A soup for your long-forgotten inner child, another for the amazing person you’ve become, and a third for your wiser, more regal future self.
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Cream of Tomato Soup
For the 8-year-old sprite-like child in a more innocent era, a snow day off from school was almost as exciting as Christmas… especially since it materialized so suddenly, without any sort of prelude. Mom stuffed this little girl with hot oatmeal and made sure she bundled up before going out to play in the frozen paradise, there to make snowmen and igloos with the neighborhood kids and then drag their wooden sleds to the nearby hill. She was freezing the whole time but didn’t realize it with all the fun she was having. Only come lunchtime, with her crimson cheeks aflame and mittens drying on the radiator, did she feel the chill that had penetrated to her very bones. But then Mom served her a steaming bowl of tomato soup– accompanied, of course, by a grilled cheese sandwich– and she felt the warm, heavenly glow extend from her belly outward, a sensation that she would fondly remember and subconsciously seek to replicate for the rest of her life.
Mom got that soup from a can, but you can make it from scratch–
2 35 OZ. CANS WHOLE ITALIAN TOMATOES
1 1/2 CUPS HEAVY CREAM
3 TBSP BROWN SUGAR
1 TSP BLACK PEPPER
SALT TO TASTE, VERY CAREFULLY
HALF & HALF (OR MILK)
Thoroughly strain the tomatoes, preserving the juice. Roast the tomatoes on parchment paper under low broil until they get a little darker. Purée them with the reserved juice, heavy cream, and brown sugar, and carefully add salt and pepper to taste. Thin as needed with milk or half & half. NOTE: No need to get seedless tomatoes, because the seeds magically disappear in your blender. (If you need to buy a blender, check out the photo in the next recipe.)
And if this recipe seems way too simple, consider what that well-meaning mother was likely putting in her daughter’s stomach–
Cream of Tomato is by definition a simple soup for the simple tastes of a child. It needn’t be complicated. On the other end of the spectrum, however…
Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup
Now imagine this girl all grown up at, say, mid-thirty-something, confident that she’s arrived at the place she’d dreamt of since college. Indeed, she’s perched at the enviable intersection of her youthful energy and her high-functioning, no-nonsense adult self, and making good money there. Her upscale professional life is fast and precise and utterly amazing… and, when she feels the slightest bit challenged, she always plays to win. For instance, this March it’s her turn to host the monthly dinner party for her dozen or so work-mates. It’s technically just for fun, absolutely not a competition of any kind… but for her– it's GAME ON!
She considers herself a “foodie” and follows all the latest celebrity chefs. She needs to wow her co-workers with the right first course– it has to be great, of course, but without looking as if it entailed a lot of effort. It has to be foolproof for a large group. She decides on hot soup, but can she make it seem… sophisticated? Artistic, even? She scours numerous recipes, channels her inner Martha Stewart, and then synthesizes this original version of Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup–
24 oz WHITE MUSHROOMS (i.e., "regular" mushrooms)
5-6 oz SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS
8 oz. BABY BELLA MUSHROOMS
2 x 4oz ”GOURMET MUSHROOM BLEND” (Crimini, Oyster, Shiitake)
2 MEDIUM ONIONS
2 CELERY STALKS
PINCH OF THYME
2 CUPS BEEF STOCK (COMMERCIAL)
1 CUP AMONTILLADO SHERRY
1/2 CUP BUTTERMILK
1/2 CUP HEAVY CREAM
This soup has two main components– the base, and the sautéed wild mushrooms. (Not really “wild” mushrooms, but we’ve come to use that adjective to distinguish fancy varieties from plain white button or "regular" mushrooms.) For the base, slice and cook the onion until soft and translucent. Add chopped celery and carrots and cook for a few minutes, then cover with just enough water and slowly simmer until the carrot pieces are quite soft. Meanwhile, slice and sauté the white mushrooms in batches.
Then bring out your seriously heavy-duty blender–
–and add to it the onion/carrot/celery potful along with the beef stock, buttermilk, heavy cream, and sautéed white mushrooms, and then purée away. If all has gone well, you should have a nice and pleasantly thick consistency without the flour or other starchy thickeners that just about every other mushroom soup recipe uses. Now just sauté the fancy mushrooms, adding the sherry after they are thoroughly cooked. Simmer until most of the liquid evaporates, then add a pinch of fresh or dried thyme and toss a bit more, and then add them to the base. CAREFULLY add salt and pepper to taste.
