Well, I didn’t do too well this year, did I? Apart from the all-too-frequent rain checks and odd missed posts, I only made it through – what – five months of my 2016 project? And not even consecutive months! There were some good candidates among search terms, some I even had ideas about – “how to plate your benedict with coleslaw” was particularly rich for play: I wasn’t sure what the recipe would be, but the images would include famous Benedicts, well, plated… somehow… with coleslaw. You know, Arnold, Cumberbatch; it would be an amusing commentary on male objectification as well as fulfillment of my monthly quota.
Somewhere along the line, though, I couldn’t sustain. Some of the phrases were just too weird. Some would involve too much research, and frankly, time was a too-precious commodity this past semester. Most problematic, though, and also most concerning, was a simple creative block. I’m not going to say I got tired of cooking this year, but I did get a little stymied in creating new things. I found myself planning dinners that went back again and again to old, comforting favorites. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s hard to go on with a food blog when what you find yourself craving is breakfast burritos again, and then pizza again, and then tacos again. I have a list of food ideas, and I would scroll through them and think “these sound really good!” routinely, but when it was time to plan the week’s menu, somehow none of those dishes made it on.
Clearly, I want to do better this year. I thought for a long time about what this year’s project could be, since I think having a category to hem me in helps a lot (and was one of the difficulties with the “search terms” idea – no large, anchoring genre of food). I thought briefly about a year of cookies or a year of desserts, and then I got home from our holiday travels feeling amazed my clothing still fit, and decided that wasn’t a wise direction.
Ultimately, it was one of my Christmas gifts that made the decision for me: I’ve been making sourdough loaves for a while now, but haven’t done much else with naturally yeasted breads. Unwrapping Chad Robertson’s beautiful hardcover Tartine Bread presented an exciting challenge though, weirdly, what I’m choosing is not bread at all. Rather, as I leafed through the pages, I found myself thinking about what kinds of things I would make to go with bread, and the one that kept coming up – perhaps because Northern California, where we were, was chilly and damp – was soup.
Soup presents a good challenge for several reasons: first, and most glaring, summer. There are a few classic cold soups I can rely on, but it will take some creativity to get through the warmer months when curling up and letting the steam from the bowl swirl around your nose isn’t quite how you want to approach dinner. But soup is also both comfortingly fundamental and infinitely variable. It starts the same way – some kind of broth or other liquid fortified with a few choice aromatics and seasoning – but can go in so many directions twelve months won’t be nearly enough to investigate everything. The different sorts of broths alone that are readily available at the average grocery store present at least five or six directions. Soup is easily adjustable to most diet plans – gazpacho satisfies the urge to go raw – and can work as a light starter or a hearty main course, depending on how it is enriched. It is also, with only a little effort, an exercise in eating seasonally, not only in terms of heartiness, but in terms of vegetation: whatever produce is most recently tugged from the ground or snipped from the stem can easily become inspiration for a soup.
There it is, then. The idea was really consummated when I watched a recent episode of Top Chef, though, and one of the contestants made consommé (see what I did there? Consummated? Consommé? I could have gone with clarified too… words are fun). The clear broth and the simple, fresh elements he added appealed to me more than some of the fancier, heavier dishes put out by other contestants.
I have a few ideas for what I’ll make us as the months progress: there will definitely be some fiddling with cold soups, there might be a chowder or a cioppino – something fish or shellfish based – I’m contemplating a lighter, brighter split pea and ham (to dip fresh, warm bread into, of course), and I had reasonable minestrone with barley in it a few weeks ago that I might try to elevate. We will start with broth – certainly not the most innovative or interesting recipe (and to tell you the truth, barely a recipe at all), but a requirement and, I think, a secure starting point for our project.* I’m also happy – in fact I’d welcome the challenge – to entertain your ideas or requests, if you want to offer them up! What kind of soup do you want a recipe for? Feel free to leave an idea in a comment, or send me an email (I’m trying to be better about checking that this year too).
Welcome to 2017: Project Soup.
*And, if I’m honest, a tiny chance for me to get ahead of things before the semester starts…