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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Clear Broth Soup: The new comfort food

When I received my Yoga Journal this month, it was during winter break, so I was able to sit down and read it cover to cover, for the first time I think. The food section, "Eating Wisely," was actually quite wise and very applicable after gorging during the holidays. The article points out that most of the foods we refer to as "comfort foods" generally make us feel terrible. When feeling sad many indulge in french fries, fired vegetables, ice cream, or heavy cheesy pasta. When we are done eating, rather than feeling comforted, we feel bloated, gassy, and guilty. It just so happened that I listened to "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me's" food special that same day and one of the guests was Paula Dean, who gushed over deep fried mac and cheese. With the image of Paula Dean's special mac n cheese in my mind and snacking on breaded, deep fried pickles Jamie brought me, I read this article, and the validity of the central theme became abundantly apparent.

The tradition of eating "comfort foods" does not need to continue as is. When we eat these foods, it is so habitual that we barely even taste the food, we don't notice how much we eat, it does not inspire good memories, and the experience is almost numbing. But there are definitely other, better choices we can make; there are so many things that when eaten, actually make us feel better. I know that when I have a lightly dressed salad of fresh greens, avocado, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, I actually feel refreshed and nourished afterwards. It comforts me. The author of the article, Tamar Adler, suggests a redefining of comfort foods as foods that make us feel better after we eat them than we did before. For her, comfort foods are very simply prepared dishes that remind her of things that she loves. Very salty, clear broth soups remind her of the sea and by adding eggs and fresh greens, she makes them very nourishing. Her lyrical description of these soups cannot be matched, I have to quote it:
"Many of my most comforting meals rely on the quiet tranquility of eggs. It's easy to keep eggs from pastured chickens in the house, and each time I cook one, I know I am supporting good environmental stewardship. They also pair well with the terrestrial solidity of beans, good bread, or rice. 
I'm drawn, too, to olive-oily, garlicky cooked collard greens or kale, as well as a handful of raw roughly chopped parsley or cilantro. Greens remind me that soil exists, which is grounding. I also know how kind I am being to my liver and my bones.
 I like there to be a few contrasting textures. I prefer highly seasoned broths because liquid reminds me of the sea, and strong seasoning evokes an unkempt sea, and both are true and good."

 I read this excerpt out loud when I was reading the article, and Jamie and I laughed a bit. We are not generally people that describe greens as "grounding" or broth as "true and good," but the article spoke to me, the recipes looked delicious, and Jamie was coming down with a cold, so it seemed it was the perfect time to evoke the sea and make some soup. There were two recipes, Rice and Lettuce Soup and Garlic Soup with Poached Egg, and we had the ingredients for rice and lettuce soup, so that is what I made first.

First, I cooked two small chopped onions in olive oil over medium heat. When they had softened I added 4 cups of vegetable broth, 4 cups of water, 1 vegan boullion cube, some epazote, and 2 cups of white basmati rice. I allowed the mixture to reach a boil and then lowered it to a simmer and held it there for about 30 minutes (until the rice was very soft), while stirring occasionally. I sliced the red head-lettuce into ribbons and added them to the soup, allowing them to wilt. I mounded the rice and lettuce in the middle of each bowl and poured the broth over top. I finished by drizzling olive oil and sprinkling black pepper over the rice and lettuce. The bowls of soup looked fancy and gourmet and the soup was perfectly delicious. After taking my first bite, I couldn't help but reflect that the Yoga Journal chef was right about the ocean in the soup. Maybe it was only because it had been suggested, but my memory went to swimming at my home beach and having my sinuses filled with salt water from the crashing waves. We had this soup for lunch and dinner and there were no left-overs for the next day. I know that no left-overs mean that the dish was delicious, but when there are not left-overs, it is always when I want there to be left-overs the most.

For the garlic soup with poached eggs, I poured 4 cups of vegetable broth into a medium sized pot, sprinkled in Italian Seasoning, dried thyme, torn fresh sage, and 2 bay leaves. I brought the broth a boil and lowered to a strong simmer for a couple minutes. Next, I used a slotted spoon to remove as much of the spices as I could (I learned this is important or else the spices will stick to the poached eggs). I then added 5 cloves of sliced garlic and quite a bit of salt, and let the soup continue to simmer for about 15 minutes. While the soup was simmering, I cut collard greens into strips and sauteed them with olive oil over medium heat. I had bought a pain paisano loaf from Sage Bakery (the best in ABQ) earlier in the week, and I sliced it thickly and rubbed the slices with chopped garlic. I placed a slice of the thick fancy bread at the bottom of two bowls. To poach the eggs, I added a teaspoon of vinegar to the soup before breaking two eggs into individual teacups and carefully pouring them into the simmering broth. I allowed the eggs to cook until the yolk was just beginning to firm. The cooked collard greens were heaped onto the garlic bread in the bowls and then a poached egg was placed on top of the greens. The broth was poured around the eggs and greens, olive oil was drizzled over the egg, and ground black pepper was sprinkled on the egg as a finishing touch. 

This soup was very impressive. The eggs and the greens with the garlic and saltiness of the soup, along with the soaked garlic bread brought such a full variety of flavors and textures. It reminded me of enjoying french onion soup when I was a kid, but without the overpowering cheeses. Bringing me back to those memories, particularly of eating at La Fondue in Manhattan with my mom before seeing Broadway shows, was extremely comforting, yet upon finishing this meal, I did not feel over stuffed and I did not have a belly-ache. It was perfect. Reading this article and making these recipes will hopefully make me think twice before ordering deep fried foods on the weekends. Comfort food does not have to mean guilty pleasures and I can find more comfort and nourishment in healthy foods that I can eat thoughtfully.