If you don’t want to read all of my pseudo-anthropologically-minded ramblings, feel free to scroll down to the actual soup.
A Mythology Major Otherthinking Soup
I grew up in a UU Church where On the Day You Were Born and Stone Soup were childhood staples used in sermons themselves, a shared community mattered much more than a shared creed, and food and fellowship went hand in hand with worship. Holy day rituals were followed by a potluck and a bardic circle.
I stopped going to church regularly in middle school and, though I tried to attend the big holidays (y’know, Litha, Samhain, Yule…) through high school and college and was dragged along to a variety of holidays and events put on by Hampshire Spiritual Life in college (Pagan, Jewish, Hindu, Interfaith, whathaveyou), the extent of my actual religious event attendance in recent years has been pretty much exclusively making it to Yule. I’m basically a lapsed pagan or freelance UU, the equivalent of a Christian who makes it to church for Christmas and maybe Easter.
Though I am slowing dipping my toes into finding a new religious community in my area since moving, I find a sense of the sacred or a feeling of serenity, what Eliade might describe as sacred time or an escape from the mundane or profane, more easily in non-religious places or at least surprisingly mundane places.
A gathering of friends that lasts long into the night, an evening roasting marshmallows around the fire that turns into an impromptu wake for a friend taken from us far too young, a moment alone outside or out reading with my dog, a late night listening to Loreena McKennitt as I let my thoughts drift, an afternoon spent painting, reading folktales or scholarly articles about folktales and drinking tea at hours far too late to be doing either, singing as I chop vegetables or bake cookies, picking blueberries or apples. These are my sacred moments, the ones with the people and the things that matter.
I’ve always gotten that feeling from things like old stories and old recipes or new stories and new recipes with old friends. That’s what makes me feel connected to the past and to the long line of humanity before and after me and to whatever is beyond the trappings of my little life. It’s folk culture more than straight religion that feeds my soul and fictional folk culture works just as well, so long as it stirs something inside us or resonates the same way.
It might seem odd to many, but listening to the deep tones of the dwarves singing “The Misty Mountains” in The Hobbit invokes the same feeling in me that I felt as a child listening the eerie yet comforting sound of the flute at Yule as the stag dancers put out every last candle, immersing us in the darkness of the longest night of the year. It takes me to the mead halls of Beowulf and the cool autumn nights by the Hampshire Tree and a quiet winter’s night reading about Icelandic Huldufolk and ghost stories as the lights on my Christmas fill the room with the warm glow of a diffused, exchanged, altered, and still living tradition. In all its glory, both real folk tradition and fiction with such a vibrant sense of cultural depth and richness as The Lord of the Rings makes me feel connected to the all of the bards and runesingers and storytellers and grandmothers and grandfathers the world over who told stories to those gathered about them to while away the cold winter or the long night.
I get the same feeling every time I make soup from scratch. I feel connected to the thousands of women (and men) before me who made soup for their families or their tribes or their households. To the village witches and medicine women who nourished and healed with herbs and tonics. To the Shaker Sisters preparing nutritious food to feed their Brothers and Sisters, wisely considering food the best medicine there is. To the Medieval women who let their hair down a little as they prepared the simple fare for their convent or their family and laughed together as they did, a moment of their own in a world that wasn’t. To the elders with their family recipes and folk remedies. To the Mrs. Patmores and the Grandmother Coneelis and the Mrs. Weasleys and the Silvia of Innails and all of the women we forget to mention when looking for female role models because we’re afraid of being limited to the spheres that confined them. To the mother goddesses the world over and the very human mothers we wish were here when we’re sick and want a bowl of soup and some words of comfort.
Thus, I’ve been trying to make the preparation of real food a bigger part of my life. I used to bake bread with my mom and go berry picking in the woods by my house and make my own pizza from scratch as a kid, but the lifestyle and demands of students and adults in our society don’t lend themselves well to keeping these habits up.
