Get the soup pot simmering and relax in comfort.
What’s her sorrow?
She hasn’t any sorrow; it’s only her fancy.
-Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
“Soup of the evening, beeyoutiful soup,” sang the Mock Turtle to Alice, in an effort to raise her drooping spirits. All waiting in a hot tureen it was, and what could grace a winter evening’s table, and carry us through cold times and climes, better than soup, with a fine crusty loaf, a jug of something that hath been aged a long time in the delved earth, and… thou.
Okay, maybe Lewis Carroll, Keats and the Rubiyat don’t belong in one sentence. But essentially, my dears, this is how a good soup is made: some of this, some of that, a goodly bit of quiet simmer time, a very occasional stir, the possibilities of romance, and rest.
Rest is my secret ingredient, and my soups and my life are always the better for it. Pasta al la Puttanesca, fine, fine, but you never sit down from chop to serve, and that does not a soothing event make. Or a good-tempered cook. It’s wham-bang-thank-you ma’am, which has (let us admit) its place, gastronomically and even amorously, ahem, speaking. But I’ll make soup.
Soup starts with music. Chopin’s études are, needless to say, perfect culinary snowbound accompaniment; Uzbekistanian diva divine, Sevara Nazarkhan, oddball fantastica like Calypso Carnival, 1936-1941, Mickey Hart’s Supralingua or Beethoven’s 7th. Something to make the spirit soar, as splendid harmonics will. Never lugubrious, lest you wind up like the Griffin and Mock Turtle weeping into your broth. Though truth be told, unlike the presence of too many cooks, tears will not spoil the soup, and may perhaps enliven the storm-tossed chef.
What we are going for here is Le Plus Ultra Chicken Stock—blue chip, you might say—both a beginning and an end in itself as, it is hoped, most everything we do will be. Remember, too, that you can make excellent stock with meat bones, seafood shells, and even a wise choice of tasty vegetables, avoiding the discoloring ones, such as beets which render everything gray, as any painter knows.
So, music on, hands washed, hair tied back, you begin.
This week I happened to sample what a local restaurant purports is “chicken soup like Mama’s.” Not mine—Nana was spinning, I tell you. This was dishwater weak, and suffered from a mistaken presence of something appallingly past wilted, in the leafy green department, and the absence of a sexy golden film of schmaltz. But yours will be right.
If you have served chicken recently, then you may very fortunately have bones, neck and giblets. This is also the perfect fate for any frightening turkey carcass haunting your fridge or freezer post-feast or cleverly acquired in the post-festivity sales.
And this broth will be absolutely, exactly, the Platonic ideal of what the doctor/your mother ordered, supposing your winter involves any sort of dastardly fluish or similarly unpleasant condition.
If your chicken soup might need to begin with a shopping trip, lay in a trove of giblets, necks, wings, whatever is cheapest, and freeze in eager anticipation of the sweet slowing of quotidian life’s fevered demands, gifted you by the snowbound scene outside your frosted windowpanes.
Or lay in a whole fryer, and sometime in your soup-saved day, you’ll have a chance to remove deliciously seasoned meat for a tortilla roll-up with avocado, chile, mayo and such.
Purchase good carrots (think organic when you think root!), a bunch of celery, many onions—should you need to. But know the secret to a truly flexible larder is the constant stocking of these dependable elements, as well as potatoes, crème fraîche, and champagne (brut, please, never extra dry, that oh-so-misleading misnomer), and something generously excellent in the bittersweet chocolate bar realm, preferably with almonds.
Be sure your spice world contains whole black pepper (but you’re probably not reading this if it doesn’t), whole clove, bay leaves and kosher salt. If your goal is to take this stock further into a more elaborate soup, shop for everything else. I bet you knew that. At the least, buy some extravagantly good butter and a crusty loaf, maybe a smidgen of Gruyere to melt later onto your warmed bread.
Fill your largest pot—that one in the closet with the lobster decals, revealing your seaboard past, or the Caphalon beauty you got for some holiday in your younger days when you would rather have gotten jewelry, but are now wiser and want both—with fresh, cold water.
