Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.” I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup. Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself.

Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them. For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. And potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished. Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s stature was reckoned by making do in the face of adversity. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they came to know in hardship. As children they may have been sent to school with a biscuit folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean, and coming home they often had soup made from the leftovers and whatever else they had on hand to feed many hungry people.

The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range. She probably remembered her momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and probably had learned how to make at her mother’s knee.

Potato Soup

For each serving (@ a cup and a half), take a large starchy potato, wash, peel and dice. Boil in enough water to cover. When almost tender through, drain—reserving liquid—and set aside. For each of two servings sauté a finely-minced small white onion and two cloves of garlic in a half stick of sweet butter. about two tablespoons sweet butter. To this, add liquid from the potatoes and boil until onions have broken down. Add potatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, and adding liquid if needed, until the soup has a creamy consistency with soft chunks of potato. Salt to taste and season with crushed dill seed, rosemary and pepper—I like to use white. Add heavy cream and a pat of butter before serving. Serve hot.

 

Cream Soups

Cream soups add an elegant touch to formal cool-weather occasions. These soups involve many of the same procedures and ingredients as other soups: aromatics, broth, vegetables or seafood, and of course whole milk or cream. A bisque (“twice cooked”) usually refers to a cream soup containing seafood such as shrimp, crawfish, or lobster, though some tomato cream soups are also called bisques. Some people use béchamel as a base for cream soups, but a proper cream soup base is velouté, a white sauce made from a light stock. Velouté also makes the best base for a cheese soup, which, if you think about it, can well be considered the ultimate incarnation of a cream soup.

If you have good stock on hand, then by all means use it. If not, you can use store-bought stock, but before you do, it must be enriched with a mirepoix and a bouquet garni. Add onion, celery, and carrots to the stock, along with thyme, bay, and parsley, and let it sweat on a low heat for about an hour or so. Strain the stock. A light roux with ½ cup butter and ½ cup plain flour will thicken about a quart of stock. This is your soup base, to which add a cup of whole milk or for an exceptionally rich dish, whole cream, and about two cups of your choice of meat or vegetables diced, cooked in butter, and puréed. Let the soup rest on low heat before serving with a swirl of whole cream. This recipe makes about six 12-oz. servings.

Taking Stock

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of basic, soulful satisfaction. Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; stock is used to make sauces and gravies, soups, stews and other types of pottage. A good stock is the foundation upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy. If you really care about the quality of your cooking, you’ll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives.

Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.

Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, which provide a beautiful color, two onions with skin, again for color (all coarsely chopped) two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as you go. This takes a while; in the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers and write Loretta a fan letter. Then drain off the liquid, debone the chicken and return liquid and bones to the pot, reserving the meat for other uses. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich amber color, remove bones and strain. When the stock has a good flavor, strain it again, cool it on the counter for a while, and then set it in the refrigerator to chill. If it’s still warm when you set it in the refrigerator, set it on a rack or put a spoon under the container so air can circulate underneath to cool it quicker, otherwise it might spoil.

Once the stock chills, you’ll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and store it separately in the freezer for use later to make matzos or potato pancakes. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.

Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but its best just to go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock; I’ve heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is a troublesome endeavor, and besides, what if in a moment of absent-mindedness you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well. Use it in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice, and you’ll notice a big difference.

Summer Vegetable Stew

The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make lunch of those with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”

Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)

Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina will suffice. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered to the mélange.

This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.

Oyster Soup with Artichoke and Spinach

This light savory soup is good cool or warm, and such dishes are at their best on a spring or autumn table for a warm day or a cool night. The base is a blend of store-bought beef and chicken bone broth: The flavor is minimal, as is the color; it’s used simply for its texture.

Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and two jars quartered marinated artichoke hearts with liquid, thyme, basil, chives and just a knife point of minced garlic and cook “with a smile”, meaning just at a simmer for about fifteen minutes, double that if the spinach is raw. Use a quart of oysters, the liquor too if clear, but if cloudy, rinse the oysters and dust with salt and pepper. You’ll often read that oysters should be heated “until the edges curl” before serving, but I suspect this is an echo of those gentler days when a hot soup was finished off in a tureen and brought to table, since oysters cook quickly and are soon firm through and through. Top with finely cut fresh scallions for a nice bite.