It's easy to have a party when things are going great. When things are tough? That's when you need a party the most - a SOUP PARTY! That was the premise I pitched to FoodBuzz (an online community of Food Bloggers from around the world). Each month they pick 24 food blogs to take part in a theme and I am happy to be one of those. This month was "Pantry Staples" - Budget minded meals using what you have on hand. From the time I was twelve-years-old, my core family was my little brother, my mom and myself. I was a child of the 70's and while a lot of my friends' moms were standing up for working outside the home, my mom was already standing 14 hours a day as a single mom with multiple jobs. I viewed the Women's movement from a slightly different angle and wished my mom could actually have a day off to attend a PTA meeting. Those were lean years and a lot of "wonder what's under the gravy" kind of dinners. As an adult with 2 children, a second husband and a new baby - I faced the same kinds of financial challenges. Soup Parties became a tradition. To my husband and I, it was a way of making one end of the month meet the beginning of the next one. To the kids, it was an interactive dinner where they got to pick their own bowls, make their own choices, get up and down from the table and even concoct their own recipes by combining flavors. To celebrate a tradition that continues to this day (and in gratitude for better times), our whole family (the youngest being a teenager, now) and a friend's family with two little guys got together for a Saturday Soup Party! This party was destined to be a "hoot-n-a half", but earlier in the week I had an experience that left me with such gratitude it shone a spotlight on all the many wonderful people and things in my life. It made this party a Super Soup-er.A few days ago, I was given the opportunity to volunteer with food service at The Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles along side the famous Chef Nancy Silverton (one of my inspirations). It sounded interesting. I could feel good about volunteering, meet Nancy Silverton and Chris Gardner, and it would be a great addition to my Soup Party theme; what perfect timing. Then somewhere between the tour of the facility and meeting the dedicated staff, my heart got turned inside out and lodged in my throat.
I will admit to having second thoughts about driving around the area by myself. It's one of the roughest parts of downtown Los Angeles. I felt like if I got out of my car I would be hated for just being me; a middle-aged, middle class woman in an SUV. In fact, once I did park I called upon my acting skills by pulling my hair back tight, putting on my son's huge LAFD Academy T-shirt that was in my trunk and walking to the mission with a scowl on my face in an effort to show confidence and purpose. I was laughing inside at myself and shaking at the same time.
I wondered how many other people would volunteer and get involved if they could just figure out "how" to get past this first part. The event was sponsored by AARP of California and began with a tour of the Midnight Mission. Every person we met along the way absolutely raved about their jobs. They walked around the place sharing pride and hugs with each other. They spoke of the people on the streets who they care for with respect, not pity, anger or judgment of repetitious mistakes. No one preached a religion or a political stand, just the honor of serving any human in need. Chef Mykel Horn, a man with a perpetual smile, told me he fixes about 6000 meals a month. As long as they have donations from people, markets, stores and businesses - it keeps the cost to 15 cents a plate. He was proud to say this is not your grandma's soup kitchen. He serves an entree, vegetables, salads, desserts and sauces. Chef Mykel has worked in high end restaurants and took this job as a "between-things" gig. That was 10 years ago, and he plans on being at the mission for the next 10 years. I don't think I've ever met a head chef who loved his work so much. He graciously gave credit to his staff and the many volunteers who help out every day. He was particularly beaming about how working in his kitchen can take a problem person and turn them into a person with pride. And, Nancy Silverton, (a chef who has so much on her plate I can't imagine when she has time to even eat) was there for the tour through the serving of the meal. She told me that AARP approached her about this event and she felt it matched the things she cared about and wanted to find the time. She seemed very firm about wanting to give back to the community and that hunger for any person, of course, tugs on her feelings. She had prepared a rich and hearty Pork Stew with butternut squash, bay leaves, rice and hominy. There were also trays and trays of her Butterscotch Pudding. Mai (another impassioned staffer who gave us the tour and seemed to immediately appear next to anyone who had a question) told me how EVERYONE is welcome to volunteer. Just for your reference and my ease, there is parking in the building (I just didn't know about it) and more answers on their website. I'll be back, and I'll be bringing others.
After spending a day with folks who spend their day making miracles happen, creating a meal from my well stocked pantry and fridge felt like a game show. I opened my pantry with new eyes and felt ready to get creative.
I cook a lot - a lot, but what I used for our 4 course Soup-er Party were common ingredients that I think would be easy to keep on hand. We started with a Chilled Apple Bowl Curry Carrot Soup.I've made this before, but this time I added carrots to the apple as it cooked just to increase the vitamins (there were 2 pregnant ladies at this party.) I also added Mint Extract to the whipping cream just to give it a bright note. I was surprised when the guys just kept eating the apple after the soup was gone. That made clean-up extra easy for this one. Along with the soup, I had a platter of Easy One Hour Bread with Kale & Walnut Pesto, or Red Pepper Jam.
Next, I served a Dried Wild Mushroom Soup with Shrimp Wontons. I keep Wonton wrappers in the freezer always because there are so many things to do with them, ie. ravioli, fried and cinnamon or tart shells. I also keep Frozen Tail-on Shrimp for quick Pasta or Appetizer makings.
We took a little break so the kids could get involved, and hopefully that would increase the chances of them trying new foods. I had some Eazee Cheezee Cracker dough (with added left over bacon crumbled in) all made up. I rolled it out, let them pick a shape and they "helped me" bake them. When I served the Tomato Tarragon Cream Soup, we passed around the jar of crackers for adding that little tooth-bite to the creamy soup. I think the boys were excited about their crackers, but more interested in how many they could stuff into one bowl of soup. Having fun at your meal makes for good and relaxed eating habits, so that's good by me.
Everybody joined in making the easiest Pasta ever made (just Semolina and sprinkles of water) called Fregola. I toasted the little balls of pasta and we threw it into the Full O' Beans and Sausage Soup to fill it out a bit. We finished with just a bite of chewy chocolate with my Easiest Nutella Cookie Ever (only 2 ingredients: Nutella and 1 egg) and a Choco-dipped Frozen Strawberry on a stick. I thought a dessert soup would be over-kill, besides I was out of bowls of any kind.
We chatted, we chowed, the dog ran around, the kids ate and ran after the dog, my sons helped me clear the table, my daughter took pictures for me, my son-in-law created the spoon tags, my friends and husband showered me with support, and they all took home a Ball Jar of left-over soup. Life can be good. That is not to be confused with being easy. Thank you, and you, and you. Pass it along.
Recipe: Tomato Tarragon Soup
2 Cans Whole Tomatoes
1 Onion (sliced length-wise into thin strips)
1/2 Stick butter (2oz.)
1 Tbls. Dried Tarragon
pinch of Oregano
pinch of Basil
1/2 cup Heavy Cream
(Optional: Vegetable Stock for thinner soup)
(Optional: End piece of cheese ala: Parmigiano Reggiano)
1) Pour Tomatoes into a large stock pot. Using an Immersion Blender, pulse the tomatoes into small chunks (or do this in a blender a little at a time.)
2) In a separate skillet on Med., slowly caramelize the onions in the 1/2 stick of butter.
3) Add the Tarragon, Oregano and Basil after the onions are caramelized and stir just until the dried herbs are heated up to release flavors.
4) Stir the onions and herbs (and cheese end) into the Tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook on low/med for about 40 minutes.
5) Pour in the cream, stirring and heating for about 10 more minutes. To extend the amount of soup, or to make it a thinner version, add 2 cups of Vegetable Stock.
Garnish with a drizzle of garlic oil, or add cheese crackers when serving :D