Soup lady.

A few months ago I sent an email into the ether to inquire about making soup for the weekly crockpot roundup that is Soup & Bread. Though it was mid-January and I still felt relatively comfortable in my wintertide hermitude, I sensed a sort of preemptive antsiness from the burst of energy that would undoubtedly wriggle under my door around March, needing to be channeled into something. Anything, really. My calendar for 2009 was annoyingly sparse, and that simply would not do: What I needed was a few playdates.

As it turned out, the ether (Ms. Martha Bayne, in this case) wrote me back and gave me a crockpot on March 18. I now had two full months to work out some kinda wonderful brew. First I thought a subtle homage to the coming spring might be nice – new peas, maybe, or something with whitefish or asparagus. Or maybe something classic, like a sort of ultimate chicken noodle soup, or white chili. I consulted cookbooks, picked brains, slept on it, thought of past victories, had my palms read…

But then I thought of what I really just wanted to make – the things I would love to see in a soup, even if a recipe didn’t exist anywhere. Or, at least, anywhere that I had seen, which, with an aversion to written recipes on par with that of the old-schooliest, cheek-pinchingest, black-wearingest nonnas, I will admit covers a rather limited amount of territory.

I used to do a bit of painting, if you can believe it, and the canvases were never much more than a collection of somewhat-related colors I would blend with about a zillion continuous, circular brush strokes. See, I kind of lack the ability to convey proportion on paper (I can taste it, I can tell you about it, but I can’t quite show you), so subjects that existed in reality were out of the question. And all I really wanted anyway was to cover the canvas with colors I just wanted to see together – aesthetic matchmaking, maybe.

So this soup was along the same lines: I knew there were things I loved to eat, regardless of their context; I knew there were things I was obsessed with at the moment; I knew there were things I had sort of envisioned making but had never had a reason to concoct.

AND LO! It came to me in a vision:

  • Things I Will Never Not Love: Italian sausage; prosciutto; roasted garlic
  • Things I Was Sort of Obsessed With This Winter: kale; ho-made beans
  • Fantasies That Had Yet to Become Realities: using my cast-iron skillet for anything more than dirty fried eggs; a special stock tailor-made to a particular soup. Couture, we might say.

So I wrote out that list in some thought-catchall notebook, thinking I’d tweak the idea in the coming months and magically end up with something swish, yet familiar, yet refreshing and edgy.

Which this might have been, I don’t know. To me, the ingredients and methods were all familiar, I was just taking some things to a different level. I grew up with Italian-inflected, thrown-together soups and stews and casseroles and glorified winter-tastic goop-in-a-bowl, so in a way this soup was just a variation on other stuff I (and you, I might venture) had made for dinner once upon some Thursday night.

Okay. Except for the prosciutto stock. We are going to talk about this. I was straight JAZZED about the idea when it popped into my head, and trying to put it into some kind of at-least-halfway-usable practice was one of the more fun/badass challenges of my culinary life. I am fairly sure I was aboard a northbound blue line train one Sunday morning for a dominoes play-date with Rosellen and Eleanor when the thought of prosciutto bones drifted before me. (Because that happens all the time.) I had seen whole prosciutto in Italy, of course, and knew that the meat was hung by the narrow, bone-y end…

… So, of course, somewhere in there, there is a bone to be had. Right? (RIGHT, Ed?) But here in Amurikuh, not so much – or at least I hadn’t witnessed it. Just the comparatively more-modest hunks of it in the deli case for an immodest $35 a pound. So on my budding shopping/idea list for the soup I wrote, “Prosciutto bone?”

My mind roved all over the greater Chicago area and oulying suburbs, and I could think of a healthy handful of places that might be able to hook me up, or at least know someone/someplace that could. But then one Saturday morning, after brunch at Cafe Too with Jack, my quest came to a quick and conveniently-located resolution. See, what you didn’t know about Big Beet Saturday is that, after picking out a sexy bundle of beets, I trotted over to the Luscious and Expensive Shit Section (i.e. the deli counter) and asked the dude there about prosciutto bones. Furthermore, when I asked, “Hey, would you happen to have any prosciutto bones back there?” I said it in a tone that was really just code for “You and I both know this ain’t the kind of place that sells anything but the best and baller-est of smoked/cured meats, so what I’m really asking is if you’ve got a cousin somewhere who would have what I need.”

Instead, he answered that he didn’t have any bones, but what he DID have was “a few nice ends for about $4 a pound.”

Sold.

Yes, behold: That’s about two pounds of prosciutto. The end result of my soup labors would – ideally, and according to Martha’s request – yield about two gallons of soup, which meant I needed to end up with two big pots’ worth of soup, which meant I needed to start my stock by filling my (only) two huge pots with, well, this:

Okay, and some water, and then some black peppercorns and fresh parsley. Nothing special. (I have yet to convince myself that a full-on mirepoix makes enough of a difference in a meat-based stock to be worth dealing with carrots and celery, items which, in my mind, are too boring to just happen to have on-hand on much of a regular bases.) Though the idea for this particular stock was new to me, I wasn’t going for a paradigm shift in terms of flavor. This was not getting nailed to any church doors or defended in front of a soup-dissertation committee. This was, perhaps, the “close reading” of soup stocks: Nothing revolutionary, maybe a little populist – I cannot name anyone I would call a friend who does not love (or at least respect) a nice bit of cured meat – but certainly fulfilling on various fundamental and even theoretical levels. This stock would be the wise, whispering consiglieri in the unstoppable crime family that was to be My Soup.

