Tag Archives: soup

Making Time with Mrs. Fisher

“What hath been done may be done again. Old Arts when they have been long lost, are sometimes recovered again and pass for new inventions.” Jared Eliot, Second Essay on Field Husbandry, 1748

I recently discovered an enlightening artifact of American culinary history, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, published in San Francisco in 1881. The first cookbook published by an African-American woman, it is a bonanza of southern treasures, wonderfully old school in its approach.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

Mrs. Fisher, a freed slave who emigrated from Alabama, became an in-demand caterer and successful entrepreneur in San Francisco. Unable to read or write, she dictated her recipes for this book. Her personality vividly shines throughout the text, and her casual style reveals that she was a true master. It’s also obvious that her food must have been unbelievably delicious. Lucky for us, she wanted us all to learn her methods; she wrote the book “so that [even] a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”

Her all-day flavor development techniques are dazzling to read. Her recipe for Compound Tomato Sauce, included below, requires 24 hours of fermentation before the cooking begins. As for the cooking itself, “let it cook all day.” The richness of the aroma can’t be contained by the pages; reading the recipe, you can almost smell the sauce as it marches towards evening. Waiting for that first taste must have required a religious vow.

With Mrs. Fisher’s recipes, time is the chief ingredient. While egg-replacers and sugar substitutes and gluten-free alternatives and other analogs proliferate today, no true substitute for time has been developed. Rather than resist it, we should surrender: sugars and tissues break down with the application of heat, particularly with low heat over a long duration. An onion cooked for 30 minutes will taste richer—and have a more luxurious mouthfeel—than one cooked for 5 minutes. You can rush the onion if you want to, but you’ll have denied yourself a significant amount of pleasure at the table.

Studies[i] conducted in the UK and the US show drastic reductions in the time we spend cooking our meals, measured over the past 30 to 40 years. Not surprisingly, the time we spend enjoying meals has also plummeted. It makes sense: fast food leads to fast consumption. Rushed cooking leaves little to be savored.

Compound Tomato Sauce - Mrs Fisher, 1881
Compound Tomato Sauce recipe from Mrs. Fisher. I provide it not because I think we will all take the necessary two days to make the sauce. I do hope, however, that her spirit will inspire us all to spend more time crafting our meals, and that her joy will carry over to our tables.

It is complicated territory, once you consider factors such as income level, single-parenthood, number of jobs held simultaneously, and age. But there are also very simple scenarios.

I recently spent a weekend helping a friend at an animal sanctuary. While we were making dinner one evening, an intern passed through the kitchen. Her question was very to-the-point: “How do you cook mushrooms?” Her pace slowed, but she never actually stopped walking as I began my answer. She continued into the living room and opened her laptop.

Her age—early 20s—could be used against her, and we could indict the current generation for their inability to function in a physical, non-digital world. But the problem extends further back.

In Asheville, North Carolina—a foodie town if ever there were one—my next-door neighbor was a true gentle lady of the south. She absolutely loved food, especially the breads that I would share now and then. Upon learning more about my culinary background, she asked if I’d be willing to teach her one thing: how to make gravy. She was in her 70s.

Both of these examples point to something bigger: that the generation before them was missing something, too. And in fact, tracing the history of the American food from 1881—when Mrs. Fisher published her book—until now, it is easy to see us steadily relinquishing traditional foodways as convenience foods pervaded the grocery and markets. We traded our food heritage, rich with so many multicultural influences and an astonishing array of native foods, for extra time to do nothing. We have of course filled that nothing time with a lot of things, with watching television still being the number one time-taker.

The tradeoffs are many, and are well documented: declining health, loss of life skills, disconnection from food traditions and even family heritage. But it’s not the end of the world yet. For while our society was gorging on convenience, plant tissue was still behaving the same way it always had. And it still behaves in the same manner today.

We can reconnect. The cooking principles from 130 years ago are just as functional today, and Mrs. Fisher’s oeuvre stands as a cairn on a trail we can reclaim. The biggest investment asked of us is time, which coincidentally is as plentiful as it was 130 years ago if we unplug a bit.

The payoffs will be substantial, with the reversal of the symptoms mentioned above. But the most immediate return will be deeper enjoyment at the dinner table. This enjoyment is magnified by the experience of discovery, as we learn ancient secrets all over again and savor our burgeoning skills.

Onion Soup
There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in onions. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that is ancient in origin: Onion Soup. From its humble beginnings—poor people’s food in ancient Rome—to its 20th-century vogue, its goodness increases with the amount of time you take to prepare it. There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in these roots. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling. Perhaps this recipe can help you restore your relationship with food.

