Long Island Larder: Half-Time Soup

Miriam Ungerer | September 30, 1999

Maybe it's the millennium. Then again, maybe not. Time seems to be on everybody's mind. Moguls scarffing down a 30-minute, $75 lunch of a baked potato and bottle of Evian at, say, the Four Seasons and being utterly thrilled at all the time saved. For every level of society, from eaters (can't call them diners) at Burger King or Kentucky Fried Everything to the rarefied expense account restaurants, the United States reigns supreme as the inventor and purveyor of fast food.

Street food, which is cheap, often hot, fresh, and delicious in Asian countries, is more an economic necessity than any tearing wish to get back to one's job. Take-out has apparently supplanted nearly all home cooking in two-income families and pizza has long ago dethroned the hamburger and hot dog as America's favorite fast food - at least for eaters under 50.

Soup as take-out lunch had a brief vogue in New York City (thanks to "Seinfeld") but even that healthy, tasty deviation from pizza or tuna fish sandwiches at the desk seems to be fading. The soup emporiums have failed alarmingly and only a few remain.

This surprised and saddened me, as soup has been in limbo ever since Americans got obsessed with "saving time" in the kitchen; this seemed to begin as early as the '50s, when frozen dinners made their debut and the full freezer was the housewife's proud possession. Then everyone forgot how to cook anything at all, though the '60s gave rise to cooking shows on TV such as the invaluable "French Chef" series starring Julia Child, its success a huge surprise to the television programmers.

I consider Mrs. Child my own personal mentor no matter how many millions of viewers I share her with. And I have a full set of the videos on "How to Cook," which I recommend to any neophyte cooks coming of age now.

Which brings me to the lamentable showbiz exercise The Food Network, TVFN, its star the unbearably smug, noisy, "Emeril" bamming his way through garlic-drenched shows and oceans of misinformation.

A beaming studio audience sits rapt waiting for a taste of this gasbag's over-seasoned although all-too-familiar creations.

Bad Advice

I watched this morning as he divulged the way to ruin rice: Stir it while it's cooking and add this and that spice (cayenne by the fistful or wild lashings of Tabasco sauce) to "kick it up," in his energetic vocabulary. Audiences seem more interested in Emeril's silliness than his food and that's a mercy.

I pity anyone who follows his careless technique in making a simple food processor mayonnaise - dumping in a couple of cups of oil rather than dribbling it in so that the egg has time to absorb it.

But who cares if it never really coalesces: Toss in gobs of chopped garlic, cayenne, salt, tomato puree, tarragon - anything that comes to hand. This mess he then used to defile an expensive bowl of snowy lump crabmeat.

Oh well. Maybe he has bodyguards to protect him from enraged culinary students . . . if any watch this ludicrous show.

A Better Choice

Real students of cookery, or even those with a mild interest in creating something good to eat once in a while, would be well advised to spend their precious time looking at Mario Battali's wonderful show, "Molto Mario."

Here's a young, Oregon-born Italian American chef, classically trained and well informed, both in matters of food history and technique, actually demonstrating interesting recipes in a casual but non-hysterical fashion. I've eaten his food at "Po" on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, his first restaurant, and he now has another, Babbo, which I haven't tried.

The food was wonderful and dining at "Po" has only one drawback - it's almost impossible to get a reservation in less than three weeks. But you can watch his show and learn to make the dishes at home.

Game Time

People besotted with saving time as well as those who have a primal fear of using more than one pot are never, I mean never, going to produce any meal worth even the tiniest amount of time. So you're short of kitchen staff! That's why dishwashers were invented.

Although I find cooking a pleasant pastime, not a chore, there are times when I really don't want to be involved with it. Like football season. As an addict and ardent Jets fan, I do plan ahead so that Saturday afternoon (college ball) and most of Sunday (pro ball) are free to indulge this wicked, time-wasting passion, watching football on television.

(The last game I actually at tended - some years ago - the temperature was about 20 degrees in Shea Stadium and three huge drunks rose up in front of me at every snap of the ball - so I went home and sat in a comfortable chair where I could actually see what was happening! Viva the zoom camera.)

So here is a chameleon sort of "do-ahead" meal for sports fans who don't want to miss a play.

Football Season Soup

Chock full of everything needed to sustain life and keep the palate happy, this soup can be altered with the addition of other vegetables or small pastas and different fresh herbs. Lay in some good breads (or make some) and several cheeses as well as grapes, pears, and apples or ice cream (Haagen Daz's chocolate sorbet is a winner) and you're set for a fan's heaven.

2 cups dried white beans such as Great Northern or cannellini

1 small onion stuck with 2 cloves

Bay leaf

Fresh parsley sprigs
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 lb. slice of shin beef
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 or 4 leeks, sliced thin
3 fat cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup celery, sliced medium thick
Water to cover
2 large tomatoes, skinned and chopped coarsely
4 slender carrots, peeled
2 potatoes (about 1 lb.), peeled and diced in about 1-inch cubes
4 cups shredded fresh green cabbage
4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with a string
Salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
Bowl of freshly grated Parmesan

If you have a food processor or a hand-operated mandoline all this slicing and chopping is really a simple, reasonably quick operation. Soak the white beans in cool water to cover overnight, or, rinse and sort them, put them in a pot with two inches of water to cover, and bring them to a boil. Simmer two minutes and leave to soak, lid askew, for one hour.

Then drain them and cover again with three inches of fresh cool water and bring to a boil. Skim the froth from the top. Add the onion, bay leaf, and parsley sprigs and simmer, covered, until tender.

This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the age of the beans (buying from a high-turnover market generally assures getting dried legumes from the current year's crop or at least fairly young beans).

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a deep heavy pot and brown the shin beef in it, salting and peppering as you turn the meat. Add the leeks, garlic, and celery and enough water to cover all by three inches.

A pressure cooker is invaluable for this stage of the soup, but if you haven't one, simply simmer the soup meat and vegetables for an hour or so - until the meat is falling from the bone. Add more hot water as necessary.

When done, cut the meat in chunks, put it and the marrow back into the soup, or spread it on toast as the cook's lagniappe.

Add The Rest

Add the tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and thyme and simmer about 20 minutes. Add the white beans with their pot liquor, minus the onion and bay leaf, to the soup pot and simmer another 10 minutes but don't allow the beans to get mushy.

Let the soup rest in its pot off heat for half an hour or so to meld its flavors. Then reheat, but don't boil, and serve it up in great big bowls sprinkled with parsley and pass the grated Parmesan.

Meals Two And Three

At the next meal - and believe me people always want to have at it again - add a couple of gold or green zucchini sliced and sauteed in garlic oil, perhaps a cup or two of young green beans, cut and cooked briefly to crisp tender, some steamed cubes of parsnip or sauteed young turnips. Freshly chopped marjoram adds a new twist too.

You can make aioli in the blender and serve that alongside your newly altered eternal soup. Or if you like spiciness, serve a bowl of rouille (a recipe appeared here very recently - check your clippings) to stir into the soup.

At a third meal, in the unlikely event there's any left, gently grill some bratwurst or a good garlic sausage or andouille (which is quite spicy, be warned), then slice it into the soup. The original beef will have long since been eaten; its role is really only to flavor the soup stock.