Click here to listen to me talking about hot and sour soup on KUOW.
Recipes are down below.
Hot and sour soup isn’t the prettiest, or even the second-prettiest soup there is. In fact, if I had to curate a list of beautiful soups, it would be miles below pho and chicken noodle, pasta e fagiole and tom yum. Hot and sour soup looks like dirty nothing in a bowl.
At least, that’s what I thought, before I got to know it. I guess it’s a soup like some people, that way – it’s easy to pigeonhole and walk away from, if you don’t know any better.
I grew up “hating” hot and sour soup, which means I’d never tasted it. (I hated a lot of things, including, but not limited to, anything with spice, foreign flavors, or ingredients whose entire preparation I didn’t personally witness from start to finish.) At Chinese restaurants, my family ordered a big bowl to share, and I ordered egg drop soup. The waitress would rattle her cart to our table and hold my lone bowl up accusingly, as if to ask Who ordered the boring soup?
Me. It was always me.
A few weeks ago, I came very close to doing the same thing, because I enjoy the simplicity of egg drop soup, and because it’s what I’ve always ordered. But for whatever reason – perhaps because I wasn’t really paying attention, or maybe because I am now An Adult Who Likes Things – I hopped on the hot and sour bandwagon, along with the rest of the table. And I tasted my new favorite soup for the first time.
I know. That f-word. It’s a bit of a shock to see it on the screen, even. I’m not a big fan of favorites. I go for change, and variety, and different every time. But this soup, people. If I count correctly, I’ve had hot and sour soup nine times in two weeks. Nine times. (Obsess much?)
The thing is, it’s worth obsessing over. Don’t look at it; taste it. Sip a spoonful, and the first thing you’ll notice is the texture – a bit of cornstarch makes it silky, almost satiny. It glosses over the tongue in a way few Western foods can, every drop somehow fatter and smoother. If you’re lucky enough to get a bit of soft, ribbony egg (and were lucky enough, in the first place, to pick a soup whose preparer got the egg to bloom up just right, like in the photo above), it glides across your palate. Then there are the cloud ear mushrooms, which don’t really taste like much, but have a lovely crunch, like some sort of terrestrial seaweed. (They supposedly improve circulation, too.) There are lily buds, with their vegetal, almost artichoke-like flavor. (Bet you didn’t even notice them the first time.) And then . . . then. . . there’s the clean, astringent hot of white pepper, and the brisk, bracing vinegar flavor.
Of course, there are endless variations. I tried rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, and a mixture of various vinegars. (I think I like white vinegar the best, because its flavor is stronger than rice vinegar but not too fruity.) There’s also whatever else the cook feels like adding – little gifts, like chunks of tofu, or pork, or carrot, or chili. I’d been tasting soups everywhere, trying to figure out, since I’d never been down the hot and sour soup road, what I liked. More tofu? More pork? More hot? More sour?
Then, gazing out the windows at the rain on the Sound at Pike Place Chinese Cuisine one day, slurping the bowl above, I had a BFO: I could probably make hot and sour soup myself. At home.
Hot and sour is, after all, a rather homey thing. Traditionally made with the most humble ingredients – dried staples, small bits of meat – it’s a soup made with leftovers. They just might not be the leftovers you have in your kitchen.
I scurried around Pike Place Market, collecting ingredients. (You can get everything there.) I made a few traditional versions first, relying on recipes from Grace Young, Mark Bittman, and Susanna Foo, until I learned what combination of flavors I liked.
As it turns out, I’m sort of greedy. I like a healthy combination of tofu and pork – more than one usually finds in restaurant versions of hot and sour soup – and more than anything, I like a soup made with good, homemade stock. I like to tinker with the pepper and vinegar, until I get it just right. And I like to eat my hot and sour soup right when it’s fallen just below scorching, screaming hot – which is to say, immediately.
I also like the version I made using what’s available now at farmers’ markets here in Seattle – Northwest leftovers and pantry staples, if you will, like dried porcini mushrooms, and kale, and carrots.
Only problem now is deciding which one’s my favorite. Time for bowl number ten.
I saw the sign
Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve appreciated them.
Here’s what’s happened in the (almost) two days since that conversation: Two quesadillas. Made by Tito. A two-hour nap. Lots of very productive work time. A long, luxuriously slow dinner at El Gaucho, which I’ll tell you about later. Ate some chocolate. (But, um, not in that order.) Egg burrito for breakfast. Made by Tito. Two articles came out; I finished three others. Turned two small pieces down, took on one bigger article. (Notice: I didn’t take all three.) Leftovers for lunch. Trip to the gym today, followed by another nap. More writing. No cooking. No recipes written. Some thinking.
