Super Soups

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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THE FOOD MAVEN by Matthew Goodman

Soup is among the oldest of all foods; in biblical times, earthenware pots placed on clay stands were used to prepare soups made from vegetables and pulses and flavored with onion and garlic. Prominent among those pulses were lentils, out of which Jacob made a very famous soup, the one for which his brother Esau traded his birthright — a price not to be demanded even by today’s most luxuriously rich bisques.

Millennia onward, soup remained a favorite dish for Jewish peasants, for reasons that are not difficult to understand. Soup is, after all, is one of the cheapest, simplest and most forgiving of all foods to prepare, a one-pot main course into which the thrifty cook could toss whatever foodstuffs she happened to have around — including the leftovers from previous meals — which could be stretched further by the addition of that most precious and affordable of all ingredients, water.

In ancient times, soup was called by the Hebrew word marak. (This name, by the way, is the Hebrew word for all soups and still identifies at least two specific traditional Jewish soups: the marak made by Yemenite Jews, prepared with either beef or chicken and flavored with the aromatic spice mixture called hawaij; and marag, the vibrantly colored chicken soup that was long a Saturday-night favorite among the Jews of Calcutta.) The word soup — from which derives the Yiddish zup and a host of European equivalents — is, not surprisingly, of later provenance, though it can be traced back to an ancient German root word that would subsequently also provide the basis for the English words “sup” and “supper.” In Old French the word would turn into soupe, which, according to Alan Davidson in the “Oxford Companion to Food,” meant both “a piece of bread soaked in liquid” and “broth poured onto bread.”

The three classical Eastern European Jewish soups that follow are each, in time-honored fashion, affordable and easy to prepare, not to mention delicious — and with some good crusty bread on the side, perfect for cold winter nights. A bowl of soup with a loaf of bread: There can scarcely be a combination more ancient, or more satisfying.

* * *

There are at least a couple of secrets to a really good chicken soup. The first is not to salt the stock too early; the level of saltiness will rise as the soup continues to cook. Perhaps most important, do not boil the soup; rather, let it cook for a long time at a very gentle simmer, with barely any bubbles rising to the surface. This results in a clearer stock and softer chicken meat and, in my experience, a soup that is beautifully mild tasting and sweet. Good chicken soup is slow food, and the most important ingredient is patience.

Goldene Yoich (Eastern European Chicken Soup)

1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds

12 cups cold water

4 parsnips, peeled

6 celery stalks with leaves

6 carrots, peeled

1 large onion, peeled and quartered

2 whole-peeled garlic cloves

3 sprigs fresh parsley

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, or to taste

1. Place the chicken in a soup pot, and add the water. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that might develop on the surface. Chop two parsnips, three celery stalks and three carrots into 2-inch pieces. Add the parsnips, celery and carrots to the pot, along with the onion, garlic, parsley and one teaspoon of salt. Lower heat and simmer very gently, partially covered, for three to four hours, until the soup is a deep golden color and is rich and tasty. Keep checking occasionally, and skim off any additional foam.

2. Strain the soup into a large bowl. Discard the cooked vegetables. When the chicken has cooled slightly, shred the white meat into small pieces and reserve. (If desired, use the dark meat for other purposes.)

3. If you are serving the soup immediately, use a spoon to skim off some of the yellow fat globules on the surface of the strained soup. If you are serving the soup later, allow the soup to come to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight, until the fat has congealed on the surface. Skim off the fat. (The fat can be used for making matzo balls.)

4. Return the soup to the pot, and add the shredded chicken. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Slice the remaining two parsnips, three celery stalks (without leaves) and three carrots into quarter-inch pieces. Add them to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly tender, about five minutes.

5. Add the vegetables to the soup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Simmer, partially covered, for another hour. Just before serving, add the chopped dill. Serve hot.

Serves 10.

* * *

Mushroom barley soup is a venerable Eastern European dish; indeed, until the mid-19th century, when potatoes began to be planted widely, barley was one of the staple crops of the region.

Mushroom Barley Soup

1/2 ounce dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

1 pound white or cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3 carrots, peeled and diced

3 celery stalks, diced

10 cups cold water or chicken stock, or a combination of the two

1 cup (about 8 ounces) pearl barley

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

dash of sherry, to taste (optional)

1. Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl. Add the boiling water, and cover. Let steep for 30 minutes.

2. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute.

3. Add the water or chicken stock, barley, dill, parsley, salt and pepper. (The amount of salt needed will vary, depending on the amount and type of chicken stock used.) Remove the dried mushrooms from the small bowl, and add them to the pot. Using a colander lined with cheesecloth or with a paper coffee filter, strain the soaking liquid into a bowl, and add it to the pot.

4. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for two hours. After one hour, begin tasting the soup and add salt and pepper as necessary. If desired, just before serving stir in a dash of sherry and some additional chopped parsley. Serve hot.

Serves eight to 10.

* * *

Potatoes were a fixture on the tables of East European Jews, prepared in myriad ways. One very common preparation was to boil potatoes in a soup, often with grains such as barley and buckwheat, or with leeks and other root vegetables. Often the soup was enriched with milk or with sour cream. (Back then. dairy products were commonly combined with potato dishes, as the milk contained high amounts of Vitamins A and D, two vitamins in which the potato was deficient.) This is a very good thick soup, full of a lot of aromatic vegetables.

Kartoffel Zup (Potato Soup)

3 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 leeks (white and pale-green parts only), well washed and chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

1 parsnip, peeled and chopped

1 turnip, peeled and chopped

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup flour

6 cups water

2 pounds red-skin potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice

1 1/2 cups milk

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. In a soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, leeks, celery, parsnip, turnip, and salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and lightly colored. Add the flour and one cup of water, and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the flour is dissolved and the mixture thickens.

2. Add the potatoes and the remaining five cups of water and season with additional salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are very soft (about 30 minutes).

3. Add the milk and stir until heated through, making sure not to boil. When the soup is hot, stir in the parsley. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve hot.

Serves eight to 10.

Note to readers: My cookbook, titled “Jewish Food: The World at Table” — featuring 173 recipes from, and dozens of essays about, Jewish communities all over the world — will be published by HarperCollins later this month. In conjunction with the publication of the book, I will be taking a leave of absence from the Food Maven column for the rest of the spring. Until my return, I wish you a delicious matzo brei on Passover, luscious cheesecake on Shavuot and many happy meals in between. — MG






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