Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Tribute Beans

You know that feeling when you are digging around in the freezer and come up with a frozen gem you had forgotten because it was there for 'way too long?  A mixture of puzzlement (what is that? when did I put it in there?) and triumph (wow, cool thing for dinner!). That's just how I felt when I unearthed a smoked turkey thigh that I bought 'way back in 2017 and forgot. I couldn't even remember where I purchased it until I read the label - El Cerrito Natural Grocery!

I also had some pinto beans from Rancho Gordo that were a gift from Ferrari-Carano vineyards last Christmas when we attended their holiday celebration with Cousin Jan. So, I put the beans to soak and the turkey to thaw, dreaming of dinner the next day.

And the day after that. And the day after that! I forgot that what looks like a small package of beans makes a boatload once soaked, so I had plenty for us and for our neighbor Doreen, who was suffering from bronchitis. 

I used as my template a recipe that came with the beans, a recipe dear to the heart of Don Carano, the founder of the winery who passed away last year. I like the idea of giving beans as a tribute to Don, don't you?

I did change up the recipe. Don't I always?

Smoked Turkey and Pinto Beans

2 cups dried pinto beans
2 cups water, or 2 cups of chicken broth, enough to cover (I used water)
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1/4 pound lean bacon or salt pork (I used lardons)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
4 fresh sage leaves or 1/4 tsp dried (I'm not a big sage fan, so I omitted this)
1 small hot red pepper, dried, with seeds removed (didn't have so I did a generous shaking of Cholula hot sauce instead)
1/2 tsp sugar
1 Tbs chili powder
1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce (didn't have, so used soy sauce)
salt and pepper to taste

*1 smoked turkey thigh, cubed off the bone (not Don's idea)

Soak beans overnight in cold water. Drain and rinse. In a medium pot, sauté bacon, onion, and garlic, Add beans and cover with water or chicken broth. Add 2 chicken bouillon cubes if using water. Add sage, red pepper, chili powder, sugar, salt and pepper. (*Here, I added my smoked turkey meat to cook along with the beans. It was already cooked, but I wanted it to share its goodness with the beans). Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes or until beans are tender. Add Worcestershire sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve with Italian sweet sausages, French bread, and Ferrari-Carano Zinfandel.

 So good, so deeply smoky and satisfying, so sustaining and warming were these beans and turkey that we ate them for a week and still weren't tired of them by the time we got to the bottom of the pot. The sauce that formed around them was perhaps the best part - I literally scraped the bottom of the bowl to get every drop. Goozle heaven!

Next time, I'll make half the recipe but, all in all, I think Don would have been pleased with his tribute beans.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Overture



Back home from Hawaii and enjoying the first really drenching rain of the season, I decided to do some laundry and to change out our holiday napkins and placemats for something cheerful and bright. Digging down through the drawer that holds our table linens, I came across these, a gift from My Beloved's daughter Sarah's semester abroad in France. To me, they speak of the bright skies and sunflowers that Van Gogh found when he moved south to Arles.

Sarah was a International Studies student at the University of Oregon in 1997 when she elected to spend a semester during her Junior year in Provence. I admit to a teensy flash of raw envy when she would email her accounts of the wine tasting class she was taking and the relaxed and sunny time she reported having in Aix-en-Provence. Not a bad location for foreign study, huh?

Sarah started college a year before her parents divorced, and both she and Katie were kind to me but understandably a bit aloof when I came into his life around the same time. We had what I'd call a cordial relationship from the get-go, but a year later when Sarah brought us these beautiful placemats, I took them as an overture of true friendship; she knows how much I love setting a pretty table.

After she graduated and moved to Boston, she started her career, met Mr. Right, married, had two beautiful children, lost her mother to cancer, and moved back to the Bay Area, all in what seems in retrospect like a whirlwind, but really was about 10 years. Through all that time, whenever we used her placemats, I got a warm feeling as I decorated the table with their bright patterns. The edges are a little frayed these days but I won't give them up until they are so thin and threadbare that they no longer protect the table. They have meaning for me.

Thank you, Sarah.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

One Paddle, Two Paddle, Three Paddle, for to take me home...


There’s nothing like a visit to one’s childhood home to evoke a zillion memories. Hawaii is that place for me. I spent only two years there as a child back when Hawaii was a Territory rather than a State, ages six to eight, but it was the first place in our vagabond Navy life that really felt like home. Later, I spent six years there as a young adult. It is still, almost fifty years later, my heart’s home.

Imagine the delight of a six year old child who moves by car, Pullman train, and steamship from Washington, DC to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Greeted with flower leis. No more closed shoes. Warm rain in which to paddle. No more jackets. Open air classrooms. The swimming pool not two blocks away. No restrictions on where I could go in our little neighborhood, protected as it was by snappy Marine guards. So many kinds of freedom!

And the new flavors!  In those days, pineapples came right out of the fields, deftly peeled and sectioned with the same wickedly sharp machetes that lopped them off the plant, and dripping so much sweet juice that I have never again tasted such good ones.

Teriyaki sticks were made of thinly sliced ribbons of beef, slalomed onto bamboo skewers, marinated in a salty, tangy shoyu/ginger sauce that was looser and less sweet than today’s, then grilled on an hibachi. I need to experiment to reproduce that flavor!

Li Hing Mui dried fruits puckered our lips while sending sweet messages to the brain, a compelling whipsaw for the tastebuds. My sister Nancy loved Li Hing flavors, although she claims not to remember them now.

A beach day out at Makaha meant a long drive in our Oldsmobile, a picnic lunch packed meticulously by our mother, a soak in the sun for my already brown body, a swim in water of uncountable shades of blue and green, and the long, sleepy ride home. Sandy, salty and hungry as we always were, the usual stop at Tastee Freez for a cone was enough to have us all asleep in the back seat of our two-tone gray Olds sedan. I imagine that was blessed relief for the parents up front.

These and many more memories flood me when I visit these Islands, especially Oahu. Today, I visited my parents’ grave in Punchbowl, remembering all the years we were lucky enough to have them around. Dad has been gone almost twenty years and Mom nearly thirty. Tomorrow, we fly back to California where we live now, leaving behind this magical place that still means freedom and “ohana” (family) to me.

One of our last nights, we had dinner in Honolulu's Chinatown where there was a live Hawaiian singer, complete with guitar and muumuu. She had a clear, vigorous voice, and was asking for requests. I asked for an old favorite, Kui Lee's "One Paddle, Two Paddle" and she had me in tears with her sweet, sad version.

"One Paddle, Two Paddle" by Kui Lee.
One paddle, two paddle, three paddle, for to take me home. Fourteen on the right, fourteen on the left. Take me to Hawaii nei. 
I went away a long time, such a long time, a long time ago. Seen enough cities to last a lifetime, goin' away no more.
One paddle, two paddle, three paddle for to take me home. Fourteen on the right, fourteen on the left. Take me to Hawaii nei. 
I want to smell the flowers, sweet sweet flowers.
Where the trade winds blow. Seen enough fences to last a lifetime, goin' away no more.
One paddle, two paddle, three paddle for to take me home. Fourteen on the right, fourteen on the left. Take me to Hawaii nei.




Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bread and Safety Pins



My Facebook feed is full of angst these days - all my progressive friends are filled with justifiable fear for the future under Donald Trump, and all the conservatives I know are scornful in their tone regarding the progressives. Both sides seem surprised by the outcome of the election - the progressives stunned and the conservatives gleeful.

As usual, I'm somewhere in between. I always feared that Hillary's long history in this country would overcome her obviously superior qualifications. I am aware that, despite great progress in women's equality during my lifetime, many Americans are not ready for a woman president yet, and that idea was borne out. So, I was not as surprised as some, although I was deeply disappointed and honestly baffled that anyone would vote for a man whose campaign rhetoric was uniformly negative, scornful of norms of polite discourse, and openly misogynistic, hateful, and frightening. I'm sad to say that white privilege and male privilege are safe in this country for the foreseeable future.

And I am in mourning for the upcoming loss of the best President of my lifetime. President Obama and his family have been so superior, have shown us how true gentlemen and ladies behave, have been so human and so lovely - I will miss them very, very much. As Mrs. Obama said, "When they go low, we go high." That philosophy has pertained to international as well as domestic affairs, and I have admired them during what had to be a very tough eight years of their lives. 

Like so many of my friends, I'm trying to decide what to do. I'm not one to take to the streets with protests - I'll leave that to those who lean in that direction. My protests will be quieter, and will probably take the form of sending donations to fight the ugliness I see coming, calling my congresspeople to let them know how I feel on various issues as they come up, wearing a safety pin when I go out to signal that I am a safe haven for anyone who needs one, and trying in some small way to understand the anger that ushered Trump into office.

When I'm in need of comfort and reassurance, I turn to things I know I do well. I make soup, usually hearty soup that warms from the inside out. I make dates to get together with friends who understand how I feel, people I can trust and with whom I can explore my ideas, people who will gently set me straight if my thinking is faulty. And, I will bake bread. I fall back on baking bread, good, sturdy bread such as the one I ate as a child. 

My mother always bought Pepperidge Farm bread - not the mushy nonsense that goes under that name today, but a firm, solid loaf that was so dense it could be sliced in half lengthwise, making a sandwich from a single slice of bread. It came wrapped in a thick, white waxed paper with the name and logo printed in red; this was well before plastic bags came on the scene.

When I was a young newlywed, one of my wedding presents was Margaret Rudkin's wonderful Pepperidge Farm Cookbook. Illustrated with colorful drawings and packed with homey recipes, it is still a favorite of mine nearly fifty years later.  Her recipe for standard white bread is that exact loaf that I recall from my childhood and, to my mind, it can't be improved upon.

So, today for the first time in a long time, I got out my flour canister, searched through my kitchen drawers for packets of yeast, and heated my oven. These days, I have a warming drawer, so proofing the bread is no longer an exercise in dodging drafts; I just slide the bowls into the drawer, cover them with my favorite dish towel like a baby being put to bed, and pull the dough out an hour later, plump and high and already smelling of comfort.

Punch it down, knead it again, shape it into loaves, and back into the warming drawer. My loaf pans are dark mahogany brown from all the years of use and they almost don't need lubrication any more, as they have a rich patina from all the loaves that went before. I have six pans so I could make six loaves at a time and freeze some. Today, I only had yeast for four. So be it.

I will wrap them snugly and freeze most of them for the days ahead when I need that solid reassurance of well made bread, full of old fashioned goodness. In the meantime, I'll keep one out to slice and toast and spread with the richness of butter. In times like these we look for the comfort of safety pins on people's collars and homemade bread to fuel our protests.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Can't Call It Carbonara


Last night, I made a delicious new (to me) dish that I can't call carbonara, because it's not, but it's a close cousin. 

Speaking of cousins, I have a few. Some are close in space or heart, like Jan and Sherry, Ted and Linda. Others are more distant, both in space and in heart, but probably just because circumstance has precluded our getting together much to build our friendship. Close cousins are the next best thing to siblings; they know you, your history, and your preferences well, but they are less likely to tease than actual siblings. Cousins are cool.

My very favorite cousin, of course, is My Beloved. I had always admired him, even when the three years of age difference between us as kids seemed an insurmountable barrier to friendship. He was one of the "big kids" for a long time. But, in our college years, that barrier melted away and we grew close even before we fell headlong in love.

Our love affair took a 25 year hiatus, thanks to parental disapproval and genetic fears back in the bad old days before we knew much about such things - all we knew was that the kings and queens of Europe that married their cousins often lived to regret it, or their offspring did. So, with many tears and a three-year mourning period, we separated for the childbearing years.

