Thursday, October 30, 2008

When Only Soup Will Do

I'm not such a winter person. Should you look at my resume, then, you might think I was mad, having spent the last seven years in such tropical locales as Montreal and Chicago. Despite the severity of the winter months, Montreal remains among my favorite cities in the entire world, and Chicago is not far behind (though at least the sun shone in Montreal between January and March, while Chicago was perpetually blanketed by grey). The fall, however, is one of my favorite times of year. And it has been far too short these past few years - I can recall a solid four days of fall-like weather in Chicago last year, and that might even be stretching it.

Now that I am back in New York, I am basking in all of it's autumn-ness, which has extended for weeks. I can think of no more wonderful place to be in the fall. As I look with a birds-eye view out of the window of my airplane, I can say without reservation that the palette with which Mother Nature works her magic in New York is unparalleled. It's wonderful walking weather, blissfully warm in the sun, while in the shade a light jacket or sweater provide ample protection from the chill. It's not even out of the question to stop at the Shake Shack and pick up frozen custard every once in a while. In fact, there might be no better weather for ice cream, since there is no rush to devour it before it melts into a sticky, gloppy stream traversing down your wrists. The list of things I love about fall is, well, it's unwritten, but if it were it would fill volumes - and it's not close to complete.

Autumn is really such a gently creature. She takes her time, settles in and makes sure we're comfortable with the idea of cold weather before winter comes crashing in. Fall introduces us to the crisp air, to its smells and its ability to just penetrate every fiber of our being.

Winter is far less considerate; if winter had its way, we'd have to deal with snow and sleet and harsh, biting winds without any sort of transitional period. That's where fall comes in. She gets us settled in to the post-summer way of life, and allows us ample time to embrace the coming winter. Full of such wonders as Thanksgiving, Halloween, apples, pumpkins, gem-colored leaves, and hell, my birthday, we're almost too distracted to notice that summer has left us behind.

That's not to say that fall doesn't affect us at all. That introduction of cold, crisp winds penetrates your body, ensuring our peace with it by the time the weather really turns.

I don't know about you, but the first few days of cold air leave me craving soup. Only soup will do to counter fall's chilly embrace. Once fall has done her job and my body has adjusted to the chilly air, my cravings become more well-rounded and varied. Sure, there'll be the odd soup here and there, but it's nothing like fall. At the first signs of cold, I need to be heated from the inside out, and the warm liquid traveling from mouth to tummy does just that. It allows me to make peace with the cold, since I have fooled my body into believing it's surrounded by warmth. Then before I (and my excessively fragile circulatory system) know it, winter has settled in, and I am totally alright with that.

And so the past two Sundays I've settled into my sweatpants and cooked up a giant pot of soup, meant to last me the week. After I return home from my walk back form work, I head to the stove and reheat away.

There is no comparison between soup made from scratch and the stuff from a can, and spending the little extra time (no more than a couple of hours, really) on the weekend means that I can enjoy the good stuff during the week in exactly the same amount of time it would take me to pop open a can and heat it up on the stove. So should you need some warming, throw some stuff in a pot, get cozy with some DVRed It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, stir every once in a while, and enjoy.

White-Bean Escarole Soup
Adapted from Martha Stewart

This soup is oddly nostalgic for me. When I was younger, my family and I would trek out to Staten Island for lobsters at a Spanish restaurant that featured a "Daily Double" lobster special. This soup was always an option to begin, and I remember always being unsure as to what escarole was, but I think I always ordered it, and I am pretty sure I really liked it. I'm not really sure what else would lead to such pointed cravings for white-bean escarole soup than a little nostalgia.

Regardless, this soup is hearty, filling, and best of all, really healthy. The pancetta imparts a bit of smokiness to the soup, and while it's not necessary, this smoky note adds a great deal of depth.

1 pound navy beans or other white beans (I used small cannelini beans, but would have preferred something larger)
6 cups beef stock
1 large onion, minced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1/4 pound pancetta (Italian raw bacon), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 large head escarole, washed and separated into leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Soak the beans overnight, or boil for 3 minutes and soak for 1 hour.
Simmer the beans in the soaking water and stock with the onion, garlic, carrot and bay leaves until the beans are tender (about 1 hour). Blanch the pancetta in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and add to the soup halfway through cooking.
When beans are thoroughly cooked, add the escaole leaves. Simmer for 2 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mushroom Barley Soup
Adapted from Zingerman's Deli's recipe in Jewish Cooking in America via

Among my absolute favorite things in the world, mushroom barley soup is a deli classic. On offer in every institution from
Carnegie to Manny's, it's a standby, a never-fail dish that has a place in many people's memories. This version is fantastic, adapted from a recipe from Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan it is thick, substantial, and again, healthy. The parsley perks up the other ingredients, both visually and taste-wise, and is a really great addition to this soup. I also added a parsnip, because I like them, but feel free to leave it out if that's not your thing.

This recipe produces a ton of soup, so I'd suggest either halving the recipe or planning on having a lot of friends over to share it with you. However, it's tastiness may lead you to eating a bit more than you had planned.

2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/2 a one-ounce package)
2 tablespoons butter (original recipe calls for margarine, but if keeping kosher is not a concern for you, butter is a better bet)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 ribs celery with leaves, diced
1/4 cup parsley
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound cremini mushrooms (or other mixed mushrooms, preferably not button)
1 tablespoon flour
7 cups beef broth or water
1 cup whole barley
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the mushrooms in 1 cup of hot water to cover for a half hour. Strain through a coffee filter or cheese cloth, reserving the water.
Coarsely chop the dried mushrooms.
Melt the butter in a stockpot and sauté the onion, celery, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, carrot, garlic, and fresh mushrooms until soft, about 5 minutes.
Lower the heat and add the flour, stirring every 30 seconds for about 5 minutes or until thick.
Add the beef broth and the cup of reserved mushroom water to the pot, and turn the heat up to high. When the soup has come to a simmer, add the barley. Stir well and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer, covered, for about an hour or until the barley is tender and the soup is thickened, stirring often.
Add additional chopped parsley, mix thoroughly, and adjust seasonings.

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