Memories and stone soup

Originally published in the Herald Sun 5/12/2012

Stone soup with onion straw garnish.

Stone soup with onion straw garnish.

When I asked you to help me out by sending food stories to share, I mentioned a particular letter that was the catalyst for the request.
Right after the egg essay ran, Jo Darby sent me a note.
It was funny, sweet, and extremely well written. I wanted to share it with all of you.
So, in what I hope is the first of reader storytelling, here is Jo’s tale about her mom; a terrific cook, and my kind of woman.

“An Egg Story
We were poor when I was little but that didn’t ever stop my mom from trying to be creative with what little she had to feed us with. She died almost 30 years ago but her children still long for her rice pilaf. She filled our bellies with mostly rice mixed with a few token slivers of vegetables showing, but somehow managed to imbue that rice with a flavor that was subtle on taste and somehow fully fragrant to our hungry noses.
Her Spanish garlic soup was little more than a pot of water, garlic and olive oil. But so wonderfully tasty that we salivated like good little Pavlovian children when we walked in the door home from school and smelled what dinner would be.
One Easter she had the bounty of eggs given to her by a local farmer and she wanted to do something extra special with them. We wouldn’t have baskets or chocolates but By Golly she was going to do her best to delight us with an unusual treat. One of her friends had given her a book of French country cooking and she perused the pages slowly, deciding at last to poach them in wine (which was very cheap and plentiful from the bodega).
From our various spots in the house we inhaled the wonderful scent of garlic being gently heated in olive oil, we sniffed approvingly at the smell of toasted bread, the fragrance of simmering wine. Finally she called to us to sit down at the table so as to be ready for the eggs immediately they were done. Five children waited eagerly to see what she had wrought with the humble egg. Beaming, she brought our plates, setting before each one of us a plate of her latest creation.
There was dead silence as she took her place at the table. Perplexed she wondered aloud why her little wolves were not gobbling down the wonderful treat? We could not. We looked at each other, at our plates, at her. She must have known her error as soon as she made it in the kitchen but, food is food and would not be wasted. She must have been hiding her angst behind cheerful encouragement. Eat, she said.
With horror, we picked up our forks. Squeezed our eyes shut and tentatively raised the tiniest morsel to our mouths. Some of us managed to swallow, others cried, one of us gagged. Many years later, we would roar with laughter at the recollection of her French recipe of eggs poached in wine. Someone at the bodega made a mistake. Red wine was sent instead of white. When she poured the wine, imagine her surprise when the liquid going into the pan was deep burgundy. Her disappointment must have been profound. Just say Purple Eggs at one of our family get-togethers and see what happens. We still laugh until we cry. One of us still can’t eat eggs.”
Jo Darby

Debbie here again:
When I was a kid, I loved the story of Stone Soup. And elevating simple food is an obsession. Thusly, I was intrigued by the idea of the garlic soup.
After some thought and research, I came up with this version.
This is definitely a peasant soup, but there’s something in it we can all give to our food that money can not buy. Time and attention. And that is the component that can turn the other four (I cheated with six) ingredients into a golden, silky, bowl of poetry.
I made the garlic confit one day, and the pot of soup the next. You can portion out the actual creation of the soup. But time is really the key. If you don’t want to put in the hours, don’t bother. There is no way that the resulting product can be the same.
This soup takes a whole day to make correctly, but Jo is right. This stuff is what angels have for lunch, after they get done singing.
I can only imagine what her mother’s tasted like.
Thank you, Jo.
And for everyone else, thanks for your time.

Spanish Garlic Soup 2012 Edition

Garlic confit (recipe below)
1/4 -1/3 cup garlic oil (from the confit process)
1 loaf country bread, something rustic and crusty, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes, crust and all
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
3-4 cups water
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup heavy cream
salt & pepper

For the garlic confit:
35 (yes, 35) cloves garlic, peeled
4-5 cups oil (I used combo of olive and canola)
salt and pepper
In a very heavy large pot, put in garlic and cover with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and set on very low, just above warm. Cook slowly in oil until cloves are a light caramel color, approximately four hours. Cool, and remove garlic from your new garlic oil. You will have more than you need for this recipe, so put the excess oil into a container and refrigerate; it can be used for a gillion things.
In the same pot, toast the bread cubes in the garlic oil, a couple handsful of bread with a couple of tablespoons of oil at a time. This brown crusty goodness on the bread translates into tons of flavor.
When all the bread is toasted, put it all back into the pan, along with the garlic confit. Toss together a bit, and then deglaze with the wine.
When the wine is cooked off, pour in all the stock, stir, cover, and cook very low for about twenty minutes.
Uncover, stir, and add more water, because the bread will absorb it like crazy. Keep cooking slowly, and adding water until it is thick, but not too thick, like a cream soup.

Season with salt and pepper. Add and taste until the amount is correct, and an extra dimension of flavor is revealed, that will literally make you sigh. This soup is simple, so please don’t neglect this.

Cook for two or three more hours, and then either use a hand blender or a regular blender for it until it’s completely smooth. Stir in cream, check for final seasoning, and keep warm (but don’t let boil) until service.
Yield: one humongus pot of seriously yummy soup

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