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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

Getting All Souped-Up

When a One-Course Meal Is as Good as an Evening Out

January 25, 1998|PATRIC KUH | Patric Kuh is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

My wife complains that I don't take her out often enough. She might have a point. She loves to eat out. I don't. So I made her an offer: I'd shop, cook and wash dishes for one dinner a week if she would count it as an evening out. If the meal wasn't up to par, she could then call up one of the many restaurants she wants to try and out we'd go.

"You're on," she said quickly, all but phoning the first place on her list.

The tricky part was getting her to accept that the meal would consist solely of soup. I pointed to the lack of counter space in our kitchenette. The seasons colluded with me; winter held the promise of rain, and a bowl of soup with crusty bread sounded like a satisfying supper. Still, I knew it was a dangerous ploy. One insipid bowl of broth and I'd be dragged out to a restaurant to sniff corks, have pronunciation anxiety attacks and be sized up and snubbed. What saved me was the book I used: M.F.K. Fisher's classic "How to Cook a Wolf."

I didn't choose it because the recipes are short, though, in fact, they are. I chose it because I'd always heard that Fisher was one of the most inventive cookbook authors ever. And now I know why. Originally published in 1942, the book is still in print. The wolf in the title refers to wartime food shortage. In the "Chowder" recipe, for example, of the eight ingredients, three are marked optional. Believe me, I've felt like a shallow man indeed taking advantage of this short list of ingredients, knowing that I could do all my shopping and still pay at the express cashier. But the forced minimalism of Fisher's recipes also had an upside: Because I couldn't get carried away with exotic ingredients, I was forced to learn the basics.

My first attempt was the "Green Garden Soup." Essentially this is soup made from any herbs or greens you can get your hands on. Done wrong, it could easily become a watery mess. But Fisher's first piece of advice was to grind up all the ingredients--she used her wooden mortar and pestle, I used our ice-crushing margarita blender. I then sauteed the resulting fine mix in olive oil until it actually started to look good. It was then that I understood the overriding principle of making soup: The stuff in the pot has to look like you'd want to eat it before you add the liquid. In other words, if it's not good from the start, then two cans of chicken broth won't make it better later.

Now when it's my turn to cook, I find myself going up and down the aisles of my local supermarket with my basket in one hand and "How to Cook a Wolf" in the other. My wife joins me at the stove when she returns home from work. She sips a glass of wine as I cry over the onions for an onion soup or smiles as I look for "whatever vegetable lurks in the bin" for a Chinese consomme.

I smile, too. It's all going according to plan: We're having fun and we're together. That's my definition of an evening out. Next time she accuses me of never taking her out, I can simply remind her of what I like to call our "Chowder" galas and our "Cream of Potato" soirees.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GREEN GARDEN SOUP

(Makes 4 1/2 cups)

2 tablespoons butter or good oil

1 bunch watercress, leaves and slender stems only

1/2 head lettuce

3 small green onions and tops

2 or 3 cabbage leaves

4 celery-stalk tops

1 sprig thyme or marjoram

(if possible)

1 handful parsley

2 cans (4 cups) chicken or beef broth

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup whipping cream (also if possible)

salt and seasoning to taste

*

Finely grind vegetables (clean, of course) in blender. Heat them gently for about 10 minutes with the oil and add broth. Cover and simmer slowly until very tender, about 45 minutes. Beat egg yolk and cream together. Heat until just slightly thickened, 30 to 60 seconds, and add after the soup is in the tureen. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

Adapted from M.F.K. Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" (North Point Press)

*

Food stylist: Norman Stewart

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