From Living Within, March 2013, page 21
At a friend’s house for supper a few nights ago our host had spent time, and no small effort, cooking a Jewish delicacy, one that is known by name pretty much the world over but not something that I have actually ever tasted before. Frankly, I have very little knowledge of Jewish food or the symbolism that surrounds it but it was a treat to be offered this wholly unexpected gem of traditionalism, a labour of love if ever I encountered one; I am of course talking Chicken Soup.
It sounds pretty simple but there is much more to it than I would have imagined - noodles and matzo balls, a broth rich enough to be considered therapeutic and accompanied, naturally, with tales of matriarchs and in-laws, discussion of the relative merits and densities of a matzo, and apocryphal anecdotes of Hollywood sirens concerned for the fate of the rest of the matzo animal. But I hear tell that the Chicken Soup debate is an emotional minefield within Jewish communities and, unqualified as I am to enter it, will offer no further critique other than to say that ours was delicious and the occasion very special.
It occurred to me that soup plays a role in many histories and traditions. It has achieved a level of immortality in popular culture: in song from the Mock Turtle to Carole King, and as comedy gold from a real-life New York soup stand in Jerry Seinfeld’s 90’s TV sitcom. Whether homely pottage, delicate consommé, smooth velouté or spicy mulligatawny, soup can be a comfort, a cure, a leveller, an appetite stimulant - but whatever else it is, it always feels familiar.
In a month when our thoughts are turning, almost desperately, to spring but in which we are still waiting for spring veg to become more fulsome and available, soup enables us to straddle the seasons with some ease; we can incorporate those vegetables that have taken us through winter and add in the vitality of spring as and when we see it.
Italian minestrone would be my soup of choice with which to make this almost seamless transition. There is no place for an overly prescriptive recipe for a minestrone as we have to allow for almost any vegetable to find some space in its allotted time in the calendar, and anyway, as for a Jewish bubbie, no two Italians are likely to agree on the exact details of how to achieve perfection in it. A minestrone requires a broth - chicken, vegetable or, at a pinch, plain water - a base of aromatics on which to build flavour, something starchy to thicken it and often a little splash of green with which to brighten its finish.
To go through the building blocks in a little more detail we should start, briefly, with the broth. Whether vegetable or light chicken in base, this should have been made from raw ingredients and not a stock cube. You can buy (at considerable expense) fresh stock in the supermarket, but better if you can to make your own with a left over carcass and/or some vegetable trimmings - simmer gently in enough water to cover for as long as it takes to extract the flavour (an hour or so for vegetables, upwards of 2 for chicken) skimming and straining the resulting liquid at strategic points along the way (namely as it comes to a boil before being reduced to a simmer, and when you have decided it is done). If all else fails, a minestrone can be made with water instead of broth, although you will probably have to go a little heavier on the seasoning to make up for the shortfall in flavour.
The base aromatics are traditionally a mix of onion, celery and carrot - the holy trinity of vegetables - diced finely and softened in a little oil or butter over a low heat. In Italy this is called a soffrito and acts as a flavour base for many different dishes. The soffrito should be soft and well cooked but never browned and will take, at least,10 minutes to cook down slowly.
Once the soffrito is ready, the other vegetables and broth can be added all in their time. Some sliced or chopped garlic might be added to the base to further enrich the flavour and when this has softened, any other vegetables (excluding anything that will take less than 3 minutes to cook) in order of how long they will take to cook through. These might include finely sliced leek, a chopped fennel bulb, chard stalks, potato (diced or whole), podded peas or green beans (broad or french). When all these vegetables are in, add a couple of litres of broth or water. Bring this to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. The soup will be ready as soon as the vegetables in it are tender. Anything that only requires a little wilting in hot liquid should be added just minutes before serving; finely sliced spinach or chard leaves, for example, which should stay a vibrant shade of green; overcooking these will dull both their colour and their flavour
The starchy element can come from a number of sources. Potato; some pre-cooked chickpeas borlotti, cannellini, or other beans; pasta noodles or shapes (again pre-cooked), or a handful of raw rice are all candidates. Add enough to add some substance but be careful (especially with rice which will expand significantly on cooking) if you don’t want the soup to finish thick enough to hold a spoon upright. Anything that is already cooked will need no more than 5 minutes to absorb flavour but allow enough time for rice or potatoes to cook through.
Seasoning should be added gradually; it is probably best if you add a little salt each time you add a new ingredient (taste it before you season once the broth has been added). Use a light hand at the beginning and remember to taste the soup at the end of cooking so that you can make final adjustments.
Once the soup is ready, serve in warmed bowls. Garnish with any or all of some chopped tender herbs (basil or parsley), a drizzle of well flavoured olive oil, a handful of Parmesan cheese and some freshly ground black pepper.
The soup should be hearty but, for those who require more substance, you can always have to hand some fresh crusty bread; and the customary call to table? “Soup’s in!”.
“This man sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America. I feel very strongly about this, Becky; it’s not just about the soup.” ~Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron)