Growing up, we had a cookbook called something like, “Some of the Best Cooks Live in Stanislaus County.” It was bound 8-1/2 x 11 with a white cover, with some sort of blue artwork. I’m pretty sure it was produced as a fundraiser, back when producing such a thing required a tremendous amount of work, and more people volunteered to help. It was one of our favorites, with stains on the pages to prove it.
In that book was a recipe we used many times, called “Whatchagot Soup.” It was a recipe, but also a culinary philosophy long forgotten (in our house, anyway).
I’ve had soup on the brain lately, as I was briefly tasked with pulling together a soup kitchen. I’ve spent several weekends experimenting with ways to get the maximum flavor, and nutritional value, out of the most inexpensive cuts of meat, including pork neck bones.
The experience took me right back to my childhood, when dinner might cook in the oven or on the stove all day, filling the house with aromas that had us impatiently asking how long until dinner.
The goal for the kitchen was to feed as many people as possible, offering the highest-quality food we could come up with, as inexpensively as possible. Which actually works out well, because, with a little know-how and enough time, some of the cheapest ingredients can yield the most delicious – and nutritious – food.
There was a time when dinner was cooked at home, using a lot of different cooking techniques: roasting, braising, simmering, barbecuing, and even – gasp! – frying.
Reading “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” by Samin Nosrat, caused me to change my whole approach to cooking, and, in the process, stirred up memories of cooking at the elbows of adult female relatives, learning, for example, to saute onions, throwing in a little salt, and using enough of the right kind of fat to achieve the intended flavor.
Done well, cooking involves all of the senses: sound, smell, sight, hearing and touch.
Food was much more than slapping something on the table, in those days. Women (stereotypically, it was pretty much always women) took pride in their cooking skills, and in feeding their families well. So a roast, expertly seasoned and baked slowly to perfection, was the centerpiece of a meal, and provided something that there just isn’t any way to fake: flavor.
And everybody knew how to turn leftovers from that tasty roast into a satisfying soup, in those days. Leftover roast, plus the pan drippings, a few potatoes, onions and carrots, et viola – another meal, with protein from the meat, and maybe some beans, plus the veggies, maybe even a grain, like barley. A whole lot of good stuff would be packed into that steaming, fragrant bowl.
That’s my goal in the kitchen, these days: to turn out food that’s as good as Grandma used to make, to nourish bodies and feed souls.
The secret to a great soup (and a good many other things) is great stock. Without it, as the great chef Auguste Escoffier said, nothing can be done. Good stock takes very few ingredients, and a lot of time – something a lot of us seem to have a lot of, these days.
For good stock you need some bones with a little meat on them for flavor, as well as some kind of joint, which will provide collagen (gelatin), so lacking in our current diet. In this case, I used patas de puerco. For chicken stock, one would use chicken paws (feet). If that seems weird, remember that great cooks have been using those parts forever, specifically to make stock or broth that’s full of something you can’t get any other way: flavor.
All of the meat (including the joint) should be roasted until well browned. This step is key to making a stock that’s good enough to serve on its own (particularly good for anyone under the weather), and so will add a depth of flavor you just can’t get any other way to any dish it’s added to.
The other thing that’s needed is time – hours – long enough “to get the good out of ‘em,” as one of my grandmothers used to say. Collagen, minerals – and flavor. A crock pot, if available, would be ideal for this.
The resulting stock will be more than worth the effort: Over the weekend, I made a large batch of pork stock, and then a big pot of pork stew, with a gallon leftover. On Monday afternoon, I learned that dinner donations at H.O.S.T. House have pretty much dried up, since the stay at home order. There was clearly a reason I had made such a big pot! But I really didn’t want to give away all of the soup.
It was a little surprising to find childhood memories of stretching soup (and other things) coming back. More pork stock, an onion, four or five cloves of garlic, a couple of carrots and some other assorted veggies, along with a good-sized can of beans, and one of the two half-gallon jars became a gallon – and fed everyone, including eight overnight guests. The other half-gallon is still in the fridge.
H.O.S.T. needs dinners
If you are in a position to help, the folks who live at the house, plus any overnight guests (there were eight on Sunday night), could really use prepared dinners. There are very limited cooking facilities at the house, so anything that’s warm, or can easily be microwaved, would be most welcome. No-contact donations can be left on the porch – knock before leaving, so they’re aware and can bring them in.
New Facebook pages
H.O.S.T. House and Naomi’s House both have new Facebook pages, and we will be posting the instructions for making stock on both, along with instructions for Whatchagot Soup.
Find the new H.O.S.T. House at “HOST House Program.” The new page for Naomi’s House is “Naomi's House, Patterson CA.”
We’re all in this together
While we’ve all been concerned about family and friends during this unprecedented time, there is another category of folks in our orbits who could really use a hand: those who provide personal services, such as haircuts and manicures, and all of the others, who will be unable to work while the stay at home order is in place. Those who can, might consider paying those they rely on for these types of services for “holding a spot” in their calendars.
Expanding on that theme, how would it be, if we all spent a minute or two thinking of a way to make the day a little brighter for someone else, right now, and then went out of our way to do it? Human kindness is free – and freeing. Something as simple as a call or text can go a long way. (Or an across-the-street chat with a neighbor.) How many peoples’ spirits can we lift – and here’s the best part – starting with our own?
The return of humor must be a sign that, for better or for worse, we’re all starting to adapt to the bizarre changes in our world - we ended our daily Zoom meeting this morning with a laugh about all the work hair stylists will have on their hands, after a month or three of folks being left to their own devices – or at the mercy of someone else’s!