By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
I would be remiss if I let the winter months slip away without writing a column about soup. And sacré bleu! January is National Soup Month! It is the quintessential cold weather food. When you come home after being outside in bitter temperatures and slogging through piles of snow and ice, that first slurp of soup sinks all the way down to your frozen toes with warm nourishment. Your face may still be like an ice block but your innards are beginning to heat up.
Soup is one of the oldest known dishes. Archeologists have discovered clay pots with charred exteriors that date as far back as 20,000 BC.,indicating that our ancestors were cooking water, meat, and gathered plants to make the first soups. The first evidence of soup becoming a dish was in 6,000 BC with hippopotamus soup, believe it or not. I don’t recommend digging up that recipe! Let’s stick to beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, eh?
Soup can be one of the most comforting foods. It has so many variations that I almost think it should be divided into “classes”, such as thick or thin. Hot or cold. First course or main course. Every culture around the world has its own spin on soup preparation. As Molière said “I live on good soup, not on fine words.”
Here in the United States, you could break down styles of soup by regions, such has New England Clam Chowder, New Orleans Gumbo, Italian Minestrone as found in most major cities or Tex-Mex Tortilla Soup. This country is such a melting pot that a “pot” of soup is THE melting pot.
One of my first professional cooking jobs was when I was a sophomore at University of Michigan in 1971. I was hired by a New Yorker who opened a deli on campus. Boy, was it an illegal operation! He let me cook the soup at home and schlep it across town in a 5-gallon pot, hoping that when I took a sharp left, the soup didn’t make a sharp right!
I made both chicken noodle and mushroom barley, a deli staple. Oddly enough, the deli owner didn’t want chicken in the soup.I had a pile of cooked chicken meat in my fridge and each week, fellow students would come by our house. They would say the magic word “chicken” and would get a cellophane package of the tasteless stuff. But, hey, when you’re on a student budget, people will eat anything!
I had a brief chat recently with Eric Ersher, the co-founder and CEO of Zoup!, a national chain soup outlet. Eric and I go way back, to 1997 in fact, when his first store was a neighbor of my patisserie in Southfield, Mich. Eric still owns that store; additionally, there are now 80 franchised Zoup! shops scattered throughout the Midwest, Upper Midwest, the Northeast and pressing South.
Obviously Eric was and has been onto something since the popularity of soup has continued to grow through the years. He also confirms that Chicken Noodle is their bestseller at his store in Southfield as it is at their shops all across the country. Zoup! rotates their 12-soup daily selection often. Whenever Lobster Bisque appears on the menu, they sell out.
When selecting which soup to make, you should consider what the purpose is for that soup. Is it before a main course or Is it the main course? I think lighter, broth and cream soups are well suited for a pre-dinner dish. It would be silly to serve a hearty-cut-with-a-knife soup before a full-on dinner. If you serve a minestrone, say, maybe a lighter meal to follow would be in order. When I serve soup as my main course, I almost always serve it with an unlimited supply of crusty bread.
What I love about making soup is its versatility. With a slight variation of seasoning or the addition of different vegetables, meats, or legumes you can have a totally different outcome. When I’m using bacon, sausage, beef, or pork, I always brown the meat first in the pot to impart a wonderful flavor and color to the soup. I will also brown the vegetables after the meat to add to that flavor.
Can you just heave in all the ingredients together and get a good result? In some cases, yes. I will be doing that in my recipe for today. What I like about this soup is that it is vegan and very nutritious. I am combining three kinds of dried beans along with barley to create a nicely balanced, grainy bean soup.
Hope you’ll be warm and cozy at home, Insiders, as you enjoy your special meal from soup to nuts!
Bean Barley Soup
Yield: 12 servings
1/4 lb. dried black beans
1/4 lb. dried kidney beans
1/4 lb. dried great northern or navy beans
1 lg. onion, chopped small
2 lg. carrots, chopped small
2 celery stalks, chopped small
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
3 qt. water
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/4 lb. pearl barley
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbs. salt
1/2 c. chopped parsley
Put the beans in a large bowl. Cover with 2 inches of cold water. Soak overnight. Drain the next day. An alternate “quick soak” would be to put the beans in a pot; cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil. Turn off heat and allow to sit for 1 hour. Drain.
Put the beans in a large soup pot with the chopped vegetables, tomatoes and their juice, water, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer. Simmer uncovered, until the beans are tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
Scoop out about 1 quart of the solids and reserve. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. Add the barley, salt, crushed red pepper flakes, and reserved solids. Bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer. Simmer until the barley is tender, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally as barley can stick. If the soup is too thick, add more water. Blend in the parsley. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.