When Barbara Kafka hears that someone's children won't eat vegetables, she thinks to herself: 'My dear, if you would only learn how to cook them'
...even though it doesn't ring true in the yellow house so much. There's nothing my children love more than plain boiled or steamed broccoli, and that doesn't exactly require much skill from the cook. The picky seven-year-old complains loudly if she's expected to eat spinach any way other than raw and turns up her nose at any really tarted-up veggie dish such as Kafka's cardamom cabbage, which I think is just heavenly.
It was while sipping a bowl of the Red Russian Soup from this book that I felt inspired to write my Soup is Life entry. This soup really epitomizes that statement, and for a moment I thought "This is better than pho!" Then I came back down to earth and realized nothing is better than pho, and that actually the RRS is only my fourth favourite soup in the world. The top three are
Pho, any time, any place
My chicken noodle soup, which I have to be feeling pretty flush and generous to make because it starts with a whole, fresh chicken and a bunch of herb-picking and takes hours. But the result, especially in the winter when everyone has a cold, is really worth it.
Minestrone from the Joy of Cooking. Especially if I toss some Parmy rinds into it.
Part of the fun of the Red Russian soup was buying a cut of meat I've never had before: beef short ribs. I read on Lex Culinaria that short ribs were all the rage last year, but I had never tried them, so ordering them at The Village Butcher was a little thrilling. But they were a little bit expensive, so when I tasted the meat after their 90-minute simmer and found it to be tough and tasteless, I was unhappy.
What I didn't realize was that adding them later back into the broth where all their flavour had gone would re-imbue them with that flavour, so the end result was that the meat was very tasty in the soup. But not the tastiest bit! The tastiest chunks were the red cabbage. It was almost like eating candy, it was so good. My one-year-old wouldn't stand for my usual way of sharing a bowl of food with him (one bite for you, one bite for Mummy) and I had to adjust it slightly so that he wouldn't get frantic while I was having my spoonful. I'd have to give him a very large piece of cabbage and then put another hunk of beet on his high-chair tray before I could have a spoonful myself. It's just so tasty! It's Life!
I don't usually copy out recipes from a cookbook verbatim, but I'm going to take the risk of betraying copyright laws here and just give it to you. If it sounds like something you wouldn't normally eat, please try it anyway! I am not a big fan of beets and overall, soups that call for sour cream on top are not the ones I gravitate towards, but this food is just amazing. I really think it is a soup that everyone will like.
2 1/2 pounds beef short ribs, cut into pieces between the bones 2 pounds beets, trimmed and scrubbed 4 cups canned tomatoes (not plum) with their juices 3/4 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch rounds 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped 1 medium red cabbage, cored and cut into 1 1/2-inch square pieces 1 large bunch fresh dill, fronds only, coarsely chopped 1 cup red wine vinegar 3/4 cup sugar, or to taste 3 tablespoons kosher salt 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place the short ribs and 8 cups water in a large stockpot and bring to boil over high heat.
(Note: take the "large" here very seriously. I had to change pots midway because my Dutch oven was just not big enough.)
Reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cook, skimming occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender.
(Note: I put the ribs in half-frozen and they were definitely done after 90 minutes)
Remove the short ribs from the liquid. When cool, separate the meat from the bones and trim off any fat. Cut the meat into cubes and reserve. Skim the liquid, then measure it and add enough cold water to equal 7 cups. Skim any fat that rises to the surface, and return to the pot.
While the short ribs are cooking, cook the beets. Place them in enough water to cover by 2 inches in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the beets can easily be pierced with a knife, 30 to 45 minutes. Strain the cooking liquid. You want 5 cups liquid; add water if necessary. Set aside.
Add the tomatoes, with their liquid, the carrots, onion and cabbage to the short rib cooking liquid. Add half the chopped dill. Bring to a simmer and cook until the carrots are almost tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the beet sticks and cook for 20 minutes longer. Add the 5 cups reserved beet liquid, the vinegar, sugar, remaining dill, the short ribs, salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and allow the flavours to blend for 1 hour, or overnight.
The serve, reheat the soup.
Place a boiled potato half in each bowl. Ladle in 1 cup hot soup. Float 1 tablespoon sour cream on top and sprinkle with additional chopped dill. Serves 10 as a main course.
