Three Soup Week

Gazing out of the window of my upstairs home office, I’m watching some huge snowflakes settle in our little cul de sac, only to melt on impact.  I love watching the snow fall silently to the ground, each flake unique to itself, even though this winter has only provided us with a couple brief glimpses of our more typical winter wonderland here in Central Oregon.  For now, the “balmy” 40 degree temperature is still too warm for anything to stick.  So maybe it’s this wintry mix of a little snow, a little rain, chilly days and chillier nights, or maybe it’s just a life long affinity for all things soup that’s gotten me into such a soup mood this week.  Regardless, it’s turned out to be a three soup week, with leftover soups filling the in-between miscellaneous lunches and dinners as well.  And very UN-typically, none of them made it to the freezer!  Everything’s been consumed by the two of us, as well as an assortment of friends who’ve apparently enjoyed it as well. 

Loyal readers know I love soup, and always have.  I’ve written three long blogs on Asian noodle soups alone.  I think my pho article has gotten the most views and comments of anything I’ve written over the past three years that I’ve been doing this.  But apparently I’m not alone in my love for a big bowl of warm tasty soup, fresh out of the big 16 quart stainless steel soup pot. 

My love of soup dates back to my childhood, and I have a few very vivid memories of that time.  The first was our family visits to my great-grandmother’s house in San Francisco.  Grandma McKinnon, or “Old Grandma” as we all used to call her, was seemingly always very old, but amazingly she was around until my early teens.  Old Grandma was born in Denmark, and the most common lunch that she’d prepare for us when we were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with her, was her special potato soup (likely a potato leek, in retrospect), and Swiss cheese sandwiches.  Maybe it’s because I liked this combination so much, or perhaps it’s just my old mind getting the best of me, but I really can’t recall eating anything but this specific combination at her house.  And I recall her house vividly … big, lots of wood, somewhat dark, long, wide stairways, and always that wonderful smell of home cooked soup coming from her old kitchen. 

Second was the soup at Compton’s Cafeteria, which was located next to Vern’s Ice Cream, two doors up from the Westlake Delicatessen, and three up from what would become my favorite clothing store by the time I reached junior high school; The New England Shop.  Compton’s had three phenomenal things on their menu, and I don’t recall eating much of anything but these three things.  Their hamburgers were awesome, and always came with a big pile of fries.  I remember slathering Heinz (not French’s) mustard on the toasted, buttered buns, and drowning the fries with ketchup.  They also made an amazing custard, which was some of the best I’ve ever had.  I love custard, and Compton’s had one that I can still picture and almost taste, and that was a long time ago.  But their vegetable soup is what I remember the most.  It would come in a porcelain soup bowl, brown on the outside, white on the inside, with a couple packs of soda crackers that were immediately crushed and sprinkled on the soup.  This was simple, comfort food at its best.  Very inexpensive, consistently good, and like the restaurant that would eventually be built across the street, packed every day of the year.

But as the shopping center “matured,” and new stores replaced old ones, the venerable Compton’s eventually gave way to a pizza parlor, and the days of fulfillment via a burger on a toasted bun, a bowl of vegetable soup, and a dessert of their delectable custard, were ultimately history.  But there was certainly “hope,” and a lot more, as the vacant lot across the street, on the corner of Alemany (now John Daly Blvd) and Lake Merced was about to acquire a new building next to the Flying A gas station.  Joe’s of Westlake opened for business in 1956, and the lives of the lucky people of Daly City and beyond would never be the same. 

