Native Soup for the Soul
It is often said the mark of a true chef, a natural in the kitchen, is a person who can create a delicious dish without following a recipe step-by-step. And yet some excellent cooks measure every ingredient very carefully. Bakers follow a nearly exact science, and I'm grateful they do. But this is why I don't bake much. I'm more of a "flick of the wrist" cook.
In confess, I don't always measure "a little more of this, a little less of that" or "a pinch here, pinch there—aha!" I suspect traditional Native cooks are so skilled and knowledgeable of how foods and spices work together, they do it all by rote. I am not there yet, but I take creative license now and again with a surprise ingredient, hoping it will make the dish sparkle. Sometimes it does. One of the easiest recipes to get playful with is soup or stew—or a dish similarly of many ingredients.
I have read that the onion may be the oldest food on the planet, since it has been found in some form in nearly every country. By that description, soup may be the oldest recipe. Soup is technically any combination of vegetables, meat or fish that’s cooked in liquid of some form, such as water or broth. I can visualize primitive peoples putting their gnawed meat bones in a pot of water to flavor it, adding a green or two. Now, with globalization, there are hundreds of combinations that make a delicious soup, chowder, bisque or broth—hot or cold, thick or thin. Soup is so diverse; some can be put together in a matter of minutes, while others take hours to prepare.
It is brutally cold here today, as it has been many days when I have cooked outside at demonstrations. On these days when the weather chills you to the bone, there is nothing quite like the aroma of simmering soup on an open fire, or inside on the stove, and the warmth of it in your belly.
When making a soup, there really are no rules. But there are general guide lines you can apply. Here are some tips:
--Save bones from pork chops, hams, beef or bison. Just throw them in a bag and freeze until you’re ready to use them. If you buy soup bones, salt them a little and roast them at 375 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. This will improve the flavor and color of your soup.
--To thicken your soup, puree some cooked vegetables, then put this puree back into the soup. Saute them first for even more flavor. Or, add a tablespoon or more of instant potato granules. Another way is to mix ¼ cup of cornstarch with enough cold water then add very slowly to the soup.
--A common mistake when making soup is adding too much salt. Go lightly, then let people add their own at the table.
--Make your soup in a high narrow pot. Pots with low sides let the liquids evaporate too quickly.
--Never let it boil, always simmer soup for a long time; don’t rush it. Meats need hours, other additions like vegetables and delicate herbs need very little time, so check often and adjust.
--Some chowders require milk or cream. If you are out of it, try some evaporated milk.
--Soup freezes fairly well. If you have too much broth, you can freeze that in ice cube trays and use it for seasoning vegetables now and again.
I made this soup a few weeks ago and it was a big hit. First, I cooked:
3 strips of bacon, drained and set aside saving some of the bacon fat to sauté
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped, and
3 ribs of celery, chopped
Fill the soup pot with:
1 quart of water and
1 quart of chicken stock (or vegetable broth)
Add to this
3 carrots, sliced fairly thin
¼ cup of each: white or brown rice, wild rice, and barley, and split peas
Simmer all for about an hour, than add about a cup of fresh cut up kale or spinach and a can or two of light red kidney beans. If you have dried navy, kidney, northern, or other dried beans, add them with the rices and barley as above. If you like tomatoes, a small can of diced tomatoes with mild chiles is a good but not a necessary addition. Crumble the bacon into the soup about ½ hour before it is done. Herbs like parsley, sage, thyme or cumin might be added sparingly at or near the end of cooking time, which is about 2 to 3 hours.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.