Soup to warm the cockles of your heart....
When I was growing up, I was only aware of a few soups. My mom would make chicken soup if we were sick. The love and healing power of that chicken soup would warm the cockles of our hearts. Sometimes mom served tomato soup, which my older brother liked to eat with little square crackers called Cheez-it Baked Snack Crackers a/k/a Cheezits, or rectangular, almost tubular crackers with rounded edges called Cheese Tid-Bit Crackers. Both had salt, which added greatly to the product. Sometimes the Tid-Bits would spit into two cracker halves, two for the price of one. My brother would arrange the Cheezits on top of the soup, and eat each spoonful with some Cheezits. Then when the crackers were all gone, but there was still some soup, he would add more crackers to the bowl and begin again.
In those days, Campbells Soup was King. Andy Warhol would memorialize those soup cans in his paintings and prints. There were about 21 varieties at the time, a big selling point in the company's advertising. The housewives of the 50's would use those soups in casseroles, such as tuna casseroles, or a green bean casserole that was topped with fried onion sticks, sort of like potato chips, that came from a can. In the mid 60's the Progresso brand was the new cool kid on the block. Their minestrone soup was the best. They also made "chick, chick, chickerina soup" that had little meatballs in it. People took to singing the chickerina anthem, lampooning the advertisement as they sang it.
Another soup I remember from my growing up days was matzoh ball soup which was served at the Passover seders. Our family's seders were always hosted by my grandparents. All four of my grandparents were alive until I was well into my twenties, and I felt very lucky. Most of my friends did not have all of their grandparents in their lives.
In my early years, the first night of Passover was usually hosted at my father's parents' house, and the next night at the house of my mother's parents. I say house, but they really lived in one bedroom apartments, my mom's parents in Hoboken, New Jersey, and my father's parents in North Bergen, New Jersey. One apartment was dark and full of heavy old world furniture, and in the other, folding tables would be set up with tablecloths for the seders, there were windows and light in the room, and the seder felt looser and more fun.
I always say that my Hoboken grandparents got off the boat from Europe when they landed in Hoboken, and never left. My mom's parents, Isidore and Clara Brilant came from the same shtetl in Europe. My grandfather escaped Poland one New Year's Eve. Telling the tale, he would recount that the soldiers at the border were drunk because of the holiday, and he was able to slip past and cross the border to eventual freedom. His short version was that he left to escape the cossacks. Izzy came to America first, followed by my grandmother, Clara. They were both about 16 years old when they emigrated. They knew they loved each other when they lived back in their homeland. They married after my grandmother arrived in America, and they lived in the same apartment in Hoboken all of the rest of their lives.
When I was very young, there were stories of my grandparents putting up other relatives who also came from Europe. The "Di Grines" or "Greenhorns" would sleep on the floor until they made their way in the new country. It all seemed so romantic and adventurous to me at the time. It wasn't until later that I learned about the Holocaust, and that out of 12 siblings, Izzy and his half-sister, Sadie, were the only ones who had survived. Izzy always claimed to not believe in God after that, although he was an active participant at schul, and davened with the best of them.
When I visit Hoboken now, I look up at the fire escape that led to their apartment and think that the ghosts of Izzy and Clara are still there. The window at the fire escape was the same kitchen window that my grandparents looked out many times during their day. Sipping tea at the little white enamel table, or preparing a batch of kasha knishes. Izzy and Clara lived mostly in that kitchen. My grandma was the chef and my grandpa, the sous chef. He was especially good at cracking walnuts to be used in the Mandelbrot and cakes that Clara baked.
Hilary Clinton said that "it takes a village" to bring up children. To me, Hoboken at the time I grew up was very much like that village. My family lived in Hoboken after my parents sold their chicken farm in Plainfield, N.J., and until I was in 5th grade. In Hoboken, it felt to me that everyone knew and looked out for each other. The city seemed full of relatives and friends of the family. If you walked into a store, the owner knew you, and you knew them. My friends and I played on the streets, jump rope, games of imagination by playacting stories we read like Peter Pan, hopsy with a rubber heal gotten for free at the local shoemakers. We walked to the park together and played there all day. My best girlfriends, Arlene, Ann Joyce and Ruth Faye, and I, Barbara Lynn, would take my baby brother out in a big baby buggy by ourselves, without any parental supervision, because the eyes of the neighborhood were there to watch out for us and see that we were safe. Conversely, if you did something wrong, there would be a phone call or a visit to your mother. Arlene is one of my best friends to this day, and our own children are now having children. But it is a different world to which our children's children are being born.
But getting back to Passover and the matzoh soup, there was definitely a competition over which grandma, Clara or Fanny, made the best matzoh ball. Judging occurred every year, the judges being the competitors themselves. The goal was to make the fluffiest matzoh ball that would melt in your mouth, but Fanny's matzoh balls were often referred to as cannonballs, and she often lost the competition. Though some, like me, did prefer the gummy textured hardness, when biting into Fanny's matzoh balls.
