I instantly liked Blondine. She had once been a foreign exchange student living with my boyfriend’s family years before in rural upstate New York. An atypical teenager, she spent a number of her younger years contemplating joining a convent. At the point that I met her university life was winning the debate and she sought residence within the un-cloistered pulsating heart of Paris. I was twenty-one, traveling to meet her for the first time with our mutual friend during fall break Rome semester. Years later I attribute my love and laissez-faire attitude towards soup making on one memorable dinner with this gamine jeune fille and on being young and romantic. First, Blondine drove an utterly fashionable black and maroon Citroën 2CV. Even a complete automobile ignoramus such as me was able to grasp how wondrous this highly delineated driving machine was. Debonair and elegant, residing somewhere between an old fashioned baby carriage, a patent leather saddle shoe and a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk, we sped around Paris in her slightly bruised vehicle. She made home within a dark claustrophobic apartment perched atop a treacherous stack of stairs and her kitchen, a cluttered corner was barely an afterthought in this wreck of a building. Yet my eyes didn’t hone in on those kinds of details, after all we were in France tearing at fresh baked baguette, drinking cheap wine and dining on soup.
By the dimly lit glow of a cubicle which she called her icebox, Blondine pulled out item after item of food out of this unimaginably small receptacle. Next she found a battered soup pot fit to feed a small army and set it upon an impossibly narrow stove top space. Tap water filled until pot half full, fire on and mysterious ingredients chopped and thrown—uninitiated, I discovered that this was how soup was born. I admit that at certain points within this flurry of activity I was concerned for the direction this dinner was going. The appearance and freshness of the contents were to my estimation, in question. For example I believe that I witnessed a partially eaten ham sandwich quartered and diced as well as a semi limp head of leaf lettuce make its final resting place deep within that cavernous pot. I felt too shy to directly inquire into these sightings and pocketed the entire experience as my first introduction to exotic French cooking. Blondine confidently selected a soupçon of this and sniffed at that, explaining that she had learned the art of soup at the capable hands of her mother. While the pot bubbled merrily away I watched as every vestige of recognizable food was erased in the hungry aftermath of an immersion stick blender. My education was complete once I lapped up thick confetti-speckled spoonfuls of this soulful mélange and sopped butter smeared bread hunks within the diminishing puddle at the bottom of my bowl. At once I understood how every distinct element softened and melded with each other, the sum greater than the individual parts. Watching Blondine cook was liberating. She had such an easy way to her that directly translated over into her “au pif” (oh-peef, meaning intuitive by the nose) cooking style. She was accessible and open minded, thrifty, creative and above all, natural. From then on I have been unstoppable, at times down right brazen with my tureen. There is no telling what curious ingredient might make its appearance within my soup bowl.
The making of soup is a joyous expression. I see it as an affirmation of life and community. First of all, it is difficult to suppress soup to serve just two. Not impossible, just highly unlikely. After all look at the size of most soup pots. One wouldn’t think to conduct a symphony of flavors in a pond of broth within the limiting confines of a saucepan. Also the meditative rhythmic motion of cutting and chopping lulls a person and opens them up, expansive and generous to create a meal for sharing. In the sleepy late afternoon hours I have woken up to piles of vegetables that have magically proliferated upon my cutting board wanting to create more. I think we remember our primordial selves, young and buoyant within our amniotic homes when we taste the first drops of saline liquor. That may be why we cherish this food aqueous, warm and comforting, related to our very own vital fluids and offer it as nourishment and remedy to our closest friends and family.
I have been thinking about the story of Stone Soup, the old world morality tale about greed and poverty, sharing and the creation of relationships that feeds. The peddler with his vision and imagination is able to bring forth hearty soup out of scarcity, from the rubble and dross of ordinary life, from a common rock. Through the spinning of dream and story the soup is brought to life as each villager contributes an ingredient for the soup, a bit of cabbage, a few potatoes, some salt pork and a carrot or two. When I was younger the tale spoke to me about the abundant creation that occurs as a by-product of sharing. In the story the items given are a treasured stash. As I have aged and been seasoned by a dose or two of my own unsavory experiences, I now see those items as equally eligible ingredients for the soup. With that, I too dream up an extraordinary meal by using my nose and inner vision to tease out, to wonder and to transform leftover ham sandwich into soup for a queen.
In the spirit of the post I thought of Mulligatawny Soup or Indian Chicken Soup. I no longer remember the original recipe and have created so many versions that I now assume that it is quite another thing altogether. Truly this is the bringing together of an odd ragtag group that I rallied from my refrigerator- but I assure you the results were delicious. Just to make sure I was not living in my own little fantasy world, which in other circumstances I think fine, I spooned a bit into my friend’s mouth. I believe she approved.
Mulligatawny Soup au Pif
1 small delicata squash deseeded and chopped into ½ “pieces
1 smallish fennel bulb chopped roughly the same
½ slightly wizened onion, chopped
1/3 bunch of chicory chopped
1 small mealy apple, cored and chopped
1 ½ cup sauerkraut soaked in cold water for about 15 minutes and drained
1/2 jalapeno deseeded and chopped fine
Spoonful of Better than Bouillon- Chicken
2 chicken breasts chopped into bite size chunks
1 Full Tablespoon of Curry
1 cup of coconut milk
1 bunch of cilantro chopped
Directions: On medium-high fire sauté first seven ingredients with a bit of oil until softened and taking on some color, about 15 minutes. Throw in enough water to cover chopped items by about 1-2”. Add chicken flavoring and curry and cook another 10 minutes on medium low and covered. Throw in the chicken, stir and continue to cook until veggies are tender and chicken is thoroughly cooked. Stir in coconut milk and cilantro and turn the fire off. One can substitute juice of one half to one lemon instead of the sauerkraut. I too like to toss in a good handful of red lentils at the point that I add the water.