Just recently we were treated to a display of weather extremes dramatic enough that you’d think most of the outliers on the “climate change” matter would have been convinced. In the course of a couple of days, the mercury did a 60 degree cha-cha, from sub-zero up to 50 and back again. If you are not in the Northeast, maybe you saw it on weather television. For those of us playing along at home, it meant not only wardrobe and internal thermometer confusion, but also, for giggles, gooshy mud and enormous puddles that overnight became a thick sheet of ice slip-covered (and I mean that) in a thin layer of slide-y snow.
Even on a prairie, those conditions would make it challenging to get to the chicken coop, a few hundred yards from the house. But we live on a picturesque hill. The trip to the coop was so treacherous one day last week that once I arrived there intact, my relationship with the Lord restored and updated, I engaged the miracle of cellular technology to let my husband know I would be staying out with the chickens until April and he should forward my mail. Even the dog who came with me couldn’t get traction, but my gyrations and exclamations were so alarming that his chief concern was still me (I know where the kibble is kept, after all), so on the trip back to the house that he eventually persuaded me to attempt, he skidded in reverse, right in front of me, keeping an eye on me the whole time.
I don’t blame winter for the freaky thaw/downpour/freeze (I think we humans can take most of the credit for that), so we are still friends. I like winter, strange as that seems. I prefer a nice consistently seasonal one, cold and snowy, without practical jokes and meanness, but I like it. After summer and fall, with the abundant growth and activity manifested therein by plants and children, and then the skid into the holidays, which wring a girl out like a sock, it’s a welcome thing to find myself, preferably upright with nothing in a splint or cast, in the contemplative quiet of midwinter. I appreciate this slower pace even more since having children, who seem to have their thumbs down on time’s “fast forward” button in all other seasons. In winter they don’t seem to be streaking past me as quickly, growing as fast. Even the darkness has stopped bothering me much (I used to feel like a candidate for one of those hats with the lightbulb in it). When days end early, there are stretches of time when my kids are indoors and awake and still that coincide with mine. The house is more like a den than a re-fueling station/changing room.
Plus there’s soup. Its charms aside, winter can leave a person kind of parched and chilled and depleted, what with all the fending for survival in harsh conditions. Soup can set you to rights, provided you pick the right one. The other day I had a sharp craving for hot and sour soup, the salty and viscous kind so alike in every take-out place I have ever visited that I suspect there is a central tank somewhere (I imagine a similar central source for that neon green seaweed salad that is the same everywhere).
If I coulda, I woulda ordered me up a double portion. But one of the true things about rural life is that there is no stack of take-out menus by the phone (or streaming under your door.) So I did a little reading here and there. I have a little special knack for doing a hack job on treasured and iconic dishes of cultures not my own (here, here, e.g.) and it was time to call upon it.
I made it with a base of chicken broth and I made it with water. I thickened it with cornstarch and with kuzu root. I made it vegan and I made it suitable for carnivores; made it with greens, noodles and other tidbits added and not. Cider vinegar had a smackdown with rice vinegar. Etc. Don’t thank me. I was not toiling away to get it right for you. I WANTED THIS DAMN SOUP.
The first batch was largely a disaster, because I tried to please all five members of my household by leaving out the mushrooms. Not only did I later determine that mushrooms were essential, I learned that if you are trying to scratch a deep itch, scratch it. They may not even be itchy, those other guys, and now your soup doesn’t taste right. If you see what I mean.
Your tolerance for saltiness and sourness may be different from mine. I bet it is. So this is a moderately salty and sour version. You can scale up (or down) on either factor to your personal taste, or itch.
hot and sour soup of no nation
serves 2-4, unless you are home alone with it in which case you can probably dispatch it before the others come around
For the soup:
- 8-10 medium size fresh shitake mushrooms (about 6 ounces)
- 1t neutral oil
- large pinch of salt
- 2t mirin (or white wine)
- 4 c water
- 1 strip of kombu seaweed about 4” long
- 1T finely minced ginger
- 1T finely minced scallions
- 1T plus 2t kuzu root powder or cornstarch
- 1T plus 2t tamari or soy sauce
- 1T plus 2t cider vinegar
- A healthy fine grind of fresh pepper (white is traditional but I didn’t have any)
For the protein, choose any or all of these:
- 4 oz firm tofu, sliced in tidy thin squares
- ½ boneless chicken breast, sliced into very thin strips (see below for notes)
- 1 egg, well-beaten
If you are using chicken, it is very much easier to cut it into the requisite thin strips if it is partially frozen (or partially thawed, depending on what you started with) and your knife is nice and sharp. Slice it thinly crossways, then cut the slices lengthwise into matchsticks. Toss these sticks with a teaspoon of the called-for tamari and thickener (cornstarch or kuzu) as you get the other preparations underway. You could also use shredded cooked chicken, I bet, if you had that laying around wanting to be eaten up.
To make the soup, clean your mushrooms and remove their stems. Slice them thinly. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat, and toss in the mushrooms, the salt and the mirin. Cover the pan for a moment, then begin to stir and toss like mad for about a minute. The mushrooms should soften up right away, and give up a little mushroominess to the pan. Remove them right away to a bowl, and set aside where you can’t reach them or you will eat them all before you get the soup made. Now put the water in the pot, along with the kombu (you can throw in the mushroom stems too, if you like, as long as they are clean), and bring it to a simmer. Let this cook while you mince up the other goodies.
In a small cup, mix the starch with the tamari and vinegar until you have a nice smooth paste. Peel and mince your ginger, and the scallions.
Fish the solids out of the broth pot. You can mince up the kombu and toss it back in, (but not if my son is around because he will eat it as soon as it is cool enough to snatch) or be done with it. Dump in the chicken if you are using it, and stir well to break it up. Add the ginger and the tofu and stir again, then stir in the starch slurry and the scallions and the pepper. Simmer a few minutes until the broth clears and thickens, and taste for your preferred degrees of salty and sour. If you are using the egg, pour it in a thin stream, turn off the heat and cover the pot.