As is almost always the case, the best thoughts come to me when pen and paper are the farthest away. I jumped onto the ellyptical machine and S.O.S. came blasting through my ear buds. S.O.S. indeed, I thought. I gave myself thirty minutes to make up my mind. I turned the machine to an easy setting and felt its gentle motion begin to loosen up my spine.
I opened Arthritis Today (yes, I’m a faithful A.T. reader, no laughing) to a piece that caught my eye: Express Yourself, said the header. Ease pain and boost immune function with expressive journaling. A whole article on how writing about your feelings can ease your symptoms. Well hey, isn’t that what I’ve been doing? Might explain why I get so dang verbose when I’m not feeling great. Hogwash is good for my health. I turned the page. Rihanna crooned.
I could care less about losing those last ten pounds or finding the right slingbacks for summer, but A.T. can sure drag me in with their headlines. Bounce back after a setback, it said. Don’t get sidelined by a good flare. I started reading, the words wobbling up and down with my cadence, and sure enough, an achievement psychologist from nowhere other than Seattle named Dan Tripps had something to say about setting and reassessing goals. Is this a sign? I wondered.
“Goals should be adaptable,” said Dr. Tripps. And “continuity is critical for sustaining momentum.” Oh, and “stick to your schedule.”
Adaptability. Continuity. Oh, Dr. T., how did you know? Both of these things are important. So I’ll continue. But I’ll adapt. I’ll keep going, but allow more silly things. Cocktails. Leftovers. The perfect grilled cheese sandwich. And I’m going to take help, if you want to give it.
It turns out my husband has a thing or two he needs to get off his chest in the recipe department, too. I may share a recipe or two of his for beer – “Seattleite” was his latest, a good pale ale – or perhaps slugs, the lumpy mounds of baked dough he likes to make with leftover pie crust. The recipe starts, “Have your wife make a pie. Ask her to save the extra dough for you.”
See? That’ll be two for one. Adapting.
I did like hearing from you.
You pointed out things I hadn’t thought of, like the fact that I seemed to have set up an equation where I either did Project or Proposal, never considering that part of the reason my enthusiasm for this project might be flagging is that I have the wrong equation to begin with. Health-wise, pulling the proverbial throttle back on hogwash and replacing it with something else would be, well, not exactly forward progress, in spoon terms. I admit, you’re right.
Arthritis Today gave me a few more pointers, too. (Except SOCK SCIENCE: In Pursuit of the Perfect Sock. I skipped that one.) That I’m young, for example. Sure, it’s a goal, but there is no ticking time bomb on a cookbook, and I doubt I’ll become measurably less creative in the next ten years, much less in the next six months.
I also read a piece about a woman my age with rheumatoid arthritis, about her struggles with her dream to complete a marathon. To my absolute horror, I felt a tear trickle down my face. In the gym. Thank goodness no one does cardio on sunny Friday afternoons.
I guess the other thing that’s occurred to me is that I don’t necessarily have to have an answer: Why am I doing this? Who cares? I’m doing it.
Yes, I’m doing it. If I hiccup somewhere along the way, so be it. You’ll forgive me. If you have an original recipe to send me, meaning YOU wrote it, by all means, send it along. You never know when I’ll have another bout of self-doubt.
Plus, I just got this new lens for my camera (way on sale!) . . . and you’ll only stand for so many photos of my dog.
Recipe for Chicken with Rosemary-Garlic Cream
Recipe 180 of 365
I once had an instructor in culinary school who said, “fat equals flavor,” over and over in each class. “Fat equals flavah, people!” This recipe isn’t short on either. And it’s a good test for your toothpaste.
TIME: 15 minutes
MAKES: 2 servings
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, add the oil, and swirl to coat. Add the chicken, and cook for 4 to 6 minutes per side (undisturbed), depending on the thickness of the meat.
Scoot the chicken to the sides of the pan, and place the butter in the center. When melted, stir the garlic and rosemary into the butter, and let cook for about a minute, stirring. Add the cream, season with salt and pepper, increase the heat to high, and simmer the cream until thick enough to coat the chicken, about 2 or 3 minutes, turning the chicken in the sauce as it cooks down.
Serve the chicken hot, topped with the remaining sauce.
Filed under chinese, commentary, recipe