Stone Soup

By FoodNerd August 25, 2009


Photo via Foodista .

In the traditional stone soup story, a stranger arrives in town and tricks the villagers into feeding him by boiling a stone in a pot of water and calling it "stone soup." As each of the villagers adds ingredients, the plain water is gradually transformed into a delicious soup. The story is traditionally seen as a parable about cooperation. But it can also be read as a call for frugality—the idea that if you know how to use what you have, you don't need as much as you think.

Although many cultures have a tradition of creating frugal meals in tough times (see: various types of grain porridge, bean soups,  organ meats, potato pancakes, etc) scarcity isn't the only reason people decide to go on frugality diets. Over at Gourmet, for example, author W. Hodding Carter writes that he and his family are planning to spend ZERO dollars during the entire month of September—because, he writes, "It's our civic duty."
As some of you may remember, I’ve theorized (read ranted) that spending our way out of this current mess is wrong. To me, it’s like putting an overweight person on a 1,000 calorie-a-day diet of ice cream. It may work in the short term, but it’s definitely not healthy in the long run. We need to remember—or in most cases, learn—how to save money, pay off our debts, and become one with reality: The party has now been over for quite a while.

Of course, few of us really start an experiment like this from zero—something Carter readily acknowledges. "[W]e have a fairly full pantry, nearly a quarter of a cow in our freezer, and we will still pay our monthly bills," he writes. Still, there's something almost alchemical about going to the pantry, pulling out a few staple items, adding some vegetables just plucked from the garden, and turning it into a meal. Although I'm not likely to abandon my beloved Mae Phim or give up my CSA membership any time soon, I have been trying to make more out of what's already right in front of me.

Here are a few of my favorite "stone soup" recipes—recipes that use up the scraps and bits left behind from cooking other meals, or the pantry staples most people always have lying around.

Salmon Head Soup

Adapted from Fat of the Land

2-3 salmon heads, cut in half, or about a pound of salmon scraps
2 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil
1 3-inch thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, tops discarded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Thai red peppers, thinly sliced
Chinese cooking wine, sake, or mirin
2 tbsp fish sauce
rice vinegar
aji-mirin (optional)
1 can Szechuan prepared vegetable (optional)
1 can bamboo shoots
1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 handful cilantro for garnish, stemmed, with stems reserved
1 package Asian noodles (e.g., udon, soba, ramen), boiled and drained

1. Over medium-high heat, brown fish heads and ginger in oil for a few minutes, turning at least once. De-glaze pot with a splash of wine and add chopped leeks, garlic, and half the green onions and red peppers. Saute together for several minutes.

2. De-glaze pot again with another splash of wine, then add 8 cups of water and fish sauce. Bring to a light boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Strain contents, picking and reserving as much salmon meat as possible. Return soup to simmer. Adjust for salt. Add half the remaining green onion and the cilantro stems. Add a tablespoon of each: Chinese wine, rice vinegar, and optional aji-mirin; add a few heaping tablespoons of optional Szechuan prepared vegetables. Simmer another 15-30 minutes.

4. Strain soup a second time and return to low heat to keep warm. Dole out reserved salmon meat into bowls, along with noodles, a handful of shredded cabbage, and spoonfuls of both Szechuan prepared vegetables (optional) and bamboo shoots. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with green onion, cilantro, and Thai red pepper.

Congee (savory rice porridge)

Adapted from Mark Bittman

1 cup short-grain rice
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade, or water
1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 pound slab bacon, optional
Soy sauce or salt to taste
1/4 cup crispy cooked bacon, minced, optional
1/4 cup minced scallions
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, optional
Sesame oil for drizzling, optional

Wash rice, and put it in a stock pot with chicken stock or water. Place over high heat until stock boils, then add about 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, and turn heat to low. Partly cover pot, simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water as necessary (probably about 2 cups more).

Add ginger and slab bacon, and simmer for an hour more or so. Jook should have a porridgelike consistency. If it becomes very thick, add water. When done, jook will be soupy and creamy, like loose oatmeal.

Remove slab bacon, and serve jook in individual bowls. Season with salt or soy sauce, then garnish with minced bacon, scallions and peanuts. Drizzle with sesame oil if desired.

Tortilla Española (Spanish potato frittata)

Adapted from Gourmet

1 1/2 cups oil
2 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch dice
2 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 tablespoon coarse salt
10 large eggs

Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and add potatoes, onion, and half of salt. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender but not colored, about 45 minutes. Drain vegetables in a large colander set over a bowl and cool 5 minutes. (Save oil for another use). Lightly beat eggs in a large bowl. Gently stir in vegetables with 1 tablespoon oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Return 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and add mixture, pressing potatoes flush with eggs. Cook over low heat, covered, 12 to 15 minutes, or until almost set. Turn off heat and let stand, covered, 15 minutes. Shake skillet gently to make sure tortilla> is set on bottom and not sticking to skillet. Invert tortilla onto a large flat plate and slide back into skillet, bottom side up. (Alternatively, especially if top is still loose at this point, slide tortilla onto plate first. Cover it with skillet and invert tortilla back into skillet.) Round edge with a rubber spatula and cook over low heat, covered, 15 minutes more, or until set. Slide onto a serving plate and serve warm or at room temperature.
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