Joe’s is legendary, and lots of people including myself have written volumes about it.  I’ve been going there since I was a little kid, the first visit being a late night snack after attending the live play of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” with Zero Mostel, at the Berkeley Community Theater.  All compliments of my friend John’s lovely mom.  On this first visit, I ate a cheeseburger, as recommended by John.  It was, and still is among the top two or three burgers anywhere.  A huge patty is cooked on the wood fired grill, served on a third of a loaf of San Francisco Sourdough, with a heaping mound of thick steak fries as the preffered side dish.  I’ve had hundreds over the years, and it’s always a top choice when I visit Joe’s.  This is a restaurant where most of the regulars (myself included) have stopped looking at the menu several decades ago, and have in fact committed every item on it to memory.  It’s the kind of place where you start thinking of what you’re going to order, days in advance.  And other than the sweetbreads which John maintains are excellent, I’ve eaten just about everything on the menu, and you can’t go wrong with any number of dishes.  I draw the line at innards …

It wasn’t long after my first visit to Joe’s, when I had the first of hundreds of bowls of their minestrone soup.  Joe’s minestrone is simply the best, and as you may have gathered, I’ve eaten a lot of soup.  It’s consistent in the extreme, never varying one bit from the last bowl you had, whether that was a week, a month, or five years earlier.  It’s a huge bowl of vegetables in the best broth, with the optimal thickness, served steaming hot and ready for the hungry diner to devour.  In addition to the ever-present generous baskets of sourdough bread, Joe’s leaves large shakers of grated parmesan cheese on every table.  You’ll of course want copious quanties of both, with your soup. 

I almost always order a bowl of their soup before my main meal, as it’s guaranteed that you’ll get this course almost immediately, but you’ll still have plenty of time to digest it and prepare for your main course … which could range from a simple plate of rigatoni or “half and half” spaghetti and raviolis, to a huge portion of veal parmigiana with a side of pasta or vegetables, the roast lamb, pot roast, or roast beef, or maybe the ultimate … veal scallopine sec with button mushrooms (and a side of rigatoni – it’s the law).  I’m making myself hungry, and alas, I now live 500 miles north of this mecca in Daly City, so I’d better move on.

So it’s been a week of soups … three to be exact.  As I mentioned, winter in Central Oregon lends itself to soups and stews, and other warm comfort foods.  As much as I enjoy barbequing for the other three seasons here, the snow and ice in the yard just don’t provide the encouragement necessary to go out and brave the elements and fire up the ‘Q.  My old Lodge cast iron skillet gets lots of use this time of year.  All three of these started out as someone else’s recipe, but I’ve done a lot of modification to all of them.  I’m not sure where I found the basics for the first two, but the tortilla soup is based on a recipe from Fine Cooking Magazine, which is one of my favorites.

My first soup of the week, which was last Sunday’s meal, started out as a beef vegetable barley, but was modified somewhat for a low carb diet that one of my guests was striving to maintain.  Instead of barley, I substituted a cup of my “grain mix” which consists of a bunch of whole grains that I usually have in the pantry.  When I buy new grains or replenish one that’s low, I always take about a half cup out of it, and combine it with the other mixed grains.  At any given time, it probably contains some combiation of red and green lentils, Israeli couscous, wheatberries, barley (with hulls, not pearl barley), some small beans, spelt, etc.  And it makes for some great soup.  Here’s how I made it:

Beef, vegetable, whole grain soup
Ingredients
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (sweet onions work great, if you have access)

3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (including any leaves)
1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of marjoram
1 lb. of eye of round, sliced into 1/2″ cubes
1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil
1 large can of diced tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons of dried parsley flakes
1 large bay leaf
8 cups of home made beef broth, OR
8 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate (such as “Better Than Bullion”)
3/4 cup of mixed whole grains, uncooked

Technique
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a soup pot, and brown the beef over medium heat, stirring to coat all the sides
Remove the meat to a bowl, dump any liquid out of the bottom of the pot
Warm a second tablespoon of oil, add the onions, celery and carrots, cover and cook over medium heat for about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add the tomatoes, spices, stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer
Add the grains, cook on medium low for about an hour, or until they’re tender

Two days later, I opted for my second soup of the week, which was a creamy chicken with white and wild rice.  This recipe started out as a cream of chicken soup, but I’ve found that adding some pasta or rice to it makes a huge difference in texture and overall taste.  You can also opt to omit the cream at the end, and the taste is still awesome.  It doesn’t add a tremendous amount of fat calories to a big pot of soup, but if you’re watching and counting all of them, leave it out.  I also scaled the amount of butter down to about half of what the original recipe called for, and it doesn’t hurt the taste at all. 