There is good news in this story, too. We both found spouses to love and admire, and had long marriages to them, although ultimately those relationships faded. My Beloved and his wife raised two terrific daughters, the mothers of our three delightful grandchildren. My first husband and I didn't have children, but we were a good uncle-and-aunt combo.

After those relationships had run their course, odd circumstance brought My Beloved and me back together and the result was as electric as when we were young. The rest is delightful history: when it's right, it's right.

But, I was talking about pasta, not partners, when I got distracted. My Carbonara Cousin did have pasta, egg yolk, and lots of pepper, but it diverged from the carbonara canon when I substituted flat noodles for spaghetti, Swiss chard for peas, and added mushrooms and (gasp!) cream. 

We loved the richness of the egg yolk, cream and bacon paired with the slightly astringent Swiss chard, plus garlic, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese to give it funkitude. It was a match made in heaven, just like mine with my own sweet cousin.

Can't Call It Carbonara

4 strips thick cut bacon, preferably Nueske's, cooked and coarsely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
6-8 mushrooms, quartered
Black pepper
1/2 cup half-and-half cream
1 bunch (about 8 leaves) Swiss chard, ribs removed and coarsely chopped
1/2 package of wide, flat noodles
1 egg yolk, whisked with a fork

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated.

In a big pot, heat salted water to boiling and cook the pasta according to pasta directions. While that is proceeding,

In a wide frying pan, cook the bacon over medium heat, but don't crisp it. Removed to paper towels to drain. In the same pan, pour off some of the bacon fat, but keep about 1 Tablespoon.

Sauté the onion and mushrooms in the bacon fat until the onions are translucent (about two or three minutes), add the garlic and cook, stirring for a few extra minutes. Grind in lots of black pepper to taste - be daring! Return the bacon to the pan.

Add the Swiss chard and cook together, stirring occasionally, until it wilts and gives up a little moisture to the pan (mine were red chard, so the juices became pink). Add the half-and-half and mix thoroughly, then remove from the heat. Count to twenty before adding the egg yolk and stir immediately to blend with the pan sauces.  (If you don't wait, you may scramble the yolk instead of lending its silkiness to the sauce).

Drain the pasta and stir it directly into the pan, mixing until it is evenly coated. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese to grate over the top.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Kind Of Art


I got a little carried away by the all the colors in our latest tagine attempt - all those oranges and purples and pinks! I'm getting a big kick out of combining different ingredients in the tagine to find out which work best. It's almost like composing an artwork when the colors are so bright. Having zero artistic talent, myself, I need to rely on vegetables for my fun.

I tried a few new things this time - cooking the rice right along with the meat; adding a new mix of spices; adding radishes to my usual carrots; pairing the sweetness of carrots and shallots with the tingly tartness of Meyer lemon, rind and all. So each time I assemble one of these, all kinds of possibilities are bouncing around in my mind.

What emerged from the tagine after 90 minutes, the last 30 of which were filled with intoxicating scents wafting out of the pot, was a huge success. If I do say so myself. Which I do.

The shallots became sublimely sweet and slippery-tender. The chicken hidden underneath was funky with spices. The radish retained some of its color and added a little hint of that indefinable radishness. The carrots were mellow but not mushy. And the rice!  Oh, heavens, people, I could have made a meal of just the rice and still have wanted to spread it on my body. Orgasmic rice! No kidding.

So, here's what I did - I'll be interested to hear your ideas on what else would go well into the magic tagine.

Sunburst Chicken Tagine

4-6 chicken thighs (bone in or not - this time, mine were skinless and boneless)
1 teaspoon each of ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger, sweet paprika, and allspice (this may seem like too much spice; it's not! Load it up!)
salt, pepper
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 4" chunks
1 onion, chopped coarsely
1 cup rice (I used brown jasmine rice)
2 cups chicken stock
4 large shallots, peeled but left whole
l or 2 large watermelon radishes (or regular radishes, a handful)
l Meyer lemon, sliced into 8 wedges (you could use a regular lemon, I'm sure)

Green beans (optional)
A handful of mushrooms, washed and left whole (optional) (I used brown ones)
Pistachios or cashews (optional)

Start the tagine on low flame (only for ones that are rated for stovetop use), and pour in 1 Tablespoon of the oil. Add the spices and s&p, whisking them together to make a slurry. Dredge the chicken pieces in the slurry, turning to coat, then set them aside. 