Onion Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 splash balsamic vinegar or red wine
3 cups vegetable stock, unsalted
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage, or 4 leaves fresh sage
1 bay leaf

1. Warm a heavy-bottomed 2 quart soup pot over low heat.
2. Add the olive oil and the onions. Sprinkle in the salt and pepper.
3. Stir to distribute onions evenly across the bottom of the pot.
4. Leave the onions in the pot on low heat for 2 hours, uncovered. Stir every half hour or so and redistribute.
5. After 2 hours, add the splash of balsamic and stir.
6. Add the vegetable stock, rosemary, sage, and bay leaf.
7. Bring pot to a simmer. Simmer slowly, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
8. Add a little more salt if desired.
9. Ladle into soup cups and serve with a slice of crusty baguette or multigrain bread, toasted.

Yield: 2 servings

Note the absence of sugar or other flavor additives. Sugar is sometimes added to aid in the caramelization process-but as you will see, no help is necessary. And you certainly won’t miss the sweetness–the onions get so sweet on their own that you’ll be tempted to make this a dessert soup.

Also, I have omitted the modern sacrament of cheese au gratin. Apart from all the issues associated with the consumption of animal products, I find that the cheese simply gets in the way of a great soup.

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[i]
http://www.forbes.com/sites/tombarlow/2011/04/15/americans-cook-the-least-eat-the-fastest/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3639863/

http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib86.aspx#.U6iQB7FiqTI

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2590578/Cant-cook-wont-cook-Britain-Amount-time-spent-cooking-UK-HALVED-1980s-people-survive-diet-sandwiches.html

Winter Sustenance

The freshness of the summer market lingers on my palate as we slowly transition into winter. As I reluctantly let go of sun-ripened tomatoes and delicate salad greens, I reach for winter sustenance.

Summer is a time for letting it all hang out, like a garden filled with wispily waving fennel, nasturtiums sluicing through open channels in rapids of color, and trellised vines of sugar snap peas. Winter, however, is about finding one’s grounding again, seeking the concentrated energy to be found inward.

Winter Greens Salad
Winter Greens Salad, with kale, collards, toasted pumpkin seeds, and Pomegranate Vinaigrette.

“Grounding” and “concentrated” are words that easily apply to the abundance of root vegetables available during winter. But root vegetables aren’t the only things available: hearty greens and squash are eager to provide us with the diverse nutrients needed to maintain our health and good cheer during the winter months.

A quick look at my availability chart shows me the wonderful array of vegetables that are waiting here at winter’s doorstep: Sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage, beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, shallots, butternut and other squashes, potatoes, garlic, broccoli, leeks, kale, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin—winter is far from drab and gray!

Also, when I consider the easy access I have to dried beans and grains, as well as cultured foods like tempeh, I realize just how abundant and vibrant my winter will be.

In some ways, cooking in the winter is much simpler than in the summer. Baking a sweet potato is about the easiest thing one can do. As the sweet potato finishes, I simmer a bit of quinoa. Above the simmering quinoa, I place my bamboo steamer, into which I’ve tossed a handful of chopped kale. When I plate this tasty trio, I supercharge their highly nutritious state by drizzling on a little flax oil and some nutritional yeast. A meal could hardly be more simple, satisfying, or whole.

The following recipes were developed around produce that is available fresh during the winter, as well as dried beans and grains. They are quite simple to prepare, and being simple, they are also flexible. If the recipe calls for carrots, feel free to use parsnips. Don’t want mashed potatoes on the Shepherd’s Pie? No problem, use sweet potatoes.

Sometimes we rely too much on heavy foods during the winter, simply because they feel so good and warming. Don’t forget, however, to include hearty helpings of leafy greens. The Winter Greens Salad is a perfect way to balance a meal.

 

Mushroom and Barley Soup

8 Servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, diced
2 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Herbs d’Provence
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup barley
1/2 cup lentils
1 teaspoon sea salt
Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Sauté mushrooms until they give up their liquid, about 10 minutes. Add onion and sauté for 5 minutes.

Add carrots, garlic, herbs, and black pepper, and sauté until carrots are soft.

Add vegetable stock, and barley. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower flame and simmer for 25 minutes.

Add lentils and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until lentils are done.

Add sea salt and remove from heat.

 

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Fennel

6 Servings

1 pound Brussels sprouts
1 fennel bulb
4 shallots, quartered
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Heat oven to 425°.

Trim ends of Brussels sprouts and remove outer layer of leaves. Slice in half through the base and place in mixing bowl.

Trim end of fennel bulb, and remove outer layers if blemished. Cut ¼” thick slices, perpendicular to the root, up to the green stalks. Place in bowl with Brussels sprouts.

Add shallots, garlic, olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper. Toss well.