Lately my husband, Dan, has fallen in love with a store on 7th Avenue in Park Slope that only sells soups in the winter. In the summer they sell ice cream, and there are lines down the block. In the winter they carry at least twelve different kinds of soup, including a bisque that has lobster in it, or so they say. I think it is much easier to find the big lumps of potato in that soup, rather than the lone piece of lobster, which is always a treat, but never enough. The concept of the store is smart, and the store is very convenient as there is a subway stop right at the corner, so many people returning back to the neighborhood after a day at work may stop in and buy a fast and easy supper. My husband, who goes for a daily walk at about 11:00 am these days, now that he is retired, will sometimes come home with two different soups for lunch. He finds them delicious and an easy way to get his vegetables in, as part of eating a healthier diet.
Early in our marriage, a friend of mine sent us "The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook" by Yvonne Young Tarr, and inscribed on the front endpaper, "May your new year be delicious!" My friend Alan had been married for a few years by then and he and his wife had made soup a regular part of their diet. Later in life, Alan would take his soup cooking expertise to shelter kitchens, in which to this day, he volunteers. Alan and I go back to my days at the University of Bridgeport, and he has made it a tradition to always call on New Year's eve to wish us a happy and healthy new year and send his love. Using this new book, I would harken back to my mother making chicken soup when my brothers and I were young and had colds. When Dan and I were newly married and lived in an apartment on East 17th Street in NYC, before being fortunate enough to buy a condo and move to Brooklyn, I would follow my mom's example by making healing soups for winter colds. One of my favorite soups from "The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook" was Chicken-in-the-Pot, because it reminded me of both my grandma Clara's chicken soup, as well chicken soup that we would buy at the Second Avenue Deli in NYC. My other favorite was a riff on chicken soup called Curried Chicken-Sprout Soup, a chicken soup containing not just the usual chicken, carrots, and onions, but ham, Brussels sprouts, curry powder, tomatoes and rice! When it comes to chicken soup, I think Maurice Sendak said it best in " Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months," "In January it's so nice while slipping on the sliding ice to sip hot chicken soup with rice, sipping once sipping twice sipping chicken soup with rice."
Nowadays, my favorite soup cook book is a slim volume as far as cook books are concerned, but boy, are the recipes packed with flavor. I heart "Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen," by Deborah Madison. While I have made some of the soup recipes from this book in the past, I would like to work my way through this book on a regular basis, sort of the way Julie Powell cooked her way through Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie worked her way through that cookbook in a year, blogging about each recipe in "The Julie/Julia Project." The blog was subsequently made into a book and a movie. I remember how thrilled I was to stumble upon her blog before all of that. I would print out the pages of Julie's blog and read them on my subway commute, to and from work. I was smitten, the way the rest of America would be, once the movie was out.
I, however, would like to work at a slower pace, perhaps one soup recipe a month. Although, given Dan's love for soup, and as a way of keeping our fridge stocked, it should really be a weekly project. Today I would like to start my new soup making life with Deborah Madison's recipe, "Silky Roasted Yellow Pepper Soup." The recipe calls fro 4 to 5 meaty yellow bell peppers, and our Park Slope Food Coop always has organic beauties in their pepper section, so herewith follows the recipe. Dear readers, I hope you will try this recipe and enjoy it, too.
Silky Roasted Yellow Pepper Soup
- THE STOCK:
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 small onion sliced
- Cores and trimmings from the peppers
- 1 small zucchini chopped
- 1 small carrot chopped
- Handful of ripe small tomatoes or a large tomato halved
- Few basil leaves
- 1 thyme sprig or piece of dried thyme
- Sea salt
- THE SOUP:
- 2 pounds 4 to 5 meaty yellow bell peppers, tops sliced off, cores and seeds reserved for stock
- Olive oil as needed
- 1 small red onion thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
- Vinegar such as Chardonnay, sherry, or balsamic to taste
- 2 tablespoons finely diced bell pepper different colors
Preheat the broiler and position a rack about 8 inches beneath the broiling unit. Begin the stock: Heat the oil in a pot over medium-high heat and add the onion and the rest of the ingredients as you slice them, along with a scant teaspoon salt. When the onion has some color, after about 5 minutes, add 5 cups water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 25 minutes. Strain.
Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and flatten them. Brush the skins with oil, including the tops (minus their stems) and place them skin side up on a sheet pan. Broil only until the skin is bubbling, puckered, and lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Put them in a bowl, cover, and leave them to steam for at least 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 1-½ tablespoons oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and cook over low heat while you peel the peppers. Pull or scrape off as much skin as you can without making yourself crazy, then chop the peppers and add them to the pot as you go, long with 12 teaspoon salt and the strained stock. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered for 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then puree in batches. For the best texture, pass the soup through a food mill. Taste for salt and add a few drops of vinegar to bring everything together. Serve with a spoonful of the diced pepper in each bowl or another garnish [Per headnote to recipe, you can finish the soup in one of other many ways, such as; "with a vinegar reduction; romesco sauce spread on small croutons; sour cream and chives; or a salsa verde").