(Note: I dispensed with the potatoes after the first few servings I devoured. But the sour cream and dill were key.)
A lot of people who know me now may not know that prior to the ten-year-relationship that I have with my spouse, I had a six-year one. Guess I could be called a serial monogamist, except that two doesn't exactly equal serial, and since this one is my last one, two is all I plan to have.
I never see Chi, the six-year-boyfriend, and rarely think about him, but from time to time I recognize certain little things that I do and like that I am forced to admit I got from him. Example: when I use the word romantic (in the flowers and Champagne sense) I often pronounce it "romantis", because he did. He was really into "romantis". Not so much into communication, compromise, growing together, and keeping sources of income strictly legal, which are some of the reasons that, six years notwithstanding, he was never a real candidate for marriage.
But I digress. What I really want to talk about is Chi's influence on my food life. It was substantial. We started dating when I was fourteen. Even though my parents were very adventurous eaters and exposed my sister and I to all sorts of different cuisines, at fourteen there were still a lot of things I'd never tried. For example, I give my parents credit for introducing me to dim sum, but it was hanging out with Chi and his friends that introduced me to the practice of ordering "six plates of chicken feet, please" straight up as soon as we took our place at the dim sum table. Likewise, I had my first (amazing) experience with hotpot with my family at Landmark Hotpot House in Vancouver. But it wasn't until I went to hotpot with Chi that I tried the geoduck.
He introduced me to sushi, which I became addicted to back when there were only a couple of places in Victoria where you could actually eat it. Fujiya was one of them, and I still go there from time to time for sushi, tempura, sushi makings, origami paper, Pocky for my daughter, Glico curry, various rameny delights, and weird things with no English on the package.
He introduced me to Chinese-style barbecue, and oh, I have been ruined for barbecue ever since. We used to have these huge cookouts with the most delicious pork in the universe (no idea how that was done) and whole fish, whose eyes would be relished by the youngest member of the party, 1-year-old Bojeet. Her aunts fed them to her in a way that implied "You are the most important person here and because we all love you, we are saving the best parts of the feast for you."
I was an eater, but not a cook, back then, and so while I stuffed myself silly, I never thought to ask for recipes.
Chi taught me to ignore the menu in some Chinese restaurants, in favour of non-listed delicious items such as salty fish and chicken fried rice, fish ball soup, beef chow fun, mushrooms and greens. I still ask for non-menu items whenever I eat Chinese, and get them most of the time.
I remember having a real hankering for Shanghai noodles one lunchtime, but, seeing that they weren't on the menu at the place we were eating that day, I was disappointed.
"Oh man, no Shanghai noodles! That's what I really feel like, but they don't have them."
--oh, another interesting thing I learned from eating with Chi and his friends: it is not strictly necessary to eat family-style at Chinese restaurants. My parents would never order one dish for each person in the family to eat on their own (probably because they had learned that that was not the proper Chinese way) but going out with Chi and co., we would order individual platters of food as often as not. So, for example, I might order the Shanghai noodles and eat the entire thing myself. I must say, this really suited me! Nowadays, it doesn't. --
"Oh, I'm sure they do."
"Uh, no. See, there's a thing called a me-nu, where they list everything they have? Heard of that?"
(Sigh) "They don't list everything they have. They just list things the white people might want."
"What? Really? So they have Shanghai noodles, but they don't put it on the menu? That's dumb."
"Whatever. Anyway, I'll get you some Shanghai noodles."
And with a nod to the waiter, and a couple very-fast-sounding Chinese phrases uttered, I had my beloved noodles. You can see why I stayed with him for six years. Dysfunction be damned, this man (boy, really) had access to foodstuffs the rest of us could only dream about.
Probably my most vivid food memory associated with Chi was the first time I ever had pho. If you haven't tried pho, it is a Vietnamese beef noodle soup that is so rich and delicious that it feels like the Ur food to me. If I had to have one dinner for the rest of my life, it might very well be pho. I made it once, years ago, and that was pretty rewarding, but since my palate for Vietnamese cuisine is not sophisticated enough to find much fault with any pho, I am just as happy to slurp down an eight-dollar bowl at Saigon Night as to lovingly and painstakingly make my own from scratch. (The one exception here is my friend Dick's mom's pho. Now THAT is head and shoulders above any other pho I've tried. And I would always choose hers over any other. But I haven't seen her in years.)