Add the other tablespoon of oil and soften the onions before adding the rice. Toss the rice in the slurry until grains are coated, then add the chicken stock and stir. 

Add the chicken pieces back in and place all the vegetables and the lemon wedges, except the mushrooms, green beans, and nuts, on top of the chicken. 

Cover and simmer for about 90 minutes. When the tagine starts to smell as if it dropped straight from heaven, add the mushrooms and green beans to cook for the last 20 minutes or so, until the beans are still bright green but tender.

Fill the plates with a little of each of the ingredients (especially that killer rice!) and sprinkle with the nuts for texture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ramping Up


We had such fun with our demure little tagine that when we saw a splendid big one in a super fancy kitchen store, we swallowed hard at the price but shelled out the shekels for this lovely big rust red one. I had dreams of cooking once to eat twice - always a bonus! - and of using larger cuts and vegetables. We are ramping up!

There were, serendipitously, lamb shanks at my local market, conveniently cut in two. What could be nicer? I loaded the tagine with all kinds of things that lamb loves (thyme, garlic, lemon), put on the lid, and set it on top of the stove; this new tagine works either on the stovetop or in the oven.

What emerged 90 minutes later was really tasty, but I must admit that it was even better the second day. The artichokes all but fell apart, the olives were as wrinkled as a little old man, and I didn't even have to peel the butternut squash - the skin yielded to "low and slow". And the leeks!  People, those leeks were worth it all by themselves. They were soft and sweet and limply heavenly.

If I did this again, I'd likely swap out the butternut squash for kabocha, as it is firmer and sweeter, but the squash improved the second day when we ate it, bite for bite, with some of the lemon peel. And the crisp nuts gave the whole dish texture and salty interest.

Everything was infused with the garlic and Meyer lemon that I added as perfume, plus the herbal/spicy notes that wafted up from the bottom. Oh, baby.

I'm pretty sure you could do this without the tagine, if you don't have one, but if I were you, I'd hurry out to get one. 

Lamb Tagine

2 lamb shanks - ask the butcher to cut them in half crossways.
2 leeks, carefully washed and toughest leaves removed
1 large artichoke, quartered and fuzz removed
1 small squash, sliced about 2" think and seeds removed (I used butternut but I think I'd try kabocho next time)
A handful of olives (I used calvestrano)
1 Meyer (or regular) lemon - squeeze the juice in, then cut the lemon into slices and add those to the pot, peel and all.
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 or 4 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed (or to taste - I'd add more next time)
Dried thyme to taste
Salt, pepper
About 1/4 to 1/2 cup water

A handful of salted cashews or shelled salted pistachios.

You could brown the lamb shanks before hand (and I think that would be an improvement), but I didn't this time and the meat was still tender and tasty.

In the bottom of the tagine, add the olive oil and heat over low heat. Add the garlic and thyme. Salt and pepper the lamb shanks and add them to the bottom. Pile the other ingredients on top, positioning the things that take longest to cook at the bottom and layering the rest in order of cooking time, ending with the things that take the shortest time. Pour in a little water.

Put on the lid. Over very low heat, cook for about 90 minutes. 

Sprinkle with the nuts to add texture to the dish. Serve with the goozle that forms in the bottom of the tagine, plain or with rice or couscous. The artichokes are great dipped in the goozle.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Friendsoup


My next door neighbor and I have been trading food all winter - I'd give her the rest of a stew or soup, and she'd refill my bowl with something she made when she returned it. That way, neither of us gets tired of our "creations," and we get each other's opinions on the dishes. She is cooking for her elderly mother who has a tiny appetite to go with her tiny frame, and I am cooking for a "variety guy" who, while he is generally easy to please and hugely lovable, doesn't enjoy leftovers very much. Nice for us both to have a friendly way to pass along the extras.

