Nosh Box: Soup’s On


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Heugimja-juk (black sesame congee).

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Neck and neck with February for the year’s coldest month, January better personifies cold and damp. There’s one food that satisfies and warms the body and soul in the heart of East Bay’s winter. A cup or bowl of steaming soup is like a soft woolen sweater for your innards—and your outlook.

Soup vs. Stew—While definitely kindred dishes, there are some fundamental differences. First is the amount of liquid involved. Soups usually float their ingredients in the broth or caldo, while stews use minimum liquid to attain a successful braise.

With few exceptions, like stewed fruits, stews are eaten hot. On the other hand, there are traditional hot soups and cold soups—and a few, like Borscht, that can go both ways. Our focus this month is hot soups. They may be thin or thick. If the latter, they are known as potages.

Other commonalities—Both soups and stews are generally easy to make at home, store well, and for some innate reason, usually taste better the second day, after flavors have melded.

Stocks vs. Broths—Both of these clear liquids are based on long simmering. Stocks draw their flavor from bony parts, while broths extract flavors from meat and soft tissue. This makes bone broth an oxymoron. Despite the name, it’s technically a stock. Stocks and broths are often used interchangeably, forming the foundation of soups and stews, upon which other flavors are layered.

Classics from Around the Globe:

Chicken Soup—No other soup is as universally embraced as good old chicken soup, whether it’s abetting a cold or introducing a family meal. While some recipes require using chicken feet, a whole bird, chicken parts, or leftover chicken will do. Add water, aromatic vegetable, salt and pepper, then simmer.
If you’re not up for DIY, try the excellent Mexican version, caldo tlalpeño, by Chef Katy Smith at the new Puesto in Concord. Bone-in chicken simmers in a house-made broth, lightly spiked with smoky chipotle, then topped with queso fresco, tortilla crisps, and avocado.

Chowders—In popularity, seafood chowders have a leg up on corn chowder. The creamy styles involve milk products, while Manhattan chowder is tomato based. All include potatoes. If New England clam chowder is your thing, you’ll find outstanding examples at Quinn’s Lighthouse, Scott’s in Oakland and Walnut Creek, with a surprisingly hearty version at Alameda’s Pier 29 in Ballena Bay.

Gumbo—The word derives from the African word for okra, indicating the roots of this dish and its namesake ingredient. An excellent way to enjoy gumbo locally is to make it yourself. The best way to learn is from a New Orleans cookbook titled Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? This last term, a pan- or oven-browned flour/fat mixture, is one of two ways to thicken gumbo. The other is adding ground sassafras leaves, called file. Purists believe that gumbo without okra is like a tuna-melt without tuna.

French Onion—Immensely popular, and easily made at home, French onion soup is made with sliced onions that are sautéed slowly in a butter/olive oil combination until they are the color of dark brown shoe polish, then simmered in beef stock. A crostini topped abundantly with Gruyere melted under the broiler crowns this classic masterpiece.

DIY hack: Add a tablespoon of sugar and an ounce of Cognac or Brandy to help the onions caramelize.

Miso—A stock called dashi forms the foundation of this traditional Japanese soup. Next, red, yellow, or white miso paste is mixed in. Into that liquid base, multiple ingredients are added, like seaweed, sliced scallions, tofu, or dried fish flakes, based upon regional or seasonal preferences. It’s hot umami in a bowl.

Congee—Sometimes called jook, this Chinese porridge is the easiest to make among these soups. Boil one cup of rice (Japonica or Cal-Rose) in 12 cups of lightly salted water, until the rice breaks down into porridge.

This simple dish is embellished with condiments, like chopped scallions, parsley, cilantro, shredded chicken, spicy pork, dried shrimp, preserved egg, and a slew of others. Served for breakfast or as a late-night snack, it’s classic Chinese comfort food. In the East Bay, look for Congee at Shandong Restaurant on 10th Street in Oakland’s Chinatown.

Menudo—It was during the meat-rationed days of World War II, when I first ate solid foods. Then, offal varieties required no coupons. So produce from our Victory Garden shared the table with brains, tongue, sweetbreads, liver, kidneys and tripe. Perhaps that’s why menudo is my favorite soup.

Like Congee, this Mexican tripe soup is enjoyed as a late-night snack, when it’s believed to prevent a hangover. Served first thing in the morning, it’s believed to mitigate the symptoms. Unfortunately among soups listed here, menudo is the most difficult to make at home. To taste some of the best, Otaez on Webster in Alameda offers an excellent a la carte version daily, and a bottomless bowl as part of its Sunday buffet brunch.

One-Stop Hack—With two East Bay locations, Ladle & Leaf offers a fine cross-section of soup classics. Its lineup starts with “Grandma Mary’s Chicken Soup,” then runs through corn chowder, Boston clam chowder, tortilla soup, smoky split pea, and turkey chili. Visit either location at 1300 Clay St., in Oakland, or 2512 Bancroft Way, in Berkeley. What a warm way to welcome the new year!

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