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Thursday, March 11, 2010 01:02 am

Hot soup to end winter

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Recent signs of spring are more welcome than usual this year. This winter has been tough, not because of any single blizzard or cold snap, but because it just seemed relentless. Still, remembering the Chicago winter of 1979 kept me from grumbling much. Now that was weather worth complaining about!

Chicago’s annual snowfall averages 33 inches. Since recordkeeping began in 1899, only four Chicago snowfalls exceeded 60 inches. During the 1978-79 winter, the total was 88.4 inches. The average temperature was the second coldest recorded (by 1/10 of a degree):18.8°F. Jan. 12-14, “The Blizzard of ’79,” added 20.3 inches of new snow to 10 inches that fell on New Year’s Eve. By January’s end, more than 47 inches had accumulated; most had become compacted ice.

Chicago essentially shut down. Snow removal services for streets and the El were woefully inadequate. Emergency responders couldn’t respond. Garage roofs collapsed under the snow’s weight; so did some houses. People spent hours digging out street parking places, then barricading “their” spot with sawhorses and chairs. “Stealing” places sometimes led to fistfights, or smashed windows, fenders or slashed tires. City government’s inability to cope was the primary factor in the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic that spring by Jane Byrne.

It was the last semester of dental school for my husband, Peter. To graduate, students had to complete specific numbers of different procedures: crowns, fillings, dentures, etc. But little got done that January and February: either instructors didn’t make it in from the suburbs, or patients didn’t show. By mid-March, there was real fear that his entire class might not graduate on schedule.

I sang in the Chicago Symphony Chorus; luckily we weren’t rehearsing until February. But for the first time I truly experienced cabin fever. Our daughter, Anne, was three, and I was pregnant. The alley behind our two-flat, from which we accessed the garage, was impassable; for almost three months we parked in a hospital lot two blocks away. Any excursion was an ordeal, but hauling grocery bags and a lively toddler down the actual street (the ice-packed sidewalks were dangerously slippery) was horrible. At least Anne enjoyed our apartment walkway — the snow on both sides was higher than her head.

Substantial melting began in mid-March, although the last snow wouldn’t disappear until May. One day we knew the worst was over. Driving towards the hospital lot, Peter and I saw the snowplow ahead of us turn into our alley! It was a mess — almost three months of garbage hadn’t been collected — but we didn’t care.

It was worth celebrating, and we didn’t have to discuss how. Frère Jacques, a French bistro on Clark Street, was our favorite place for special times. It was a modest splurge, reasonable enough that we could eat there occasionally. The fare was classic bistro: steak with peppercorn sauce, fish encased in puff pastry scored to look like fish scales, roast chicken. I don’t remember what else we had that night, but I’m certain we had Soupe de Poisson — because we always had Soupe de Poisson. It sounds elegant, but translates as plain fish soup. Utterly delicious and a bit mysterious, it smelled of saffron and the sea. The mysteriousness was because the soup was all liquid (although it did have some body) with nothing recognizable as fish.

We lingered over coffee until closing. Heading home on the expressway, we heard a loud pop, and the car lurched: we had a flat. Peter exited at Western Avenue and got out to change it. Our station wagon, nicknamed the Green Bomber, was on its last legs, the subject of ridicule even among impoverished dental students.

“&(#*!” Peter said behind me. The tire iron was missing. “Lock the doors and stay here; I’m going to find a gas station.” I looked around. On one side of the street stood a darkly unfinished housing project, on the other, shops locked behind iron gratings. The only people were spilling out of a nearby bar, raucous and obviously drunk. “I’m coming with you,” I said.

“Bring anything with you that you don’t want stolen,” Peter said

Armed with his dental toolbox, my purse, and Anne’s favorite toy, we started walking. It was probably only a few blocks, but it seemed like miles to the nearest gas station. We passed more noisy bars. The gas station produced a greasy tire iron, so we felt somewhat safer walking back. But the bolts were so rusty, they stripped out. Back we went through the gauntlet to the station and called a friend to come get us. A man entered as Peter hung up. “You-all better not go outside again,” he told us. “See those guys on the corner? They’re waitin’ to jump you.” He told us he owned the station, and spent every night in his pickup just outside with a shotgun to fend off thieves. We stayed inside.

We expected the car would be stripped of anything removable when Peter went back the next day with a tow truck. But the Bomber was so old, it wasn’t tempting even in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods.