Hard to believe this is the same neighbor we so resented when they first built the house next door about 10 years ago. I had wished I had the money to buy the vacant lot myself, to preserve the hill full of wildflowers, to keep the line of weedy trees that reached up to the window behind my desk where I could watch little birds flitting through at eye level while working at my computer, to retain the steep hillside where the neighborhood children slid down on flattened cardboard "sleds," screaming with exhilaration.

Instead, we got months of dirt and noise from the building site and a wall that rose up higher than our house not ten feet from our windows. No wonder we were resentful! It bugged me so much that finally I had to put my anger aside or let it eat me up. I went next door and asked for a tour of the house, so I could learn to love it.

I have to admit that I didn't learn to love it right then, nor for several years afterwards, but I did come to a place of acceptance. It improved when our neighbors added some screening vegetation on their decks and assented to preserving our view of Mt. Tamalpais by repositioning a trellis on their side. 

Slowly, over the years, small gestures of friendship were made, first by them, returned by us. When Peter was diagnosed with cancer, we reached out to help with drives to treatment and securing a place on the Peninsula when Peter had to stay down there for a month of serious chemotherapy. Peter passed away about five years ago.

But, maybe some good came out of all that, as we grew closer to his widow, Doreen, during and after that time. And, again, very slowly, we became better neighbors and, finally, good friends, taking care of each other's dogs or picking up packages when we were on vacation.

This week, Doreen gifted us with a hearty minestrone that she clearly put a lot of work into. The broth was rich with tomatoes, and the legumes and vegetables gave it interest and texture. And, it was doubly welcome because our furnace blower died this week and we were bundled up with socks and extra sweaters while we awaited the correct part arriving from the furnace guy.

Now, one can't really complain too much when a blown blower means only that the temperature in the house plunges all the way down to 60 - where I used to live in western New York state, this would have been a much more serious situation in early April. But, we are California wimps, and proud of it, so we have to kvetch at least a little.

Doreen said, when delivering the soup, "It's just okay," but we thought it was much better than "okay," especially when we grated a little fresh Parmesan over it and spooned up the resulting garden ambrosia. I'll happily accept her friendsoup any old day, even now that the furnace is happily humming again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Learning To Ride


My Dad taught me to ride a bike. I had been on a tricycle, then a bike with training wheels for some time, but he thought it was time to ditch the safe way and fly. I can’t count the number of times he puffed along beside the hand-me-down bike I got when my older sister grew out of it, steadying the seat with one hand and the handlebars with another, calling encouragement as I wobbled along the sidewalk shrieking with a combination of heady exhilaration and sheer terror.  Then, on the next exciting try, I felt an extra push from behind to get me up to cruising speed and I AM DOING IT, DADDY!  I’M RIDING! I’M RIDING!

Of course, I fell off trying to stop, but he picked me up and brushed me off, commiserated over my scrapes and put me right back on. That time, I remembered that one pedaled  backwards to stop the bike. The seat still bumped me in the back when I slowed enough to hop down, but that was minor compared to the flush of achievement and pride. I was officially a big kid.

It was like that all through my childhood and adolescence. My Dad was always urging me to do things I was afraid to try, gently but insistently showing me the way. When I was about eight and all the other kids were jumping or diving off the high board at the pool, I was only comfortable with the low board. Somehow, he knew that I had a secret longing to be brave like the other kids, so he made a deal with me. “I’ll catch you when you jump,” he promised. “I’ll be there to make sure you’re okay.”

