When I was young, soup came from soup tubes. That is what my mother called the narrow cylindrical packets of dried grains that Manishewitz sold. I think we called them soup tubes because of the space program. I was born in 1958, and when the first astronaut went up into space, we were all so excited we did things a little differently. I put a strainer on my head and played at being Little Allen Shepard. My father searched the evening sky, claiming that he, with his eagle vision (his name was Adler, German for eagle), could see the bright dot that was the rocket in the sky. My mother called her soup mix “soup tubes” because in those days, astronauts ate their meals from tubes.
They were fascinating to me, these soup tubes. They were pretty. Typically my mother bought the ‘split pea and barley’ variety, and the layers of different pulses and grains were like sand paintings or those decorative jars of foodstuffs you seen in country décor or Italian restaurants. Of course, I tried to mix up the layers of green and yellow split peas, with the barley and rice by shaking the soup tubes as hard as I could, but my mother let me. It kept me busy, I guess. These soup tubes were the basis of a weekday family staple called “mama’s soup.” Mama’s soup was extremely hearty, guaranteed to “stick to the ribs.” It was comprised of 2 or 3 soup tubes, enriched with vegetables, chicken necks, turkey necks, gizzards, leftover macaroni, and whatever else my mother had on hand that was flavorful and looked better hidden by a thick coating of split pea.
Mama’s soup taught me a number of things. First, there was analysis. You had to eat slowly and carefully just to answer the question of “what the heck am I eating here?” Visually, a plate of mama’s soup looked like split pea and barley soup with unidentifiable lumps just below the surface. If there were marrow bones, they stood out pretty well, but the gizzards, necks, rice, lima beans, vegetables, potatoes, vegetables and whatever else all looked the same. So I learned to use ALL my senses, especially touch, with my tongue, usually, but sometimes I poked at the gizzards with my fingers when my parents weren’t looking. I didn’t mind the adventure of Mama’s soup, because it was sooo good, really very delicious.
I learned to love humble ingredients from Mama’s soup. Necks, bones and gizzards contain a lot of flavor. I really loved the chicken gizzards, which Mama always managed to cook to a wonderfully chewy texture. I looked forward to eating soup the next morning, because when it was cold, you could cut the soup up into pieces with a knife, lay the slice on a plate, and go looking for your favorite ingredients. My other favorite ingredient in Mama’s soup was chicken necks. These taught me about finesse and persistence. I would spend hours, it seemed, trying to get the meat off a chicken neck with a knife and fork. I could make a meal out of a chicken neck at age 7. My mother would leave me alone at the table and do the dishes. Eventually, I would get down to the bones of the chicken neck, and then I would actually use my fingers, when I thought Mom wasn’t looking, and that was WAY fun. Good thing I was young.
When we moved out of the South Bronx into the suburbs (Yonkers) of New York in 1969, my mother stopped making her special soup. It might have been that we had more money, and she didn’t have to stretch one package of soup with odd chicken parts. It might have been because she begun reading books from Prevention magazine press, and was discovering soybeans and kiwi (then called Ugli) fruit. It might have been out of concern for my manners. A young lady of 11 was not supposed to go around sucking on chicken neck bones. That was reserved for mothers when they thought their children were not looking.
My version of Mama’s soup is very different. It’s not as thick, I don’t use soup tubes, and I don’t use gizzards or necks, but I do use leftovers. In fact, since my family is not fond of leftovers, what they get instead is soup, and they love it. Go figure.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR SOUP FROM LEFTOVERS,
ALSO CALLED ‘FREEZER SWEEPING SOUP’
OR ‘VEGETABLE SOUP WITH MEAT’
OR ‘MEAT SOUP WITH VEGETABLES’
OR ‘VEGETABLE DUMPLING SOUP’
OR ‘MEAT SOUP WITH COUSCOUS AND RICE’
OR ‘SWISS CHARD SOUP WITH BEEF’
OR ‘SPINACH SOUP WITH ROAST CHICKEN’
OR ‘Thursday Soup’
Sautee one chopped onion in a Dutch oven or medium saucepan. This fools your family into thinking you are cooking something new instead of recycling food.
Eyeball the various leftovers you have in the fridge, because this will determine the other ingredients. Meat sauce and stew make for great flavor. If you don’t have that, use powdered chicken soup mix, or stock concentrate if you have it. A can of chopped tomatoes is good too. Once you know what you are putting in the soup, add the appropriate herbs and spices. I find basil, salt and pepper go with just about everything, but if you have a lot of leftover turkey, you can add sage. Thyme is good with an onion-rich mix of stuff. Nutmeg goes well with spinach and Swiss chard, and oregano goes with chopped tomato.
If you have stock in the freezer, put that in the mix, too. Add enough water to make 4 cups or so, and add the flavoring agent (soup stock powder or soup cube or concentrated stock or whatever) and mix to dissolve everything. Once that is done, add your leftovers. If soup is not thick enough, add chopped sweet potato, or some couscous, which cooks very fast, or a package of frozen spinach. Cook until everything in the pot is done.
For an extra treat, make “shlishkes” (free form dumplings, sort of like spaetzle, but larger)
2 or 3 tablespoons water
1 cup flour
Mix up these ingredients in a glass so you have a thick paste. Slowly tip glass so batter peeks over rim of glass, and use a butter knife to cut that crescent of batter off into simmering soup. Repeat until batter is used up. Shlishkes are done in about 3 minutes, so let the soup simmer for at least that long after you make the last dumpling.