In the soup – literally

An adventurous canary took a dive and made the pea soup a standout.

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When I was growing up, homemade soup was a three-letter word: PEA.

That's the only soup I can remember Mother making. Mr. Campbell, however, was always well represented in the pantry with his ubiquitous cans of chicken noodle and tomato soups.

But Christmas or Easter baked ham, shingled with canned pineapple rings, studded with spicy cloves, and dotted with red dye No. 2-infused maraschino cherries, meant Swedish Pea Soup was on the menu for the next couple of days.

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It was always good, predicable, though not particularly memorable, except for an unexpected ingredient.

We always had a male singing canary whose cage hung in the bay window in the dining room. Every few days, we'd open the cage door and let the cheerful little singer fly freely around the house. When he was hungry or tired, he'd find his way back to the cage. No problem. Except once...

It was a sunny spring day shortly after Easter. Mother and Grandmother Carlson had made the obligatory pea soup and set it aside to cool. Debbie, our canary (yes, I know it was a male, but I was very young when I named him), wanted out. I obliged.

After a few passes from lampshades and curtain rods, and buzzing a wing chair, Debbie flew into the kitchen and, without warning, made a kamikaze dive into the pea soup. After a couple of laps around the pot, Grandmother, always calm in a crisis, went for the Jaws of Life, in this case her bare hands.

Without a word, she scooped the floundering feathered creature from the cooled soup and ran poor Debbie under the kitchen sink faucet.

Back in the cage, and preening in the sunshine, Debbie was soon back in perfect voice, and sang aria after aria as we all sat down in the dining room with a bowl of the most delicious and memorable pea soup.

Maybe it's an overreaction to being seriously soup-deprived as a kid that I've become a compulsive soupmaker. My neighbors who are aware of this compulsion kindly send their chicken and turkey carcasses as well as the occasional leftover hambone in my direction.

Extensive travel, too, has added to this love of libations. One of my favorites, at the moment, is this rendition of a soup I had in a restaurant in Thailand's exotic night market.

Thai cuisine is know for its complexity of flavors, often melding sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and hot. The following soup combines many of these.

Nam pla, a Thai fish sauce, is generally available in most supermarkets in the Asian food section. Lemon grass is not as readily available except in Asian markets. If you can find it, include it, but it's not essential.

Thai chicken coconut soup

  • 1 quart chicken broth or stock
  • 13-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, crushed (optional)
  • 13-ounce can straw mushrooms, drained
  • 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
  • 3-inch jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons nam pla, or 3 flat anchovies, rinsed and mashed
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Juice of 4 limes
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
  • Fresh cilantro, rinsed and chopped, for garnish

Bring chicken stock and coconut milk to a boil in a large pot. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 5 to 7 minutes, until chicken loses its pinkness.
Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
Serve in heated soup bowls. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Swedish split pea soup

  • 8 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 hambone, ham hock, or 2 cups diced, cooked ham
  • 1 pound yellow or green dried split peas, rinsed
  • 1 or 2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large celery rib, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Chopped parsley for garnish

In a large soup pot, combine water or broth, hambone or cooked ham, and peas. Bring to a boil and simmer, partly covered, for 1 hour.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, for about another hour or until soup has reached desired consistency.

Remove bay leaves and hambone; dice meat and return meat to soup.

Top with parsley.

Makes about 6 cups.

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