups. (Though I wouldn’t tell that to just anyone.) I remember an outstanding Lentil soup on my fortieth birthday at Chez Panisse. The only time I ever got to go there. The flavors had such depth for an ordinary, everyday kind of soup. Memories come up of a trip to the Sonoma Coast where a small take out joint along the coast highway had the best clam chowder I’ve ever experienced — with hints of basil and fennel. And then there were the soups at the New Moon Café’, now gone from the Nevada City restaurant scene. Subtle flavors that combined mysteriously and the freshest of local ingredients that left me in taste bud nirvana.

Some good things came from our recent snow disaster/pandemic/isolation. Families are eating meals together more often. We’re looking out for our neighbors. We’re washing our hands more. And we’ve discovered that we don’t need some famous chef on the television or in a restaurant to prepare out of this world food. We can do it ourselves. There was a time, many years ago, when home cooked food was considered far superior to restaurant food. Perhaps we are re-discovering that.

I consider a well-made soup a work of art as much as a fine painting or beautiful sculpture. Some people consider soup making time consuming. I prefer to think of it as a great investment as it yields a generous return. Make soup on Sunday and have nutritious entrée in the refrigerator all week. It’s convenience food at its best!

Great soups begin with a good stock. It has two important purposes. Stock gives depth to the flavor and adds nutritional value. The trick to making it at home is to find a convenient method and time that works for you. I sometimes put a pot of stock on a back burner when I start dinner; then by the time the dishes are in the dishwasher it’s ready to set aside to cool.

It is a challenge to go through the refrigerator to find bits and pieces of this and that to create a nutritious stock or soup. A basic vegetable stock consists of a potato or two, an onion, a carrot, a couple stalks celery, 10 to 12 garlic cloves, and any vegetables in the refrigerator that you can’t remember what you planned to do with. Adding greens the last 20 minutes of simmering boosts the nutritional value — parsley, chard, kale, or any of the other mild tasting greens. Miso is a great addition to the diet and adds that salty flavor. About three quarts of water and let it simmer for an hour or two. Then just strain out the vegetables and refrigerate. Adding a couple chicken legs, or other lesser quality pieces of chicken to this can make a fine chicken stock as well. Some cooks prefer to salt the stock; some reserve salting for the soup.

There are quality commercial stocks without a lot of additives at your natural foods store both in cubes and carton containers. They can work well when necessary, but only buy good quality.

I learned to make Bug Soup from a friend years ago. My children loved it and often helped with the preparation. I don’t remember any exact proportions. It consisted of water or perhaps a stock cube, a potato or two, a cut up onion, and garlic; adding the broccoli and grated cheddar cheese when it was mostly finished. After blending, we added the bugs. They came from shaving off the tops of the broccoli flowerets and floating them in the soup.

The old adage that soup tastes better the next day is still the best technique for deepening and developing flavor that I know of. Some marriages, of flavors, just take longer to consummate.

Recipes were never meant to be slavishly followed — especially for soups. They are merely starting points. Your own inventiveness, preferences, and intuition are equally important. And good music in the kitchen also adds enjoyment for the cook!

This soup might make a nice surprise for an upcoming Valentine dinner. Small sample bottles of Cognac or Cointreau, an orange flavored liquor, are available at local liquor stores. This is one soup you can be sure will please everyone.

Tomato Soup with Cognac and Orange

Three tablespoons butter

One large onion, chopped

One clove garlic, minced

One and half teaspoons dried basil

Two tablespoons honey

One half teaspoon cloves or 3 cloves whole

One 28 ounce can stewed tomatoes

Grated zest and juice of one orange

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

One tablespoon tomato paste (if needed)

One half cup heavy cream or half and half

Three tablespoon Cointreau or Cognac

Sour cream or plain yogurt for garnish

Melt the butter in a 5-quart, heavy enameled soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it starts to soften, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat down slightly. Add the garlic, basil, honey, and clove; cook, stirring for 2 more minutes. Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat to evaporate some of the moisture, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Add the orange zest. Lower the heat and simmer 10 1o 15 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat. Let cool slightly and add the orange juice. Spoon the mixture into a food processor and puree if it needs it.

Taste, season with salt and pepper. Add tomato paste if the soup seems to need it. Perhaps a bit more honey. When the soup is very hot, just before serving, stir in the cream and cognac; do not permit the soup to boil after this point. Serve at once garnished if desired with a dab of sour cream, yogurt to each bowl.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She lives in Grass Valley

This soup might make a nice surprise for an upcoming Valentine dinner.
Photo by Patti Bess

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