If this grown-up Wonder Woman were really out to impress her co-workers, she’d have started a batch of crème fraîche a few days before with some of the buttermilk and cream, and then, at serving time, combine it with minced fresh thyme and/or snipped chives for a pretty garnish. (Crème Fraîche recipe is HERE.)
Vegan Carrot-Ginger Soup
Now consider a retired woman presently in her mid-seventies. Computers were barely more than science fiction when she was a young teen, and yet now they rule our lives if we let them. And so even after a career spent mostly (if reluctantly) at a keyboard, she defiantly insists on snail-mailing hand-written letters on hand-made cards to old friends, only uncovering her Mac to share her artwork with the world. Her cats keep her company while she paints, and even though the brushes are getting harder to hold steady, she still spends hours capturing the essence of the surrounding Arizona desert… because even though her eyes aren’t what they used to be, she somehow sees more than ever.
It’s reportedly snowing up in Flagstaff, but outside her window there’s just a raw, cruel wind whipping dust across the pottery-hued expanse. She feels a creeping chill that reminds her of a bygone snow day back east, and a smile crosses her lips as she wistfully recalls her wooden sled and those wet mittens. She reflexively conjures the taste memory of tomato soup, but right now she needs something to warm an old woman’s skeleton, not that of a springy young child with her whole fabulous life before her…
She needs this Vegan Carrot-Ginger Soup–
2-3 LEEKS (WHITE PART PLUS A LITTLE OF THE GREEN)
2 CELERY STALKS
1 QT. WATER
4 CUPS COARSELY CHOPPED CARROTS
1 TBSP GRATED FRESH GINGER
1/2 of a 14 oz CAN ORGANIC UNSWEETENED COCONUT MILK
2 TSP KOSHER SALT
1 TSP TURMERIC
PINCH OF CAYENNE PEPPER
Simmer/steam the leeks, celery, and carrots until nicely mushy and the water has become a flavorful stock. Purée veggies with the stock, add the coconut milk and seasonings, and purée some more. PLEASE be careful with the ginger– a little goes a long way, and we want the modicum of spicy heat to come from the cayenne as well as the ginger.
When everything is in perfect balance, this Carrot-Ginger Soup is not only delicious but also feels downright therapeutic– it is vegan and therefore devoid of anything remotely bad for you, and the twin kiss of ginger and cayenne will magically bring warmth to one’s extremities and nether-regions and those brittle old bones like nothing else.
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I have become increasingly willing to spend the extra money for organic vegetables because everything this side of yellow onions seems to be much more flavorful when organically grown.
Carefully check the leeks for trapped grit, separating the layers as needed.
You’ve seen me use the word “carefully” a few times, referring to adding salt and pepper. This means that you should only add HALF (or less!) of what you think you need, mix well, wait fifteen minutes, and then taste. Repeat as needed, but CAREFULLY– because if you add too much salt or pepper, there is no easy fix.
All three of these recipes require a serious blender like the unit pictured in the mushroom recipe. I recommend a trip to the Restaurant Depot, where you can buy professional-grade kitchen equipment– including 4 horsepower blenders– that will outlive you.
An intriguing variant of the mushroom soup recipe involves using Malmsey Madeira instead of Amontillado Sherry as you finish sautéeing the fancy mushrooms. This will give you a sweeter, richer flavor. Cognac or Armagnac will also work, and either can be used in combination with the sherry or madeira. As with all the recipes I post, I recommend tinkering with these and making them your own.
And finally, this essay is largely inspired by a lifetime of knowing WAY more than my fair share of fantastic women– my hard-working mother, who (if paradoxically) taught me to cook; two grandmothers who were indeed excellent cooks, my intelligent and successful sisters (by blood or marriage, or in spirit), our cousins all over the country, a handful of old girlfriends with whom I keep in regular touch, a talented and dedicated webmistress who also makes her own wonderful ketchup, a seemingly nuclear-powered daughter who balances multiple disciplines with aplomb, an ageless mother-in-law who can still cook with the best of them (and also bought me the blender), and especially her daughter– my bride Andrea, who seems really happy to test all my recipes with me while providing constant encouragement. Thank you, dear Ladies!