The discovery of two disparate items I believed to be lost fuel this week’s column.
First, while cleaning out a sideboard, I located my copy of Harold McGee’s seminal tome on the culinary sciences, On Cooking. If you ever wanted to know the molecular structure of meringue or what plants were used in medieval salads, On Cooking is your read. More reference than recipe book, its 800-plus pages are meant to be read in small, fascinating bites.
The second lost item is a soup recipe I meant to share in this space two weeks ago. It was printed on a bookmark that was included with a complimentary copy of Chatelaine which came in the mail. I usually feature recipes that firmly reside in the virtual sphere or a book or magazine, so the ephemerality of this silly slip of paper was novel. But I made the recipe and it was great. Then I promptly lost the bookmark, sadly, on the kitchen table.
Disappointed, I found a replacement to meet my deadline. But my disappointment was limited for, if there is anything I’ve learned in four years of writing this column, it’s that a soup recipe, any soup recipe, doesn’t disappoint. My standard question when readers comment is “have you tried any of the recipes?”
If you have, it’s undoubtedly a soup. Or you’re complimenting a soup I’ve featured.
Why are we so smitten with soup? Even my science-smitten pal Harold McGee waxes poetic about soup, albeit via sauces, a close relative: (sauces) help the cook feed our perpetual hunger for stimulating sensations, for the pleasures of taste and smell, touch and sight. Sauces (and soups) are distillations of desire.
We are in winter’s icy grip, so soup’s radiating warmth seems a practical necessity. But McGee makes a very valid point on soup’s sensory pleasures. We can smell and hear soup simmering on the stove, enjoy soup’s often-vivid colour in our bowls, and feel soup slipping down our gullet, warming our bodies and souls. McGee suggests that our primary foods — meat, fish, vegetables and starches — are generally bland, unless touched with seasonings. Sauces, and therefore soups, are “ultimate” seasonings, artfully intensified flavours of the base ingredients, touched with spice. Soup’s limits are, seemingly, endless.
Wikipedia tells us that evidence of soup dates back to about 20,000 BC, but McGee picks up his spoon in the Middle Ages, when the French term bouillon was coined, meaning a stock produced by simmering meat in water. Still on the French — those culinary trailblazers — by the 17th century, soup had come into its own. The word soupe was the contemporary to the very onomatopoeic English sop, a flavourful liquid that imbues pieces of bread. Potages were thicker soups, while restaurants were “restoring” soups.
These days, texture is only part of the soup story. We can make a Korean pho as easily as a classic Italian Minestrone (my replacement recipe from two weeks ago), thanks to our increasingly adventurous and global palettes. Stock is easy to find in stores but easier to make at home to suit our tastes and ethics. I’ll always say yes to classic, creamy lobster bisque, but at a home, I’m inclined to make soup with a clear base and more of veggies and legumes to up the health benefits — as are many of you, I’m hearing.
Soup has always been a catch-all for leftovers and remnants: animal bones and vegetable trimmings are turned into stocks; vegetables, starches, proteins and spices are added, and if there happens to be a handful of this or a few tablespoons of that languishing in the fridge, in it goes. A whirl with a blender can produce a luxuriously creamy texture, but sometimes, a soup that eats like a meal is more in order (that will serve as my only reference to pre-made soup in this column; take from that what you will). Despite this haphazardness something delicious emerges which soothes and restores. Nothing could be simpler or more satisfying… and that is why we love soup.
Without further adieu, here is that lost recipe!
Hearty Tuscan Soup
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
One 540 mL can navy beans, drained and rinsed
Half of a 796 mL can diced tomatoes
2 cups packed chopped kale
2 cups croutons
½ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup grated Parmesan
Heat a large pot over medium. Add oil, then onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for three minutes. Add broth, water, beans and tomatoes. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add kale and continue simmering until kale is just tender, about five more minutes.
Ladle soup into four bowls, sprinkle with croutons, basil and Parmesan, and serve.