The fight for Friday’s dinner

In the wee, cold hours, with my wife’s warm body spooned against me, I pined with desire. And what began as pure physical hunger soon boiled over into a fundamental spiritual craving.

And so I made my move — up out of the bed and into the kitchen to begin a batch of soup.

Yes, soup. It was time, you see, to take some tangible action against the encroaching winter’s skin-shrinking winds, drafty windows and floor-chilled feet.

I had the next day off from work; the good fight was all mine.

I lugged out the trusty pot, filled it just over halfway with water, and amassed the few forlorn vegetables spared by the exigencies of two busy schedules. Back in the bedroom, her alarm set for work, Tracey slept fitfully, unawares.

“Dare to be great?” I queried one of our cats, who yawned.

And though many might scoff, relegating my culinary efforts to the level of some pedestrian food-prep experience, I beg to differ. “Heroic” may be too strong a word for the true act of soup making, but not by much.

Once I’d committed myself to greatness, though, things didn’t go so easy.

This soup was to be an all-veggie affair, meant to pack a vitamin wallop. And immediately, I was faced with our inherent lack of scallions, our paucity of celery. Close scrutiny turned up too few potatoes, while what pretended to be garlic proved, upon closer inspection, to be just empty husks. The bay leaves were mere flecks, the rosemary, dill, parsley and marjoram altogether absent, casualties of our last move.

The soup-making cupboard was woefully bare.

But there’s a wonder to modern living that late-night soup artisans of yore could never have imagined: the 24-hour grocery outlet, where abundant produce is regularly freshened by a gentle, automated spray.

I snuck out our back door into the brisk night, already beginning a mental catalog of needed ingredients. But as any good pilgrim knows, a spiritual quest cannot be reduced to simple list-making: There were weighty questions yet to be addressed.

Would potatoes carry the production or be relegated to a small supporting role? Would carrots contribute in substance or strictly in looks? Would there be beans? How much garlic is too much (if there can be too much); how many onions are too many? Milk, wine, beer — or mere water? To dill, or not to dill?

Heads-up questions, all.

Once inside the store, I manned my cart like a gladiator, running down carrots, celery, mushrooms (three kinds), bulb and shoot onions, fresh cilantro and parsley, several cloves of garlic, a few more potatoes, two yellow squash, a head of cauliflower, two bundles of broccoli, a lime and a mango, plus all manner of spices.

I would need some red wine — ditto the soup — and maybe even a shot of dark beer. Some lime juice, for that tangy vitamin C boost. And canned baby peas and spinach, for serious thickening.

I also foresaw an eventual need for crackers (all we had were crumbs). And of course, there had to be bread (sourdough? French? pumpernickel? rye?). And butter, too — the real stuff.

I was readying us not just for the slurping, but for the crumbling, the dipping and the dunking as well. The quest for soup should be undertaken only with a full heart.

The bill came to … well, good things aren’t cheap, are they?

Making soup, you see, requires commitment and perseverance; and without healthy doses of equanimity and compassion, its preparation becomes nothing but a Campbell’s-style sham. Above all, though, vision is key: what to put in, how much and how soon.

Back from the store, it was too late to continue. I dumped out the pot and stashed my booty, heading back to bed with a light heart. Surely greatness awaited.

I rose a tad late. Tracey had already gone to work, having left behind a note about fixing or cleaning something or other. But I had thicker broths to boil.

Wading into the culinary fray, I refilled the cook pot with water, added a cup of red wine and a bottle of Bass Ale, and set the burner on high. Then came a few dashes of soy sauce and a fat squirt of lime juice, half a stick of butter, and enough olive oil to form a skin, followed by a can each of spinach and baby peas, both rinsed.

Then came the hand-to-hand combat as I battled my way through the produce: red potatoes (to be lightly boiled in a separate pot, then put aside to be cooked into each night’s serving, so the bulk of the soup could be successfully frozen); both whole and sliced mushrooms; scallions, bulb onions and leeks (tears were assuredly spilled); a hefty tablespoon of minced garlic; the mango (for its peculiar sweetness); the stalk-core of the broccoli, cubed (for stock), and the heads, broken up; the fresh herbs; carrots, celery, squash and cauliflower.

Next came several bay leaves; healthy doses of basil, marjoram, oregano and thyme; plus hints of tarragon, sage, dill (oh, yes!) and rosemary. To be sure, there were the peppers: white, black, cayenne. A little brown sugar, yes. And let’s not be coy about it: There was salt.

Yet even after blending everything and finding myself with a substantial-enough batch to feed the famished for miles, the flavor remained largely elusive.

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