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Stone soup. December 15, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I guess between my post yesterday on how to make good soup (“A sorry excuse for soup”), and our friend Ben’s post on preparing for hard times (“Are you ready for the storm?”), I have soup on the brain. Combining the two topics reminds me of that classic story, “Stone Soup.” Do you remember it?

In the story, a starving but ingenious fellow, presumably in Mediaeval times, finds his way into a village. He tries to get the villagers to contribute food for his supper, but, mindful of their own dwindling stores, they refuse. So he fills a pot with water, sets it over a fire, and puts a stone in it.

The villagers, bemused by this unusual cooking style, gather round. “What are you cooking there?” one asks. “Why, I’m making stone soup,” the cheerful man replies. “Stone soup! What on earth is that?” a skeptical villager demands. “Do you think you can make a meal out of a stone?!”

“Of course I can,” the man confidently replies. “Not just a meal, but the most delicious soup you’ve ever tasted. All I need are a few herbs…”

“Here, I have some herbs,” one village woman said, handing the man a few handfuls. “Let’s see this famous soup then.”

“Ah, yes, that smells good,” the man announced, chopping the herbs and adding them to his pot with the stone and water. “But I don’t think the soup is quite done yet. It really needs a couple of onions.”

“All right, I have two onions,” the greengrocer said, handing them over.

“Excellent! But, ah, I see that the soup is still not at its best. It would benefit from a few carrots and potatoes.”

“Here, take these carrots.”

“I have a few spare potatoes.”

“That’s marvelous! But you know, I think this soup might taste a bit flat without a few grains of salt…”

You get the idea, of course. By the time the man was finished, the villagers that previously wouldn’t give him so much as a grain of wheat had provided the makings for a delicious soup, which he then shared with the entire village.

One of the beauties of soup—and also stews and chilis—is that they’re so forgiving. As long as you don’t have your heart set on a specific outcome—say, French onion soup, the perfect consomme, Greek avgolemono (egg-lemon-chicken-rice soup), or cream of tomato—you can play around and still come up with good soup.

Soups, stews, and chilis are the perfect vehicles for using up odds and ends. This is true whether you’re talking about leftover produce (a couple of carrots, half an onion, three new potatoes, a wedge of cabbage, the last few mushrooms), the bottom of the box, bag or jar of lentils, rice, or pasta, leftover cooked veggies of all kinds (a cup of green beans or asparagus, mashed potatoes, corn), or leftovers, period (refried beans, a half-cup of tomato sauce, a dab of pumpkin puree, the last tablespoon of half-and-half). Or, of course, any kind of meat.

I’ve made silky, delicious chili with leftover pumpkin puree and cream. (Really! Use our search bar at upper right to find “Weird, wonderful chili” for the recipe.) Or hearty, spicy chili and black bean soup with leftover spaghetti sauce and the last few tablespoons from a jar of salsa. I’ve added the last spoons of marmalade or preserves and/or the last handful from a box or bag of raisins to give the perfect flavor to dal (a thick, spicy Indian lentil or split-pea stew). If I’m almost through with a jar of some herb or spice, I’ll create a soup that will benefit from adding it. Ditto the grated end of a piece of cheese. (Can you tell I can’t bear wasting shelf or fridge space on something that’s almost empty?!)

Another way to use up those almost-empties is to swirl them into or on top of the soup/stew/chili just before serving. Sour cream, yogurt, salsa, queso dip, even guacamole can work when paired with the right soup. Not to mention  shredded cheese or crumbled hardboiled egg. A little shredded (unsweetened) coconut can enhance a curried soup. For a bit of extra texture, you can always sprinkle pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds), sunflower seeds, or crumbled almonds, pecans, walnuts or what have you on top, but again, make sure the flavors marry well; it’s probably wisest to pass a separate bowl and let diners sprinkle on their own just before eating their soup. (That’s not a bad idea for any topping that you don’t swirl into the soup.)

When concocting a soup, remember that the secret to any great soup is to add a little fat. This can come from oil, from butter or cream, or from, say, bacon, ham, or chicken fat. But a soup without some kind of fat falls flat. If you doubt me, try making two pots of the identical soup sometime, and add fat to one and not the other. When they’re done, taste and see! Fortunately, it won’t be too late to add some to the other pot.

So, next time you think you don’t have a thing in the house to cook, or are stuck with a bunch of leftover odds and ends, consider making your own stone soup. You may not be able to feed a whole village, but your family will love it!

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

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