Pottage hero

It's been a brutal winter in the Northeast. Several snowstorms, which are fine, but then it got cold....sooo very cold. Don't get me wrong, after decades in professional kitchens with a meat thermometer in my pocket telling me I had reached medium rare, I would much rather deal with cold than heat. I don't use the gloves with closed fingers until the thermometer reads in the single digits. I won't use the really warm scarf or coat until then, either. 

But this has been different. The first time you check the remote thermometer's reading from the station in the bathroom and it says -8°F, you start to mentally gather yourself for that first step outdoors. When each morning has a lower number to display, day after day, until you see -25°F, the cumulative effect can be wearing. It went on for 2 weeks solid. We got cavalier about it at the pool — joking that single digits below were child's play, and hey, I may dig out my shorts tomorrow!

Looking out my kitchen window. In the last week it's been -20°F, 48°F above, with freezing rain in between and -3°F outside right now.

Looking out my kitchen window. In the last week it's been -20°F, 48°F above, with freezing rain in between and -3°F outside right now.

We're in a 4 day reprieve window at the moment, but those minus signs will be back all too soon. Which is why it's time to talk soup and some fresh bread to go with it. 

The soup I want to tell you about goes back centuries, possibly millennia. It would have been cooked in a cauldron hung on a hook over a fire. Yet for all its history, it remains remarkably relevant today.  Meat is optional; as the sustenance of laborers in times gone by meat would have been a rare luxury. Pottage is built on root vegetables; the produce you'd have found in any serf or crofter's garden patch or root cellar. One of my favorite books as a child was Stone Soup, the tale of the poor village that comes together at the urging of a traveling stranger, who puts a giant pot in the square with a "magic stone" in it. One by one, the people offer up what little they have in their stores, and everyone is fed. The meal they ended up creating looked a lot like Pottage.

Pottage is part soup, part stew, depending on how long it’s been cooking and how much grain you add to it.  If you participate in a year-round CSA, this is a great way to use some of what’s showing up in your basket. You can make it as thin or thick as you like, keep it vegetarian or use any kind of meat stock or scraps you have, and if you can eat gluten, you can use farro or barley instead of oats to thicken the dish. 

This Pottage recipe is also a ticket to culinary time travel.  None of the ingredients come from the New World: no potatoes, tomatoes, or corn. To complete the picture, let's serve this soup in a bread bowl, as it would have been in a medieval hall. Hearty, hollowed out troughs of bread called trenchers would serve as edible plates. I've shaped some Dark Rye dough into 6 boules to carve out and use as soup bowls. 

Winter has a long way to go yet, and the temperature is dropping as I type, but the days are getting a teensy bit longer, the sunlight a little brighter every day. With this soup and bread to sustain me, I can take the rest of the cold weather in stride.


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You needn't worry too much about exact amounts here: just use what you have, as our forebears did. 

1 tablespoon vegetable or herb oil

1 cup (5 ounces, 142g) peeled, diced carrots

1 cup (5 ounces, 142g) peeled, diced parsnips

1 cup (5 1/2 ounces, 156g) diced onions

1 cup (5 ounces, 142g) peeled, diced rutabaga or turnip

1 cup (2 3/4 ounces, 78g) sliced mushrooms

1 cup (3 1/4 ounces, 92g) leeks, rinsed and diced

1 cup (3 1/2 ounces, 92g) diced cabbage

2 quarts stock (chicken, beef, or vegetable)

1 large or 2 smaller bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon ground sage

1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary, fresh preferred

1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried parsley

1/2 to 1 cup (1 3/4 to 3 1/2 ounces, 50g to 100g) gluten-free rolled oats, quick-cooking barley, or farro

1/2 to 1 pound (227 to 454g) meat, sausage, or vegetable protein of your choice

1 cup (5 ounces, 142g) drained, rinsed canned beans or diced green beans

salt and pepper to taste

Cooking the vegetables with the lid on is called "sweating" them; they saute and steam at the same time, which releases and concentrates flavor.

Cooking the vegetables with the lid on is called "sweating" them; they saute and steam at the same time, which releases and concentrates flavor.

Place a large kettle over medium heat. Add the oil, carrots, parsnips, onions, and rutabaga or turnips. Give the pot a good dose of salt and pepper (salting at the beginning of cooking will mean you need less later on; it helps to build the flavor in the pot). Cook, covered, for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the harder vegetables have softened some, add the mushrooms, leeks, and cabbage and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the stock, bay leaves, and herbs and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes to an hour. Add the meat, oats or other grain, and beans, and cook for another 30 minutes, replenishing the liquid with more stock or water as needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. If the mixture is a little "flat", try adding a teaspoon of cider vinegar. Most soups need acid instead of more salt.

Ladle into warmed bowls or bread bowls; garnish with chopped fresh herbs.

Yield: 3 quarts, eight 12-ounce servings.


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Good to know: low and slow

This is a good candidate for a slow cooker meal; consider steel-cut oats in that case, because they'll hold well for a long simmer — cook on low for 4 to 6 hours. Other grains you could reach for include farro and barley. They'll hold up over the long simmering time.