Stone Soup: The Art of Improvisation in the Kitchen

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Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

Let’s see what’s in the fridge

Stone Soup is a children’s story from my childhood. Based on a European peasant story, it tells of poor travelers who have no food but set up their cooking pot outside a village. The villagers won’t share their food so the travelers put some stones and water into the pot and sit around the fire tending it as though it is a delicious pot of soup. The curious villagers are tricked into sharing bits of vegetables and other ingredients to make it even tastier, until it is a delicious soup.

I loved this story as a kid, in part because I loved cooking. And it has served as an inspiration for my own brand of food improvisation. There is nothing I like better than to be at a friend’s house when they say they have nothing worth eating. It becomes a challenge to conjure a meal out of whatever I can find. And I can almost always find things they have overlooked or pushed into the rear of the freezer or fridge.

Right now there is a pot of stone soup on my range, sans stones. A bit of cabbage, a few carrots and chopped onions, a ragged stalk of celery, and a chunk of pancetta (Italian uncured bacon) that I’d forgotten about.

Layering flavors turns these bits and pieces into a fragrant dish

The concept of flavor layering is basic to all cuisines. You don’t just throw everything together at once. You build layers of flavor by sauteing aromatics, blooming spices in the hot oil, judiciously seasoning at each stage, tasting all the while. You mix up the flavor and texture profiles, salt, sour, spicy, sweet, umami, soft, crunchy, chewy. For example almost any dish, especially meaty, oily ones, can benefit from a splash of vinegar or lemon juice before serving. It cuts through the rich fat and brightens things up.

Chefs have dozens of these tricks. Chopping anchovies into the sautéing aromatics until they dissolve and add an undefinable umami flavor to soups and sauces. Running fresh herbs under hot tap water to bring out their fragrant oils. Cooking tomato paste in a film of oil to remove any canned metallic flavor and to create umami by caramelizing the sugars in the tomatoes. Techniques like these change run of the mill food into those indefinable differences that make fine restaurant cooking so different than most home cooking.

The more you learn, the better your cooking will be. And you’ll find you don’t need massive quantities of meat or other expensive ingredients. That little hunk of pancetta is loaded with flavor.

I’m wary of recipes with too many ingredients

If you read my food articles, you may have noticed that very often I focus on just a few ingredients and the techniques that make them shine. It was a great disappointment to me when I recently bought a Jamie Oliver vegetable cookbook after being intrigued by his flavor tricks on TV. He has a unique approach that I always learn from (the hot water fresh herb trick is his). But I’ve barely cracked the book open because every recipe requires a dozen or more, often exotic ingredients, ingredients that vary wildly from recipe to recipe.

I’m certain the dishes made to his specs would be delicious, but even with well stocked cupboards I’d still have to make a dedicated shopping expedition to make any one of them. Which is fun once in a while, but not when I just want some stone soup.

First snow of the season here today meant soup!

We got our first blast of lake effect snow off Lake Ontario today. Cold northern air travels over the relatively warm waters and picks up moisture which it dumps as snow over land. A microclimate thing. It was the snow that inspired my soup making today.

There is a lot to be said for a pot of soup simmering in the kitchen while north winds blow flakes around outside. My apartment smells fantastic and feels warmer. And I didn’t even need any stones. Just doing a little improvisational cooking was enough. The more you learn from experimentation, the better you get as a cook.

And you get soup!

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