Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Theology of Soup (Cuisine de Misere)

In my daughter's fourth grade classroom, her wonderful teacher has decided that this Friday shall be "Charlie Day," an opportunity for the children to experience a small taste of the life of the main character in Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  If you have read the book, or seen the movie, you will know that Charlie lives with his father and mother and two sets of grandparents, both very elderly, and is very poor, but well loved.  His father works in a toothpaste factory, and his job is precarious as well as low paying. In the story, Charlie and his family subsist on watered down Cabbage Soup, which is the primary staple of their diet. And so, to appreciate the plight of children such as Charlie,  the children in my daughter's class are going to eat very meagerly on Friday at breakfast, and at lunch they will all have a bowl of cabbage soup and a roll. My daughter, a devotee of a good meal, and I suspect in an effort to reclaim a little of her lunch, has volunteered me to cook the soup, which has caused me to reflect a little more on the art of cooking from want.  It is an interesting challenge to remain true to the spirit of the soup and at the same time cook something appealing which the children will actually eat, so as not to waste food or serve food which is not delicious while undertaking an object lesson.

In France, La Soupe is fundamental to life. The word is linked to souper (supper), and in the countryside there are still today many households who end the day with a big bowl of broth or vegetables, to which bacon and cheese have been added, eaten with bread often put at the bottom of the bowl and the soup poured over.  Dinner, in some areas, is still served in the middle of the day and is the primary meal of the day, though this old tradition has undergone rapid change.  Often, a great cauldron of soup would remain on the back burner of the kitchen range, and bits of leftover vegetables and meats would be added such that in the evening, all those who worked on the farms might come to the table for a nourishing broth poured over thick slabs of country bread.  The term for soup is potage, which means cooked in a pot, and the obvious implication is that this covers a broad range of dishes, from an elegant bouillon to a thick garbure.  Garbure is a hearty country soup found in Gascony, in the Southwest part of France and there are as many variations as there are grandmeres.  It is made with beans and vegetables, seasoned with meat (I like to use duck confit, but bacon and ham are common, too), and at the end, I like to lift out a  portion of the vegetables, puree them, sautee the puree in butter until it reaches the thickness of mashed potatoes, spread on lightly toasted croutons, sprinkle with gruyere cheese and brown briefly in the oven or salamander to serve with the soup.  I don't remember where I learned this trick, but once you try it, you will not be disappointed. Sound delicious? It is. This is a soup I love to make in autumn; it is a meal in itself.  It is a soup I will probably bring to my daughter's fourth grade class this winter, when the cold is biting and the children are in need of a warming treat.  Cheri/e, mange ta soup! is practically the universal French cry of motherhood.  And at bistros throughout France, one can sit and marvel at French children, gracefully eating their soup as a first course of a lengthy Sunday lunch, as elegantly as any of the adults at table.  Soup is a gift we give, born of making the most of simple things we are Given as Gift, and coaxing them lovingly to make an abundance of love.

To me, soup is a thing of beauty, and there is little that speaks of autumn and winter more than a steaming hot bowl of delicious soup. It speaks of warmth and welcome, and is almost a perfect symbol of hospitality.  It comforts the sick and feeds the homeless, and is a powerful ambassador of good will and love.  I like to make soups for my friends who are ill, or in need of comfort, but also to begin an elegant dinner. Delicate soups of lettuce and tarragon, pureed with excellent stock, or a fresh English pea soup topped with a drizzle of truffle oil and the shaving of a truffle served in a little demitasse cup seduce the diner at table such that each little sip of soup is a palate teaser for the pleasures to come. One can never take soup too lightly, except not to take it lightly enough. One could write a treatise on the nuances of soup, and its relationship to life and family and memory.  Nearly everyone I know has some treasured remembrance of a soup they enjoyed by a family hearth, or at a friend's table. One of my best memories of making soups are the hearty pureed vegetable soups I used to make for my husband when in the autumn he would go to the eastside of our state for duck hunting. Packed into a widemouthed thermos with some crusty baguette, a piece of good cheese alongside, and a little slice of fruit tart for dessert, it was a lunch fit for a king. And eating it on a brisk autumn day, en plein aire, one could have asked little more of life. It is the season for birding once again.

I often think that soup is a good way to teach someone to cook with the senses, as its goodness is often at the margins, and the same ingredients can be made sublime, simply tasty or bland and unappealing.  I have chef friends who ask their potential cooks to make a soup before deciding whether or not to hire them, and I approve wholeheartedly: the ability to make soup sing is an example of cooking which has moved from craft to art.  You can tell a good cook by the soup they make, and you can also tell a young cook by the temptation to add lots of fancy ingredients to make the soup seem "gourmet," rather than attempting to master the techniques which will draw the most flavor from a few key things.  Soup is also a testament to the kind of cooking mostly undertaken by les bonnes femmes de France, which is not from recipes but from the largesse and inspiration of the market, or from the small larder.  When a Frenchwoman asks herself what she will cook for dinner on a given night, she will walk to the nearby shops and purchase what looks best. Voila! A wonderful meal is composed and soon prepared, from soup to cheese and dessert. "Recipes," when they are written down, do not resemble the organization to which most Americans are accustomed, but rather a general description of methods rather than quantities.  Soup lends itself to learning to cook this way, and it is often a good place to begin to cook from the heart and the senses.  Perhaps most important, soup making is benefitted by thinking sensually about the layering of flavors and how best to develop each element for maximum result. The result may be impact, but may also be its ability to complement the other flavors. So thinking intentionally and tasting often is key.

