Stone soup

A hungry traveller arrives in a village, and asks the people there if they have any food to share. They all say no. It is an all too common a story.

This particular traveller, however, does not leave the village defeated and hungry. He does not go on to die by the side of the road – though countless others in his situation certainly have. Instead, he fills a pot with water, pulls a stone out of his travel bag and drops it in, and places the pot on the fire. 

One by one, the villagers come to him, and ask him what he is doing. He explains that this is a soup stone, and that he making stone soup, which he would be happy to share – and which would be even better with the addition of some small ingredient. 

The villagers, who not so long ago claimed to have nothing, each add a little something to the stone broth, eventually creating a feast together – one which they share.

In case you never heard it before, the above is a boiled down version of the story of stone soup. I can still remember the first time my mother read it to me. Something about it moved me. The traveller was cunning, and the moral of the story resonated – but more significantly, I was amazed that that’s all there was to soup. I quizzed my mother to make sure I understood properly – that all you had to do to make soup was boil stuff. I was three or four years old, and am quite sure I’d never thought about where soup came from before. Soup, to me, was a rich flavored liquid, origins unknown, that warmed and satisfied on a cold day. And all you had to do to make it was boil stuff. That felt like magic to me.

All these years later, the ability to extract the essence of foods, and to combine them into complex, layered flavors still feels like magic. For years, I started with whole vegetables and chickens, but have had better results lately using food that used to go straight into the compost or garbage.

What I do is this: whenever I peel or chop vegetables or meats, I toss any bits that would usually be destined for the compost or garbage bin into a colander, wash them, then put them in a container in the freezer.  When I want to make stock, I throw the stone-like frozen scraps into water and boil. I made the last batch with corn cobs, chicken wing tips, carrot greens, onion skins, celery and carrots ends, carrot peels and some cauliflower leaves and carrot tops that didn’t make it onto the menu a few weeks ago. It was complex with a hint of sweetness – and, in the spirit of stone soup, it was a broth made in what some would perceive as the absence of food.

I used three cups “stone soup” broth to make one of my favorite soups – a spicy beer and cheddar soup. The final product really benefitted from the multitude of flavors in the broth, particularly the distinctive flavor of corn imparted by the corn cobs.

Spicy beer & cheddar soup (serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 serrano pepper (with seeds), sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 crushed clove of garlic
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 cup beer (I use a white beer)
  • 3 cups “stone soup” broth
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Mix mustard powder into vinegar and set aside.
  2. Sauté the onion, serrano pepper and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, until onion is translucent.
  3. Add in the celery and carrots, and sauté for about five minutes.
  4. Add in the beer and stone soup broth. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Melt the butter over medium heat in a deep skillet, and whisk in the flour.  Continue to whisk over medium heat for about 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture starts to turn a light shade of brown. Whisk in the milk, and heat until the mixture starts to thicken. Stir in the cheese, and once it’s melted, pour the cheese sauce into the soup and blend.
  6. Add in the mustard mixture, and salt and pepper to taste.
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Eating green

Last April, I bought some carrots.

I had just moved to the United States, and unlike the thick, woody carrots at our local market in Japan, these were small, organic, and topped with lush greens. They smelled earthy and fresh, and in the tradition of millions of grocery unpackers before me, I twisted the greens off to keep the carrots fresh longer. I was about to throw those greens away when a question stayed my hand:

Are carrot greens food?

Moving to California (a land of cheap, fresh food sold in massive quantities) had made Bonnie Lee and I keenly aware of how easy it would be to waste food here — something we were determined to avoid — and a quick search on the Internet told me that carrot greens are one of the many foods most people feed to the bin rather than to themselves. It’s a shame. Although they lack many of their bright orange roots’ charms, carrot greens have a distinctive bitterness that can add an unexpected accent to a meal, and which balances nicely with other strong flavours.

The first bunch of carrot greens I rescued ended up in some chicken soup stock — and that’s the way I use them most often. They add a layer of complexity to stock, and a healthy greenish tinge, though you still end up with solid waste when you use them that way.

My latest experiment with carrot greens was the Purée of the Whole Danged Carrot Soup (recipe below) that I made for lunch yesterday. I balanced the bitterness of the carrot greens with a good dose of white pepper, and some cider vinegar and honey. I decided not to blend the soup completely, so that little specks of green and orange would still be visible. That gave the soup a bit of crunch and freshness that I liked, but I can see some folks being put off by the texture. For a smoother version, I would suggest throwing a couple of ounces of cooked potato into the mix, and blending the soup more throughly.

Carrot greens also make a good addition to salads, and there are a few recipes for carrot green pesto out there (though I’ve yet to try those). Feel free to share any carrot green recipes, or improvements to my recipe, in the comments.

Purée of the Whole Danged Carrot Soup (1 serving)

Ingredients

Carrot greens are food too

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 4 oz carrots (diced finely)
  • 3 oz onion (diced finely)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Greens from carrots used above (diced finely, except for 1 sprig to be used for garnish)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • ¼ tsp white pepper
  • ⅛ tsp salt (or to taste)

Directions

  • Sauté the garlic, onions and carrots in the olive oil over medium heat, until the onions are translucent.
  • Add in the chicken stock and carrot greens, and heat until carrots are tender.
  • Remove soup from heat, and purée using hand mixer or blender.
  • Add in the honey, vinegar, salt and pepper; stir well, and warm soup back up to serving temperature.
  • Plate and garnish with carrot greens.
Associated reduction in the 222 million tons of waste produced annually
Per serving about 1 oz (the weight of the greens, assuming you would have eaten the carrots anyway)
If you eat this once a week 3¼ pounds per year
If everyone in the US eats this meal once over 9,500 short tons
If everyone in the US eats this meal once a week close to 500,000 short tons per year