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Not Stone Soup

Stone Soup Foodworks of Ottawa

Stone Soup Foodworks of Ottawa, which also uses the slogan "Slow Food. Fast"--what can you do?

If you’ve come to Slow Food Fast looking for the little green Ottawa soup truck, I have bad news and good–I’m not them. (Don’t know whether that’s good or bad, but I’m in Los Angeles, so it’d be a bit of a schlep.)

The good news is that I have found the link to Stone Soup Foodworks for the lost and hungry Canadians among you and it looks pretty good. Like David Ansel of The Soup Peddler in Austin, Texas, Stone Soup’s Jacqueline Jolliffe is getting on a roll with “soupscriptions” as well as on-the-spot takeout soups, salads, etc. made of real ingredients, mostly local and organic.

Why soup? Because soup made from real ingredients, not packets and cans, is more than most people want to tackle at home, I think. Good soup, as both Ansel and Jolliffe say, takes time to develop. And especially in winter, a cup of real soup at lunch helps you push aside the irritations of the day for awhile.

Both Ansel and Jolliffe are doing something entirely different from what I do here on Slow Food Fast–they cook complex and difficult soups in large batches and sell them to subscribing and loyal customers who only have to pay for takeout by the cup or heat up a delivered quart of soup to have something good. That’s their idea of “slow food, fast.”

My idea of slow food fast is to cook a week’s worth, say perhaps 8-10 servings’ worth, of decent, inexpensive, from-scratch vegetable or bean  soup in as little time as possible, preferably in less than 20 minutes all told, with as much help as a microwave oven can reasonably give (which turns out to be a surprising amount, so why not) and without relying on salt to build flavor. And I want it to taste good.

Mostly, I want you to be able to do that yourself at home without feeling like it’s too much work or time and too many steps to cook and eat fresh real food–particularly fresh, inexpensive bulk vegetables–on a regular basis.

If you like to cook slow (say, on the weekend), you can do the artisanal thing at the stovetop for an hour or two. But if you want to get done in a hurry without having to babysit your pots and pans, microwaving is a pretty good, mostly safe, and comparatively very energy-efficient way to go, if you play to its strengths. You can let the flavors develop overnight in the refrigerator (and they generally will) instead of cooking and cooking and cooking just to get to the point where the vegetables are cooked through and then cooking some more to get the flavors to meld.

Case in point: Jolliffe makes a Thai butternut squash soup for Stone Soup Foodworks that looks delicious on the newsroom interview–but she has to cook her onion base down for 40 minutes, and either roasts the butternut squash for an hour in a conventional oven or–this is what she did on camera–buys sacks of precooked and puréed organic winter squash from a local farm. Granted you can do that–in the US, we’d probably just open a can of packed pumpkin, which you can now get organic fairly cheaply in most places, especially after last year’s shortages at Libby’s.

butternut squash ready to microwave

butternut squash ready to microwave

I guess the decision rests on her storage accommodations for the soup truck. But if she were to use a microwave, she could cook a fresh butternut squash–a big one–in about 10-12 minutes and then decide whether to purée or chunk the flesh for her soups, maybe pan-roast and add some chunks to a grain-based salad as well. The cost would be lower if she has a good source of winter squash. Or she could stock up on fresh squash when they’re in season, microwave several at a time, cut them open and seed them, and freeze some of the cooked flesh for later batches. It’s the kind of shortcut that microwaving does best, and it would save her a lot of time and probably preserve more of the squash’s nutrient value as well.

She could also wilt a large volume of onions in a few minutes  in the microwave and then brown them. As I discovered when I made French onion soup for myself a few weeks ago, even though browning thoroughly still takes a while and has to be done on the stovetop, microwaving first really saves a lot of time on the front end because half the battle by regular methods is just getting the heat through the large open air spaces and the thick pan to reach the onions themselves.

Third step–she could mix everything together (maybe holding back the lemon juice), heat it in 5-10 minutes in the microwave covered, add the lemon juice and adjust flavorings, and it would be done, ready to meld in the fridge overnight. Would it not be as good or as elegant? Maybe not. But on the other hand, maybe it would, and it wouldn’t take so much electricity, propane, and stand-around time. It would probably be good enough.

The other consideration for microwaving as a real-food soup method is that for those of us at home, restaurant-style complexity isn’t the thing we need most, not if we’re eating the same soup at lunch for a week. A simple and versatile basic soup is easier to dress up different ways on different days, and a microwave helps you do that by the cup or bowlful.

Try this:

Basic Butternut Squash Soup

1. Microwave a butternut squash (big, whole, scrubbed, label taken off…) for 10-11 minutes on HIGH in a covered pyrex or similar casserole with 1/4 inch of water in the bottom. Cut it open, discard the seeds, scoop the flesh out and cube it.

2. Chop an onion and maybe a stalk or two of celery, wilt in a microwave covered 3 minutes (optional unless you have a really big onion) or in a frying pan with a little olive oil and a lid, then brown the onion and celery if using in the frying pan.

3. Add the butternut squash to the onions in the pan and toss to continue browning. Add some minced garlic. When it starts to smell good, take it off the heat and blend it in a food processor without liquid to start, then add water a little at a time until you have the thickness you want. Pour the soup into a big pyrex bowl, cover it, and microwave about 5 minutes on HIGH to heat through.

Variations (don’t do these all at the same time!):

  • Add thyme and/or sage leaves to the frying pan as you’re browning the squash with the onion, garlic and celery.
  • Same thing, with a small grating of nutmeg and a spoonful of sherry or white wine.
  • Swirl a spoonful of pesto into the heated bowl of soup.
  • Heat the soup first, then add a swirl of buttermilk or dollop of plain yogurt to it in your bowl, sprinkle on some herbs or cracked black pepper.
  • Grate some parmesan or cheddar into it. Or heat it up with a slice of cheese in the microwave and stir in the melted cheese. Or add a few crumbles of goat cheese (or just eat it on toast alongside…)
  • Add curry spices and some cubes of fried white cheese (halloumi, paneer, panela or queso fresco…)
  • Add ginger, microwaved apple chunks, squeeze of lemon and a little white wine (maybe 1/4 cup per full batch, or just a spoonful for a serving or two)
  • Add a swirl of coconut milk (the lite version would probably be best), a  pinch or so of curry powder and a little hot pepper, ginger and scallion. Maybe a small dash of low-sodium soy sauce.
  • Add crumbled veggie sausage (or regular, if you go that way) and some fennel seed, maybe a shake or two of hot pepper and a pinch of oregano or dried thyme.
  • Add fried or microwaved mushrooms and their broth.
  • Add smoked provolone or gouda, or eat it on toast alongside.
  • For Stone Soup’s Thai-style version–add stock infused with lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaves to the butternut purée, and stir in the flavor base, which is a mix of well-browned onion, tamarind paste, sambal oelek, grated ginger, and lemon juice. This version gets tricky because do you want a whole batch to taste the same? A little of these flavorings goes a long way–maybe make up a flavored stock-based sauce and add a little to your basic soup on the day. Or just add a dab of z’khug (cilantro-garlic-hot pepper paste) or sambal oelek, a squeeze of lime or lemon and/or a grating of lemon peel, and a little  ginger to your basic soup on the day you want that kind of butternut squash soup. No, it won’t be the same, but it’s a decent quick-fix and you’re not stuck with it for the whole week.
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