Soup Wisdom: The Secret Ingredient

Swiss Chard

Swiss Chard

Over the New Years Weekend, two things happened. First, the weather dipped down into the 40s and 50s; then, Martine came down with a nasty cold. What that signaled to me was that it was time to cook a big tureen of soup. We settled on my mushroom and barley soup with added celery, carrots, and red potatoes.

What I’ ve been doing for a couple of years with good results is taking a big bunch of Swiss Chard and putting it through the blender either with water or stock—or both. For this, I prefer the green chard with white ribs, only because the brightly colored chards look a bit odd in the soups I cook.

The mixture of blended chard with, say, a good chicken stock such as the one I buy at Trader Joe’s, results in a really tasty broth. (Both of us went for seconds on the soup today.) Plus, you could hardly do better when it comes to nutrition: check this out. We tend not to eat enough vegetables anyhow.


On Eating Leaves

Some People’s Idea of a Meal

Some People’s Idea of a Meal

Sometimes I feel as if the entire medical profession is ganging up on me to eat salads with or without chicken. To begin with, I am no lover of chicken or turkey, though I like to use their stock in cooking soups.

But I draw the line at what the typical American considers a salad: a bunch of leaves with some goopy dressing. My complaint is not with raw vegetables. In hot weather I make good salads with red and green peppers, celery, onions, garlic, and even a few leaves of red leaf or butter lettuce mixed in. Salads consisting of nothing but leaves, as in “field greens,” I usually leave on my plate untouched. Without a decent crunch, salads come across as limp weeds with no character.

Now certain Middle Eastern salads are more to my liking, such as Shirazi or Israeli salads, with diced tomatoes and cucumbers—and no raw greens. Even Greek salads have some crunch, along with some tasty feta cheese for flavor. But American salads, well ….

I know that “they’re good for you”—but so is a lot of other unpalatable stuff. When I eat, I don’t like to feel that I am grazing in a meadow. (I suspect that most people who eat those all-leaf salads are doing it to make room for rich pastries or chocolates afterwards, when out of sight of one’s friends.)

Do I eat enough vegetables? Yes, indeed! All my dishes include a good mix of veggies. Especially my soups, which usually contain Swiss chard or kale mixed with stock in my blender.



Dreams of Soon Tofu

Cold Weather? Time for Soup!

Cold Weather? Time for Soup!

Today, Martine and I went to lunch at Galbi King. With the onset of cold weather in L.A., I felt like having some hot soup. And what can be hotter than extra spicy soon tofu? What is soon tofu? Here’s what one food writer on Chowhound.Com wrote:

Soon means “soft” in Korean, in this usage. So “soon tofu” is soft tofu. It’s quivery soft, like custard, but flavored with a savory broth filled with any number of good things from beef, to seafood, to pork. It’s just like the tofu in tofu fa, if you’ve ever had that.

At BCD and most other soft tofu joints in L.A. and OC [Orange County], the soft tofu comes bubbling in a stone crock to your table.

When the hot stone crock comes to your table, you break a raw egg in it—and prepare for a culinary paradise. I also spoon in some steamed rice to cool the fire. Mine was served with pork and was as spicy as the restaurant was willing to risk. As it happens, I am a certified chili-head, so I had no difficulty with the fiery broth. (Unless you too are one, don’t try this at home, Kids!)

Please note that not all Korean restaurants can make good soon tofu. I went to one Korean-owned place in the Patronato district of Santiago, Chile, and had a bowl that was sadly deficient in flavor. Even in Los Angeles, there are good Korean restaurants, and bad Korean restaurants.


You Won’t Roue the Day …

The Base for All Great Hungarian Soups

The Base for All Great Hungarian Soups

In response to a request from my friend Lynette, I’m going to tell you all about what makes for a great Hungarian soup—and probably most great vegetable and meat soups as well. The secret is rántás, the Magyar equivalent of roue. Let’s begin with the ingredients, with the amounts for a week’s worth of soup for two (Martine and I like home-made soups):

  • 1 oz unsalted butter
  • 1 oz olive oil (need not be virgin: I prefer olive oil that’s been around, if you know what I mean)
  • 3 tbsps white flour
  • 1/2 minced onion (minced means chopped up real tiny)
  • 1/2 bunch minced parsley (again: go to town with your knife here)
  • 2 tbsps real Hungarian Szegedi paprika (not Spanish paprika!)

Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan until it melts, stirring well. Give it a minute or two before adding the white flour. Stir until the flour turns brown. Add the onion and parsley and finally the paprika. When your rántás is done, scoop it into your soup toureen and start adding the other good stuff.

