"Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup? Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give a hearty sustenance and cheer? …. Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don't catch steak hanging around when you're poor and sick, do you?" —Miss MannersWe had a week of inclement weather here in the Pacific Northwest, an occasion that often leads to a giddy hysteria when a few inches of snow falls. Coincidentally I was feeling under the weather (a phrase particularly evocative in this corner of the world; the weather can literally feel like a lid), so I didn't mind staying home all week, resting, catching up with myself.
Unfortunately, sometimes it does take something like a mild illness or unexpected weather to force us to slow down.
One of my favorite ways to rest--even when I'm ill--is to make soup. I love to cook anything, but soup, from beginning to end, is soothing. I listen to The Splendid Table while I cook, with Lynn's voice, the way she says fabulous, a fine companion. When I'm in the kitchen with Lynn, I have no desire to be elsewhere.
Soup tells me improvise (I rarely follow a recipe to the letter). Soup doesn't rush you. Soup has no grand expectations. Soup will accommodate almost anything you choose to include. Soup simmers. Soup asks you to sit, to wait, to mull, to consider. You can eat one bowl, and then another, whenever you like.
"Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite." —Auguste Escoffier
I made four different soups this week: Chicken-barley with sweet potato; rice and red lentil with caramelized onions; coconut braised beef stew; and black bean chili from the Cafe Beaujolais cookbook (it's the soup Julia Child ordered when she visited the restaurant on the Mendocino coast.) I've made this chili for years, and it always reminds me of when I lived just an hour away from the restaurant, at Orr Hot Springs, where, in the winter, I made huge vats of soup for whoever would stop by and eat.
But my favorite soup this week was the Chicken Barley. I combined several different recipes in my head, and just started pulling things out of the refrigerator. The soup made itself up as I went along, I was in the zone, and with Lynn laughing and encouraging me--fabulous!--I ended up with a pot of something nuanced and delicious and wholly my own. I slurped it up, felt the "Jewish penicillin" making its way to all the clogged places.
Would you like to try it? Do you need a little chicken soup? I'll try to re-create the recipe for you here. Eat, darling, eat (my Jewish grandmother is in me always...)
Brenda's Under-the-Weather Chicken Barley Soup
Chop up a large onion and 3 or 4 garlic gloves, dump them in a large pot with couple of tablespoons of olive oil set on medium heat. While they're softening, chop up about 4 celery stalks and 2 large carrots. Add these to the pot and give a good stir. Rummage around for dried tarragon, thyme, and basil--add about a tsp. of each of these (maybe a bit more of the thyme), along with some kosher salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Stir, smell, adjust seasoning as your nose (if it's not too congested) dictates.
Drag out that bag of barley that's been sitting at the back of your cupboard, waiting patiently for its moment to shine. Measure out a cup, rinse it well, and add it to the aromatics in the pot. Give a good stir.
Chop up about a pound of boneless chicken thighs (I find thigh meat works better in soup, but use what you like best), and add these to the pot that is now happily turning into something delicious. Give a good stir and let these ingredients all get to know one another for about five minutes.
Add a box of chicken broth (preferably low-sodium) and about three cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and let everything simmer for about a half-hour. In the meantime, peel and chop up a large sweet potato (or two), and a handful of fresh parsley. Add to the pot, and continue simmering for about 15 minutes or until both barley and sweet potato are tender.
Turn off heat and stir in a dollop of vinegar (I used rice vinegar, but tarragon vinegar would be delightful). Vinegar is the secret weapon of soups. It gathers up all those disparate ingredients and brings them to attention.
Let the soup sit for about an hour. Let everything mingle, marry, combine. Find a magazine. Turn on your favorite music. Ladle the soup into a big white bowl. Sit down with a cloth napkin. Make the dog sit with you. Eat, darling, eat.