Monday, January 6, 2014

Frugal Foodie on a British Pound: Poor Man's 'Broth'

One of the most amusing activities among my peers here in the UK is the "what do you call this?" game. Is it a 'sweater' or a 'jumper'? A 'cookie' or a 'biscuit'? Would you like some 'fries' or some 'chips'? Did you watch 'soccer' or 'football'? But until last night, I didn't realize that the word 'soup' had such a specific definition. Trust Wikipedia to help me get down to the bottom of this, apparently there are cultural variations in the use of the word 'broth'. In the United States, cooking schools distinguish the rich liquid of broth by the addition of meat, whereas stocks are just made of the flavors extracted from vegetables and bones. Here in the United Kingdom, broth is a sub-category of soup made from a stock base but with the addition of actual pieces of meat, fish, vegetables, or even grains. In other words, that mushroom barley soup? Broth.

Soups, as I will here on out refer to them, fall into the category of dishes that extends far back into human history. They were easily concocted by combining a melange of ingredients in a pot with water, boiling, seasoning, and serving. The theme could travel if people were migratory, and could vary with geography and culture as the agricultural landscape - and thus available ingredients - shifted. According to this article (and several other cited works), the word broth actually predates soup, which stems from the act of soaking a piece of bread in the flavourful liquid. In all, and regardless of what you call it, soup hails from modest roots and provide as simple and efficient way to dine.

It also can be very economical. After a bit of holiday lavishiness (extending into a quick southern holiday this week...), it is definitely time to return to a bit more austerity. So, my first reaction was to fall back on cheap staples like cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and barley for filling meals. And, so I drew on milennia of experience and took a tip from the soup family. Instead of purchasing vegetable stock and then making a soup, the cooking of the vegetables simultaneously serves this function (if you are willing to fish out some inedibles, you can add carrot tops and fennel fronds for extra flavor). The beauty of this, particularly in starving student land, is it's easy, versatile, and inexpensive. Here's to...

Poor Man's Soup (serves 2)
1/2 medium cabbage, coarse chop (I used savoy, but red would also be nice)
2 medium salad potatoes, quartered (the kind that holds form when boiled)
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, halved
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 medium sweet potato, chopped (optional)
1 small fennel bulb, quartered (optional)
1 cup winter squash, cubed (optional)
1/2 cup pearled barley
1/2 cup lentils (optional)
4-6 cups water (depending on how much veg you put in)
Splash of olive oil
Salt, pepper, herbs (can put whatever fresh you have on hand in a little cheese cloth sachet and let it simmer) to taste

1. Heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a medium-large sauce pan. Add onion and sautee until basically translucent. Add all the vegetables and cook another couple of minutes.
2. Pour in water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, adding barley and lentils (and herb pouch, if using). Continue to cook on a simmer for another 30 minutes or so.
3. Check to see if potatoes and barley are cooked adequately before serving. Feel free to pour over a slice of bread for the full effect.

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