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.

Hal & Mal’s Vegetable Soup

In 2010, Molly O’Neill published One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking, 600 Recipes from the Nation’s Best Home cooks, Farmers, Fishermen, Pit-masters and Chefs. Ten years in the making and obviously a labor of love, One Big Table is an astonishing collection of recipes from a diverse variety of peoples and places. O’Neill includes six recipes from Mississippi, including one from a Jackson institution.

“Hal White, half of Hal & Mal’s Restaurant & Brewery, has been making soup ‘forever, or at least longer than I can remember.’ He’s developed close to 200 recipes, and makes at least a gallon and a half of soup every morning. He has the pot on the stove by 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. and it simmers until the lunch crowd comes in. Some days he just knows the restaurant will sell ‘beaucoups’ (pronounced boo-coos) soup. The vegetable soup is famous. Arguments have erupted between the customer who ordered the last bowl and the one who wished he had. The soup is an ode to Mr. White’s forbears: ‘My granddaddy had a big garden,’ he says. It is testimony to being wise with a nickel. The chablis he uses ‘is my favorite wine for this soup. Clean and acidic. I guess I could use sauvignon blanc, but you can’t beat chablis for cheap.’ His vegetable soup also owes a debt to a bartending friend. ‘He made this great Bloody Mary mix. He taught me that nothing beats Coke for balancing the acidity of tomatoes.’”

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored and chopped
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
5 ounces white mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 cups homemade chicken broth or low-sodium store-bought chicken broth
3 cups vegetable juice, such as V8
1/2 cup Coca-Cola
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons seasoned salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the celery and onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until they are soft. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.