Campfire Soup

Soup, boiling away happily

Too hungry to chop wood, just burn the log whole. Soup, boiling away happily.

Everything tastes better when you eat it outdoors. This is the simple truth captured in grill and patio furniture ads everywhere. Take a meal that would be way easier, more convenient, and likely more comfortable to prepare and consume indoors, relocate the whole shebang outdoors instead, and voila! You have a party. This is what you buy into when you go on a picnic, and when you purchase your Sims that 300, 000 Simoleon gazebo they’ve been eyeing. Eating outdoors makes food taste better. We believe it’s true, and so it is.  

This applies to camping, too. Except when you’re camping there are several, slightly less twee reasons for your appreciation for food. For one, you’re probably starving. Camping is a lot of work. Setting up tents, scrounging for kindling, chopping firewood, finding places to pee, getting in and out of layers constantly to keep warm enough without sweating (otherwise you’ll be cold at night). When you’re working hard without really realizing it (because you’re having so much fun!) you build up an appetite. Anything you cook will automatically taste better. All that fresh air helps too, as the more you are exposed to the elements, the more of your body’s resources are used up- you get thirsty and hungry faster outside. Lastly, you’re probably so busy that you’ve only started cooking when you’re hungry, not accounting for the extra time that fire building takes. As such, you’re only getting around to eating way past the point of being merely hungry, well into the murky and dangerous realm of being truly hangry

Then you add bad weather to the mix and things all get much, much worse. Building a fire in the rain is hard. Keeping a fire going in the rain long enough to boil a pot of water is extra hard, and sometimes impossible. Being wet and cold and hangry is a dangerous combination that I suggest you avoid under any circumstance, but which is nonetheless sometimes unavoidable in camping situations. When I was a Scout leader, in times like these, we’d pull out the Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Powdered chicken bouillon with extra salt added, flecks of dehydrated parsley, a distinct flavour of celery and small, quick-cooking wheat noodles. This salty, satisfying broth whipped up in five minutes flat, and, when smothered in saltines, was like mana from heaven for depleted, defeated campers. It wasn’t particularly nourishing, but when you’re camping, cold and hangry, it tastes like the most delicious thing you’ve ever put in your mouth. 

In coming up with this campfire soup, I was going for that same warm-you-to-the-bones, nourishing, wonderfully salty and savoury feeling. So, I started with my favourite salty, MSG-ridden seasoning, Vegeta. Go ahead and use something healthy if you must, but what you’re really going for here is a strong, salty chicken-style broth with flecks of parsley. I added a few real vegetables, small tofu cubes, and soup noodles, because I wanted it actually nourishing- not just tricking my body into thinking it was getting something worthwhile. Lastly, my new favourite addition to any brothy soup- matzoh. Matzoh holds it’s form in broth in a way that is satisfyingly chewy, almost like a noodle, and a far cry from the spongy, semi-dissolved mass that results from saltines left soaking too long. Without further ado, here is the recipe! It absolutely does not need to be made in cast iron, over a campfire, or eaten outdoors- but I promise you it won’t taste nearly as good otherwise.

Boil faster, darn it!

Boil faster, darn it!

Campfire Soup

1 block firm tofu, cut into 1cm/ 1/2 inch dice
1 large yellow onion, cut into large 1 inch dice
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 3 mm thick rounds
2 stalks of celery, cut into 3 mm thick slices
2 minced cloves garlic
1/2 package of soup noodles
Vegeta or bouillon of choice, added to taste
3 tbsp Earth Balance, or margarine of choice
pepper
matzoh

1) Over a steady fire, heat your 8 quart cast iron Dutch oven

2) Saute your onion in the margarine until just starting to turn golden. Add the remaining vegetables and saute until just beginning to soften, stirring occasionally

3) Fill the pot to 2 inches below the rim, put on the lid and bring to a boil

4) When boiling, add soup noodles, tofu and broth powder, starting with about half of what you think you’ll need

5) When noodles are cooked, adjust seasoning and add pepper.

6) Serve steaming mugfuls with broken matzoh to grateful campers

 

 

Pho/Air-boat street food/etc.

Big bowl for pho for big Bear, little bowl of pho for little kitten.

Big bowl for pho for big Bear, little bowl of pho for little kitten.

