Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pimp My Soup (and Other Tales from my Recent Soup Swap)

Of course there’s a National Soup Swap Day. In a country where we celebrate National Peanut Butter & Jelly Day (April 2) and National Sugar Cookie Day (July 9), it only stands to reason that humble old soup, that overlooked meal in a bowl, would finally get its due. Don’t feel too badly if you missed National Soup Swap Day on January 24. It’s always a good time to get in on the semi-liquid action with a swap of your own.

But first, some history. The concept of the soup swap was cooked up in the late 1990s by Seattle resident Knox Gardner, who was weary of endless leftovers from his big batches of soup. The concept gained traction nationwide with the addition of a Web site [] in 2006, and has been receiving more media attention of late, usually tied to those “People Coping in Tough Economic Times” stories.

Now the movement has reached the Twin Cities, and, true to form, it’s being stretched into a unique Upper Midwestern shape with vintage family recipes, ethnic variations and lots of unforgettable stories. As with many things in this area, soup swappers here start with a bit more reticence, but they quickly pick up steam and enter a competitive zone aimed at making the most-chosen soups and picking the best ones for themselves.

The concept of the swap is simple: make, label and freeze six quarts of soup. Invite friends -- at least 6 (so there’s enough variety) but no more than 15 (otherwise it will take too long). Everyone shows up with their six 1-quart containers of labeled soup and some copies of their recipe, and leaves with six new soups, new recipes, and a stockpile of meals for the weeks ahead. Logistically, it works best to draw numbers randomly for “telling and picking” order.

The highlight of the swap is not, surprisingly, the soup itself, but the stories. Based on the number picked from the hat (or soup bowl), each person has a chance to “sell” his or her particular soup. This “pimp my soup” section of the evening can careen wildly from bawdy to sentimental to completely persuasive.

At a recent swap I hosted, I broke most of the rules and still managed to have a great time. I broke the attendance limit rule in a pretty serious way, since I kept saying yes to people who wanted to bring a friend or sign on late. We had 27 soup swappers gathered in my modest living room on a cold Friday night. It was loud, chaotic, cramped and lots of fun. The stories included a piece of short fiction that someone wrote about her immigrant family’s posole. Someone else related a touching story about being the only grandchild who liked to cook with Grandma, who lived on the Iron Range, and how now, years later, she’s the only one who can hand down the famous Granny Vegetable Soup recipe to the family. A storyteller delighted the crowd with an entirely fictional tale of meeting her eventual husband in Jamaica and snagging him only because he wanted to eat more of her Jamaican Sweet Potato Soup. It’s rare that two people bring the same variety, but this night, there was a battling duo of Minnesota-grown-beet Borscht makers extolling the superfood qualities of their dish, with much wine-fueled discussion on how likely beets are to make you pee pink. And not everyone slaves over a stove, either. One participant called her entry, “My kid had a concert at school last night soup,” and brought six quarts of Byerly’s Tomato Basil. Someone else had six brown paper bags, each complete with the fixings for a do-it-yourself “Bloody Mary Soup.”

A fun extra touch is to have judges, either the hosts or whatever stray kids have been carted along by parents who couldn’t get a sitter. At my recent swap, prizes included a candle for most romantic soup (that steamy sweet potato story), a bottle of Zout for messiest soup (Aunt Mimi’s Chili) and a 2009 calendar (with two entirely usable months left!) for last-picked soup (one of the Borschts). There was also a Consistency Award for a friend who has been to every one of the four swaps I’ve held so far – a 1947 edition of Women’s Home Companion Cookbook, bought for 25 cents at a garage sale and larded throughout with recipe cards, written in old lady handwriting. My friend was thrilled.

It sounds simple, but it makes people so happy, perhaps because there is something about the nature of soup and soup-making that elevates the experience to a higher level. A sandwich swap or a salad swap wouldn’t work for reasons that are both practical and more intangible. You can’t lose a salad in the back of the freezer and find it six months later like a belated Christmas present. Also, there’s an in-the-moment quality surrounding the time it takes to prepare soup, and deep comfort in sharing it with someone else. The chopping, the stock-making, the simmering – it’s a labor-intensive process. There is time to quietly observe the process on the stove, and think of someone who could really use a nice, warm bowl of soup. The labor, with its attendant memories and feelings of connectedness, translates into “I love you” for most of us, even the ones who can barely rustle up a can of Progresso on a chilly night.

