Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nuclear Soup

This time of year a lot of attention is paid to putting up fruits and vegetables for the winter. Since I live in southern California with its year-round growing season, it doesn't seem quite so crucial, although the nesting impulse is always there that makes me want to put things back for a harsh season that just never seems to materialize out here in the land of endless summer.

No, now that summer is winding down, it's about time to pull out the stockpot and make chicken and beef stocks. It's great having both in the freezer--along with a bit of demi-glace--for making great soups, stews and sauces during the coming months, especially when holiday cooking time rolls around. But I employ that giant stockpot for another reason--to make what we in our household call "nuclear soup."

Looks mild mannered but it packs a punch!

Nuclear soup has no set recipe. Essentially, it is a chicken and vegetable soup that includes grain--sometimes barley, sometimes brown rice, sometimes something else--and that's loaded with as much garlic, onion and cayenne pepper as I dare put into it. This stuff is purely medicinal. Whenever one of us starts to sneeze, cough or feel the familiar malaise that signals the impending arrival of a winter cold or infection, we thaw some nuclear soup and shovel it in. It has the power to loosen the tightest head cold and ease and warm the passages from skull to chest.

I don't know if there's any hard science behind it--although for many years garlic has been touted as Russian penicillin--but I just know what happens when one of us eats it while we have a case of the winter miseries. Or the summer miseries--my husband, Andy, is suffering with a summer cold right now, which feels particularly bad when the temps reach into the 90s.

We're out of nuclear soup, so I just popped out for some chicken to make a new batch, enough to last us through this cold and, I hope, through several more. Each batch is different, depending on what's on hand, but I prefer to base the soup on lots of dark chicken meat, because it has better flavor and doesn't dry out. Sometimes I use a whole chicken, so I get the stock-enriching benefits of the carcass. I always have carrots and celery to go with the onion and garlic. Today I'm adding fennel and leeks, because they're languishing in the veggie bin, and farro, because I have a new bag of this grain and I've never made soup with it before. Sometimes I toss in potatoes, parsnips, turnips or rutabagas. As I said, whatever is on hand will do (well, maybe not gummy bears or miniature marshmallows!). I'll also add a fistful of fresh herbs from the garden, just to jazz it up.

The idea isn't to kill the person you're trying to nurse back to health, so I try not to get stupid when it comes to the cayenne, but rather I seek a balance between reasonable and bold. As for the smelly stuff, I typically use one large onion and one full head of garlic, sliced or minced.

It's possible to make nuclear soup so that it's both tasty and health restoring, so I do taste as I go. Once when Andy had a particularly bad cold and his head was completely blocked, he started into a bowl of nuclear soup, and by the time he was halfway through, everything opened up. After an extended nose-blowing session, he resumed his meal and then said, "Hey, this tastes good!"

And so it should. Being sick is punishment enough without having our tastebuds dulled by whatever it is that's responsible for such evil.

Soup's on, and Andy's home, so it's time to feed him and burp him and put him to bed.

No comments: