I’m going off script today. You’ll come to find I do this. I’ll be making progress on one task and something will set me off on a tangent. All we can hope (myself included) is that once that tangent is fulfilled I make it back to the original task.
So, if you’ll excuse me I’d like to put the next installment of Essential Tools on the back burner (yes, I did just do that) and take you on a side little side trip - one I’m calling Friendship Soup.
Late last week Samantha interrupted my end of the day YouTubing with a very serious, “Hey, you’re gonna want to hear this.” Some friends of ours are going through little bit of a rough patch. They’re younger than Sam and I, but have a family very similar to ours (three daughters). We don’t see them very much any more, but still have a soft spot for this family and look out for them whenever we can. On top of struggling with a stubborn bout of COVID, their eldest is going through an existential crisis which has included a stay in the psych ward at Children’s Hospital.
I don’t know if mental health issues in young people are more prevalent or that we’re much more sensitive to them (I lean toward the latter) but hospitalizations among our young people for psychological reasons seem to be on the rise. Thankfully, it is also less stigmatized than it was in my youth. The actual stats and numbers are irrelevant to me. What matters are my friends and the stress, pain, and uncertainty that come dealing with such trying times - and what I can do about it.
One of the hardest things to do in the midst of this kind of chaos is to maintain any sense of normalcy. Energy is lost, reserves are drained, and the basic necessities of life fall by the wayside. Did I mention that half the family also has COVID?
Sam and I quickly decided the least we could do was put together a pot of soup and take it over. Then I got to thinking, we know another family with COVID, and third expecting their newest member any day now. I resolved to make a BIG pot of soup and take care of everyone at once.
Soup is the great nourisher. It’s warm, it’s comforting, and properly done, contains a whirling mass of vitamins, minerals, fats, starches, and proteins. It’s cooked down enough that it’s easily digestible, making it the perfect food for those recovering from illness (physical, mental, or spiritual) or the massive effort required to bring another life into the world.
Once it’s built it’s also a low maintenance dish. I did a lot of prep and chop-chop for this dish, but even so, spent no more than an hour and half on it’s preparation. I could have gotten it done more quickly, but it was a Saturday afternoon and I was enjoying the process. I took my time because I knew the people it would be going to and something about each of their struggles. I put as much love into it as I could muster.
The other thing about this particular soup is that I manged to feed four families (my own included) for less than $10. That’s right, eight quarts of soup for less than your average drive-thru lunch. Now, it helps that the meat for the soup was a pork shoulder generously given to Sam and I when we had COVID right after Christmas. But I think that’s what makes this even more a Friendship Soup. It’s just oozing with love!
Here it is. Like I said I took my time with this one. It’s basically a pork and white bean stew. Pork, Great Northern beans, collards, and a surprise or two.
Sam and I have an on going debate about multi tasking. I say it can’t be done and she says that opinion is the arrogant luxury that comes from being born male. My perspective is that of the engineer which says that multi-tasking is a myth. What looks like multi-tasking is really just stringing together a series of single tasks so efficiently that it looks like you’re doing multiple things at once. Hers is that of a mother, who has successfully nursed a baby, balanced the check book, and kept a toddler reasonably occupied all at the same time. In the course of our many years together I have learned the wisdom of keeping my opinion to myself.
Often times when I cook I’ll cut time by combining tasks - not multi-tasking, mind you. I might do vegetable prep while the meat browns or do dishes while I’m waiting on vegetables to caramelize. With this one I took my time. I began by getting my mise en place together. Mise en place is a fancy French cooking term that basically means, “get your shit together before you start.”
Having your mise en place means having all of your ingredients prepped and at hand before you begin cooking. The difference between perfectly caramelized and scorched can be just a few seconds, especially when you begin playing at the far ends of caramelization and tempting in some of those dark burnt flavors. You can go from good to ruined in a flash.
