Thursday, November 10, 2022

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup

On Monday, I cooked a big pot of pinto beans and baked cornbread, and we ate beans and cornbread (with pickled beets, buttered sautéed cabbage, and broccoli) the last two evenings. Since I had leftover beans and cornbread, today I've done what Southern cooks have long done when those items are left over: I've made a big pot of vegetable soup, to be eaten with what's left of the cornbread.

I almost always make vegetable soup after I've cooked beans or field peas, adding to the soup the beans/peas left after a meal or two. This was long a deeply rooted routine in a lot of Southern households and certainly in my family as I grew up.

The traditional pattern was to eat dinner at noontime. What was left from dinner, which might include any number of well-cooked homegrown vegetables, especially in summertime, was left in the kitchen for anyone who wanted to nibble at supper time. Supper time was, as its name implies, soup time.

The leftovers were also frequently turned into vegetable soup for supper. The rich, tasty, nutritious pot liquor from the vegetables cooked for dinner was combined with chopped tomatoes or canned tomatoes, perhaps some stock to eke the liquid out, cubed carrots and potatoes, onion, celery, cooked beans or field peas, corn, and shredded cabbage as basic ingredients — and others might be added from the leftovers if their flavors and textures married well with the soup.

I usually add a few dollops of tomato paste to enhance the tomato flavor, and a pinch of cayenne to make the soup not hot, really, but warm to the taste. Corn, onion, and tomato are absolute essentials to give the soup the proper balance of tart tomato flavor and the slight sweetness of the corn and onion — and carrots, if you use them, too. Some chopped leftover roast beef or stewing beef is another common addition. My soup tonight is meatless.

My family always added some shredded cabbage after the harder vegetables had begun to cook a bit, and I do that, too. No meal is more satisfying to me — vegetable soup with some cornbread crumbled on top, to be spooned up with the spoons of soup. One of my aunts often added some cooked macaroni at the end of the cooking, and that was a nice addition, too, as long as it wasn't overcooked and the amount wasn't excessive.

When we traveled to Bolzano, Florence, Assisi, and Rome in December 2013, the thing I most loved about Italian cuisine was the vegetable soup/minestra that was so readily available in almost any Italian restaurant or trattoria. The guesthouse at which we stayed in Assisi served it daily as a first course to the simple, delicious, inexpensive meals offered at that table.

It's difficult to find good soup in almost any American restaurant, because making soup — of any sort — requires time and effort that cooks just aren't willing to put into a pot of mundane, inexpensive soup. You can't just throw any old thing into a pot and call it soup. You have to understand balances of taste and texture, and, in many cases, take time to make a good flavorful stock as the base of your soup. You have to stand, taste, stir, add pinches of this or that, and it's just so much easier for many restaurants to open a can or two of cream of this or that soup, add some puréed leftover vegetables and/or cheese sauce, and call the sorry results soup.

Being in Italy in December 2013 showed me that Italians still understand the art of making good vegetable soups, and that they appreciate this healthy, nutritious addition to a good lunch, dinner, or supper.

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