I learned to make soup in Alaska, the summer after graduating from college. Hired as a waitress at the Mt. Haus Restaurant, I was wearing the tan, polyester peasant top, tucked into my fitted, polyester, brown skirt uniform on the day the cook walked off in the middle of his shift. Kaye, the elderly manager, was frantic in the kitchen, with orders up and no cook for 20 miles. The Mt. Haus sat on the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, located 100 miles south of Mt. McKinley. On a clear day we had a terrific view of the mountain. We had no phone. No one there had a car, as most of the staff lived above the restaurant. The other two cooks lived 20 miles away and we had no way to contact them. But after two weeks of watching Lil’ Bit and Jane plate up the orders, I knew the drill. I grabbed the frozen chicken from Kaye, and for the rest of the summer I was the new cook, and I never had to wear the tan or brown polyester again.
Our big draw was the mountain, and tour buses drove up and down the highway all summer. Tourists stopped for lunch and we had a soup and sandwich line all ready. The soup of the day was at the discretion of the cook. Living above a restaurant in the middle of the wilderness with not too much to do but read thick James Michener novels gave me a lot of practice making soups.
I was a decidedly poor soup artist at the beginning of the summer. One of my first creations became my opportunity to sprinkle in whatever spice looked nice. Whole cloves proved to be a mistake. Which I realized in time, and alone in the kitchen, I secretly strained through every bit of soup solids and removed by hand every spec of clove from the pot.
Making soup without a recipe is like making an abstract painting. My palette usually consists of a colorful variety of fresh vegetables, with handfuls of dried legumes, rice or oats, and maybe a dash of meat, used moderately as one would use a condiment. I try and steer clear of frozen vegetables, but will use frozen beans, peas or corn. I rarely, if ever, use bouillon or canned stock — the vegetables and spices will make a perfect stock and you’ll know exactly what you’re eating.
I’m often asked for my recipe for a particular soup, and often I’ll just have to guess what I did. My general plan and advice to soup makers are some of the lessons I learned in the Alaskan kitchen:
- Take a moment to visualize the soup, imagine the flavor you have a taste for, and then start creating.
- If there’s a soup you love, ask the chef what spice they used.
- Look at some recipes to get a starting point.
- As a general rule of thumb, you can’t go wrong by starting out by sauteing an onion in a little olive oil, adding a chopped carrot and some celery.
- If you like a tomato flavor then throw in a can of chopped tomatoes.
- Then start adding from your palette — from the vegetables, legumes, rice, oats, spices and meats in your pantry — cover with water and let it simmer for several hours.
- A sweet potato is brilliant in many soups, and you can smash some of the cooked potato against the side of the pot with the back of a spoon to thicken the broth.
- Look through your spice drawer, open some jars and take a sniff. Imagine if they’ll compliment your ingredients. Try a pinch and see if you like it.
- Press in a clove of fresh garlic, and add salt.
- Sometimes a tablespoon of sugar will bring out the flavor.
My friend Melanie, an artist herself, made an amazing soup last week. She started out with a potato-leek soup in mind, but decided to add some left-over mushrooms, then some beets and fresh grated ginger. Wow! I never would have thought of all of that. She reports that it was amazingly delicious.
Last night I made my very favorite soup, turkey soup. There’s nothing as wild and as inventive as Melanie’s soup, just turkey, carrots, sweet potatoes, celery and parsley, but still rich and delicious. I added matzo balls because it’s Passover.