That said, one of my most epic memories of being in a commercial kitchen was watching Duke, a giant of a man, easily measuring in excess of 6’4”, step out of the walk-in cooler holding a three and a half foot cod by the tail He tossed it up on his prep counter and began filleting servings straight to the grill during service. He had run out of prep and just kept going, butchering the cod as he needed all while maintaining the five or six other menu items he was responsible for and fielding new tickets as they came in.
For this soup I put together a mire poix (another fancy french term) of diced onions, celery, and carrots. I usually do 2 parts onion to one part carrots and one part celery. This is the aromatic base of nearly all my pot based cooking. (Pot as in cooking vessel...) I cleaned the collards by removing their stems and giving them a rough chop. I sliced five or six cloves of garlic and pulled together my standard spice blend of cumin, coriander, cardamon, and chilis. The night before I had covered the dried beans in water and a splash of vinegar and left them to soak. Once the vegetables were prepped I set to cutting up the pork shoulder.
I have to give a shoutout here to my buddy Matt Hunt and his wife, Savannah. Back when Sam and I were sick with the Big Cootie he dropped off a Costco two pack of pork shoulders. I took one of those and diced it up into bite sized pieces.
Building the soup was not unlike the braise I wrote about last week. I started by browning the pork in olive oil. I used the garlic infused oil we get when we roast garlic for just another layer of flavor. When browning meat for a soup or a stew (or really just about any other time) take the time to really brown it. Get a nice little crust going. That crust on the meat adds texture for later and those brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan (called fond) is just more flavor.
This was a lot of meat so I did it in three batches, setting each batch off to the side when it was done. After I finished with the meat I added the mire poix to the pot and a healthy pinch of salt. As the salt and heat began to work on the vegetables they began to release their juices. Those juices deglaze the bottom of the pan and the fond gets lifted and integrated into the veg. Like I said, flavor.
Once the veg had achieved peak caramelization I went ahead and added the collards. I knew this soup was going to probably be fed to a bunch of kids and so added the collards early. If you want more of a bite to your greens add them later, but I wanted these to cook down. As I was browning the pork I kept getting notes of apple. So I quickly diced four apples and added them as well. After a quick stir and a thorough distribution of heat in went the sliced garlic and the dry spices. As usual the dry spices got a rough grind in the mortar and pestle.
I bought that mortar and pestle years ago from Costco. At the time I frequently made a protein powder porridge using hemp and chia seeds and the mortar and pestle helped prep those seeds for better digestion and assimilation. That phase ended and the M&P didn’t get a lot of work after that. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a YouTube Channel, Pro Home Cooks. This guy, Mike G., has a pretty cool cooking channel and I’ve taken a good deal of inspiration from him. I watched him fresh grind his spices in a mortar and pestle and thought it was worth a try. It’s now one of my regular go-tos in the kitchen. The crushed seeds release their oils much more readily versus the spice grinder and I like the rustic look and feel of rough crushed spices floating in the broth.
Once I got that whiff of the garlic and the spices I drained the beans, gave them a quick rinse, and added them to the pot. One of the advantages of using a standard spice blend is that you can boost flavor by taking advantage of left overs. I had a couple of pint containers containing the last bit of jous from a couple different braises, one was a chuck roast and the other a venison shoulder. Both of those went into the pot then followed by stock to cover. My base stock was a chicken stock I’d made from a couple Costco chickens (I managed to get four meals out of those two birds, but that’s another blog post.)
After the stock was added it was just a matter of leaving it alone. I brought it all to a boil and let it cook until the beans were about half way done then I added the pork back in and let it continue to cook until the beans were tender. The result? A very rich, flavorful broth, tender beans and fall apart pork. At the very end I threw in some chopped parsley. Before serving I, personally, would add a touch more parsley, some black pepper, and a splash of lemon juice. This would be good with either a hearty slab of cornbread or a nice crusty baguette.
I’ve already heard back from one family. The whole family enjoyed it although, apparently, their three year old needed a gulp of milk between every bite. Maybe I should have gone a little lighter on the chilis, but then again maybe not.