Note that the photo above is your rántás after the first three ingredients only. In time, you will adjust the ingredients to more accurately accord with your taste buds.

You can sometimes find good Hungarian paprika in supermarkets, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I get mine from Otto’s Hungarian Import Store in Burbank, and I prefer this variety, the Imported Szegedi Hungarian Paprika. When you get your paprika, keep it in the refrigerator: bugs love it too much.


Soup or Salad

So You Think It’s Healthy, Huh?

So You Think It’s Healthy, Huh?

It was Canadian writer Douglas Coupland who wrote that “Salad bars are like a restaurant’s lungs. They soak up the impurities and bacteria in the environment, leaving you with much cleaner air to enjoy.”

We have taken it so much for granted that salads are the perfect food that we typically ignore a few basic facts. First of all, how many of you salad-eaters actually clean the veggies you use, especially the lettuces? And then, how many of you pour sugary, fatty glop over the salad in an effort to make it palatable?

When I was growing up in Cleveland, we never ate salads, except occasionally for a warm salad made with romaine lettuce and bacon—and even then I never cared for the stuff. We had our own vegetable garden out back, so we never lacked for vegetables, which we sometimes ate raw, as tomatoes; or canned, such as Hungarian yellow banana peppers; or cooked, as cabbage.

I think that Hungarians would much rather eat their veggies in a soup than in a salad. So yesterday, I prepared a Hungarian-style pea soup with carrots and potatoes. For that extra Vitamin B touch and some delicious background flavor, I blend Swiss chard and curly parsley with some of the stock and pour it into the tureen.

So go ahead and disconsolately pick at that dubious salad. I prefer good soup just about any time. In fact, only when the temperature soars into the 90s that I will occasionally eat a chopped salad at lunchtime with a light vinaigrette dressing. Otherwise, no way!


The Soup Diaries: Making Substitutions

Hearty Vegetable Soup

Hearty Vegetable Soup

It has been colder in Los Angeles the last few days than during any time in the previous twenty-three years. It has been a struggle for our farmers (particularly in the strawberry fields of Ventura County)  to save their crops from the ravages of frost. Whenever the weather gets cold, the thought of soup is never far from my mind, so I got on Google and went to work looking for a good vegetable soup recipe. Here is the one I found.

The above link contains the full recipe. What I thought would be interesting would be to present just the list of ingredients, annotated by how I diverged using substitutions, additions, and omissions:

  • 8 medium carrots, sliced –  I only had two large carrots
  • 2 large onions, chopped – Instead, I chopped up the white ends of two leeks
  • 4 celery ribs, chopped – I only had three small celery ribs.
  • 1 large green pepper, seeded and chopped – I used one and a half
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained – I used a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes instead, which I prefer
  • 2 cups V8 juice – I just don’t think V8 juice tastes that good, so I skipped this altogether
  • 2 cups chopped cabbage
  • 2 cups frozen cut green beans
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained – Why drain it? I just dumped the can into the mix
  • 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules – I had some extra chicken stock, so I used about two or three cups of it
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt – I deliberately omitted this
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • My addition: A half cup of my favorite Middle Eastern soup mix, made up of small particles of barley, lentils, split peas, alphabet noodles, and a few other things
  • My addition: Hungarian paprika, because it’s always good

The result is absolutely delicious, even though I didn’t add the Swiss chard (run through the blender with some of the soup liquid) which I usually do when I cook soup. There just wasn’t enough room in the stock pot.

Even then, I had enough to give a small pot of the soup to my 80-year-old neighbor to help see him through the cold snap.

The Soup Diaries: Jazzing Up Ramen Noodles


Some Ingredients for a Perfect Ramen

This week it happened again. On Monday afternoon, I felt that premonitory tickling of the throat that means only one thing: Another bout with a cold or the flu. Fortunately, this time it turned out to be a cold.

The first thing I did when I got home was to ask Martine if it was all right if I made some soup for myself, as she had some leftovers in the refrigerator. I started up mincing or slicing up some carrots, serrano chiles, celery, and even a small potato and started it boiling furiously in three cups of water. I could have chosen other vegetables, such as cabbage, peas, spinach, onions, but I thought four veggie ingredients was sufficient.

It takes about twenty minutes of a furious boil before I add the broken-up ramen noodles, usually Chicken or Oriental flavor. (I like it but have no idea what makes it Oriental.) I stir the concoction for approximately three minutes before emptying the little flavor packet into the soup. Then I serve the ramen with two important ingredients, illustrated above:

  • Sesame oil, usually just a dash or two. Gives a really good flavor.
  • A Japanese chile powder mix called either Shichimi Togarashi (shown above) or Nanami Togarashi. Both add a little extra hotness (good for a cold) with the taste of black roasted sesame seeds.