When I was in my undergrad, I took a bunch of courses in the evening. There were two reasons for this, mainly that I refused to take morning classes, but also because the part-time studies department’s Philosophy classes tended to be more interesting. In those cool in-between months after the term started but before Winter came, I often failed to dress appropriately for the weather and would find myself shivering alone in the corridors waiting for evening classes to begin while sometimes falling asleep over my readings. It was at this time that I would get one of two things: a coffee and a chocolate chip oatmeal muffin from the only cafe that remained open for the night students, or a steaming-hot Styrofoam bowl of Pho from the little Asian vendor in the cafeteria.

I always asked for the vegetarian Pho, even before I was vegan, because it seemed like a much better deal- you got so many veggies! Tender-crisp bok choy, slivers of nappa cabbage, whole petals of oyster mushrooms, sprouts, carrots, peppers, and tofu, all in a fragrant broth with warming anise, clove, and black pepper. The whole thing was topped with a mountain of Thai basil and cilantro, and finally a wedge of lime. It was more expensive than the coffee and muffin, and while it had no chocolate in it, it was still the superior choice.

There is some controversy over whether Pho is related to pot-au-feu, the dish common to the French invaders of Vietnam. Westerners like to think of Pho as a fusion food. I think it’s more likely that the French simply assumed that their culture was the epitome of Culture, and thus interpreted the native Vietnamese dish in the only way their fragile egos could manage- as an approximation of the more familiar pot-au-feu. There is something decidedly un-French about traditional Pho as well, namely the way it was vended. No white linen table cloths, wine, or candles. Just hot street food, prepared with taste, nourishment, and efficiency in mind.

Pho was originally sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors, who shouldered mobile kitchens on carrying poles (gánh phở). From the pole hung two wooden cabinets, one housing a cauldron over a wood fire, the other storing noodles, spices, cookware, and space to prepare a bowl of pho. Pho vendors kept their heads warm with distinctive, disheveled felt hats called mũ phở. (thank you Wikipedia)

I wonder if the Chinese food boat scene from The Fifth Element is at all related to the history of Pho? Some days, especially when it’s cold, I wish for certain conveniences out of sci fi like travelling Pho air-boats or teleportation.

It may be too early for you folks south of the border to be thinking of hot soups as an ideal comfort food, but here in the Great White North the nights have been getting quite chilly, and ominously gray skies have brought portents of Autumn and frost. Unless you have a magical Pho Boat coming your way, this recipe is the best thing to keep the chill out.

Come here, boat of tasty! I want all your deliciousness! But you can leave the terrible ethnic stereotypes behind...

Come here, boat of tasty! I want all your deliciousness! But you can leave the terrible ethnic stereotypes behind…

It took me a while to figure out how to make a good vegan Pho, and the trick is to take your time to treat the veggies right, and not worry too much about being traditional. This is your Pho, make it how you like it.

  1. Take a couple big yellow onions, peel the outer layer and halve them lengthwise. Cut a 5-inch stem of ginger root lengthwise. Blacken the outer layer both over a flame (broiler/element/blowtorch). Rinse away any flakes of char and set aside.
  2. Roughly chop five large, peeled carrots, and a couple cups of mushroom stems (any kind, preferably belonging to the caps you’ll use in the soup) and roast them in a pot with coconut oil until beginning to brown. This will take a bit of time, but keep an eye on it and have a beer to keep you occupied.
  3. Add to the carrots and mushrooms a couple of star anise, a couple of whole cloves, a 4-inch stick of cinnamon, a tablespoon of coriander seeds, a three-inch strip of kombu and several black peppercorns. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add the onion and ginger, then about 5-6 cups of low- or no-salt mushroom or vegetable broth- enough to cover with an inch or two to spare.
  4. Simmer until reduced by 1/3, then add a tablespoon or two of good tamari and/or vegan fish sauce. Strain well through a fine sieve. This broth can be kept in the fridge or frozen until ready to use.
  5. Cook medium flat rice noodles til tender. Add to big bowls of freshly-boiled broth.
  6. Prepare vegetables. Firm tofu, mixed fresh or dried/re-hydrated mushroom caps, tender greens, snow peas and peppers can be sauteed ever so lightly, then divided among individual bowls.
  7. Toppings should be served on the side, to be added with chopsticks to the bowls by diners. Scallions and red chilies finely sliced on the bias, whole cilantro and Thai basil leaves, wedges of lime and bean sprouts. Vegetarian hoisin, chili-garlic paste/sriracha, and seasoned rice vinegar should be offered as well.

