Monday, October 11, 2004

Soup, beautiful soup

One of my strokes of culinary/literary/parenting genius has been "birthday soup." It comes from Maurice Sendak's "Little Bear" stories. In the story so named, it is Little Bear's birthday, but there is no evidence that anyone has made a cake for him. Finding "carrots, potatoes, peas and tomatoes" in the pantry, he decides that he can make "birthday soup" from these ingredients, and invites his friends over for some.

The kids like this story well enough that one night when H was working late, and I was casting around for something easy, kid-pleasing and nutritious to make for dinner, inspiration struck and I asked if they would like to help me make some Birthday Soup — though without the tomatoes (my family does not like tomatoes). I cut up the veggies, they put them into the pot and poured water over them, added some salt and pepper, and then I simmered it for 20-30 minutes or so. With the extra touch of a little olive oil drizzled over each bowl, a classic family recipe was born. The kids are so taken with it that they eat it happily without realizing that they are eating a dish made entirely from vegetables!

The making of Birthday Soup has turned into a little ritual around our house, one we re-enacted this past Saturday night. I ask the kids if they want to make it, or often enough they will ask me "Can we make Birthday Soup tonight?" We pretty much always have potatoes, carrots and frozen peas on hand, so it doesn't have to be planned for. I ask the kids what we need to make Birthday Soup, and they recite the four ingredients, then add "BUT NO TOMATOES!" in unison.

While H has been out of town, though, I've been on an off-kilter eating schedule, generally eating breakfast in the mid-morning, lunch in the mid-afternoon, and a late dinner after putting the kids to bed, allowing me to make nice adult meals for myself and things the kids will eat without argument for them. Inspired by the kids' choice of soup, I decided to make some minestrone on Saturday night.

It's been years since I've followed a recipe to make minestrone, relying instead on the genetic knowledge I've inherited from my ancestors. Since I have no Italian ancestry, this can sometimes be a dicey proposition. Nonetheless, many food historians maintain that the tradition of long-simmered stews ("peas porridge in the pot, nine days old") is strongest in Northern Europe, where wood for fires was plentiful and in the winter days were short and nights were cold. The sauté, on the other hand, is the more Mediterranean approach, conserving scarce fuel and minimizing heat in the kitchen with a quick application of high heat.

So with the onset of cool fall weather I spent Saturday night assembling a fine kettle of soup. I had no summery greens on hand, but plenty of sturdy cabbage for bulk, sweet carrots and onions, aromatic rosemary, and the nuclear-orange tomatoes we've been growing this year for flavor, and chicken stock and white wine for richness. The nutritional powerhouses of chickpeas (the term is, interestingly, an English corruption of the Italian "ceci") and red kidney beans anchored the soup, and since H is gone, I felt free to sprinkle in a fair number of red pepper flakes for heat.

I inadvertently made the minestrone Atkins-friendly, because I forgot to add the pasta. I am not a carb-avoidant person, and my idea of a healthy diet is probably best summed up by Rick Bayless: make food from the simple ingredients around the edges of the supermarket, don't eat the processed crap in the aisles, indulge in rich meals on a regular basis but balance them with simple, wholesome meals most of the time.

Fortunately, the soup turned out all right, and of course pasta left in leftover soup (and cooking for one, I had quite a few leftovers) will just soak up liquid and get soft, so it all worked out quite well. And eating a good bowl of soup, it is hard not to look back on your life up to that point which has culminated (for right now) in this fine bowl of warmth and goodness, and think, "this has all worked out quite well."

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