IThe result is delicious, and a whole lot more nutritious than ramen on its own. What I’ve described here is enough for two people, but Martine will have none of my fire-eating ways, so I ate it all myself. It burned a little going down, but I felt it did me a world of good.

Soup Wisdom

Sadaf Soup Mix, One of the Indispensable Ingredients

Soup Wisdom is the name of a little book by Frieda Arkin that was produced by Consumer Reports back in 1980. It is one of the two sources of what I know about making soup. It is the lesser source: The main one is my mother, Sophie Paris, to whom this blog posting is dedicated. For the duration of my childhood and well into my adult years, my mother taught me that soup can make for a great meal. Just recognizing what a great soup can do for you is half the battle: The rest, like sex, consists of experimenting with a willing partner.

Here I will attempt to give away my secrets to making a delicious soup. Some of what I say will be general, some specific.

Take Your Time. Soups are better when you take several hours to make them. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and slowly add the ingredients one by one.

Using Your Blender. A mistake that many neophytes make is to make the soup too thin. There are several ways to avoid that. The Hungarian method is by making a rántás, or roue, using butter; minced onion, garlic, and parsley; Hungarian (not Spanish) paprika; and a couple tablespoons of general purpose flour.

What I usually do is, as the soup nears completion, ladle some of the mixture—liquids and solids together—into my blender and add a chopped-up bunch of Swiss Chard, which gives the broth a wonderful flavor along with the thicker texture. If you don’t have Swiss Chard, some other greens could be substituted—but note that the Chard is a really great flavor booster!

“Soup Mix.” Living as I do in an area where there are numerous Persian, Armenian, and Middle Eastern markets, what I always do is buy some “soup mix,” which consists of small pieces of green and yellow split peas, pearl barley, rice, and alphabet macaroni. I add this to the soup as soon as the liquid begins to boil and let it basically cook down to form a nice and very healthy background flavor and texture. I am partial to the brands put out by Sadaf and Springfield Foods.

Soupercharging Your Soup. If you have more time than I have, you might want to make your own beef, chicken, or vegetable broth to use as the base of your soup. Here’s where I cheat a little: I buy some soup broth of the desired variety from Trader Joe’s or my local supermarket. This week, I made a vegetarian minestrone using Swanson’s canned vegetable broth, which was quite good. I love the Trader Joe chicken broths, of which there are a couple of varieties.

Salt at the End. Some ingredients tend to get a little tough if you salt the soup too early. Since Martine doesn’t like salt very much, I don’t add any salt until the soup is served.

I know I said at the outset to take your time, but one of these days, I’ll post a blog about what I do to cheap ramen mixes to make them tastier and healthier without taking more than 5-10 minutes of my time.

’Tis the Season … for Soup

Japanese Udon Soup

Shown above is the Pork Udon soup made by the Men’s Club at the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon festival each July. Even though it is in the middle of summer, I always go to down a couple bowls of the stuff. I always add a little Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese chili powder with black sesame seeds) to bring out the flavor.

Soup and I go way back, to the beginning in fact. My mother was a great cook, especially when soups and pastries were involved. We always had a bowl of soup for every lunch and dinner we ate together as a family. Sometimes that bowl was all we needed, particularly if the soup was the hearty Gulyás Leves—or Hungarian Goulash, as it’s also called.

I wish I had the recipes for all her soups, such as the Hungarian egg-drop soup, the mushroom and vegetable soup, the green bean soup with sour cream, the Slovak dry bean soup, the beef broth with big chunks of beef in it (Husleves), the tomato soup, the rice and caraway seed soup—and the list just goes on forever. Mom’s homemade beef broth was the stuff of dreams, though I remember not appreciating it as much when I was younger because I thought my Dad asked for it too often.

Virtually all Hungarian soups begin with a roue (Hungarians call it rántás) consisting of minced onion and garlic, real Hungarian paprika (not the Spanish variety), minced parsley, and some flour. I’m still working at trying to get the right combinations to make it taste as if Mom made it.

Martine has not been feeling well for the last couple of weeks, so I will cook a home-made vegetarian minestrone tonight with a broad mix of veggies and crowned with some Swiss Chard that has been blended into the stock. I’ll try to remember to take a picture of a serving of it tonight and save it for later publication, perhaps with an approximation of the recipe I used. (I never follow recipes exactly: Usually I cherry-pick several recipes and add a few elements of my own.)

When we have soup, we rarely eat an entrée with it. Sometimes I’ll have some cheese and crackers.

If you want to get through the winter happy and healthy, I recommend you eat lots of soup. Real soup, not the canned stuff!