You start with a trusty pot. This is of course after you’ve made it to Aimee Bender’s secret kitchen, in an undisclosed location in southernmost southern California. Or, if not her kitchen, at least a clean one, tidy enough that your purpose remains focused and without distraction. You are making soup. That is all. This one thing. So, no toys, couches, television, radio, etc. No bills on the counter, etc. And yet, the kitchen must be purposive. This part I leave up to you.
In terms of pots, for Aimee the soup pot is a an old orange creuset; the rest of the cookery includes a bunch of old dented pans and wooden spoons she’s grown attached to over the years. She’s lost track of where they’re from, but some of them she’s had since college. This is as important as will be the bowl, at the end, from which you drink the soup. See below.
Starting out, you can definitely bring choppers into your kitchen space. Communal root chopping, that is—for any good pot of soup starts with this things that grow underground. For me, it’s onions in some kind of fat with a splash of white wine for light soups and red wine for stews. For Aimee, it’s many things but always carrots. Garlic, celery root, taro, burdock, parsley root, desert yams, prairie turnips, bush potatoes—all good roots. Stems, bulbs, rhizomes, and tubers in general are good here: ginger, tiger nut, cattails, lotus root, sunchoke, day lily. Gather and chop them. Especially if you have a garden to harvest and are in season, this is a good time for conversation (if you are not—as I often am—cooking in absolute silence). At some point, though, whether in silence or in conversation, the role of the choppers and harvesters is over. If you have a lot of these folk, give them something to discuss, some children to watch, a cake to pick up, some apertifs to enjoy, and get them out of the rangetop area. Two cooks for a single broth is twice as much as you need. If you want an elegant soup, only one cook. But we are cooking together, so are open to a bit more of a mess.
In fact, the openness to mess is what I’ve come for. Aimee was once and hence will forever be one of my teachers. And of late, I have been a bit stingy with soup ingredients. Generally, I like to minimize them. Worse, I spend too much money on ingredients that are a bit too dear. Once, I filled up a whole extra carry-on with ingredients from Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and brought them home to Colorado, for cooking soup, and paid them off over the course of a few months, and was afraid to use them because they were so expensive. This is ridiculous. There’s more. I generally won’t use pork fat, or beef, or chicken fat, or fat from any animal, including, nine times out of ten, butter, which limits things. These can be brittle and complex ethical issues, what we will and won’t cook with. We are, however you categorize things, creatures eating creatures. But there isn’t anything, Aimee tells me, that she won’t cook with. I believe this is something to aspire to, this kind of openness. As with life, so with soup. It is not my own idea but a wise one to use all the ingredients of your life, all the messiness, all the muck. Aimee in fact tells me she is a messy cook, she needs slack from the ingredients, and likes to give them slack too. This is a beautiful notion, and I will never forget her sharing it.
That said, you can’t be totally open or totally stingy with your soup. I am liberal with some things, like the non-animal fats I use, especially olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil. I am also liberal with alcohol when I cook. Sometimes, bourbon or a smoky scotch goes in the stock instead of wine; sometimes, a dark beer (never pale ale, nothing with a lot of hops). And Aimee, for all her inclusiveness, has limits: no noodles. In a soup, she says, they just seem wrong.
Try to identify yourself along this spectrum, so you can push against your tendencies a little bit. I know, for example, that a soup base of chicken fat and then filled with egg noodles (and butter and pepper) would be so good. Such a pot of soup may be somewhere in the future—next time, perhaps, Aimee and I meet to make soup—but we are not ready for that yet.
So for now, though this all feels to me like a lesson in the presence of a master, we compromise. We agree on some roots and stems, and to start, we agree on lentils. In fact, what Aimee has to say about lentils is critical. So far in her soup-making, she tells me, she likes how about halfway something releases in the lentils and the flavor gets much deeper.
When you’re first starting out with a pot of soup—and every batch is different, even if the recipe is quite measured (there can be rain outside the window or snow, it can be hot, your company can be bitter, you company can have gas, etc.)—you can trust that something, like the lentils, will release and make the flavor much deeper. In fact, it is wholly a matter of trust. For the most part, you can’t count on which ingredient will release. Counting on anything in this way will prevent the release of, say, the fennel, if you’re concentrating so hard on the release of shallots in the butter and grains of paradise that your very thoughts crowd out and inhibit the simple and earnest fennel.
In the spirit of non-stinginess, we talked liberally as we chopped. As we did so, I asked her several questions, and divulged many secrets, and vice versa, and we both vowed to leave all of this out of all recipes and soup-making reports. But the truth was, there wasn’t anything very surprising or interesting about our secrets, and fortunately we had plenty of salt, which we had to add to the room through the soup. Here’s the thing: if you’re preparing a soup, or any meal, you really shouldn’t have many big secrets. If you have some juicy ones, before you even start chopping, go outside and walk around the city a little bit, make some phone calls. Say what you need to. Stop in the grocery and pick up some good aged bourbon, or some pork fat, for the soup you will eventually, one day, make.