The first time I had pho was a Thursday; it was in a Pho Van in east Vancouver. I had been travelling for eight hours and though it was dinnertime, I hadn't had a bite all day. I admit that my hunger probably enhanced the experience of that first sip of broth. But being hungry was nothing new, the pho was.
There's a certain amount of ritual associated with eating pho too, which probably made it all the more novel, fun, and satisfying. You have to know which sauces to add, and how, and how to add your bean sprouts, lime and cilantro properly. You have to make sure that you eat all your beef (and especially your beef balls) and most of your noodles but know that it's okay to leave some broth: you're probably stuffed, after all. You have to know that if you don't like beer, that's okay, soy milk is just as good a mouth-cooler if you've added a bit too much hot sauce to your broth.
The girls had a technique for eating the noodles that avoided unsightly slurping. They would grab some with their chopsticks, then arrange them daintily on their large, ceramic spoons, before demurely bringing their spoons to their mouths. Two years later I went to Japan and whole-heartedly embraced the slurping, bowl-to-mouth tradition of noodle-soup consumption there, but at the time, I was grateful to be shown a graceful way to eat my pho, which hid the wolfish intensity of my enjoyment of the soup.
So the new way of eating may have been another big part of why that meal was so memorable for me. I can't say it is my favourite meal of all time (raw oysters in Paris and a wedding at the Aerie make for some stiff competition) but it's in my top five.
Three years later, I was making the break from Chi, and starting to see Tobias. But I was still friends with Chi, and we talked from time to time and had lunch in Vancouver when I went over. (Foodwise, I wonder what it was that Tobias knew about in those early days that I found alluring. Ah, I remember, it was coffee. He was the one who got me drinking coffee. Coffee and grilled cheese and The Lord of the Rings. Those were the days.)
Chi was not at all pleased with my choice to end our relationship. He would try to denigrate my new love whenever we talked, purposefully mispronouncing his name and looking for any excuse to criticize him. One time, when I was eating a bowl of soup as we chatted on the phone, I casually griped that Tobias didn't like soup.
"What? What do you mean? You mean he doesn't like mushroom soup?"
"No, he doesn't like any soup. He just doesn't like soup."
"What do you mean he doesn't like soup? He doesn't like congee?"
"No, ick, and neither do I. But Tobias doesn't like and won't eat any type of soup. Any kind. No soup."
"No soup! No soup! He doesn't like any soup! But Soup is Life! How can you not like soup? It's like you don't like life. I really don't know about this guy."
"Yeah, I'm starting to wonder."
But aside from his completely bizarre dislike of all soups, Tobias was the one for me, and so this was one of my last conversations with Chi. "Soup is Life" however, has stuck with me, and is a catchphrase in the Yellow House (though Tobias, strangely, never says it) especially when my picky seven-year-old doesn't want to eat her soup.
The arguments around the table are always the same when it's soup for dinner. Sahsez will say, prior to even tasting the soup, "I don't like this soup. And soup gives me a headache. You know that Mummy. So why did you make it?" She might stamp her little foot here. Her father (who, ten years later, loves a wide range of soups) will try to reason with her: "Mummy worked very hard on this soup and it only has things you like in it. Just try. You'll definitely like this one." My reasoning is less logical, more plaintive: "But Sahsez, soup is Life! You can't not love this soup. It's so good. It's like Life!"
And you know, I don't think I ever eat a bowl of soup anymore without that phrase running through my head. There's just something about soup (homemade, I mean. I don't like canned soups. Restaurant soups vary widely but the good ones are as good as homemade. The best restaurant soup I ever had was at Cafe Brio, years ago. It was a tortellini in brodo and the brodo was rabbit and the tortellini was porcini. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it was amazing. It was definitely Life.) that gives me the feeling that I am going to live longer and better just because I'm eating it.
So, in honour of Chi, and all that I learned from him about food, I am making a new category for this blog, specially for soups, titled, of course, Soup is Life. Because it really is, people.