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November 5, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—November 6, 2007

Just add water

We all begin life as soupeaters, essentially. It is the most primal, the most Freudian of foods—particularly those creamy French purées, reminiscent of baby food and mothers’ milk. It’s also probably the oldest preparation that you’d really call cooking—the only more basic application of heat possible would be meat on a stick, and I’m not sure it would be fair to call a cave man’s corn dog cooking.

Whole cultures grow up around soups, particularly in cold climates. Borscht, for instance, can be a rather political dish. Cold and puréed, it is Russian; hot and with meat, Ukrainian; cold but chunky and with a spoonful of chopped boiled egg, Polish. I know of no more comforting feeling than eating a bowl of tender matzo balls—which is why it was so surprising when a friend from Chicago, eating dinner with me in New York City over the summer, was nearly made sick just by the sight of them.

When I was at boarding school as a teenager in Ireland, my entire life revolved around soups. Each day at lunch we would be served a bowl of it, made of the steamed vegetables left over from the day before puréed with a little cream, but mostly water. It was disgusting, but it was likely to be the only edible vegetable we were served, and so we would eat it. On weekends the others would go on outings with their parents, and I would pretend to be going home with one or another of them, so that I could slip off to Dublin for a couple of days. The first thing I would do was to go to a particular greasy spoon restaurant off Grafton Street for a bowl of spicy ox-tail soup. Nothing contrasted more with the cold, gray damp than that medieval brown lava, almost muddy in texture.

Beginning to cook soup is often also a big developmental step. Beginning cooks can surprise themselves with the transformative powers already within their reach, simply by attempting soup. Making onion soup, for instance, can be a revelation. All—literally, all—the cooking required to make an onion soup can be done by anyone within a span of 45 minutes, and yet looking, smelling and tasting raw onion, apple cider, and Swiss cheese, you would never imagine how the flavors could soften and meld in that time.

What do you do? You chop some onions—roughly is fine—say, two or three per person, and a clove or two of garlic. These onions are fried with this garlic as slowly as you can stand it, in butter, until they attain a uniform brown color. It takes maybe 30 minutes. I suppose a complete moron could burn his onions at this point, and that would be problematic (though I’m not sure, actually; it might add depth of flavor). You then deglaze with white wine and add chicken stock (a cup or so per person), apple cider (say, a quarter cup per person), and cider vinegar to taste. This mix is poured into bowls. Bread is placed in these bowls. Swiss cheese is grated on this bread. This cheese is melted under the broiler. That’s it, but it’s delicious, and on a cold day, it makes you feel like a million bucks. It’s also kind of a sexy thing to eat with someone, what with all the cheese-dripping and so on.

For me, the revelatory soup was Potage Bonne Femme—specifically, Elizabeth David’s recipe for it in her wonderful, sensitive book, French Provincial Cooking. Literally “the soup of the good wife,” it is an extremely frugal soup, whose preparation exemplifies the chef’s economy and the magic in her fingers. But all you have to do is dice some potatoes and carrots, and slice some leeks very thin. Now, when I say dice some potatoes and carrots, I do mean dice them—make them into little dice, about a centimeter on each side—and when I say slice very thin, I mean very thin, like paper thin. But that’s really it. Two or three potatoes, two or three leeks, a carrot (just for color, really), and you soften it all in butter, being careful not to let it brown. You pour in plain water, with maybe a little chicken stock if you want (or a teensy little bit of veal demi-glace if you’re cheating) and simmer it for twenty-five minutes. Smush it all through a sieve into a bowl and add some cream. Like magic, you’ve produced a hot, flavorful, filling, golden bowl of soup from four vegetables and some water. I’ve never gotten over how neat that is.