Boiling bones for soup — it’s how you get through a season like this, when you start to think that you know how the Ingalls family felt in De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter of 1880-1881.
The day before our big family dinner at a nice Italian place in the suburbs, my Aunt Kara called to see if I wanted her to bring the carcass.
“I can just double-bag it and take it right to the restaurant,” she said. Of course I said yes and thanked her for her thoughtfulness. When I arrived, my aunts, grandfather and cousins were already seated, and the carcass, carefully wrapped, was parked unobtrusively behind my chair.
When my cousin left her yurt and clothing-optional hot springs near Portland, Oregon, for a holiday visit to Philly, she bought a whole organic duck and roasted it in Kara’s kitchen. And Kara knew it would be utter folly to throw the bones away.
When I got home and unwrapped the remains of the bird, I was thrilled to see the bundle of meaty bones and the whole neck, too. I got out my big stainless-steel pot, dumped in the duck, and added a sliced onion, a couple of carrots (with their scrubbed peels), a few golden potatoes, a garlic clove or two, plenty of salt and a dash of apple cider vinegar. I covered it all with water, turned the stove to low, and let it simmer until the next afternoon.
Because that’s how you get through a season like this, when you start to think that you know how the Ingalls family felt in De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter of 1880-1881.
Make soup from scratch without the headaches (literally)
For me, at least, it’s one benefit of winter: When you’re constantly making soup from scratch year-round, you’re bound to get the side-eye from your spouse or concerned friends who don’t think piping-hot minestrone is a good idea for dinner in August. But when one blizzard after another pounds Philadelphia, it is my time of glory.
My early relationship to soup was a fervent but unknowingly troubled one. Soup came from red-and-white Campbell’s cans, and I loved them all: tomato, cream of shrimp, chicken noodle, French onion. But it took until I was 18 to learn that my frequent headaches might be from all the monosodium glutamate I was eating.
Cutting MSG out of my diet meant saying goodbye to my favorite everyday meal – until I simmered my first leftover roast chicken in 2007. Now, living five SEPTA stops away from Reading Terminal Market has only fueled my obsession.
Because there is no limit to the delectable dishes you can turn out in a trice with some organic homemade stock in the freezer. Oxtail, beef and chicken bones, smoked ham hocks, mussels and rock crab shells: None of them is safe from me. After a summertime lobster dinner, I collect the bodies to simmer with onions, herbs and lemon slices for seafood bisque.
Pro tip: Fill a muffin pan’s wells with stock, and freeze the pan. Whenever you make a roux or a sauce or pasta or rice or vegetables, pop a couple blocks of stock out of the muffin pan with a shot of hot water and throw them in. Your spouse might start complaining how tasteless everyone else’s cooking is.
But oh, the soups!
What to look for at the market
Reading Terminal Market is a soup-maker’s dream, and recipes are just for cursory inspiration. There’s a little Thai lunch stand with a line that always stretches around the corner, but they’ll sell you fresh kaffir lime leaves, a few sticks of lemongrass and a knobby, damp, earthy-fragrant hunk of galangal root for around $8. Simmer those with some chicken stock, a couple spoons of fish sauce and lime juice, a bit of brown sugar, and a cup of coconut milk, and you will have a tom kha gai that you might just request as your last meal, should it ever come to that. (Cilantro and chilies never come into my kitchen, but you might like to add them.)
Anise, cloves and cinnamon sticks meet oxtail, basil, onions and rice noodles for a pho that will transport your lunch break. Or try a ham hock simmered with carrots and a rattling avalanche of dried split peas. Crab and corn bisque, thickened with flour and cream or a pureed risotto, is ridiculously easy to make if you’ve got the sweet, salt-savory seafood base in the freezer, which you can make in twenty minutes with any kind of shells (including shrimp) or fish bones, instead of just throwing them away.
Beef stew, clam chowder, cream of carrot — I’ve made them all, and I’ve watched my mother-in-law go back for seconds. At a potluck birthday party, Aunt Dee claimed my chicken noodle with pureed parsnip and caramelized onions might have been the best thing she’s ever tasted in her life.
So as Philadelphia braces for its next snowstorm, I’ve already been to Reading Terminal Market, where the bin of mushrooms at Iovine’s is way cheaper than your grocery store’s packages. I can taste it now: quartered white mushrooms sautéed in butter and then doused with duck broth and a dash of garlic powder and salt; simmered ’til tender and then pureed with a spoonful of sour cream. Enjoy your snow day. I know I’ll be enjoying mine.