The idea took shape after a dispute with my husband regarding distribution of labor, wherein I cried, "You are so spoiled! You think everyone has two soups to choose from!" A ridiculous statement that nevertheless allowed me to win the argument and spawned a dream.
I have a fridge full of soups, sandwich spreads, marinated salads and casseroles. The freezer is stacked with containers of sauce (red chili, green chili, marinara and pesto), cooked beans, empanadas, stewed greens and discs of homemade pie dough. There is almost always a pie, cake, scones or a batch of cookies on the counter. We are a family of four and yet I cook for ten, apologetically delivering leftovers to neighbors. I think, wouldn't it be cool – just the funnest thing! – to own a restaurant?
My morning walk takes me past an abandoned restaurant. It's small (or cozy), biscuit-colored stucco, big windows shaded with black canvas awnings. This is my restaurant. I've painted the interior a grayed-down periwinkle, accents of cream, white, charcoal and bright coral. I've planted a small garden out back; herbs for my kitchen line the brick path. There's a little patio strung with vintage lights where my musician friends play acoustic sets on Friday nights. I've selected tableware and staff attire, planned a menu – which changes seasonally – right down to the fonts.
I hustle on and the vision disappears. Behind me, the faded awnings sag, weeds strangle my basil and overtake the patio stage.
When I imagine a spacious restaurant kitchen, cooking in my cramped home kitchen is disappointing, but I make do. Our friend Sue lives nearby and drops by for dinner frequently. At the end of the evening, when the plates are sopped clean and chairs are pushed back from the table to create room for stomach expansion, invariably some version of this conversation will take place.
My husband sighs contentedly and says, "Bell, you should open a restaurant."
I say, "Yeah, that's heaven spelled backwards."
Sue chimes in. "Seriously, you should!"
I nod agreeably. "I should poke my own eyes out."
Unbeknownst to them, I'm already a restaurateur, accomplished chef, bon vivant. I'm hard working, wise and patient, a humanitarian, community leader and – all four lobes agree, except for a rogue group of cells in the ocular region and they are well known liars – very attractive. I am also a Grammy winner!
My nightmare is closer to the truth. I'm wrecked with fatigue, dealing with iffy kitchen workers, their rusty Ford Probes on temporary tires and probation or immigration issues. Young waitresses who spend most of their time in the bathroom, hurling last night's tequila or texting or peeing on pregnancy sticks. Suppliers who promise broccolini and deliver yellow broccoli florets. Customer-idiots who want sauce on the side and can you make it without the cilantro. And the owner! After a year of eighty-hour work weeks and superhuman enthusiasm in the face of financial ruin, she now shows up at three in the afternoon wearing a stained housecoat, the pockets full of tissues and pills.
Yes, even my daydream believer is a skeptic. My (uninsured) restaurant would go down in flames and if I came within a hundred yards of a Grammy stage I'd crap my Spanx and bawl like an emo kid. So, it's best to let my daydreams hold hands with my cracker jack self. She's made of buttery popcorn, caramel and prizes.
But every morning as I walk past my restaurant, I ask myself "What are our soups today?" Restaurant kitchen or home kitchen, when I'm in charge there are always two soups to choose from.
I typically make soups on Sunday or Monday – one brothy or bean soup, and another creamy soup. These two soups make a regular appearance.
Creamy Carrot and Tomato Soup with Galangal
Ground galangal used to be known as Laos powder, and is similar to ground ginger. The flavor is slightly floral and peppery, without being hot. It can be difficult to find outside an Asian market, but you can find it through online spice companies like Penzey's or The Spice House.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
1 cup sweet yellow onion, finely diced
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes (San Marzano if they're on sale!)
5 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 cups low sodium vegetable broth
1 tsp ground galangal
1/8 - 1/4 tsp ground red pepper (optional)
1/3 cup cream
Kosher salt to taste
In a three quart saucepan over medium-high heat, saute the onions until they are translucent and beginning to soften. Add the tomatoes, carrots and vegetable broth. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for 25-30 minutes or until the carrots are very tender.
Using an immersion blender (or a food processor or blender, in batches) puree the soup until it's smooth. Add the galangal, red pepper (if using), and salt to taste. Simmer over very low heat for five minutes, giving the ground spices a chance to bloom. Adjust seasonings to taste. Stir in the cream.
Vegetarian Onion and Mushroom Soup
In vegetarian brothy soups I like to use Wondra, a superfine flour, to slightly thicken the broth so that it mimics the body of meat stocks without adding additional fat or the opaque color of a roux. Wondra comes in a round blue canister and is sold alongside other flours.
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 and ½ large sweet yellow onions, chopped into one inch pieces
8 oz crimini mushrooms (often labeled "baby bella"), chopped
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 heavy Tbsp vegetarian Worcestershire sauce ( anchovy-free versions are available at most health food stores.)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
4 cups low sodium vegetable broth
3 Tbsp Wondra flour
Kosher salt and plenty of fresh black pepper.
In a large, wide-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until the onions are opaque and soft, but not brown, about ten minutes.
Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt to get them to release moisture. Cook until the mushrooms and onions are a light caramel brown and any liquid has evaporated, about five minutes.
Add the tomato paste and cook until it gets sticky. Add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and vegetable broth, making sure to scrape the nice browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Bring to a slow boil and then whisk in the Wondra flour 1 Tbsp at a time. Taste for salt and pepper (use lots of pepper!). Serve with buttered cheese bread (I mix fontina and manchego) and a big green salad.