Grandma’s Soup

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have devoted a number of posts to the cooking of my maternal grandmother, Anne Wheeling, an Italian American who was one in a long line of great cooks in a family of them. (A few of those posts, some complete with other recipes can be found here, here and here.)

Like today’s post, some of these have been devoted to the recreation of recipes from my childhood. Meanwhile, I have not written nearly as much about my father’s mother, Gertrude Butler, however I did write about her recently when I found a photo of her I didn’t remember having seen. (That post can be found here.) Gertie, aka Tootsie, Butler was a tiny powerhouse of energy.

Tootsie in a later undated photograph recently turned up in some papers. I think my father kept this one in his wallet.

When it came to food hers was more of a utilitarian variety than Grandma Wheeling’s and drew on a more limited menu. Our Sunday meals there were generally based around a soup and a rotating choice of roasted chicken, brisket or the occasional turkey. There was often a noodle kugel which was for some reason anathema to me and never crossed my lips! (I wasn’t a picky eater as a child and rarely in full revolt. I don’t know what it was about noodle kugel which made me defiant, although I can’t say it calls come hither to me even now. I remember the smell of it cooking vividly.)

Young Irving, Elliott and Gertie in an another undated photo discovered when my folks were moving several years ago.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, my grandmother worked hard six days a week in the family dry goods store. In retrospect that she produced a full meal for us on the seventh day and was always perfectly turned out, often in a brocade dress as I remember – I think I get my love of clothes and jewelry from her; she liked some sparkle. Her Sunday meals were nothing short of a miracle of commitment and love. I know now from experience that the soup could (and should for maximum taste and texture) be made well in advance and refrigerated or can easily even be frozen. She clearly made it earlier in the week or at least on Saturday. (The alternative to this soup was a quick matzoh ball one which I hope to perfect an eggless version of as well – stay tuned.)

Dessert was marble loaf cake from the bakery where she also purchased her rye bread, or a simple yellow cake she made herself with thick chocolate icing. (There were black and white cookies, but those we took home. Another favorite of my father’s, I was still buying them for him right up until he passed several years ago and I wrote about that here.) After the rather extravagant Italian indulgences of the other side of my family her fare was more simple. However, this soup was a favorite of my dad’s and Grandma taught mom to make it early on.

Mix of dry beans ready to hit the pot.

It would seem that despite or maybe because of her family cooking pedigree mom somehow made it into marriage with only nascent cooking skills. (There are stories about her cooking her first steak and leaving the label on by mistake – and a chicken cooked with the neck and giblets still inside.) Somehow learning from her mother in-law was less fraught I guess. It was a family business to her mother who was, I think, rather no nonsense about it although she softened with age and I frequently watched her in the kitchen for hours.

Grandma Butler had a bit of a mania about healthy eating and mom recently reminded me that she would lecture at great length about the benefits of the chicken in the soup, the eggs in the yellow cake, etc. Grandma was a firm believer that one should not have beverages while eating, it would dilute the nutrition somehow, but there was alway rye or black bread and butter on the table.

Who knew you could still buy these?

This soup was utterly ubiquitous in my childhood. Once the chill of fall set in rarely a week would go by without a pot of it simmering on the stove, containers of it filling the fridge or freezer. The childhood version of the soup always had chicken (or turkey) as the base, the remainder of a dinner the carcass would be thrown into a pot to start the soup. My father liked to add saltine crackers or preferably La Choy Chow Mein Noodles to a bowl of it. I had not actually thought of that in many years. The mixed dry soup beans used to come in a single long convenient bag where somehow they weren’t mixed but in sections.

Tootsie’s chicken based version was incredibly thick and would always need water to thin it after being in the fridge. If my vegetarian version has a flaw in my mind it is that I cannot make it as thick which may not be seen as an issue to all – everyone may not want it thick enough to stand a spoon in. Depending on how thick you like it, play around a bit with the amount of beans and how much you use the blender on. I like to think she would have approved of this vegetarian version – they were Jewish so it was never made with ham or bacon.

Wowza – found the bean mixes online! The miracle of the internet.

So find yourself a week with frost in the forecast and make this soup a day or so in advance. As with most of my soups, toss in whatever vegetables you have – leftovers included. You’ll have enough for about eight servings. Let me know how you like it!

The Recipe:

Soften onion, carrots, garlic and mushroom (celery if using), allow to cook down and brown some. Meanwhile, rinse the beans, trim the green beans and the potatoes. Add the green beans and the potatoes, after those have softened, add the beans. I stir the dry beans continuously and let them cook a bit.

Deglaze the pan with the vermouth or wine and make sure to use a wooden spoon to scrape the pot. Add the stock and allow to come to a boil. Season to taste with herbs below or your own preference, keeping in mind that this vegetarian version probably requires more salt and seasoning than you might typically use. (I use more herbs than my grandmother would have I am sure. I didn’t have flat parsley in the house or I would have added and I think it would be nice.) I used a marash red pepper, but cayenne will do. Let it stay at a soft boil for at least a half hour, adding water if necessary as the beans absorb the water.

At this point I would let it sit for at least an hour, or even more preferably – this soup is best if it sits overnight in the fridge. For a thicker body to the soup a third or half can be blended using a blender or immersion blender – make sure to remove the bay leaf however! I think this is a more satisfying texture, thicker.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium size rough chopped onion
  • carrots, cut about 1.5 inches, about 2/3-1 cup
  • garlic, to taste
  • mushrooms, sliced
  • halved green beans
  • chopped celery (optional)
  • chopped Italian (broad leaf) parsley (optional)
  • new potatoes, 1.5 inch chunks, about 1.5 cups
  • 1 cup split peas
  • 2/3 cup lentils
  • 2/3 cup barley
  • 64 oz. vegetable stock
  • vermouth or wine, half to two-thirds cups to deglaze the pot
  • dill, oregano, bay leaf, basil, salt, red pepper to taste

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