It’s been several decades now since an impromptu gathering of wandering young Americans decided to shop at the outdoor market in the town they were visiting in Turkey and fix dinner. And since not a single member of the group knew the first thing about cooking, we knew enough to make soup.
Obviously, there are many wonderful techniques to making many wonderful soups, not to mention the fact that virtually every cuisine on earth has one or more that anybody would consider classic. But the magic of soup has always found a place for the simplest preparation of all. You take just about anything edible you can lay your hands on, put it in a pot with water, and cook until it’s done. That’s what we did that unforgettable (or at least unforgotten) night after spending much of the day among the ruins of ancient Troy.
Still, the soup we made and ate that night was anything but Homeric. Looking back, I’d like to do it all over again, and re-walk through the recipe with an eye toward building layers of flavor. We knew nothing of caramelization, for instance, so neither the meat nor the vegetables were browned in any way for an extra wallop of taste. We used water, as we knew you could, but certainly starting with broth is always better.
And if I recall, we barely seasoned with salt and pepper, meaning the water in the soup remained the worst thing water in soup can remain – watery. The irony, as many travelers have figured out already, is that any open-air market in Turkey would certainly devote the bulk of its space to burlap sack after burlap sack of exotic, fragrant spices. The fact that we managed to make boring soup at an important stop along the ancient Spice Route must be some kind of achievement.
Even so, I remember the simple pleasures of sharing that meal. With the cost of groceries divided among the many our pot could satisfy, the soup was almost free. It was filling, even though much of it was just water, meaning that we stuck a salad on the side and a loaf of bread for tearing, and it was plenty. Perhaps best of all, at least in my now-ancient memory, our little group – our family, for the night anyway – had shopped, chopped and cooked together, preparing a meal that could be enjoyed exactly that way.
Fast forward several decades, and many pots of soup. You learn equally, it seems, from tasting and cooking.
You taste the importance of soup in culture after culture – from the black bean of Cuba and Puerto Rico to the chicken tortilla of Mexico, the onion of France, the ribolitta of Italy, the avgolemono of Greece, the pureed bean “corba” of Turkey, the hot and sour of China, the tom yum of Thailand and the pho of Vietnam. You taste each one, and you understand better the layers of flavor that the cook cooked in. You also, over time, learn how to make those layers on your own.
Soup remains so simple, and you might not hate it if you do exactly what we did in Turkey all those decades ago. But you can start out addressing all the shortcomings we cooked in that night, as I promise I would if I had that soup to make over again.
CHICKEN BLT SOUP
Everybody loves a Bacon Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich, so much that we almost never call it anything but a BLT. So… the other day when we were starting to make some simple chicken and vegetable soup, we spotted a couple slices of uncooked bacon in the refrigerator. We thought it was a shame we couldn’t just throw bacon into the soup – until we realized we could.
3 slices thick-cut bacon
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 chicken breast halves, cut bite-sized
Salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
8 cups chicken broth
¼-1/2 cup Mom’s brand Primavera Sauce
Thinly sliced or shredded hearts of romaine lettuce
In a soup pot or Dutch oven, cook the bacon until crisp in the olive oil, then drain on paper towels. Cook the chicken in the same olive oil, then drain on paper towels. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the remaining fat and stir the onion, carrot and celery until lightly caramelized, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the garlic for only 1 minute more, then return the bacon and chicken. Add the chicken broth and Mom’s sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes for flavors to meld. Serve in bowls topped with a little lettuce. Serves 6-8.