Soup, The Ultimate Comfort Food

By Catharine L. Kaufman—a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink

More than any other cooked food, soup tends to evoke nostalgic memories of family traditions. All I need, for example, is a steaming plate of my favorite chicken and matzo ball soup to be transported back to my childhood’s Passover Seder tables. Many others think fondly of the same (or noodle-substituted) chicken soup as the best medicine for colds and flu.

Each simmering pot is a season’s herald: the hearty meat brews and seafood chowders that comfort us during the winter months; garden-fresh vegetable soups that stir up our spring fever; summer’s chilled gazpacho and fruit soups that refresh us; and autumn’s harvest of creamy pumpkin and spicy butternut squash meal-starters.

Since long before recorded history, soups have represented cultural traditions, while also showcasing regional foods and cuisines. Still popular in the Middle East, lentil soup is even mentioned in the Bible as the fragrant dish cooked by Jacob, in exchange for a pot of which his brother Esau offered to give up his birthright to him.  Even though he had no way of knowing how nutritious this immune-boosting legume was, nor how rich in fiber, iron and protein.

Later, Russians transformed the lowly beet and cabbage into heavenly (and super-healthy) sweet-and-sour borschts; Italians created minestrone, pasta e fazoul and the “wedding soup”; French cooking gave the world vichyssoise, French onion soup and consommé; from Spain came gazpacho; the Chinese created culinary harmony with won ton, egg-drop and hot and sour soups; miso comes from Japan; Mulligatawny from India; tortilla soup from Mexico; and French Canadian pea from my motherland.  American individualism is expressed in regional specialties that define the East and West Coasts, the ethnic flavors of various Midwestern areas, as well as dishes evolved from local bounties in the cold north and sultry south. Varieties abound even within the regions. On the East Coast, Manhattan clam chowder has a tomato base while its New England counterpart is enriched with cream. Texas chili readily morphs from main course and side-dish to soup, while Louisiana extols the gastronomic virtues of its gumbo. Trend-setting California uses its farm-fresh and ocean bounty to improvise and adapt any recipes the world sends its way—as it did with Northern Italy’s seafood cioppino.

Here are a few points of special soup-etiquette and rules that are sure to both help your enjoyment and save you embarrassment and dry-cleaning expenses at the dinner table. As a bonus, I’m also throwing in a few suggestions for culinary damage control:

1.    Although hot soups should be served hot and cold ones cold, refrain from extreme temperatures so as not to scald or frost the delicate mucous membranes that line the mouth and throat.

2.    When including seafood or other items that have hard shells or seeds you must be extra vigilant to filter out these fragments so as not to run the expensive, painful and possibly even dangerous risk of cracking a tooth or lacerating any part of someone’s gastrointestinal tract.

3.    When seasoning your soups, be generous with herbs and spices but frugal with salt. You can always adjust salt and pepper to individual tastes at the table. However, should your hand go a little heavy on the sodium during cooking, throw a raw potato into the pot to absorb the excess.  (Hungarian folklore holds that too much salt in the soup is a sign the cook is in love.)

4.    Almost all soups will not only keep in the refrigerator for 10 days or longer, but their flavor tends to get richer with time. Keep them covered with tight-fitting lids or wraps. Most soups also freeze well. For individual portions, pour soup into tightly covered Pyrex or other freezable glass-based containers before freezing.

5.    If your soup is too thick, thin it down with some vegetable or chicken broth. If it’s too thin, add a carbohydrate like barley, rice or pasta to add more body.

6.    Soup should be seen and tasted, but not heard. In short, don’t slurp. Or as publisher Bennett Cerf said, “Good manners (is) the noise you don’t make when eating soup.” When dining with others, it’s best to be gentle when trying to cool your soup. Blow as softly, quietly and unobtrusively as possible on each spoonful, taking care not to spill or spray it out of the spoon.

7.     When a consommé or other soup that contains no solid pieces is served in a two-handled cup, it is perfectly acceptable to drink directly from it—though it’s also OK to use the spoon that comes with it.  While the lacquered Japanese cup in which miso soup is traditionally served does not have any handles, it is equally polite to sip from the cup, or use the provided spoon.

8.     When finished with your soup, place the spoon on the plate below, not in the bowl.

9.     Savor every last drop of your soup whenever possible. While you cannot control portions in most restaurants, try to judge how much soup to ladle into your bowl when eating at home or at someone else’s table. Asking for seconds is a compliment, but quitting before you finished at least most of your soup might embarrass the cook.

10.    Don’t forget to “eat with your nose”—inhaling the aroma of a good soup can more than double the sensual pleasure enjoyed by your taste buds.

In honor of our National Soup Month, here is one of my family’s favorites — a hearty, savory, wild mushroom barley soup to warm the cockles of your heart.

Wild Mushroom Barley Soup

7 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 cup of pearled barley
1/2 onion, minced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 broccoli stalk, chopped
1/2 red pepper, diced
8 ounces of wild mushrooms, chopped
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy, stainless steel saucepan, sauté the vegetables in the olive oil until tender. Add the broth, barley and seasonings. Bring to a boil and simmer covered for about 1 hour until the barley is tender.

(Please send your questions or comments to [email protected]

2 Comments on “Soup, The Ultimate Comfort Food”

  1. JANUARY 17, 2009—Dear Kitchen Shrink: As always, I enjoyed your column this week—especially since I also make a lot of soup. I am happy to see the recipe for the mushroom barley soup, but my question is: what are wild mushrooms and where does one buy them? Are they dried or fresh? And does this small amount of barley make a really thick soup like Milton’s?
    Best regards,
    Cecile Powers

  2. JANUARY 26, 2009—Hi Cecile… So good to hear from you again. And thanks for the great feedback on my column.

    I like fresh mushrooms, and when possible, I try to buy organic. Whole Foods has organic oyster mushrooms and shiitake (which I called wild). You can also use brown Italian or crimini, Portobello or the white button ones. For convenience, I use dried ones too on occasion. Trader Joe’s has a little bag of mixed wild mushrooms from Italy. Just soak them in warm water to plump them up and they will be wonderful in the soup.

    Also, if you like your soup really thick, increase the barley by a few tablespoons. If you make the soup and have it sit overnight in the refrigerator, it also thickens without tinkering with the proportions.

    Let me know how the mushroom barley soup turns out.
    Catharine “The Kitchen Shrink”

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