As it says in both my bio and the blog description, I am on a high-sodium diet by doctor’s orders to treat an autonomic disorder. This is a tough balancing act between making my diet as healthy as possible to help me optimize my own health (to take a leaf from the Shakers’ book) and getting the requisite amount of salt, which can be surprisingly hard. I also don’t have a lot of energy and standing on my feet for an hour or so in a hot kitchen can end in me collapsing on the kitchen floor. Some nights the idea of making a meal or cleaning up after is just too overwhelming (and, yes, I know that sounds stupid). Other times my blood pressure and blood sugar both get too low and I get all shaky and Gollum-like and I need food, the saltier the better, and I need it now and gods help whoever gets in the way.
Soup is one way to strike such a balance. It meets all of these needs while helping me live just a little healthier and a little more in tune with the way humans were meant to live. Soup can be as salty as you want but is also (usually) a very low-fat, healthy meal and a great way to fit more vegetables into my diet. I can make it one night (hopefully with minimal instances of winding up on the floor) and listen to music while I prepare it with care and real, good ingredients. Then I can freeze a crapton of it for later and have healthy, salty meals for the rest of the week, freeing me from dinner prep and clean-up other nights when I’m too tired. I made avgolemono (Greek lemon chicken rice soup) a while back and ate like a king. And at a little over a gram of sodium per cup, it made getting enough salt so much easier and kept me from snacking too much to make up the difference.
Soup is also very economical for us poor college grads and starving artists who can’t afford to load up on fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market every week and go to Whole Foods for our every culinary need. As I am a young person from a generation not known for its homesteading or hearth-related skills who is more likely to buy food based on what’s on sale and what looks good, I’m not the best at planning all my meals ahead of time. Once again, soup saves the day. As in Stone Soup, soup is very forgiving to the creative cook. Thus, I can experiment with what I have on hand and it usually turns out great.
An Inexact Recipe: Barley Blue
Such was the case the other day when I came home from a visit with a bag of blue potatoes from a farm in my home state. I’d never cooked with blue potatoes before and had made potato and leek soup maybe once. Thus, I turned to Pinterest, that gleaming beacon of hope for lost souls who need to know how to do or make just about anything at a moment’s notice.
I had barley but wasn’t all that experienced at knowing how long to cook it in soup or when to add everything else. So, I found this recipe and used it as a base, adapting it to be a potato and leek soup with the herbs I had. The result was definitely a keeper, so I dubbed it Barley Blue (It’s all over now, Barley Blue… One Bob Dylan fan just felt very smart and one Joyce Carol Oates fan just felt very, very smart.) and decided to write down the recipe. If you wish to make this yourself, feel free to alter it as you will. My mom always had the same sentiment towards recipes that Captain Barbossa and Elizabeth Swan had towards the Code.
8 cups chicken stock – I would have used half chicken, half vegetable, but the store near me didn’t have a single veggie stock I wasn’t allergic to. I believe chicken does have a higher sodium content, though, so, if you’re like me, maybe it’s best with just chicken.
1 tsp Icelandic Birch Smoked Sea Salt – You can use whatever salt you have/prefer, but this is by far the most delicious salt I’ve ever tried. You can buy it in a variety of sizes here.
1-2 tsps sea salt – You can use regular table salt or whatever else you like. I just happen to have a giant thing of iodized sea salt. I like to go half and half with salt, so as to get the flavor of my nice, lovely specialty salts without running out of them too fast. If you want lower sodium skip this, or if one person in the house wants/needs more sodium and one doesn’t, do what I did and add the 1st tsp of Icelandic salt to the soup when cooking and add 1/8-1/4 tsp sea salt or table salt to each 1 cup serving for the salt lover later. Most people will probably find all three tsps (Icelandic and regular) too salty, so unless you love salt, you’ll probably want to stick to 1-2. Please salt to your own tastes and nutritional needs. I need a high sodium diet but most don’t. Always consult your doctor before trying one. That said, Vanessa, if you’re reading this, you’ll definitely want all three.
1/2 cup barley – Barley expands so you’re going to want less than you think.
