Soup for the Soul

A hot bowl of soup on a cold and rainy or snowy day is like wrapping yourself up in your favorite sweater or wearing your coziest pj’s or even snuggling deeply into your warmest blanket. Now how’s that for a cliche! I realize that I’ve probably used up my cliche quotient for this blog piece, but really who doesn’t feel this way about soup. So as I look out onto the newly snowy covered trees and grass, soup is on my mind.

Maybe it’s a Kowalsky thing this obsession about soup. Or maybe it’s in the DNA, our Eastern European roots that have made us soup crazy. My grandmother always had one on the table no matter how hot the day was! My dad was obsessed with cooking them and now I follow suit. In fact I think this is my second posting involving soup! Soup is filling and doesn’t have to be made with overly expensive ingredients to taste good. My paternal grandparents were not wealthy people; immigrants from Poland who brought their food culture to New York. They lived in an area where most of the Jewish immigrants settled on the Lower East Side. Grandma was never one to cook what she called “American” food. Her foods were Jewish Polish — from Galicia, hearty and filling. Most of the cuisine from this region was made of ingredients that didn’t cost a lot and could be stretched to feed many. I can still see my grandfather sitting at the table with his giant soup spoon, slurping on a piping hot bowl of split pea soup or borscht. And it had to be piping hot or he wouldn’t eat it!

A meal had to start with a soup, and I don’t think I can ever remember one not starting this way even on the hottest of summer nights. Dad would yell, “Who eats like this in the summer? It’s too hot to eat soup.” Grandma wouldn’t budge, and we’d all be sweating but somehow we’d manage to eat it all!

My favorite soup she made and then my dad used to make was potato soup. She’d expertly make her “aynbren” which is the yiddish word for “roux”. But of course since the meal that would follow was usually meat, hers would be made with flour and oil, not butter but if she were serving dairy then she’d use butter. Nothing smells better than slowly caramelized onions, seriously, that’s probably my favorite cooking smell. She’d caramelize the onions, and dad would steal a spoonful — that was the tradition and she knew it! Once the onions were perfectly golden brown, she’d add the flour and mix it slowly over the heat until it too was the perfect shade of golden brown; next went in the Idaho potatoes, then cover with water and cook until done! Simple and delicious! And of course she’d serve it with a crusty piece of rye bread or challah.

What wine would I drink with this you ask? The rich, nutty, slightly peppery tastes I think go best with a rich white like Chablis from France, or a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. The minerality, slight salinity and crisp acidity coupled with the rich bright, green apple and tropical fruit notes of Chardonnay that you find in Chablis, would marry well with this soup. Gruner’s floral notes peppered with spice and bright lemon citrus notes make it an amazing food wine and certainly one with enough oomph to cut through the richness of this soup. If you were to go red, I’d probably chose a Sangiovese, a Chianti Classico because it can be earthy and still have lots of red berry notes and good acidity which make it a good pairing here. And I’d even go as far as saying a Pinot Noir from Oregon, Burgundy or even Austria work because of the bright, lighter fruit and good acidity. You notice, acidity is a theme — acidity is needed when pairing with a food that is fatty or rich like this soup.

So last night as the snow came down for hours, I became obsessed with the idea of making soup to keep me warm. I made my own version of grandma’s potato soup and slightly upscaled it as she’d never have had porcini mushrooms though, she may have had dried polish mushrooms which were similar, and I know she only used water no chicken stock. So here’s my recipe:

Ingredients: 1 large onion sliced thin, 2 cloves garlic minced, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 3 tablespoons butter, 3-4 tablespoons flour, 2 large Idaho potatoes large dice, 1 carrot large dice, 2 tablespoons fresh dill chopped, 1/4 oz dried porcini mushrooms soaked until soft in warm water, 1/4 cup dried barley, 2 cups chicken stock and 3 cups water (heated to warm).
Directions: In a large pot, cook the onions in the oil and butter until deep golden brown. Add the carrots, drained porcini and garlic and cook for a minute. Sprinkle with the flour and cook until the flour is also deep golden brown. Add potatoes and cover with the water and chicken stock. Once it’s at a boil, turn down and add the barley. Cook or about an hour until the potatoes are soft and the barley is cooked. Season with salt and pepper and the chopped dill. Serve with crusty rye bread or challah and of course a nice glass of wine!

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