One of my favorite books to read to my boys when they were small was Stone Soup by Marcia Brown. In it, three hungry soldiers who are traveling home after a war, convince a village to come together to make a communal pot of soup. This was not easy to do, the villagers were scarce on food and inclined to keep what little they had for themselves. But the soldiers were clever! They began with a pot of stones, lamenting how their Stone Soup would taste so much better, “if only we had some onions…”. One by one they called out the ingredients, and one by one the villagers made the additions of carrots and cabbage until they had a soup fit for the king himself! It was a fun (albeit unsuccessful) way to try to get some veggies into my boys when we made our own version of the soup, and it is still a beautiful reminder of what we can do when we come together. Individually they did not have much, but their finished product was truly a feast, and was celebrated as such with a communal meal in the center of the village.
I was reminded of the story when I started making Amiel Stanek’s French Onion Beef Noodle Soup. We are in crisis, as a community, as a world, in a way that I have never experienced. We are told to stay home to slow the spread of Coronavirus, only venturing out for essential errands like going grocery shopping. And when we get to the grocery store we are likely to come home without multiple items on our lists because they are simply not available. To walk in and see entire shelves empty in the grocery store is both unnerving and unavoidable right now. But, just like the soldiers, we have a village to lean on. Friends and family, of course, but also our online community where we can share recipes and tips for what works substitution-wise when that key ingredient is not available.
And so, when I stumbled upon this recipe, I decided to give it a try. It combines my love of bottom of the pot flavors with the desire to make something my 17 year old son will eat. (Notice the complete lack of vegetables! It has loads of onions, white and green, but no suspicious spinach or mushroom to thwart someone intent on avoiding most green vegetables.) Plus, I feel bad for the kid. This is his Senior year of high school and he is spending it in the house with his dad and I all day instead of hanging out with friends and visiting all those great schools he has been accepted at. This seemed like a nice way to try and bring his favorite restaurant, Ramen Gaijin, here to the house since they have closed for the time being.
And while it was a far cry from our beloved Spicy Tan-Tanmen, it was delicious! We did omit the clove since I did not have whole cloves on hand. I considered adding a pinch of ground clove to the pile of onions as it reduced but decided against it since I am about as big of a fan of cloves as Clay is of carrots.
Luckily we all like onions, because there are a lot of them in there! I actually think you could get away with about 1/3 less onion total, or possibly just let them cook down longer. I was afraid of them turning to mush so I did not hold out for that golden color Amiel describes in the recipe. But I am really not sure how you get all the way to golden when you start off with such a massive pile. Only a small percentage will be able to reach the bottom of the pot, and they steam more than caramelize when cooked in this quantity.
So, I have made my first pot of Stone Soup to get me through this trying time. For many of us, cooking is therapy, and I think we need that right now more than ever. We also need community, so I’ll be in touch through my website, and looking out for all my fellow chefs on social media.
Until that day when we can share a meal in person again… What a beautiful day that will be!