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Stirring up memories


Soup's On
January 19, 2007

I know we are in the middle of January, but I'm thinking about spring.

In our mild climate, it's almost around the corner. Matter of fact, a few days this month, I've thought it was already here. (Don't be fooled!)

If you want those juicy tomato sandwiches you'll be biting into next June to be grown from seed, it's about time to start them up in the kitchen, or if you are really lucky, the greenhouse. I rely on the kitchen window.

My trusty Grier's Almanac for 2007, given to me by a generous local merchant, tells me that late January, especially around the 22nd or 23rd will be the best time for above the ground crops such as tomatoes. My grandmother followed the rules of planting by the phases of the moon, and she grew about the best tomatoes I ever ate-before I moved to Decatur County!

But what seeds to plant?

Recumbent or no?

Heirloom or the hot new hybrid?

Tiny cherry, tinier grape or a record-breaking Big Boy? Ah!

That leads to another favorite January activity-the active perusal of the seed catalogs that have filled my mailbox for several weeks now. Lots of decisions to make. The process will require at least a couple of afternoons. It's best if they are cold and rainy-dare we hope for snow? Certainly there will be a kettle of soup simmering away in the kitchen.

Soup may be the ultimate comfort food. It can be simple or complex. It may take less than a minute to open a can or a couple of days of chopping, blending and simmering, not to mention tasting.

When I was growing up, we took the simple approach. Soup was either canned chicken noodle or cream of tomato-take your pick. (You knew it would be Campbell's.) I always picked chicken noodle. Offered the same choice today, I'll make the same call. If my mother felt adventuresome and wanted to serve something exotic, she might pull out a can of Scotch Broth, but that was as far as she would go.

But why waste a good cloudy day or even a sunny one talking about soups?

Let's make some instead. I tried to buy some Scotch broth lately. It isn't on the shelf. I even looked on the Internet. I found that it's still available, but at a premium-almost five bucks a can plus shipping.

It's easier and cheaper to make it from scratch, plus I can smell it simmering all afternoon.

There are two essential ingredients: lamb and barley, the rest is up to the creative cook. I almost always add carrots and peas, but a lot depends on the mood I'm in and what's in the refrigerator.

Scotch broth
2 shoulder lamb chops (lamb shanks or lamb stew meat)
1/3 cup pearl barley
1 large carrot, peeled and cubed
2 leeks, white part only, cut into ½-inch pieces (or chopped onion)
1 or 2 celery ribs, thickly sliced
6 cups water
1/4 cup parsley (or cilantro) chopped

In a slow cooker, combine the lamb, barley, carrot, leeks, celery and water.

Cover and cook on low for five to seven hours, until meat is very tender and falling apart; add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into serving dishes and garnish with parsley.

You can fancy this up many ways, or make it even simpler by adding a bag of frozen soup vegetables instead of the carrots, celery and leeks. Green peas are good as well, but don't add them until the last hour. Again, there's but one rule for Scotch broth: Don't skimp on the lamb and especially don't skimp on the barley!

I try to cook the meat a day ahead and refrigerate the broth overnight. Lamb is mighty fat, and this makes it easy to defat the next morning and start again with the vegetables. Plus, it makes the house smell wonderful for two days!

As long as the slow cooker is out, try this.

Slow and easy onion soup
3 pounds (or so) peeled and thinly sliced onions
½ cup melted butter (skip if you are watching calories and/or fats)
6 or 7 slices cubed French bread (or half a long skinny loaf from the supermarket)
4 or 5 cups beef broth

Put the onions in a slow cooker and toss with the melted butter until they are completely coated. Add the bread cubes and stir. Add broth to cover and stir again. Cover and cook on low for at least 10 and up to 18 hours. (On high, cook for four or five hours, but stir occasionally.) Stir during the last hour.

Serve topped with freshly grated parmesan (or other cheese) and the rest of the French bread with lots of butter. A little green salad is a good accompaniment. If you want to add protein, add some cooked (or leftover) beef about two hours before serving. Nice if you had pot roast for Sunday dinner.

Here is another dandy one for the slow cooker. It's a bit more trouble.

Creamy mushroom soup
3 cans (4 ounces each) drained sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped onion
3 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream (light is OK but not fat free)
1 cup half-and-half or milk

Sauté the onions and mushrooms in butter in a small skillet. (If you want, substitute fresh mushrooms). Put the mushrooms and onions in the slow cooker; and the broth and season to taste. Cook on low for six to 10 hours or high for about three hours.

Half an hour before serving, put on high setting. Combine the flour, sour cream and milk and add to the mixture.

For variety substitute 3 cups chopped leeks and 2 cups diced potatoes (or frozen hash browns) for the mushrooms.

The leek-potato version was about my favorite soup until recently. Then I found an easier (and better, I blush to admit) recipe.

The only hard part is figuring out which day Holly Maxwell at Holly Cakes on Water Street is offering her Loaded Potato Soup as the soup-of-the-day. Forget what you were planning for dinner and order enough for your entire family. Holly will prepare it for carry out. If you'll order enough, she'll cook up a batch to order. Or take a chance and order any of her soups. All I have tried are great. Soon I will have tried them all.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network