Plop in your bones, or bird; three or four or more washed, trimmed celery stalks; a few whole carrots, cut in half; an onion or two or three, peeled and halved; a bay leaf; three whole cloves; and many, many pepper corns. Fill the curve of your palm with salt and throw it in with a wish.
Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Turn it down to a fervent simmer, wipe the stove top, counters and do up all dishes involved, so that your next piece of kitchen behavior can take place in cheerful expectancy, versus the unsettling dread one necessarily feels when cooking, or living, in continual chaos.
There are many things we could discuss, Constant Reader, involving the producing of clear consommé, and other gourmandizing niceties, but this is neither the place nor the season. It is time to go lie down, possibly, depending upon your good habits and desires, with a glass of a nicely fortifying red: a really decent pinot, or upscaled shiraz, and certainly under a thick, soft blanket of your most favorite weight.
Read. A novel, perhaps; something immersible, with lots of characters having fascinating lives and eating fabulous and meaningfully described meals. I’m thinking, admittedly, of luscious, fat page-turners of the well-heeled 19th century variety; Dickens’s, say, “Dombey and Son” or even better, “Bleak House.” “Sense and Sensibility,” if Jane Austen you prefer and have, depriving yourself terribly, only seen the movie.
Treat yourself to Balzac’s “Pére Goriot,” or get modern and global, and sink scrumptiously into Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy.” Or, if you so choose, Neruda’s glorious “100 Love Poems,” or Robert Bly and James Hillman’s stunner anthology, “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart,” or such proverbial slim volumes of poems, Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” say, as meet the needs of cozy nesting on a chill winter afternoon. Maybe a cookery book, or any any anything from the most exquisitely absorbing works of M.F.K. Fisher, or a Patricia (oh, most luscious of edgy treats) Cornwall or Elizabeth Peters: whatever beckons with unadulterated pleasure.
The house will fill with the scent of industry and labor; warm steam rising, redolent of nurturance, peace and plenty. And you, the deserving cook, are having some rest.
Three, maybe four hours will pass. You may have bathed. Or taken a walk to watch the bare boughs drop their heaped sparkle of snowfall in shuddering bars of light. Or slept. Or written. Your skin is smoothed from rest, pinked from warmth.
Perhaps tonight, if luck and such fortune as may befall the ever-optimistic ordains, you will bask in the trebled warmth of the beloved’s presence and serve forth, in newly-wrought equanimity, this perfect soup as is, with aforementioned bread brought hot from the oven, with generous schmears of creamy butter, and transparent slices of good sharp cheese.
Or in the last hour, after you have discarded the bones, and skimmed the fat, you will decide to add bite-size morsels of cooked potatoes, Yukon Golds or tender skinned reds, whole baby new carrots, maybe florets of broccoli or other tenderly steamed members of the cruciferous family, tiny basil scented meatballs, or trimmed slivers of whatever cooked meats are to hand, to your voluptuously rich and sturdy broth.
Maybe in your fridge you have something extraordinary that I don’t know, but I’ll trust you; a munificent handful of chopped roasted, peeled green chile from your frozen stash of autumn’s crop, defrosted while you rested; a liberal sprinkling of finely diced jalapeño, or scallion, or cilantro’s always effervescently vivifying leaves.
Surely there will be candles lit, and the glisten of set places, cloth napkins, and music. Surely the winds outside will whip the branches loose of their storm-laden weight; surely, if dining, so beautifully, alone, you will remember other dusky evenings, and feast then, on whatsoever it may be that pleases you and makes the cold winds of winter as invigorating, as fortifying to the soul and heart as any new year, new love.
Judyth Hill is a stand-up poet, living at Rockmirth, her 111-acre Eco-Arts Atelier in northern New Mexico. Her six published books of poetry include “Men Need Space” and “Black Hollyhock, First Light”; she is the author of the internationally acclaimed poem, “Wage Peace,” and was described by the St. Helena Examiner as “energy with skin