Backroads: Soup: The Ultimate Comfort Food

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Vegetable soup and fresh-buttered biscuits. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

I love homemade soup. It’s been in my DNA since birth and to this day I’d rather have a bowl of thick, steamy soup than a steak on the grill.  

I make large batches of it anytime the mood strikes, but during the winter months I get the urge on a more frequent basis. Although most folks stick to recipes in a cook book, my mother taught me to make soup more on the order of the “dab of this and a sprinkle of that” method.  

Recently I shared a quart of chicken noodle soup with a neighbor when the batch I was making grew into gargantuan proportions. Later she called and asked for my recipe and I had to really think about how to tell her to make it since it’s not really that precise. (See recipe below)

My good friend Jerry Lou Hanger told me her mother always made what was called “Ettrick Soup,” named after the place where they lived. Basically it was throwing the week’s leftover vegetables in a big pot, adding some broth and simmering until hot. She said if tomatoes were scarce, her mom added enough catsup to give it a red color and nobody was the wiser.

My mother made soup out of literally whatever was on hand. Thick potato was my all-time favorite.  In fact I never knew we were poor until one year she came for a visit and asked what she could cook for me. When I specifically asked for her thick, creamy potato soup she said, “Why do you want that; we ate that when we were poor.”

I replied, “When were we poor?”

She laughed and said, “Why do you think we ate it three times a week?”

I meekly replied, “I just thought we liked it.”  What a revelation!

Later in life she passed on to me her “Mariechen’s” German/Saxon cookbook and thumbing through it I noticed that the majority of recipes were—you guessed it—for soup!  

Here is an excerpt from the cook book that gives a better idea as to why my ancestors were so taken with the ultimate comfort food.

“Saxons enjoy their soups. In the course of time Saxon women became undisputed masters in the art of soup making. From habit and necessity they made their soup from bones and anything they happened to have in their larder or garden. Soup making is not a science—it is an art. Try cultivating it. Do not be afraid to improvise. It would require a whole book to publish all the soup recipes, especially for tarragon soup, because it is a favorite among us Saxons. You will find that Saxon soups are so thick and rich that they aren’t intended as first courses only, but make up the entire meal and in Transylvania, soups are always served with chewy homemade bread and not with crackers.”

The following are just a few soup recipes listed in the cook book: Farina Ball Soup, Chicken Noodle, Green Bean, Navy Bean Soup, Caraway Seed, Egg Soup, Lettuce Soup, Gooseberry, Split Pea, and of course, a multitude of Tarragon.

Tarragon was always a staple in my household growing up. My mother picked the leaves, salted them and put them in a pint Ball jar that she kept on the first shelf of the refrigerator. She seasoned most dishes with this herb but used it sparingly because it is very strong. Potato soup was the one exception. She used it liberally and it gave the soup an anise flavor. She also thickened it with flour mixed in a little water with salt and fresh-ground pepper. We also had a cruet of vinegar on the table to give it some added “zing.”  

When I make soup, I usually make it in one of my big canning pots because it seems to grow in proportion to what I find in the pantry or freezer to throw in while it’s cooking. Big batches ensure there is enough for the freezer, to share with friends and neighbors, and to eat for three days. No, we aren’t poor, we are rich in soup…and we just like it!

A requested recipe for my chicken noodle soup:  Cover a small stewing chicken with water. Leave skin on and boil (then simmer) until meat falls off the bone.  Take out meat and bones and let cool before separating the two. Add 2 quarts of chicken broth to the water and add a small diced onion, about a cup of diced celery, and 2-3 sliced fresh carrots (or two cans if you’re in a hurry) and let it cook until veggies are tender. Add a package of noodles of your choice and let cook for about 10 minutes.  While they are cooking, separate chicken from bones and cut into smaller pieces.  When noodles are tender, add the chicken to the soup and simmer for ten minutes. To thicken, put 2 heaping tablespoons of flour in a cup and add enough water to make a medium gruel. Salt and pepper and then slowly add gruel to the soup while it is simmering. 

Photo: Lynn Coffey.

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