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Cold Day; Hot Soup

Before Louisiana became my home, a soup meal almost always meant vegetable. Vegetable soup still rates high with me although New Orleans drew me quickly to soup meals from the sea and bayous.

 I was born lucky enough to grow up eating fresh vegetables from my parents’ own garden or from farmers’ markets or grocery stores. A canned vegetable to me is something that has to be drained and rinsed to get the taste of the can out before I can even consider using it. I once saw someone make vegetable soup out of 100 percent canned vegetables and thought, “Why bother?” The essence of soup is created as the ingredients cook and break down.

Some people think soup must cook for hours and hours to be any good. Actually, many soups are quick, especially the seafood ones, and the only ingredient that needs tenderizing by long cooking is a cheaper cut of beef used in vegetable soup. Frankly, I drop most of the vegetables in towards the end so they’ll still be al dente.
In February, the month of all months when the body needs copious nurturing and comfort, we must turn to soup to warm the troops. How about sitting in front of a fire, wrapped up in a plaid blanket, cat or dog at your feet, newspaper at hand, music from the stereo and a steaming bowl of soup before you? All right, maybe the temperature is 75. Then wait for the forecast to predict an almost freezing night and jump into the scene. Don’t forget to serve warm, buttered bread – the greatest complement to a good soup. I prefer cornbread for vegetable soup and French bread for seafood soups. Or some of the hearty nutty loaves you can find at bakeries around town that, when warmed, soak up butter like a sponge. Then hunker down and warm your body and soul.

I like to make a big pot of vegetable soup and have enough for at least two nights. Or, freeze the leftovers in containers for a later meal or for a friend just home from the hospital.

For years my very favorite soup was oyster artichoke. I just couldn’t get enough of it. It is said to have originated in the kitchen of the late Warren LeRuth, who gifted the West Bank with gourmet dining. The man was so talented that not only is his restaurant legendary, he created recipes for many national restaurants and was known for his development of a phenomenal vanilla flavoring and a divine frozen custard. His oyster artichoke soup has been copied by almost every chef who has ever cooked in New Orleans and a lot of home cooks, too. Talk about easy. Try the following version for a gourmet meal in less than an hour.

 Next to vegetable soup, there’s nothing as soothing and restorative as a good chicken noodle. As soon as somebody gets sick in my house, out comes the soup pot and in goes the chicken. All ages seem to warm up to chicken noodle soup, from grandchildren to grandparents. A diet counselor once told me it was like penicillin for all its medicinal faculties. I didn’t buy that but I’ll confess one superstition. I happen to be a lover of Vietnamese food and for years have crossed town hundreds of time for that perfect bowl of pho. Thanks to our large population of Vietnamese, we have many restaurants to enjoy. Though some did not return after Katrina, fortunately, others are opening. I like to have a bowl of pho bo (beef noodle) soup at least once a week. When I’m sick, I struggle to the nearest one to me to get my fix. Frequently my husband can be talked into picking it up on his way home from work. It is something about that broth that goes to my soul and makes everything right. I have never cooked it, but the day is coming when I’ll give it a try.

VEGETABLE SOUP
1 1/2 pounds beef stew
      meat or beef soup bones,
      trimmed of excess fat, or a
      combination
Creole seasoning to rub
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium fresh tomatoes,
      peeled and chopped, or 1
      14-ounce can plum tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
2 14-ounce cans beef broth
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 pounds fresh green  
      beans, strung and cut into
      1-inch pieces
1/4 small fresh cabbage, shredded
1 turnip, peeled and cut into
      small pieces
1 medium potato, peeled and
      cut into bite-size pieces
2 carrots, scraped and sliced
      into rounds
2 ears fresh corn, sliced off cob
 
Sprinkle meat with Creole seasoning on all sides. On high heat, brown meat on all sides in oil and remove from pot. Lower heat and add onions, bell pepper and celery and sauté briefly. Add garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add all tomato products, beef broth, water and seasonings. Turn heat to low, cover pot and simmer for 1 hour.

Begin adding vegetables. First the green beans and simmer for about 20 minutes. Then add cabbage, turnip, potatoes and carrots and simmer for 15 minutes more or until vegetables are done. Adjust seasonings such as salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste. Add corn and simmer for 10 more minutes and turn heat off. Let pot sit for 1 hour or more before serving. Serves 8.
 
OYSTER ARTICHOKE SOUP
3 dozen oysters and their water
1/2 stick butter
1 bunch green onions
2 stalks celery
2 garlic cloves
1 9-ounce package frozen arti-
      choke hearts, thawed and
      coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
2 14.5-ounce cans chicken stock
Salt, if needed, freshly ground
     black pepper and Creole
     seasoning to taste
Pinch of dried thyme
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
Shot of Tabasco
1 cup half and half
Chopped parsley, optional
 
Pick over oysters to remove any shell. Separate them from their water, saving the water.

In a medium-sized heavy pot, melt butter and sauté onions, celery and garlic until soft. Add artichoke hearts and sauté 1 minute more. Stir in flour until smooth.

Gradually add chicken stock and reserved oyster water, stirring, and then seasonings, Worcestershire and Tabasco. Do not add salt until after the oysters are added because you may not need any, depending on how salty the oysters are. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add oysters and simmer for a few minutes until oysters curl. Stir in half and half and heat gently when ready to serve. Serve with a little chopped parsley on top of each serving, if desired. Serves 4.
 
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
1 whole chicken
Water
1 onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter
3 carrots, scraped and cut
      into circles
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1 8-ounce package egg noodles
 
Place cleaned chicken in a heavy pot of water to cover. Bring to a boil.

While chicken is heating, chop onions, peppers, celery and garlic. Mix together and put 1/3 of vegetables in pot with chicken with pepper to taste. Lower heat to a simmer, cover and cook slowly until chicken is done, about 1 hour. Turn off heat and cool chicken and stock until cool enough to handle.

Remove chicken from pot and debone, discarding skin and bones. Cut into bite-size pieces and set aside. Strain stock into a large bowl and set aside.

In the same pot, melt butter, heat and sauté remaining onion, peppers, celery and garlic.

Return stock to pot and add carrots and seasonings. Simmer, covered, until carrots are done – about 20 minutes. Add chicken and mushrooms and simmer 5 minutes more. Bring heat to medium-hot and add package of egg noodles. Cook until noodles are just al dente. (They will continue to wilt in the hot soup.) Taste and adjust seasonings. Serves 6.

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