This is actually quite important. Here’s an example of where I failed on this count: at one point, Aimee tells me she aspires to borscht and Italian wedding soup. That she has a great butternut squash recipe, and also makes a chicken soup, and is working on matzoh ball soup. But, she says, she has some work to do there—on the matzoh balls. Now, myself, I make a pretty good matzoh ball soup, maybe four times a year. But I use the pre-packaged matzoh crumbs. Everything is pre-measured and laid out in rules for me; the proportions for egg, oil, salt and pepper are written clearly on the back of the box. I don’t ask Aimee if this is what she means; I assume she means some more complicated way of preparing matzoh balls that I can’t even imagine.A ceremony—as all recipes are, especially those handed down—that in fact I have no right to. I was raised Catholic in Cleveland, Ohio (which is where I got my taste for matzoh, as well as gefilte fish, which my sisters and I begged our parents for and called magic fish), then moved to a famously evangelical community in Illinois for middle school and high school, where there was no matzoh, or even the language to talk about it.
Suddenly, in the kitchen with Aimee, I had the tighteness and irritation of self-doubt and evaluation and cultural analysis turning wheels in my chest and belly. You can see how my internal dialogue crowded the tidy purposive space; maybe even soured some of it with unspoken assumptions, divisive notions. I would like to master the matzoh ball soup too. And not in the store-bought way. So, you see, when you are cooking soup, especially with another person, it is best to say everything, and have an open window too. No matter the season.
Halfway through our process, because lentils take a while to soften, we started cleaning out the kitchen cabinets—not so much out productivity but because we were there, in the kitchen, and reaching for spices and chatting about them. In so doing, we found a can of black turtle beans, which Aimee hadn’t known was in the cabinet. The ingredients on the can read: turtle beans, water, salt. We wanted them in the soup.
“Is this going to work?”
“What tastes good with beans and lentils?”
“Right. And what among those ingredients do I have in this kitchen?”
We spun the lazy susan around and chose cardamom, and cumin, and a can of chopped tomatoes.
“Now that we have added cardamom, we are going to have to add a little coconut milk.”
“And some chopped mangos?”
“With beans, lentils, and tomatoes? Wonderful. That sounds just right.”
“You have to know when to stop.”
We scooped the soup into bowls, which Aimee chose. I will not describe them, but will only say—and this was a point on which we both agreed—the bowl is very important. The weight of it, who made it, why, or what you don’t know about it, and above all, how it feels in your hands.
But by then, everything had changed again.
“There actually isn’t much chill in the air out here. Not great for hot soup.”
It was a pretty warm breezy night.
“Maybe it will cool off a little later.”
“Let’s go outside.”
So we went outside, and were poking around in the white sand under the moonlight when my teacher took a quick breath and showed me what she’d seen: a rare desert flower. Edible too. Its petals were white, thin as tissue, and it had a deep purple heart.
“This is what we want,” she said. “This will be our dinner.”
“You have to know when to let an idea go. Don’t get all hung up on soup. You know?” She sat down giving the little bunch of flowers space. “But here’s the thing, she said. Here’s the big question. This is a beautiful stand of flowers.”
“Beautiful,” I agreed.
“Not that much nutrition.”
“Only a dozen calories,” I guessed.
The question is, what are you going to do with the fifteen calories–what will be worthy enough of destroying such a beautiful thing?
Bonnie Nadzam’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, The Iowa Review, Epoch, and many others. Her first novel, LAMB, was the recipient of the 2011 Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Nadzam’s second novel will center on a modern-day witch, so she has been spending much time at the cauldron – her writing desk – casting narrative spells.
Bonnie’s What You Have Soup
The key to this soup is not going shopping for anything. You already have everything you need.
First, you need a fat: butter, lard, oil, peanut butter…
And a root, bulb or stem: leek, lotus, fennel, ginger, onion, garlic, radish, yam…
Chop the root, bulb, or stem and cook it slowly in the fat until it softens and changes
color (without burning). Really try to stick with one ingredient here. Don’t get all
enthusiastic. This step should take a while.
Add a salt source: soy sauce, liquid aminos, salt itself…
You need a liquid: cow’s milk, almond milk, coconut milk, apple juice, beer, coconut
water, Seven-up…Add the liquid and the salt source, to taste—however salty you
want it. You probably want it less salty than you think you do, but only you can say.
You may want a little sweet, but be careful, because you probably actually don’t.
Fruits/nuts/vegetables to put in the soup: chopped celery, apples, cashews, frozen
peas, corn, etc. Not more than three. Ideally two. Set them aside in a bowl. You’ll add
these last minute so they don’t get soggy or lose their color.
You need seemingly counterintuitive spices. Think of the mindset of finding a fresh
verb phrase or unusual adjective/noun paring. This is the same sense you use to
find the counterintuitive spice combination. This is not teachable, because you
already know how to do it and you have always known how to do it. In fact, you
can’t imagine how long you have known how to do it. If you can’t figure it out, freeze
the stock and read 9-12 excellent novels or a single work of Shakespeare (very
slowly) until you get familiar with the feeling in your body when you see a fresh
word pairing. Then write a novel or two, or at least a couple of stories, to practice
finding and honing this skill yourself. You can substitute painting, sculpting, etc.,
but any work of art or craft that comes with directions will take you in the opposite
direction, so don’t use any of those. No guidebooks, no how-to software, no pre-cut
pieces, etc. or you will forget you were even making soup.
Once you’re ready, defrost the broth, and come back to your spice cabinet. Choose
these two spices and add in just the right amount to the broth.
Very important here to trust yourself. Add a grain if you like—but not if it’s to cover
up the broth flavor. If the What You Have Soup broth tastes terrible, that’s ok. Try
not to judge.