Perhaps the greatest difference between cooking in France and in America, is the practice of cuisine de misere, which in Europe derived from generations of deprivation and hardship, in addition to war, when privation was the rule rather than the exception, and the bonne femme had the task of cooking something with nothing. I practice this to a great degree in my own kitchen, and do my best not to waste any food. Madeleine Kamman, in her wonderful book When French Women Cook, describes this as to adouber a tiny piece of meat with more vegetables, more dumplings, more sauce to make sure that it will stretch to feed a family; making a couple of eggs or a piece of cheese multiply into a pie that will feed six.  These women cooked delicious food with meager supplies, often foraging for things to enhance its deliciousness and appeal. The result is that new lessons were learned that could not have come of plenty, techniques for how to bring the best out of something less than perfect, which yielded many beloved dishes which today are cooked for their own sake rather than their economy.  This is why I often make little soups for a starter course from leftover vegetables or salads from the previous night's dinner, or make it for my own lunch.  Or take bits of meat and make little meat pies to serve with salad, and cheese and fruit for a lovely supper.   On a night when I have little in the larder,  I will carmelize some onions over low heat until they are almost mahogany in color, and make a pissaladiere, a little onion tart, with puff pastry, or pizza dough, or a yeast bread dough, or a foccacia, and make a little paste with olive oil and anchovies and a dab of dijon mustard to brush over the top,  add the onions, some goat cheese and a sprinkling of parmigiano reggiano, and some Nicoise olives and fresh thyme (you can also put on anchovy fillets if you like them).  My children and their school friends devour this after school. It takes only minutes to make once you have carmelized the onions, and it is addicitively delicious, and inexpensive.  If I have tomatoes that are becoming soft in the big bowl,  I make a tomato tart in a similar manner.  There are hundreds of little trucs for converting bits of things to delicious meals without sacrificing any of the quality or appeal of the meal in the process.  However, almost nothing lends itself as well to this approach to making the most of what we are given than does soup.

There are some simple approaches to soup that can yield spectacular results. One of my favorites is to cook a vegetable with whatever onion I am using in butter, in a covered pan over low heat, such that these two vegetables are sweated together. You can do this well with carrots and shallots, for example, and once tender and pureed with some homemade chicken stock, and enriched with a little creme fraiche, it is as noble as soup as one could ask. You can serve it with a dollop of creme fraiche and a little chopped chervil for garnish, and the result is spectacular. I do this with butternut squash, apples and onions as well, for a similar soup, adding cardamon to the soup at the end for flavor. Try it this way, and then the next time you make it, roast the squash, tossed with olive oil and seasalt in a hot (400 degree) oven before adding it to the soup. You will notice the subtle but lovely change in the soup, and you can use both methods depending upon the rest of the menu and what complements it best. A stick blender is a very handy too, and in my holiday kitchen in Big Sur, which is quite small, I use this often.  Also excellent is the wonderful Vita Mix blender, which can handle volume with ease and makes a fine puree.  For a velvety soup, a food mill is a lovely way to achieve an elegant texture, and though it requires more work, the results are often worth it.  When I am cooking for an elegant fete, I use my Chinois, a cone shaped sieve shaped like a Chinaman's hat, which has a very fine screen and results in sublime potage, if sacrificing a little of its rustic charm. A Chinois and Tamis (flat, round sieve with sides) are very good additions to your batterie de cuisine, and as they are expensive, saving for them is a worthwhile goal. Using fresh, cold water in soups to make stock is important, as is starting from a cold water base and heating the ingredients for the stock together. The flavor will be superior.  Never boil soup. Never.  This is just a beginning primer to what making soup can teach. We have scarcely scratched the surface.

Last night at dinner we were speaking of this, and how so many great lessons are learned from cooking with little: chiefly among them how to coax flavor from simple ingredients.  When I begin to teach someone to cook, I am always tempted to put only a few things in their larder from which they might choose, such that they learn the lessons of cooking from want: how to maximize each ingredient and each step to garner the most flavor.  Once these simple lessons are mastered, and applied to a greater largesse, the results can be exponential.  Perhaps this is why we start with a simple catechism when learning the beginning steps of our faith. We want to learn to climb the great mountains, yet we have not yet learned the lessons of the lower reaches, where so much wisdom lies.  We forget these profound little lessons at great loss.  My spiritual director often tells me that our walk of faith is like a spiral staircase: God leads us back to the same places, only a little higher up. So too with cooking, non? We learn to use the same simple lessons to master the more complex dishes. Often, we are afraid of the lessons of the desert, too, the places of darkness, where nothing seems clear.  I often think this is akin to the mistakes we make cooking, which can teach us far more than the successes.  I once read a beautiful book describing this, entitled Hinds Feet on High Places. It describes the process of climbing to these higher reaches, and the perspective once there, gained from lessons of the journey, and how it may be shared with those just beginning the climb. Perhaps this is the magic of a bowl of soup. It is a means of sharing what lies in the places higher up, wrought of all that is below.

And so I will make the cabbage soup for my daughter's class, and try to use the lessons here to take a few very simple ingredients and maximize their deliciousness such that the children in the class will have a view to what may come of want, perhaps that it reveals a plenty they would not otherwise have known. Check back and see how it comes out, yes? And sign up to follow me to the right of the writing here in this blog if you enjoy the journey here. I would love to hear from you, too, if you would like to leave a comment now and then. A bientot, mes amis.

1 comment:

  1. Makes me hungry just reading it - a very lovely piece annie and written in the style of a soup, an entree to some of your heartier or more complex pieces. Bravo!!