Top | First Person

Humble soup

(article, Steve Subera)

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In the kitchen, the first thing to go when you turn 40 is your back. Or so I’d always thought, until one evening not long ago when I found myself rummaging through my cupboards and fridge, unable to decide on dinner for my wife and two daughters. Fresh, boxed, or canned, my ingredients offered no inspiration.

Something wasn’t right. The prospect of cooking felt mundane. Everything about my recipes seemed unattractive. A box of breakfast cereal — a bachelor’s dinner — mocked me with its sweet and crunchy flakes, offering only ephemeral pleasure. I had a sudden, cold feeling. I wasn’t just bored; my passion had waned. I was in a midlife cooking crisis.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="He decided to make a homemade version of Chicken Corn Chowder."]Cooking at home had been my longtime love, whether chopping onions or confiting duck. I had started cooking in college, teaching myself using a Betty Crocker cookbook given to me by my mom, a home-ec teacher. Soon I was clipping recipes from newspapers, collecting stacks of bright shiny food magazines like Bon Appétit and Gourmet, and paging through [/author/MarcellaHazan "Marcella Hazan’s" newpage=true] Italian cookbooks. With each new recipe I tried, my hunger grew for more techniques and ingredients.

That hunger was fulfilled during an expat work assignment in Europe. For six months, at my first job after college, I lived in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands near the Belgian border. Even the smallest pub in Maastricht served meals with classic French sauces and salads with delicate vinaigrettes. I traveled the continent, eating a German wiener schnitzel so light and delicate it seemed to float inches above my plate. An Italian egg pasta shone the color of the sun. And in France — well, you never forget your first foie gras.

I returned to the States with a deeper appreciation of food and wine, intent on reproducing those flavors and techniques at home. During an intensive seafood class in Minneapolis, thousands of miles from saltwater, I learned how to clean a sea urchin and scoop out the delicate uni. I cooked for friends and girlfriends, and then for my wife. We spent our honeymoon in Napa Valley and dined at the French Laundry. I had called the restaurant two months in advance, getting busy signals every day for a week until I finally secured a table at 9 o'clock on a Sunday night. The menu, dated October 3, 1999, is framed on the wall in my study.

After that dinner, I made like Emeril and kicked my cooking up a notch. My wife gave me Thomas Keller’s inaugural cookbook, The French Laundry Cookbook, and under its guidance I reduced sauces to infinitesimal syrups, dissected lobsters, and used enough butter to clog the Lincoln Tunnel. I still cook from it. “When in doubt, strain,” remains, in my opinion, the best advice ever given for creating beautiful food at home.

But when molecular gastronomy deconstructed the cooking lexicon and the Alinea cookbook emerged, I just shrugged. Career, marriage, and kids had reduced my time for cooking many times over. I’ve always done most of the cooking at home, but I no longer had two hours in the kitchen — plus a quick trip to the store — to satisfy either inspiration or improvisation. And so I passed on the newfangled trends and equipment, instead feeding my family and funding my children’s college education.

In the meantime, the culinary world took a cultural star turn. I couldn’t keep up. Everyone was a chef-in-training or a food critic. My dry-aged beef and sourdough cultures seemed quaint in the context of people butchering their own steers and grinding their own flour.

Should I have bought a shiny new sous-vide machine? Flown to Thailand to learn how to make artisanal nam pla? Filmed my children crafting intricate pasta shapes and auditioned for a reality show on the Food Network? All attractive options and apt clichés for a man in my predicament, yet temporary balm for my midlife malaise.

I blamed my ennui on a feeling of inadequacy brought on by seeing overnight sensations parade around the food and cooking shows on the Internet and television. Friends said I should have a cooking show or become a chef. But I knew better. Chasing the new thing can be exciting and distracting, but eventually the chase becomes the end, not the means.

[%image soup float=right width=400 caption="A humble soup, cobbled together from ingredients in the pantry."]I thought I had lost my passion for cooking, but in reality I had just misplaced it, like a set of keys. Cooking is a repetitive task, but I had found passion in it over time from a growing satisfaction and enjoyment I felt whenever I made a meal, fancy or plain, for myself, family, or friends. 

The pleasure hadn’t been à la minute or rooted in the culinary zeitgeist. “Passion is the privilege of the insignificant,” wrote the poet Joseph Brodsky. Only by embracing the mundane could I be free of it. I had been worried about not keeping up with whatever was new. What I should have been focusing on was appreciating what I had.

What I had on that night of my darkest kitchen hour was a can of chicken corn chowder. I recalled that my wife said all of the commercial soup varieties had started to taste the same to her. Boredom in a can. So I decided to make a homemade version.

The label listed chicken, corn, potatoes, onions, garlic, celery, parsley, and cream as ingredients, along with several other rather gelatinous, polysyllabic concoctions. I stuck with the naturally occurring ingredients. I browned four chicken thighs in a pot, rendering some of the fat. Removing them, I added a bit more oil and sautéed some onions, celery, and garlic until they were softened but not brown. 

I remembered Hazan’s impassioned writing about flavor building up from the bottom as I watched the vegetables turn translucent. I nestled the chicken thighs atop the base and poured in about four cups of water, simmering until the chicken was done and letting it create its own stock. Nothing fancy; no reducing, no straining. Just delicious.

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I removed the chicken, and in went potatoes and parsley. Then I added corn, thinking about the coming season at the farmers' market when ears are fresh enough to eat nearly raw. I shredded the meat and returned it to the soup, finishing it off with a judicious pour of heavy cream. I saved black pepper for the table, where I could add a liberal amount.

It wasn’t complex or revolutionary. I hadn’t consulted seven recipes, raised the chickens in my back yard, or grown the celery in my garden. But making it rekindled my passion for cooking. It was the basic act of transforming raw ingredients into a finished meal — making stock, cooking meat, cutting vegetables, and using my accumulated “wisdom” — that made me happy.

It made my family at the table happy as well. My wife loved it. Our seven-year-old daughter had a second helping. The three-year-old ate one bite, said she liked it, and then refused to eat more. Oh, well, nothing's perfect.

But I’ll make it again. That humble soup, cobbled together from my pantry, reminded me that cooking is a repetitive, necessary, and often mundane task. Which is precisely why I’m so passionate about it.

p(bio). Steve Subera is a freelance writer and devoted home cook always on the lookout for new ingredients. In a previous occupation, he traveled internationally and never met a cuisine he didn't like.


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