Creamy Chicken and Two Rices
Ingredients
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked, diced
Large can of Swanson’s 99% fat-free chicken broth
4 cups of water
1 tablespoon of “Better Than Bullion” (chicken stock concentrate)
1/2 cube of unsalted butter
1 med-lg white onion, chopped
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (include leaves)
4 carrots, peeled, sliced thin
2/3 cup of flour (any kind will work)
1 tablespoon of parsley flakes
1 lg bay leaf
1 tablespoon dried thyme (Penzey’s French Thyme is best)
1/2 cup of heavy cream (optional)
2 tablespoons of sherry (dry or cream both work, don’t use “cooking” sherry)
1 cup of uncooked white rice
1/4 cup of uncooked wild rice (optional)
Salt / pepper to taste

Technique
Melt the butter over medium heat in a soup pot
Stir in the onions, celery, carrots, cover and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Sprinkle the flour on top, mix in thoroughly
Cook the mixture for another 2 minutes, stirring often
Add the broth, slowly at first, stirring to combine with the vegetables
Add the water and chicken stock concentrate, stir
Add the spices, bring to a boil over med-high heat
Add the chicken, wild rice, white rice, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender
Stir in the sherry and cream, simmer on low for 5 minutes
Remove the bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste, serve

For some odd reason, I didn’t feel like anything resembling the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.  We were having a few friends over, and I opted for another one of favorites, tortilla soup. Purists will want to make their own tortillas and cut them into small pieces, I generally don’t have the time or patience and have found that decent store-bought chips work fine, particularly since the flavors all come from the soup itself, not so much from the chips.  This is yet another recipe that calls for concentrated broth, this time chicken.  Most stores now carry the “Better Than Bullion” brand on the top shelf of the soup section, and you can also get larger containers (for less cost) at Costco or Cash and Carry.  I buy the large sizes and use it constantly. 

Tortilla soup
Ingredients
2 lbs of chicken breasts and/or thighs, diced
2 #2 cans (the big can) of diced tomatoes, with the juices
Small can of tomato paste
8-10 cups of home made chicken stock, OR
2 lg cans of 99% fat free chicken broth (Swanson’s is best)
1 tablespoon of concentrated chicken broth (can substitute granulated bouillon)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon of good chili powder or a combination of chili powders (New Mexico, California, etc.)
1 teaspoon of powdered cumin
1 pound pkg of frozen corn
1 can of black beans, rinsed & drained

Garnishes
Avocado, halved, sliced thin
Sour cream (real, or light works best – not imitation/non-fat stuff)
Salsa fresca, or a chunky salsa of your choice.  Make it yourself with some cilantro, half an onion, a jalapeno, and a couple diced tomatoes
Tortilla chips

Technique
Combine the chicken with 1 teaspoon of the chili mixture in a bowl
Sweat the onion in 1 tablespoon of oil (5 minutes, medium heat, covered)
Add the tomato paste, 1 can of tomatoes, the remainder of the chili mixture, the cumin, and simmer for 10 minutes – Stir occasionally, don’t let it boil or burn
Add 2 cups of broth, and the chicken, return to a simmer, reduce to low heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally
Add the remainder of the canned broth, the chicken concentrate (or granules / bouillon cubes in a pinch), the other can of tomatoes, ½ the cilantro, the corn and beans, bring to a boil on high heat
Reduce to Med-Low heat, simmer for an hour, partially covered

Serve with a garnish of a couple chips in the middle of the bowl, topped with a few avocado slices, a teaspoon of salsa, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.

Best with a Margarita and a bonus is a fresh key lime pie for dessert.

And tonight?  Out to dinner to a restaurant I haven’t tried before, in the nearby community of Sisters.  I cook almost every night, and every now and then it’s nice to let someone else have the kitchen duties! 

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