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Pot of Soup

Soup's On

by John Raven, Ph.B.

Here we are just a couple of weeks away from spring. It will soon be time to get out in the yard and grill something but, while we still have the cool evenings, how about a big bowl of soup for supper?

Let's start by deciding what soup is. According to Mary Webster, soup is "liquid food with pieces of solid food in it". The food dictionary goes into a bit more detail. It says soup can be thick like gumbo or thin like consommé, smooth like bisque or tomato soup, chunky like chowder. Soup can be hot or cold.

I have often wondered what the difference is between soup and stew. After deep research I find that "stew" is anything cooked slowly -- "stewed".

In a category let's call Soup Under An Assumed Name, we have the ever-popular ragout which is "thick, well-seasoned soup with or without vegetables". Not to be confused with ragu, which is a meat sauce from Northern Italy.

We German Texans have a dish we call simply "stew" that is beef cooked with potatoes, carrots and onions. Our stew comes two ways, with or without tomatoes. It is technically soup, but we call it stew.

My mother frequently made stew (In our vocabulary you didn't "cook" something, you "made" something). Mama's stew always tasted the same no matter what she put in it. It was always good.

Stew Meat Mama's stew
Mama always used store-bought stew meat. This was usually the trimmings off chuck or round. It was in bite-size pieces and had a lot of white stuff on it.

The meat went in the stew pot with enough water to cover. The pot went on the stove and chopped onion was added. While the pot came to a boil, potatoes were peeled and cubed; carrots were scraped and cut up. All was added to the pot. Seasoning was salt and black pepper. The whole thing boiled slowly for a couple of hours and then it was stew.

Very few things were ever measured in Mama's kitchen. The approximate amounts for the above recipe would be:

  • 1 pound stew meat
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cubed into about 3/4-inch pieces
  • 3 or 4 carrots, sliced into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1 regular can of whole tomatoes (optional)
  • Enough water to keep everything covered
If it boiled down, more water was added.

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The stew was served with crackers or cornbread. If they were not available, plain white bread filled in.

New and improved Mama's stew (or soup)
My version of the stew is a bit more complicated, but it begins with 1 pound, lean chuck or round cut into 3/4-inch cubes, all fat and anything white removed

Season the meat cubes with salt and black pepper. Put into a plastic bag with a little flour and shake until all pieces are coated with the flour.

Sauté in a stew pot in shortening or oil of your choice until browned on all sides. Remove from pot and reserve.

To the pot add 1 cup fine chopped onion, 1/2 cup fine chopped bell pepper, 1/2 cup fine chopped celery. You may have to add a bit of oil. Sauté the mixture until it just starts to brown.

Add about a quart of water (or beef stock). Scrape the bottom of the pot until all the good stuff is floating. Put the meat back in the pot, and bring to a slow simmer. If you are going to use tomatoes, put one 15- or 16-ounce can diced tomatoes in now.

Now start adding the vegetables. If you are using carrots, put them in first since they take the longest to cook. Try to get the carrots in equal size portions. (I find the uniform baby carrots work well.) I also like to use red or new potatoes in my stew. The little red potatoes about an inch in diameter really look good in the stew, but if they are too pricy, just quarter the regular size. Peeling is optional, but if you don't peel, scrub them real good before use. Most any of the other potatoes work in the stew, but other varieties require peeling. Their cooking times will vary according to the type. Test with a fork.

Now we get into the optional part of my stew. You can put all sorts of stuff in there. I lean toward some coarsely shredded cabbage, about a half a small head.

Oh yes, right here let me caution you to start out with the largest stew pot you have. If you don't, you will have to move everything to a larger pot as ingredients are added.

Other things that go good in the stew are cauliflower, winter squash or summer squash, if you don't over cook them, greens like spinach or collards, green beans, corn, peas or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Once in a while I will add pasta or rice to my stew. The rice, no more than a quarter cup, goes in early in the cooking process. The rice will thicken it a lot so watch that it doesn't get too thick and scorch. Pasta goes in about twelve minutes before the end of cooking time. Remember: al dente.

If you have beef stock to use instead of plain water, it really improves the flavor of the stew. Optional seasonings are a pinch of basil, a tad of garlic, a pinch of cayenne or a few drops of Tabasco.

The stew needs to cook as long as it takes to get all the vegetables tender, and then give it another 30 minutes or so. You don't have to worry about timing as you can set if off the burner and reheat it as needed. This stew also freezes well for future cool evenings. You are going to make more than you can use at one sitting so preserve the rest.

Where's the chicken?
I am aware that we have many chicken soup fans out there in Texas Cooking Land. Here's my slant on boiling the bird.

First of all, we boil the whole bird in seasoned water. Use celery, onion and carrots along with black pepper, and maybe a little sage for seasoning the water. When the bird is done, remove it from the pot and let it cool. Simmer the stock until it reduces by about one-third. Take the stock off and strain it through a fine mesh. Let the stock cool and then put it in the icebox in a suitable container. In a couple of hours all the fat will have hardened on the surface of the stock, and you can skim it off and dispose of it.

When your cooked chicken has cooled enough to handle it, pull off all the skin. Then pull the meat off the bones. If it doesn't come off easily, you didn't cook it long enough. If any of the pieces are too large for the mouth, cut them up. Make sure none of the gristle or small bones get in your pulled chicken. Put this in the icebox for a while.

Now we go back to the stew pot and sauté onion and celery in a little oil. Add your non-fat stock to the pot. Put in whatever vegetables or such that you desire. Cook them until done. You may have to add a little water or chicken stock, but you know how to do that. When everything in the pot is done, put the reserved chicken parts in and heat through. That's all there is to it.

Fish or seafood soup/stew
In my community, which is about 300 miles from the sea, we knew that God did not intend for us to make stew or soup out of things that swim.

Raven's Butterbean Soup
Start by cooking chicken and making the broth as in the chicken soup recipe.

The night before, put one pound of large butter beans in a pot and cover with a couple of inches of water and let soak overnight.

Next morning, put your stock in the pot along with the soaked beans that have been drained of the soaking water. Bring to a slow simmer and let simmer until the beans are tender. If things start boiling dry, add water or some more stock if you have it or canned chicken broth. Mash a few of the beans against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon to thicken the broth.

Stir in about two cups of cubed potatoes. When the potatoes are fork tender, add your chicken that you have separated from the carcass. Adjust your seasonings. Simmer until the chicken is heated.

As with all my recipes, nothing is written in stone. Experiment, substitute and just do what feels right. That's what makes a good cook.

See ya next time.

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