So I let those things – the prosciutto ends, an onion, and about eight cloves of garlic – cook down slowly in m’skillet (two culinary dreams realized in one fell swoop! Weee!). The most important thing for me was to render a good bit of the fat off of the meat so I could reserve it and, YES, use it to flavor the soup later on. Once that was done, I put the meat & vegs into stockpots and did the damn thing. Two hours and, miraculously, roughly two gallons later, the stock was done. It was… pretty porky. (Yes, fine, you’re dying to say it, go ahead: That’s what she said.) This was just fine, I figured, since my vision had only extended as far as the ingredients and the procedure, so, not having any expectation in terms of flavor, I was really just pleased that it didn’t taste like this:

Okay, but freals: It was prosciutto stock. Certainly hammy, but with the, well, kick for which everyday prosciutto is beloved and which one might, when one feels honest and graphic and real about things (the same mood on which the rhapsodizing of really stinky cheese is generally predicated), describe as delightfully musty. Translation: You can’t make a simple soup from this stock. Too much of this stuff on its own will make you feel dirty, inside and out. And not in a good way. If it’s a brothy bowl of comfort you seek, go with chicken stock. However, if what you want is an extravaganza of meat and beans and kale and bean-water (oh yes I did, more in a minute) and onion and roasted garlic and parmigiano heels, the stock is a sexy, complex base from which to start. If this consiglieri was whispering, it was in a throaty southern Italian dialect and it was telling you things that made your eyes widen with scandal and glee.

(Incidentally, and to give you an idea of the strange effect this stuff seems to have on all who cross its path: I had coffee with a friend the day after I made this, and when I told him about it, his eyes got real big and I, also excited about my creation and apparently temporarily losing all grasp of irony and verbal awareness, offered enthusiastically: “Wanna come up and smell it?” He did.)

So a few days later, it was Soup Day. And without further ado, because I’ve exhausted all of us by weaving that tapestry of stock, I’m going to do my best to just hammer down a list of what I did, attempting to minimize anecdotal instruction. (I am not good at this, as you may have noticed.)

(Also, please remember that this was for 2 gallons of soup – that’s like 2 enormous pots – so you’d be advised to trim down the quantities if you were to try this in real life, which, of course, I heartily encourage you to do.)

Cooked the following in the cast-iron skillet, building layers in this order:

  • 2 pounds of Italian sausage, in casing. At first I was mildly miffed at Trader Joe’s for not having their lovely bulk sausage in stock when I showed up, but it was actually better using the casing as you might use a pastry bag – as a way to portion out small-meatball-sized bits of sausage. Okay, that’s a gross visual. And yeah, it was kind of gross doing it (in fact, I distinctly remember whining “eeeewwww” as I worked it into the pan), BUT: it was a great way to eliminate the risk of having itty bitty sausage bits at the bottom of a soup pot or bowl. You know those. They’re annoying.
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced. You may be thinking, “Gra, this is… not the quantity of garlic I would have pinned for two gallons of soup. Your soup, moreover. Your dishes tend to include roughly one clove of garlic per person. What gives?” And then I would say, “Settle down, tulip. More garlic to come.” Hehehe.
  • 1 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, roughly chopped and scattered about the pan. This just needed to get a little brown & shrivelly – not much time necessary.
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • salt & pepper

And did some other stuff:

  • Roasted 3 heads of garlic (there’s that extra garlic, sweethearts), let them cool, squeezed out the soft cloves, and mashed them with a bit of olive oil and salt to make a little paste. Set aside.
  • Took 2 cups of dried white beans, cooked them, drained them, and reserved the thick, flavor-packed cooking liquid.
  • Roughly chopped 1 large bunch of lacinato kale after removing pretty mich the entire rib. Normally, as you know, I’m cool with a bit of starchy rib in my kale, but since it was getting thrown straight into the soup at the very end of the cooking process, it would have been nigh on impossible to get it down to a soft/done enough texture. Na’mean?
  • Pulled my 2 little vats of stock out of the fridge, readied the small bowl of pan-bits/renderings I had saved from the stock showdown a few days earlier.
  • Plucked a couple of parmigiano heels from my freezer.
  • Got ready to rock.

And now, the assemblage! (Special equipment: immersion blender.)

  • Distributed stock equally between my two pots.
  • Dumped in beans and roasted garlic paste.
  • Blended about half the beans into oblivion.
  • Realized the broth needed more body; added all the bean water.
  • Dropped a parm heel into each pot. Let it simmer away for about 30 minutes.
  • Removed heels, emptied skillet of sausage, prosciutto, onions, garlic, etc into pots.
  • Stirred, tasted.
  • Added kale, watched it wilt. Grinned a little.
  • Stirred, tasted again.
  • Added salt, pepper, entirety of pan-bits/renderings.
  • Stirred, tasted again. Grinned a lot.

So it was done. I wanted to be able to take a picture of the finished product but, lookng at the clock, I realized I had roughly 10 minutes to change out of the disintegrating t-shirt I was wearing and into something less frightening. It was just about time to tape the tops onto my pots and get going to the Hideout, where five crockpots were being plugged in and fired up. There were hungry people to feed. And hoo boy, did they feed!

(As soon as I whittle this tome down into something that looks and reads at least bearably like a recipe, I’ll be sending it to S&B HQ to post. When that’s up, I’ll put up a link!)

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