Blue potatoes – The recipe I was adapting called for two medium potatoes cut into 1/2 inch pieces. The blue potatoes I have were quite small, so I eye-balled what looked like the equivalent amount of potato and chopped them into the specified size. Add more or less, depending on your feelings on potatoes. I’m cooking for my half-Irish self and my half-Russian-Jewish boyfriend. Potatoes, ho!
Carrots – I just grabbed a bunch of smaller carrots bound together by a rubber band at the store because I liked the look of them and they were organic and slightly earth-coated (I cannot stand slimy carrots). There were probably half a dozen pen-length carrots in it. Use whatever size and amount you wish and dice to your preferences.
2 leeks – I tend not to get leeks because they are so big and come in such big bunches and get bad in the fridge when I inevitably don’t use them all (My beef with most veggies. Can’t I just buy what I actually need?). A potato leek soup recipe I looked at for reference said to use 3 leeks, but I had 2 so 2 it was. The original recipe I was working from called for onion, but I forgot to buy one and hate chopping up onions anyway and it’s a relative of the leek, so screw it. Dice the leeks.
1 tbsp butter, unsalted – I guess you could use salted if you wanted, but I always cook with unsalted.
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil – [insert virgin joke here]
1 tsp garlic – The recipe I was working from called for fresh cloves of garlic, but I used dried. Do whatever feels good and keeps the teenage vampires out of your home.
Basil, to taste – The recipe called for fresh parsley too, but I didn’t have any so hang the code and hang the rules.
Goat cheese – Optional and easily substituted. A friend recommended adding cream cheese since she uses it in slow cooker recipes and a lot of potato leek soup recipes call for heavy cream. I didn’t have cream cheese or heavy cream on hand, but I did have Goat’s Milk Creamy Cheese from Trader Joe’s (I love having a Trader Joe’s nearby again. There are none near my hometown and weren’t any in the state until recently.)
Bay leaf – Bay leaves. Never leave home without them.
I did as the original recipe told me to and brought the broth to a boil (adding the salt when it starts to boil, a tip I learn from editing this book) before adding the bay leaf and barley and simmering on low while covered for thirty minutes. This would probably be when you’d want to chop up the rest, but I get overheated really quickly, so I chopped them up beforehand and took a short break in between.
Add the butter and olive oil to whatever pan you sauté with. Sauté the leeks, garlic, basil, and any other spices or herbs you’re using for about 5 minutes. I used to just add my spices and herbs with the salt or sauté the garlic and onion in olive oil at the bottom of the pot before adding the broth, but this was so much better and the butter makes it just a little richer. Put this aside with the chopped veggies until the thirty minutes are up.
Uncover the soup. Add the carrots, potatoes, and sautéed leek and herbs. Stir it in and let the rest simmer for thirty more minutes, or however long it takes for the barley and vegetables to reach the desired consistency. This should make your house/dorm hall/apartment/hobbit hole smell amazing.
Since my boyfriend is lactose intolerant, I left the goat cheese out of the soup proper and added a dollop to my bowl, stirring until it melted all the way in. This made the broth slightly thicker and creamier and added a little more salt. Also, I love cheese. It is my one vice in life. That and chocolate. And maybe owning too many copies of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Anyway, serve the soup with whatever bread or hearty peasant fare you please and voila!
Here is a delicious, very healthy (and very colorful) soup that makes about 8 servings. You could always double the recipe if you have a whole Weasley clan to feed or want more fridge food for later. With this amount alone, I have dinner for several days stowed away in the freezer.
This soup really reminded me of the message of community and giving in Stone Soup. The Icelandic salt was part of a lovely care package from a friend (I feel loved every time I use it), the potatoes were from my mom and a little bit of home, many of my cooking utensils and other kitchen tools were gifts or hand-me-downs, and several friends helped add to the recipe by responding to my Facebook post asking what to do with blue potatoes, barley, and a license to eat salt. This was a village-made soup and it made my sometimes lonely living room feel very warm and connected.
UPDATE: A previous version of this recipe neglected to mention bay leaf, as it’s such a given when I make soup that I forgot about it. That silly little leaf makes a huge difference in taste. Since this is a larger soup, I added two leaves. Remove the leaves before eating (or just eat around them).