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Maximum Flavor in a Minimal Broth

minimal carrot onion soup

My kid had the flu just in time for President’s Day (and both Friday and Monday off from school). How does this happen in a place where it actually hit 90 degrees one day??? How annoying! But her classmates had been catching it right and left all through January and coming back to school still iffy. She and I had both gotten the flu shot a couple of months before, achy arms and all. The prevention rate this year isn’t all that good; only about 23%. And people have naturally been grumbling if or when they catch the flu anyway.

But I’m still pro-vaccine, and here’s why: The minute she woke up with fever, I called and got an appointment with her pediatrician for that morning, no being palmed off on the advice nurse (or the muzak they put you on while waiting half an hour). When you’ve got a diabetic kid with flu, you take a deep breath, channel your Brooklyn-raised mother and elbow your way through to get seen before the kid has a chance to develop nausea and vomiting, which makes it trickier to manage food, insulin and so on safely. I mean, we’ve done it, it’s doable, and we’ll probably have to do it again at some point, but it’s a total pain.

Luckily for me, the pediatrician is also from Brooklyn and doesn’t take offense. She and the nurses had been run off their feet, and yet she was glad we got our act together early enough for Tamiflu to do some good, because the poor kid just ahead of us at the clinic was wobbling and actually fainted just as he got into the exam room. Five days his family waited and he had serious fluid in his lungs. So I stopped feeling selfish and stupid for bringing my kid in when she was mostly okay except for a fever. And I hope the other kid’s better by now.

So I wanted to pass this on: the doctor told us the best-bet recommendation is still to get a flu shot. Why? Because even though you might still catch flu, the severe hospital-level cases this year with pneumonia and worse, at least in Southern California, are turning out to be almost all unvaccinated patients. That’s a result you might not have expected. You need that insider perspective to see there’s a more serious benefit hidden behind the obvious numbers. And the serious cases are pretty bad. So if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, go get one now.

And my kid did indeed get better by the time school started up again, and my husband and I managed not to catch the flu from her, which was good, because with a snarky bored teen home on a 4-day weekend, the last thing either of us needed was to catch it from her just when she was finally back at school.

But we needed soup in a big way. And with a sick kid in the house I had less time to go shopping. I imagine (because we had the fluke 90-degree day, I have to imagine it or else talk to my poor mom in Boston) that people caught in the big snows back east also have these problems of limited shopping mobility, patience and scant last-ditch vegetabalia in the house. What did we have left that was soup-worthy?

Well…there’s always the can of tomato paste for nearly instant cream-of-tomato, which my daughter likes when she’s sick. The real cream-of-tomato, made with actual tomatoes, is more voluptuous but takes 45 minutes on the stove and involves baking soda to tame the acidity before you add cream, plus the use of a stick blender which I aspire to but don’t yet own. Tomato paste doesn’t have much acidity to start with, so you could just skip the baking soda and heat with milk instead of water if you wanted to. We generally leave milk and cream out and add a dash of vinegar to restore some semblance of tomato flavor.

–  –  –

Tomato Soup in the Microwave (AKA, “bonus” recipe for what it’s worth)

  • 1/2 can tomato paste (no recipe EVER specifies a whole can, as far as I can tell…must be some kind of culinary superstition, much like “the Scottish play”…so just scoop the rest into a ziplock baggie, squeeze the air out, and throw it in the freezer for next time…)
  • 1-2 c. water (enough to bring it up to the thickness you like best for soup)
  • small splash of vinegar, any kind
  • small clove of garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • pinch of cumin or thyme, optional
  • salt to taste after cooking
  • splash of milk or half-and-half, if you like it

In a microwaveable bowl, use a whisk or fork to mix the water gradually into the tomato paste until it reaches the thick-but-not-too-thick consistency you prefer for cream-of-tomato soup. Add the garlic, vinegar, and cumin or thyme, cover the bowl lightly and microwave 2-3 minutes or until heated through. If you want to add a little milk or half-and-half afterward, you probably could, just don’t add it and then heat or it’ll curdle from the vinegar (or leave the vinegar out to start with if you want it bland).

–  –  –

But down to business with the “not-chicken” vegetable broth. I’ve already gone about as far as I can go with bok choy and shiitake broth, up to and including hot-and-sour soup. Plus we didn’t actually have any bok choy left. Feh.

So the usual carrot-onion-celery not-chicken broth should have been next…but no celery either. Double feh. And no fresh dill–dry we had, but you know fresh makes a world of improvement. So it wasn’t looking all that good in the clear soup department this week. And I needed some for me, even though I only had a head cold and a bad temper and a sassy, feverish bored teen at home watching cartoons.

(BTW: if you luck out with a fresh bunch of dill that’s too big to use up quickly, wash the rest well, twist off the stem ends, stuff the dill into a ziplock sandwich bag with the air squeezed out and freeze it–it’ll stay good for a couple of months minimum, and you can just quickly crumble a frozen bit into whatever dish you want, then toss the bag back in the freezer. Or in Boston, just leave it out on the porch and rediscover it sometime in April.)

Normally I’d say onion and carrots alone aren’t enough for a soup; you have to have something else in there or when you add garlic it’ll just be about the garlic. Which is fine for me, of course, because my motto still seems to be, “If there’s no garlic, is it really food?”