The variations for the swap are endless, with the possibilities of themed events for family recipes, ethnic, low-fat, vegetarian. Another great riff on the national theme also has a distinctly Minnesotan appeal, since we always lead the nation in charitable works. You can add a “Bring a 7th Quart” effort for friends who are ill and would appreciate ready-to-eat meals. My spring swap featured a “give a seventh” effort for a friend who has been battling ovarian cancer and recently finished a course of chemotherapy. With an appetite that’s slowly returning, she was thrilled to receive 17 quarts of soup. She told me, “It’s like the fun of shopping, but in my own kitchen. I just open the freezer door and see what I’ll treat myself to next!”

Still, as much as everyone loves to eat it, there are soup-phobic cooks among us. It’s the ultimate four-letter word for someone who feels unsure in the kitchen. In reality, there is nothing easier than soup. A little attention, a bit of time, and everyone thinks you’re a genius. What follows is a fail-safe recipe for the starting point of good soup – good stock. When you start with homemade stock, you can never go wrong. And once you’ve got that mastered, you’re more than ready to host a swap of your own.

Recipe for “Good Bones” Chicken Stock

Step One: For this, you need two things – freezer space and discipline. Every time you make chicken or turkey – and I’m assuming it’s on your menu more than beef tenderloin these days – you have to save all the bones. No exceptions. That’s where the discipline comes in. Save the icky necks when you first take the chicken out of its plastic, and save the cooked bones afterwards. Save the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey, assuming the cat doesn’t climb on the counter and slobber all over it. Or maybe even then. All these bits are put in freezer bags, and when you have a couple big bags full, you’re ready to make stock.

Step Two: Take the bags from the freezer, dump all the bones into a big pot, and cover with cold water. If you want, you can add bay leaves, quartered onions, whole peeled garlic cloves, carrots and/or celery. You can impart an Asian flavor with slivers of ginger and garlic, or perhaps a splash of soy sauce or sesame oil. Or, you can be lazy and add nothing. Just cook the bones on high heat until boiling, and then reduce to a simmer. The longer this stuff simmers, the better, so put the stock on the stove in the morning, and let it cook until dinnertime. Then, turn off the stove and let it cool down a bit.

Step Three: Have someone help you. Really, this job is too gross and greasy for any one mortal. Put a big bowl in the sink, and get out your largest strainer or colander. Person One holds the strainer. Person Two pours the liquid from the pot, through the strainer and into the bowl. Do this with the bowl in the sink, because it splashes everywhere and it’s easier to pour down.

Step Four. Person Two is now holding a pot full of very repulsive-looking bones. Don’t think about this, just keep moving. Person One holds a sturdy garbage bag open and Person Two drops in all the bones. Because Person One’s job was pretty much of a cakewalk in Step One, that person must be the one to carry the drippy, icky bone bag outside to the garbage can. Really, outside. Really, now. Don’t leave the bag in your house for any longer than you have to. Pets will go nuts and the kitchen will stink.

Step Five: Cover the bowl of stock and, when it cools a bit, chill it overnight. When you open the refrigerator door in the morning, it will look like a tan 1970s version of two-layer Jello. The yellowish part on top is chicken fat, and your next job is to scrape all of that off and discard it. If you have an empty ice cream carton or similar container to scoop it into, that’s great, because this stuff is very greasy.

Step Six: Now you have two choices. Use your creation right away in any recipe that calls for chicken stock, or freeze it for later in gallon Ziploc bags that store flat in the freezer. Just be careful, as you’re scooping out the stock from the bowl, to leave any gritty or bad-looking bits at the very bottom and wash those down the sink. The stock you use should all be golden and clear, a ready palette for all the colors and flavors your creative cooking genius has in mind.

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