Place in 2 quart casserole dish. Roast uncovered at 425° for 25 minutes. Toss, cover, and roast for 25 minutes more.

 

Winter Greens Salad

4 Servings

4 collard leaves, chopped
4 lacinato kale leaves, chopped
8 red kale leaves, chopped
4 Napa cabbage leaves, chiffonade
3/4 cup carrot, shredded
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/2 cup raisins
In wok or skillet over high heat, wilt the collard and kale in a small amount of water. Do not cook completely.

Mix cooked greens with Napa cabbage, carrot, pumpkin seeds, and raisins.

Toss with Pomegranate Vinaigrette (recipe below) and serve.

 

Pomegranate Vinaigrette

4 Servings

1 clove garlic, smashed
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons agave nectar (optional)
1 pinch sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil
Place garlic, shallot, pomegranate juice, balsamic vinegar, agave nectar, and sea salt in blender. Blend till fully homogenized.

Add olive oil and blend until emulsified.

 

Shepherd’s Pie

4 servings

3/4 pound potato
1 small onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup non-dairy milk
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, diced
1/4 pound parsnip or carrot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon tarragon
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
1/2 teaspoon sage
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound tempeh, crumbled
2 cups vegetable stock (divided use)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (can also use any gluten-free flour)
Heat oven to 450°.

Place whole, unpeeled potatoes and onion on a baking sheet. Put in oven and roast till potatoes are soft.

Peel and dice onion, and place in large bowl with the potatoes.

Add olive oil, non-dairy milk, sea salt, and pepper. Mash potatoes thoroughly and set aside. (If smoother, whipped potatoes are desired, use electric mixer.)

Lower oven to 350°.

Warm a large skillet over a medium flame. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then the mushrooms. Sauté till the mushrooms give up their liquid, about 10 minutes.

Add onion, parsnip or carrot, garlic, herbs, and black pepper. Sauté till onions are soft.

Add tempeh and sauté for 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of vegetable stock and ¼ teaspoon of sea salt. Simmer over low heat till stock is evaporated.

Add flour and mix well. Pour in remaining stock and simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, till gravy forms.

Place vegetable mixture into a 2 quart casserole dish. Spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the top.

Bake uncovered at 350° for 30 minutes.

 

Soup

William Blake prescribed seeing the world in a grain of sand. As I try to take in a fraction of his vision, I must be content with reflections in a bowl of soup.

I love to make soup. It’s one of the truest improvisational arts, fueled by ken and emotion and intuition. Soup is just as much Zen as it is Rococo, flowing like the Tao through a cup of miso and floating among the penne in minestrone. It has a soul of its own, an offspring of the Universal Soul itself.

When I make a good soup, I feel compelled to call a friend to come share it. It’s an intimate thing which requires confidence in the midst of vulnerability.

So, a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing to teach a soup class at CAS, I felt a tinge of trepidation. How do you put all of that in a recipe?

Well, you don’t. You can print “1 heaping cup of love” in the list of ingredients, but that just sounds kitschy and therefore insincere. “Go with the flow” doesn’t translate finitely, nor does “just groove on it.” Standard directions cover only the technical side of soup-making. To really capture the process, I’d have to say things like, “caramelize the onions with great sensuality,” or “use a vegetable stock that has the spirit of black tea.”

For this class more than others, I realized that I needed to listen to my Writer’s Mind: that is, I needed to “show” more than I needed to “tell.”

We spent the first hour talking about food, about common threads that ran through all of our lives. We talked about the journey we were each on. We spoke of space, openness, honesty, and acceptance. We remembered great soups we’d each had, and what made them special. The Community Table—ubiquitous throughout Europe, but sadly missing in most US restaurants—was a touchstone for us. It provided a segue into a discussion of partaking from the same pot, a simple act which tells us much more about soup than any recipe can.

That is the starting point: the realization that soup, in its very essence, binds everyone who partakes. Instantly but securely intimate, as soulful as the primordial soup from which the universe itself formed.

Having established our context, any recipe was merely an application of the concept. “See how it applies itself to Miso with Udon…look at how it fills a pot of Lentils & Vegetables with Filé…watch as it binds Vichysoisse…”

There were some solid technical tips, of course, like adding the filé only after you’ve taken the soup off the fire. I also told them that if you use good homemade stock, take time with your onions, and go easy on the salt, you will have a great soup. Beyond that, use what you have on hand, express yourself, and share it with others. The recipes are only starting points, as always.

Soup adapts to our lives. It winds through our personal progression and species evolution, keeping us rooted in ancient traditions. It helps us maintain a bond with the first human to ever hang a pot over a fire.

While we can make it as mystical as Blake, it is also as everyday as Sandburg:

Soup

I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.

When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.