And that dear man treaded water underneath the high board for at least forty-five minutes, shouting encouragement up to me as I stood shivering with my toes curled over the end of the board and my heart in my throat. He even had to take a rest for a minute on the side of the pool and he warned, “I may not be able to do this much longer!” Finally, looking down - ‘way down! - into his warm, brown eyes, I screwed up my courage and HUGE, RIPPING SPLASH! I surfaced to his wide grin - “You did it!

Actually, he did it. All through boyfriends and algebra and hairdos and college applications and first jobs, his encouragement and gentle prodding were what spurred me to achievements I might not otherwise have even tried. So much easier to wail, “Daddy, I can’t” than to put some honest effort into learning something new.

He wasn’t always successful - my hairdos were never very stylish (they still aren’t) and I never did get the point or the practice of algebra - but he always assured me “Of course you can!” and didn’t let me off the hook. 

Life keeps handing me challenges - finishing college and grad school, learning a whole new set of job skills, finding my way through a divorce when everyone in the family was opposed, establishing myself in a new locale with new friends and challenging financial concerns - and each time another one pops up, I’m back on that bike with Dad’s wisdom and strength behind me, still learning to ride.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Winter For Soups


This has been a winter for soups. Nearly every week, I have made broth from a roast chicken and devised some new take on an old theme - and each pot of soup has improved over the last one as I learned the tricks of the soup maker's trade.

The first and most important trick is, of course, the stock. No, you don't have to make it from scratch if you are short of time but, if you do, let it simmer long and low, hours and hours, to extract all the goodness from the bones. Really good chicken stock will actually jell when you refrigerate it to remove the extra fat that congeals on the top and is easily scooped off and discarded. (That's the second trick, by the way).

The third trick is that soup, like stew, always tastes better the second day, when the ingredients have swum around together in the broth and rubbed shoulders for a time. Like a high school dance, they need time to get to know each other and to become a real "thing."

Another bit of advice is to add fresh stuff to the soup as you serve it. Fresh things add texture and interest to what might otherwise be nursing home food. When I make chicken soup with a Mexican bent, I add cubes of avocado, fresh chopped tomato, slivers of lemon or lime, chopped cilantro, and tortilla chips in little bowls for people to add what they like. When I make "American style" chicken soup, I add frozen peas to the bowls and ladle the hot soup over them - just a few minutes in the soup is enough to thaw the peas and they add a wonderfully fresh touch.

My final hint is to add ingredients that are unexpected - you never know what kind of serendipity you might stir up. A good example is the coffee I added to the pot of Portuguese Bean Soup I made on the last day of winter. 

Coffee?? In soup?

Sure, why not!

It added such a nice, deep "belly" to the soup. I'm sure it would have been delicious even without the coffee, but I had just been watching my hero, Jacques Pépin, on TV and he told us that he never wastes anything so, when I was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast and had about two cups of coffee that we didn't drink, I opened the lid of my soup pot and poured it in.

Now, I wouldn't suggest that for chicken soup, but it worked like a champ with the spicy sausage in my bean soup. So, think about some interesting ingredients that you might add to your next potage. There's nothing like a big pot of soup to warm the cockles, to share with the neighbors, and even to freeze for the inevitable day when spring turns back into a winter for soups.

Portuguese Bean Soup, inspired by the soup we had at the Punahou Carnival in Hawaii one year.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 box of chicken stock, 32 ounces (or homemade if you have it)
8 ounces tomato sauce
salt, pepper
1 can black beans (or any beans, really)
2 andouille sausages, diced (fully cooked, smoked sausages)
1-2 cups black coffee (optional)
1/4 head green cabbage, coarsely chopped

Hot sauce to taste (optional)

In a large pot, sauté the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until the onion is clear. Pour in the chicken stock and the tomato sauce, add salt and pepper to taste. Add the beans, the sausage, and the coffee. (Andouille sausages are rather spicy - if you don't have spicy sausages to use, you may want to add some hot sauce to give a little zing to the broth)

Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for an hour or more. Let cool and refrigerate over night. To reheat, bring back to a boil, add the cabbage, lower the heat, and simmer until the cabbage is just transparent but still has some texture.