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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stone Soup

Here it is, less than two weeks from the first day of spring, and the wind chill even in the middle of the day stands at 11 below zero. Meanwhile, the economic news continues to be dismal, and we all try to tighten our belts just a little more.

Friends will be coming for lunch tomorrow, and this seems like an ideal time for some Stone Soup, warming the house and giving off those wonderful comfort food aromas.

Stone Soup? What is that? If you haven't heard the story of Stone Soup, you can find one version of the legend here:

http://www.kousi.gr.jp/kousi/syoukai/hp-siryou/stone-soup.html

When my kids were young and our budget was especially tight, I started making Stone Soup with a package of ramen noodles as the "stone." I knew that the nutritive value of these little packets was dismal, but the flavoring packet combined with lots of cheap basic vegetables made a wonderfully filling meal. The high sodium content was reduced per serving because we stretched the same amount of seasoning over 3 or even 4 times as many servings.

Today's stone soup will be quite different, because the "stone" that I will be starting with is a free ham bone. A friend of mine had made ham for a gathering and was not going to have enough time to use the bone so she wrapped it up and gave it to me a few weeks ago. The return of frigid weather was a perfect time to pull it out of the freezer.

Just as in the story, the "stone" that gives the soup its name is really just a starter. Start thinking of leftovers as the beginning of a new and wonderful soup and who knows what you can come up with? Try these for ideas:
  • Restaurant carry out—those odds and ends of stir fry and rice and broccoli chicken might be just the things to put together in a pot with some additional vegetables and broth from the freezer
  • Leftover spaghetti—make a basic chicken vegetable soup and cut the spaghetti into it instead of using noodles
  • Chicken wing tips—I am always saddened to see recipes for things like buffalo wings that include instructions to "cut off the wing tips and discard." Of course, you don't discard good food! Toss them in a pan with some water and a little poultry seasoning and simmer while you are doing other things. Strain the broth when the meat is falling off the bones and use it for a great soup base.
  • I even have heard of sautéing a little onion and then adding leftover macaroni and cheese, some frozen vegetables and either spaghetti sauce or a can of tomato soup. Throw in a couple of leftover hotdogs, sliced, and it sounds like it might be a filling meal a lot of mac-and-cheese-only kids might gobble up

The point is—starting with an unexpected or almost free ingredient can result in some really creative and wonderful soups. Following are two general recipes to try.

Traditional Stone Soup

1 package ramen noodles with seasoning, any favorite flavor
1 medium to large onion, chopped
1 to 2 carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
1 to 2 c shredded cabbage
1 large potato, scrubbed and diced—does not need to be peeled
Other fresh or frozen vegetables to taste: corn, peas, chopped spinach or other greens, etc.
Sauté the onion in a little oil, just until it begins to turn golden. Stir in other raw vegetables and seasoning packet from soup and allow to cook for a few minutes. Add about two to three quarts of water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until carrots and potatoes are soft. If soup seems too thick, add a little more water. Turn up heat and stir in the frozen or cooked (leftover) vegetables and the ramen noodles, broken into small pieces. Cook for about 10 minutes or until noodles are cooked. Taste for seasoning and serve.

The amount of water used will be variable, depending on how many additions you are making to the soup and whether you prefer a thicker stew-like consistency or something more traditionally soupy.

Other seasonings you might want to add:
• Fresh grated pepper
• Minced garlic or garlic powder
• Wine or cider vinegar (don't be afraid to stir in a teaspoon or so of vinegar in any soup, stew, or chili that seems a little bland—it is amazing what this shot of acid does to brighten up the flavor.)
• Chiles or jalapenos, finely diced
• Herbs of your choice


Ham Bone Stone Soup

1 ham bone, with some scraps of meat left on it
1 large onion, chopped
4 ribs celery, diced
1 lb carrots, finely diced or grated
1 lb split peas, washed and drained
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T mixed herbs—rosemary, thyme, basil, and marjoram (OR your own favorite blend)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T cider vinegar
Salt to taste (optional)

Put ham bone in a large pot with enough water to cover. Simmer for an hour or two until the meat falls off the bone. (This can also be done in a slow cooker overnight or while you are at work.) You should have at least three quarts of liquid to start the soup.

Remove the ham bone from the broth and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut the meat off the bone, dice into bite-sized pieces, and refrigerate.

Sauté the onion, celery and carrots in a little oil (or some of the ham fat that you have cut off the bone) until onions are translucent. Add to the ham and broth along with the split peas, garlic, and herbs. Continue simmering for an hour or so, until the peas are very soft. Taste for seasoning and add pepper, vinegar, and salt as needed. When the peas and other vegetables are done, stir in the diced ham and continue cooking long enough to be sure the meat is heated through. (If desired, you may puree the soup before adding the ham.)

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