Comfort Food, Coping Food
Paris’s dirtiest little secret — that its basic weather patterns, cool and damp, are a lot more like London than Nice or Rome — has kept me cranking out hot soups through most of this chilly, gray spring. We’ve finally gotten some gorgeous sunshine in the past couple of days as spring turned to summer, even if it feels like end-of-September weather with bright blue skies, low humidity and temperatures remaining brisk whenever one’s in the shade.
I don’t usually make much soup once spring arrives, but this year I’ve been turning out all sorts of thick soups that we normally eat in winter: chick pea with fresh rosemary; lentil, enriched, Italian-style, with onions, carrots, celery, tomato and pancetta; a pureed kohlrabi soup with onions; and my old standby of leek and potato plus whatever vegetable seems to be past its prime and hiding deep in the refrigerator.
I’ve also been stocking up very early every Saturday at our weekly farmer’s market, which is a few minutes’ walk from our apartment and great fun if you get there before the crowds. It’s about the only place I can regularly find fresh beets with their greens, and I like to buy a bunch and make Polish barszcz — a simple beet bouillon — with the beetroots, a carrot, onion, celery, pepper and a bit of unsmoked lardons, or bacon. It’s a simple broth, flavored at the last minute with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and tasty served either with a chopped, hard-boiled egg, or a dollop of sour cream, which turns it a vivid, hot pink.
I like to save the beet greens and add them to whatever other greens I can find, like spinach, swiss chard, or escarole, and make a light Italian soup loaded with thin strips of greens, some onion and garlic and a rind or two of old Parmigiano. Served with rice cooked at the last minute so it doesn’t get mushy, it’s a soup that I can’t get enough of, especially after what seems like weeks of gray, soggy, chilly weather. Except for cress, Parisians don’t seem to like bitter greens as much as Romans do, and beet greens are the closest thing I can find to Italian cicoria, or collards, mustard greens or kale.
When we lived in eastern Europe as communism was coming unglued in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we ate soup nearly every day. I can’t remember whether it was in Czechoslakia or in Yugoslavia, but a local colleague told me that unless a meal’s first course was ingested with the help of a big spoon, it simply wasn’t possible to think that one had eaten well. The older I get, the more I think they were on to something.
My husband’s cousin, known in the family as John the Poet to distinguish him from my husband, John the Reporter, used to make huge kettles of minestrone, that thick Italian vegetable soup that has as many recipes as it has cooks. His grandson, Alexander, wrote a poem about that soup (“How Grandpa’s Minestrone Conquered Lewiston”), which John the Poet proudly sent to John the Reporter many years ago. Anyone who used to visit the John the Poet’s rambling house in Maine looked forward to at least one big bowl of it, to recharge batteries, both physical and mental.
Chicken soup has always been my standby, and I make it whenever any of us is feeling a tad under the weather, especially when we’re coughing and hacking with a winter’s cold. My old UPI friend in Houston, Barbara Canetti, saved me one winter about 30 years ago when she came to Dallas and brought me a huge container of chicken soup made by her mother, Pearl. I’d been seriously ill with a nasty bronchitis that I couldn’t shake until I downed a cup of Pearl’s soup, as hot as I could stand. I had another cup, as hot as I could stand, a couple of hours later, and repeated the procedure repeatedly over the next day or two. The fever went down after cup No. 2. I was back at work in no time, convinced Pearl was the ultimate healer.
I always think of soup as medicine, or at least a restorative, and that’s probably why I’ve been making so much of it this spring, bad weather or not. My father, nearly 92, has been under the weather lately, and I only wish I could teleport bowls of my soup to him back in Connecticut. I’m sure they’d help perk him up.
When we first moved into the neighborhood, back in 1960, my parents were the youngsters on the block, and as our elderly neighbors aged, my mother used to make and bring them soups. Now that my father has somehow morphed into the oldest man on the block, today’s younger neighbors are helping him in countless ways as well, bringing him food, mowing his grass, shoveling his walks, checking to make sure his shades go up each morning. Until recently, when he grew too frail, he used to love to pay them back for their kindness by making them an occasional pot of spaghetti sauce.
I wish I could make them all a huge pot of soup. I just can’t figure out how to get it across the Atlantic.