True, the Italians have acqua pazza (“crazy water”), which is basically garlic broth. I think both Spain and France have similar offerings. But normal people might want something a little more complex or at least balanced.

My usual MO for vegetable soup and bok choy broth is just to microwave the base vegetables to wilt them and then bring them up with a bit of water, add garlic, herbs, and any other appropriate flavorings, and heat again. Pretty basic, and very quick–5 minutes, maybe 10 for a couple of quarts that will last me a week. But with such a limited vegetable base as onion and carrot, I was going to need something more.

So I scrounged again in the fridge. Carrots and a red onion…and a clove of garlic. A sprig of thyme–well. A little leftover white wine. Yes. OK.

It would all be kind of blah and pale, though, if I just dumped it in a bowl with some water and hit the nuke button. When you have so few main ingredients and they’re both boring when simply boiled or nuked, you have to strategize a little to get the best out of them quickly.

For example, both onion and carrot benefit from roasting (the arty too-long-for-me version) or pan-browning (the 5-minute impatient version)…so does garlic, for that matter.

A number of food journalists in recent years have decried the need for browning vegetables (and chicken or turkey carcasses, post-Thanksgiving) before bringing up with water to make good stock in accordance with tradition. Too much time, they cry. Or decry. Whatever. Flavor vs. time…in my highly impatient view of the kitchen, that’s got to be a false dilemma. I mean, they’re kvetching about 5-10 minutes of browning, yet prepared to boil everything to death in a pot for over an hour?

So…the obvious way to deal with browning à la SlowFoodFast is to wilt the vegetables first with help from your friendly local microwave–you knew I was gonna say it. Wilting the vegetables in the microwave means they’re already lightly cooked before they hit the oil in the frying pan, plus they’re slightly dehydrated. Result–the surface browning starts a lot faster. You can pan-brown them in maybe 5 minutes, maybe even less. If you really want them to start browning faster, squeeze a couple of drops of lemon juice on them in the pan and toss a couple of times.

The missing celery’s savory/bitter undertones are made up for surprisingly well here by the addition of thyme–be sparing with it; even dry thyme is pretty strong. One sprig or a decent pinch of dried thyme will probably do it. Some leftover white wine, if you have it, cooked down to dryness with the vegetables and herbs before you add water, binds the flavors nicely and gives the soup a little extra depth without being too acidic.

I actually ended up making two versions of this in a week, one with a cup of rinsed red lentils added in for extra body, one without. The lentil version I simmered in the frying pan with water rather than adding the water to the microwave bowl, so it took longer, 20-30 minutes to cook the lentils through and thicken, and as a result the carrots were a lot softer than in the clear version. Both were intensely flavored but still soothing. If you’re a garlic phobe, leave out the second clove (or use much smaller ones than mine!) and cut back on the minced garlic–I still think it’s worth having at least a bit in there.

roll-cut carrots and sliced onions

Cut the carrots by roll-cutting: start from either end, cut an angled bite-sized chunk about 2/3 the way through the thick end or all the way through the narrow end, give the carrot a quarter-turn, and cut the next chunk. The pieces don’t fly off the cutting surface and they come out basically even.

Intense carrot-onion vegetable broth (about 1 qt/liter)

  • 4 medium carrots trimmed and peeled, in bite-sized chunks (quarter-roll-cut as Martin Yan does if you know how)
  • medium-to-large onion peeled, in large dice or thin wedge slices
  • drizzle of olive or vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, one minced, mashed or grated, the other cracked lightly or sliced into at one end but left whole
  • sprig of thyme or good pinch of dry thyme
  • large pinch of dried dill or 2-3 T chopped fresh dill if you have it
  • up to 1/2 c leftover white wine if you have it
  • salt, pepper, lemon juice to taste at the table

Toss the vegetables with a teaspoon of olive or vegetable oil and microwave covered on HIGH for 3-4 minutes to wilt them lightly. Then brown them in a frying pan with a spoonful of olive oil for a couple of minutes. When the carrots and onions start to color, add the minced garlic and sprig of thyme and toss again for a few seconds, just until you start to smell the garlic cooking, no longer. Pour just a little wine on, a few spoonfuls maybe. Shake the pan and let it sizzle down to dryness and add a little more wine and cook it down again.You should see some brown residue on the pan itself by this point.

pan-browning microwaved onions and carrots

Put the vegetables back in the microwave bowl, add a little water to the hot pan and swirl around to dissolve the browning residue , and pour it over the vegetables in the bowl (this is called “deglazing” by the foodie types–you can show off by actually knowing how to do it and being thoroughly unimpressed by all the official terminology). Add the whole smashed or semi-shredded clove of garlic (can never have enough garlic!) and enough extra water to bring the bowl up to a proper quart or whatever of soup, and microwave covered 4-5 minutes to heat it through. Let it sit covered for half an hour to steep, and you’ve got it. You might want to discard the sprig of thyme for reheating. Crack some black pepper and add lemon juice and/or salt to taste at the table.


minimal carrot-onion broth with scored garlic clove

The browned vegetables make a richer stock when you bring them up with water. Add a scored clove of garlic to heat in the microwave.

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