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Stirring soup with culture

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 1998



BOSTON

Barbara Kafka vividly remembers her grandmother's cooking, not because it was so good, quite the opposite in fact. But Grandma Dora, though poor, always served her food with a remarkable generosity of spirit.

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"If one of her children asked if a friend could come to dinner, she'd answer 'Yes, I can always put more water in the soup,' " writes the award-winning cookbook author in "Soup: A Way of Life" (Artisan). "It cannot have improved the soup, but it certainly improved life. I learned from her that a pot of soup is warmth and welcome for family and friends alike."

From bouillabaisse to borscht, soup is the ultimate comfort food. It warms us on a winter day, and most of all, connects us with family, home, and our cultural roots.

Personal connections are woven throughout Ms. Kafka's latest cookbook. She is of Jewish and Russian descent; her husband, Ernie, is Viennese. Kafka grew up eating and cooking French food and since then she has come to appreciate soups of many lands. And she's a firm believer than any meal is better with soup.

Of the 300 recipes she shares, most were passed along from family, friends, or cooks of other cultures. Some can be made in a hurry; others simmer all day. And then there are those that best express Kafka's inventive flair, like Veal Soup With Fennel and Vichyssoise of Red Pepper.

When asked to name her favorite, Kafka balks: "That's like choosing a favorite among one's children." But then she settles on Mixed Vegetable Potage because it's always been a family hit, especially with her children and now, a grandson. "I have met children who wouldn't eat their vegetables, but they all love this soup, and the vegetables sneak in," she says.

While Kafka offers more than 30 recipes for homemade stock, those who don't have the time or inclination to make their own will be relieved by her confession: "I have shocked more than a few purists by starting with commercial broth." But, she adds: "I cheat intelligently. No one knows there is a bought base unless they spot a can in the garbage."

Kafka's down-to-earth tone brings a refreshing accessibility to her pages. The accomplished cook even tells a humbling story about her first soup: "I went to a school where girls and boys alike were taught to cook. The very first recipe we were given was split-pea soup. Triumphant, I came home and declared that I knew how to make it... It was ghastly. I cooked it too long and let it sit so that it turned into sludge."

Needless to say, she's come a long way since then. And the split-pea soup in her book is far from ghastly. But she hasn't strayed so far from her roots that's she's forgotten to include tips for the novice.

And most of all, those roots helped her get her priorities straight. With a nod to Grandma, she writes: "Sharing the soup is more important than perfection."

CORN CHOWDER

1 pound potatoes, peeled and diced

1 medium onion, diced

2 large bell peppers - one red, one green, cored, seeded, diced

Kernels from 4 ears of corn (or about 4 cups frozen corn)

4 medium scallions, thinly sliced

2 celery ribs, peeled and diced

1-1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

Hot pepper sauce, to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the potatoes, onion, peppers, and 1 cup of water to a boil. Cover, lower heat; simmer10 minutes. Stir in corn, scallions, celery, milk, and cream. Return to boil and immediately lower heat to simmer; cook 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.

Makes about 8 cups.

SPICY PEANUT BUTTER SOUP

(hot or cold)

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, minced

1 tablespoon chili powder

2-1/2 cups chicken stock (plus 1 cup if serving cold)

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup milk, or light cream

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Salt, to taste

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 drops hot pepper sauce, or to taste

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the onion and chili powder and cook, stirring, until onion is soft; about 10 minutes.Stir in 2-1/2 cups of chicken stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes.

Whisk in the peanut butter until the mixture is smooth. Add the remaining ingredients; whisk until smooth. Simmer for 5 minutes.

If serving hot, serve immediately, or, if serving cold refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight and whisk in additional cup of cold chicken stock just before serving.

Makes 4 cups.

- Recipes adapted from 'Soup;

A Way of Life' (Artisan, $35)

MIXED VEGETABLE POTAGE

1-3/4 pounds spinach, stemmed and washed well

2 pounds all-purpose potatoes, peeled, and cut into slices

12 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

2 medium onions, cut into chunks

10 cups homemade or canned chicken broth

5 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

Salt, and ground pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons butter

In a stockpot, bring all the ingredients except the salt, pepper, and butter to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until vegetables are soft when pierced with a knife.

Pass the soup through the medium disk of a food mill. Or skim vegetables out of the liquid, pulse to a coarse pure in a food processor, and recombine the vegetables and liquid. Season with salt and pepper. The soup can be refrigerated at this point for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.

Bring the soup to a simmer; stir in the butter just before serving. (Do not add the butter before refrigerating or freezing.)

Makes about 4 quarts; 12 first-course servings or enough for several separate meals.