Sunday, November 30, 2008

Top Chef (Season 5; Episode 3): this post is brought to you by... soup

After a busy holiday weekend--75% of which was spent driving up and down the east coast--and emotional check-ins with family back home, I finally have a chance to sit down and post an update. Because so much time has lapsed, and thoughts have accumulated, this post is in 3 parts: Top Chef, Thanksgiving, and a freakin'-fantastic-recipe I tried a few days ago. In one of those seemingly predetermined moments of coincidence, I realized that all three topics I wanted to talk about have one very simple food in common: soup.

Top Chef...
The Quickfire Challenge asked our contestants to beget soup, inspired by other chefs' notable recipes in previous seasons compiled in the Top Chef cookbook. They certainly contrived some wonderful recipes, the white asparagus topping them off. Soups aren't easy to make (I should know, I have a damn 2 quarts of a disasterous attempt to soup-up canned pumpkin in my fridge right now--which is not, incidentally, the recipe I'll post below. That was pure delight.), and these chefs really did demonstrate inspiration, instead of pureeing the entrees they'd already begun to prepare before the soup-twist was thrown at them. What debased this creativity, however, was the latest of Bravo's shameless sponsorship exploits. Each chef was asked to use Swanson's Vegetable, Chicken or Beef Stock in what can only be documented as the most embarrassing product plug in the history of television. To top it all off, each chef replugged the stock while describing what he/she had made--obediently repeating the Swanson brand, in sing-song for the producers' ears. Add this to the cookbook plug, Kenmore appliances, Mac products, Saturn vehicles, and so much more. I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing Padma in some accessories from the Project Runway design room.

When I was younger, I attended a small, private, primary school because my immigrant parents thought that it was the ticket to a better life in this country and worked numerous jobs each to afford the ridiculous tuition it charged. I was miserable there, to put it mildly--I was the only non-white, non-WASP child (except for one Jew and one Cuban) in the entire school, I lied about being Christian so I could fit in until I was caught not knowing any of the songs at a classmate's communion, and I threw up every day on the ride to school for months (not in the eating disorder kind of way, but more of the 'I can't show up to school covered in vomit' variety--didn't work, my parents were too clever and packed extra clothing). I digress. Point is, I hated that place--mostly because the other students were racist, spoiled, and, honestly, dumb as bricks. But there's one memory that I still recall fondly from those years and it was the school's tradition of Stone Soup.

Stone Soup is an old Grimm Brothers' tale that tells the story of two soldiers making a pilgrimage home after serving in a war. On the way, they stop in a village and ask its villagers for handouts, as they've run out of provisions. Each house snubs the soldiers, ignoring their service and selfishly claiming they have no food to share. The soldiers then take up a cauldron in the middle of the village square, and try to look their busiest as they stir warm water with nothing but a single stone mixed in. As villagers pass by, their curiosity gets the best of them and they ask what the soldiers are making. Stone soup! they exclaim, lamenting that their specialty just needs a bit of onion, or a single potato, or a pinch of herbs (you get the point) to reach its potential. To the soldiers' delight, each villager agrees to pitch in the 'missing' ingredient, in return for a helping of the promised perfection. And, in this way, a hearty, delicious soup is made (and enjoyed) by the entire village and its two cunning visitors.

On the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, our entire grade school (K-6, 140 kids) would gather in a clearing in the forest behind our campus. We'd all sit on logs arranged in a circle, around a single cauldron in the middle. The youngest student in the school would ceremonially place a single stone in the pot to kick off the tradition, and each student would then walk up to the pot and place some ingredient that he/she had been assigned inside. While the pot simmered, we'd listen to my favorite kindegarten teacher, Mrs. Hays, read us the story of Stone Soup and then we'd feast. And for that single day each year, for 5 years, I could momentarily sit in that forest and forget that the little shits sitting next me on our log made fun of my last name, my parents' accents, or the lunches I brought to school. For one day, we all ate each other's meal and I realized more and more over the years that spice was something to be celebrated--it's just that none of them knew any better.

Gingered Carrot Soup...
I must still associate soup with that sort of temporary comfort, because when things got particularly bad one cold night a few days ago and I was dreading the reality of what completing my dissertation will entail and feeling remiss that my partner is no longer in the same graduate program to commiserate with and regretting making all sorts of decisions that led me to this career path and shut the doors on others, I decided to dump my sorrows in a pot and make huge vat of gingered carrot soup. There were many ingredients, numerous steps, and much detail, but I'm telling you--when you feel like you've completely lost control over your own life and desperately think you're dependent on whims of fate, there's nothing like successfully making a really tasty, hearty soup that will last you for at least 9 meals. Every sip I took of this soup for the rest of the week reminded me that I can, in fact, complete things I set out to do on my own.

2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces
4 cups chicken broth, low sodium and fat free
1 tbsp butter
1.5 cups chopped onion
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
1.5 tsp salt
1/4 tsp each: cumin
ground fennel
dried mint
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup lightly toasted cashews

1) Place the chopped carrots in a saucepan with the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until very tender (takes about 10-15 minutes).
2) In the meantime, heat the butter in a skillet. Add the onions and saute for a few minutes, until they start to soften. Then add the garlic, ginger, salt, and spices. Saute the mixture for another 10 minutes and then stir in the lemon juice.
3) Puree the onion mixture, boiled carrots (including the chicken broth) and toasted cashews together in a food processor or blender (you might have to do this in batches). Add water or milk to achieve the consistency you desire, because the recipe as is makes a very thick, creamy puree.
4) Enjoy--it's good for the soul.


Phil said...

yum! this one sounds especially good!

adele said...

Stone Soup? That sounds like a fun tradition.

(I hear you on school lunches - you haven't seen true horror until you witness the expression on your nine year-old WASP classmates' faces when your lunch includes sliced pig's ears.)