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Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 12:01 am

Warming way to start the day



I am not a lover of hot weather. Others may mourn the passing of summer, but I’m always happy to welcome autumn’s crisp cool temperatures. There’s one exception, though: the frigid mornings in late fall when the last glorious leaves have fallen from the trees, skies are overcast and chill winds blow. Those are hard to take.

On those days, I stumble blearily into the kitchen, glaring out the windows at a gray sludge of a day, shivering at the icy blast that assaults me when I open the door to let the dog out. Bummer!

But I have the perfect antidote. It’s a breakfast I can fix quickly, one that makes me feel happily cozy and warm: a steaming, fragrant bowl or mug of soup. That’s right – soup. Though some Americans may think having soup for breakfast is a little weird, in many parts of the world having soup for breakfast is routine. Breakfast soup really shouldn’t seem that strange: It’s not too much of a stretch to think of cereal with milk as a kind of soupy preparation – certainly not if cold cereal and milk are left standing for any time.

If you’ve ever eaten in a Japanese restaurant, chances are, you were given miso soup at the beginning of the meal. Miso soup is eaten throughout the day in Japan, but to most Japanese, breakfast just isn’t breakfast without it. It’s an utterly simple preparation: Miso, a salty paste of fermented soybeans, is whisked into hot dashi, Japanese soup stock – about a tablespoon and a half of miso per cup of stock. That’s it. Often a few cubes of soft tofu and some thinly sliced scallion greens or mushrooms are added, but they’re not essential. It’s real comfort food – the Japanese version of chicken soup.

I make morning soups primarily in chilly weather, but they’re breakfast standards in many countries where it’s always hot and steamy and “cool” conditions are relative. Nowhere is that more true than in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford describe the breakfast scene in their anthropologic exploration of Southeast Asian food, Hot Sour Salty Sweet: “Early morning in the village markets in Southeast Asia, there’s a chill in the air and the smell of wood smoke from cooking fires. Women cook at open air stalls, each with a table and a few stools, some bowls and jars of condiments, and a platter of fresh ingredients. In the floating markets of the Mekong Delta, the stalls are small boats, rocking gently. Clouds of steam rise from simmering pots of soup. The details vary, but in all places the soup bowl is large, the broth is hot and aromatic, and there are a few pieces of meat and the occasional fragment of vegetable, lost in a tangle of noodles.”

“Yeah, people at home don’t like to cook in the morning,” confirms native Laotian Win Mahnee, chef/owner of the Mekong Café, “so we go out for breakfast. A lot of times we get pho.” Pronounced “fuh,” it’s often called the national dish of Vietnam: an aromatic (most typically) beef broth tinged with cinnamon and filled with rice noodles, various cuts of beef, and sometimes meatballs. Pho may be the most common breakfast soup in Southeast Asia, but it’s far from the only option. “We also eat many other kinds of soups with different broths and different noodles,” says Mahnee, “and there’s also a thick rice soup.” As with pho, each diner adds vegetables, such as sliced banana flowers, bean sprouts or scallions; herbs, such as cilantro, mint and basil; and other condiments to his or her taste. “Sometimes we like to make it spicy with hot peppers and fried garlic or shallots,” says Mahnee. “These soups are eaten at other times of the day, too, but mostly at breakfast.” Mahnee serves pho at Mekong Café, and it’s on the menu at other Southeast Asian restaurants in Springfield, but the only one that’s open for breakfast is Jujobee Café.

Congee, a rice soup similar to the one Mahnee describes, is a standard breakfast in China, but breakfast soups aren’t limited to Asia. A New York Times article published in 1884 contains a description of a Spanish breakfast that included soup. If you visit Chicago’s Sunday Mexican-dominated Maxwell Street Market, men can be seen hovering around the birria stall, downing bowls of goat broth from daybreak onward.

There’s another morning-soup category, although it can’t strictly be called breakfast, at least in the sense of breaking a fast. From a bowl of soupe à l’oignon (aka French onion soup) at the legendary Parisian bistro Au Pied de Cochon to Mexican pozole (a fantastic hominy-and-pork concoction) and menudo (tripe soup) to a Spanish garlic soup garnished with poached egg, some soups have long-held reputations as hangover cures, something to soothe a queasy stomach after a night of overindulgence.

Try it once and you’ll understand why it’s easy to get into the habit of having soup for breakfast. After all, it’s the ultimate comfort food – a warming, bracing and fortifying way to start the day.

Sometimes I heat leftover soup for breakfast, but most often my breakfast soup is either the miso soup described above or this easy egg-drop soup. It’s quick, low-calorie and very satisfying. It was something I made frequently when my kids were young and was one of the first things they were able to prepare by themselves, using the microwave. Chinese-American restaurants usually thicken it with cornstarch, but I prefer this lighter version.

Simple egg-drop soup

  • • 1 egg
  • • 1 c. stock, bouillon or broth

Beat the egg in a small bowl. Put 1 cup of stock, bouillon or broth (preferably low-sodium) in a saucepan on the stove or large mug in the microwave. I almost always use chicken, but beef and vegetable are also good.

Bring the stock to a boil, then remove it from the heat and immediately pour in the beaten egg in a stream. Stir rapidly if you want the egg in small shreds or more slowly if you like somewhat larger strands. The boiling liquid will cook the egg instantly, but you’ll probably want to let the soup sit for a couple of minutes so that you don’t burn your tongue. It can be gussied up with a few drops of soy sauce (be careful, though – if your broth or bouillon is already salted, the soy sauce may make it unpleasantly salty).

As with miso soup, a few slices of scallion greens or thinly sliced mushroom can also be added, but it’s awfully good just as is. Beat a couple tablespoons of Parmesan or Romano cheese into the egg before adding it to the broth and you get stracciatella, or Italian “rag soup.” Probably, like pasta, stracciatella is of Chinese ancestry.  

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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