To Eat: Pile on the herbs, sauces, etc. and barely stir them into the piping-hot broth. It will wilt the leaves, while maintaining some of their texture and providing lovely contrast between the spicy/sour/cool/herbal notes of the garnish and the warm/earthy/sweet/savoury notes of the soup.

Bon appetit!

Life in Montreal/ Slurpy Noodles (aka The Best Dish Ever)

I don't know why Elvis has a bandaid on his crotch. Probably tore his pants moving fridges.

Native Montrealers flock to run-down, old-timey second-hand stores for all their home appliance needs. The stale cigarette stench and glitter-plastered interiors are just a bonus. http://wikimapia.org/1695232/Ameublement-Elvis

First, you should know that Montreal apartments don’t come with fridges or stoves. Fucked if I know why. It’s not like 19 year-olds rolling out of college have savings lined up for the purchase of household appliances. They’re lucky if they’ve got beer money for the party next weekend. To make matters worse, we have had some of the weirdest architectural rules on the continent due to a sordid mix of terrible policy making, the mob, the church, the police, and the real estate board. That story requires a whole new post, but the gist is that you can’t get an apartment in the Plateau of Montreal without at least a flight or two of sketchy, half-broken, ice-covered external stairs that you have to move appliances up and down every time you bail on your lease in search of a noncorrupt landlord (good luck).  As a result of all this there is a thriving circulation of used appliances working its way through craigslist, second-hand stores, and the sidewalks of the student ghetto on the first of each month. None of which have ever made it into my home.

After careful consideration of the broken-ass stairs up to my third-story flat, my roomate and I decided that perhaps it would be best if we just got a mini fridge and hot plate rather than doing the traditional neck-breaking rite of passage that the locals endure to make it into their apartments.

This actually works surprisingly well for us, by and large. She mostly lives off my leftovers, I walk by three grocers on my way home from work, cold beer is available right across the street til 11pm. We have a system. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

But right at this moment, only the second burner on my ancient hotplate is working, and the fridge is turning everything into inedible blocks of ice. Except the PBR. It’s actually making the PBR drinkable. So after feeding ice carrots and shards of crystalized arugula to Lady Rattington (the local cute fuzzy thing), my guy and I sauntered off to the store in search of nosh. An hour later, we were home with fixings for the Best Dish Ever.

My friends, without further ado, it is my pleasure to introduce you to, literally, the best dish ever. What makes it so good? Let me count the ways!

  • It comes together in maybe 30 minutes.
  • It’s cheap.
  • You can get all the ingredients anywhere at any time of year.
  • There are a million substitutions you can make.
  • The most important ingredients are ones you can keep on hand in the pantry
  • It makes a ton or a little with about the same amount of effort
  • It is delicious. It’s literally stuff to write home about. People taste this shit and facebook it before they get to the second bite.

This is not so much a recipe as a serving suggestion, but I’ll do the best I can to make it clear enough for you to reproduce with reasonable success after a few tries.

Slurpy Noodles

Ingredients:

1 block Extra firm tofu, cubed
1 cup Dried shiitakes, soaked and sliced, or use fresh, or criminis, or whatever.
2 cups Greens- baby bok choy, soaked seaweed, kale, etc. I usually just go with one.
2 packs Noodles- the thick, vacuum-packed wheat noodles that stay inexplicably fresh outside of the fridge. They look like worms. Moreso when covered in saucy goodness.

Sauce:

1 tbsp Garlic chili sauce– careful, some brands have fish, etc. The measurement is a guide, adjust to taste
1 tbsp Tamari, or more at the end if things need more salt
1 tbsp Fermented tasty salty things- I usually use umeboshi, but fermented black beans work well
2 tbsp Mirin- preferably the real kind, can omit
1 tbsp Toasted sesame oil, plus more to drizzle over
2 tbsp Rice vinegar (use this to taste, be careful if using the seasoned variety cause it’ll throw off the balance of everything else)
Black pepper- I don’t know why, it just makes it for me.

Optional:

Peppers, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro and lime, hot peppers, sesame seeds, etc.

For this recipe to work, all you need to do is brown your mushrooms in a hot oiled pan, then add the tofu to brown lightly, then add the greens. Mix the sauce ingredients together and add with the greens, toss on a lid to steam it all for a minute or two, and then mix in a big bowl with your noodles (boil them first to loosen them up, or nuke them in a bowl of water). Easy peasy.

Slurpy noodles

Seriously. You’ve got to try them. The tastiest worms ever.