Peter graduated on schedule — I spent much of that spring chauffeuring patients from daycares and retirement homes so he could fulfill his requirements. (Some of his single male classmates found a patient goldmine among local hookers who didn’t work during daylight hours!) I sang my last concerts with the CSO, including a final performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Returning to Springfield had been always been our plan; we never seriously strayed from it. Sometimes, though, we’d discuss staying in Chicago. There was much we enjoyed, and I could continue singing professionally. But the winter of ’79, and that flat tire erased any such thoughts. In May we loaded our things into the Green Bomber and headed south for home.

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

Soupe de Poisson Provençal Fish Soup

Soupe de Poisson is as much a provençal classic as its more famous cousin, bouillabaisse — and, in my opinion, much better. Adding fish or shellfish makes it more substantial, but the soup is traditional with or without.

  • Large pinch saffron, crumbled
  • 3/4 c. dry white wine or vermouth
  • 2 c. chopped onion, not supersweet
  • 1 large fennel bulb, cored and chopped (about 1 c.)
  • 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 c. peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
  • 6 c. fish stock, recipe available at IT’s Web site, or substitute bottled clam juice
  • Salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Optional: 1 lb. firm fish filets and/or seafood, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Garnish: Snipped fennel fronds, freshly grated Parmesan, toasted baguette slices, rouille recipe available at IT’s Web site

In a small pan, bring the white wine to a simmer; stir in the saffron; set aside. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel and garlic and stir to coat. Cover and let the vegetables sweat until translucent and softened, but not browned, 5-10 minutes. Uncover and add the wine/saffron mixture, the fish stock and the tomatoes. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Purée the mixture with a hand-held blender, blender, or food processor. If using the blender or food processor, cool the mixture until just warm before puréeing. Season to taste with salt, pepper and possibly a pinch or two of sugar, depending on the vegetables’ sweetness.

Return the mixture to the stove and bring to a simmer. If you are using the fish and/or seafood, add the pieces and simmer just until done. This should only take minutes. Sprinkle the soup with the fennel fronds and serve immediately. Pass the toasts, rouille, and cheese separately for diners to add as they like; the rouille can be spread on the toasts or added separately.

 Serves 3 – 4 as an entrée, 6-8 as an appetizer

Fish Stock

Approximately 2 lbs. fish bones, heads, and trimmings or seafood shells or heads. Do NOT use oily-type fish such as salmon, trout or mackerel

  • Stalks from 1 fennel bulb
  • 1 tsp. dried tarragon
  • 1 T. peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 small onion, NOT supersweet, quartered
  • 3-4 parsley sprigs or stems
  • green top from 1 leek, optional

Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Cover with 8 c. cold water. (You may need to add a bit more to cover completely.) Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to the barest possible simmer. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 1 hour. Strain through a fine mesh strainer.

Makes 6 cups

Rouiller 

This spicy, garlicky provençal mayonnaise is good not only with Soupe de Poisson, but as a sandwich spread, sauce for shrimp, base for a salad dressing, and anything else where a spicy aioli would be suitable. In Spain, a similar version is used as a condiment with paella. If you’re in a hurry, or have concerns about using raw eggs, the quick rouille recipe makes an adequate substitute.

  • ½ roasted red pepper, diced
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic, or to taste
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. hot pepper paste, OR cayenne, Or hot paprika, or to taste
  • 1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • large pinch saffron
  • 1 T. tomato paste
  • 1 slice homemade-type white bread, torn into small pieces
  • 1 extra large free range egg or 2 extra large egg yolks
  • ¾ c. extra virgin olive oil
  • ¾ c. neutral vegetable oil such as canola

Combine all the ingredients except the oils in the container of a blender or food processor. Process until thoroughly puréed. Let the mixture rest for about 5 minutes to give the saffron time to thoroughly dissolve. Turn the machine back on and with the motor running, add the oils in a very thin stream. It is most important to add the oil slowly in the beginning. Rouille can be kept, refrigerated for several weeks.

Makes 2 cups.

QUICK ROUILLE

In a medium bowl, mix 2 tsp. minced garlic, 1 T. lemon juice, 1 T. tomato paste, 1 T. sweet paprika, and hot pepper paste, OR cayenne, OR hot paprika to taste. Add 1 ½ c. good quality mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s and combine thoroughly. Let the mixture stand for an hour before using so that the flavors can thoroughly develop. Quick Rouille can be kept, refrigerated, for several weeks.

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