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TODAY

Sunday, October 13

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Airbags

"I'm not getting sick," has become my mantra. As my co-workers fall one by one, as my to-do list continues to get longer, as the weather seems to have finally settled on really freaking cold, I've been muttering "I'm not getting sick" under my breath in a continuous loop. I don't have the time. I have so much to do. And I'd like to save my sick days for playing hooky to take care of the items on my to-do list, not coughing and wheezing and whining.

I'm taking my vitamins. I'm eating healthy. I'm staying as warm as possible. I'm not touching the railings on the train with my bare hands. But I figured I needed more insurance to help keep me healthy over the next few weeks. And then dinner on Friday night at a Korean restaurant let me know what my body has been craving.

Soups. Hearty soups, clear broth soups, soups full of vegetables. I'd grown tired of flipping through Julia Child's cookbooks. The Joy of Cooking just wasn't inspiring me, and Alton Brown must not have an obsession with soup. And as I got to the back of the cabinet I found just what I was looking for.

The Japanese Country Cookbook was tucked behind a barely-opened book on crepes. Smack dab in the middle of this book that was published by Nitty Gritty Productions in San Francisco in 1969, hidden in the red type that is printed on brown paper, are recipes for wonderful soups. They run the gamut from clear broth to thick and porridgy. They one thing they all have in common, is that they're simple and require just a few ingredients, and are intended to be prepared in about 30 minutes and then served. Perfect for weeknight dinners.

The one thing I needed to learn, before I could make any of these recipes, was to find out what shoyu is. The book was written by an American man who married a Japanese woman. So this led me to think that shoyu was just a pretentious way of saying "soy sauce." And I was close, but I discovered that there are two different types of "soy" sauce. There is Tamari, which is made solely from soybeans. Then there is shoyu, which is made from soy as well as wheat. Shoyu seems to be integral to Japanese cooking dishes, at least according to this book. I admittedly haven't done a lot of testing of soy sauce to discover the culinary differences between tamari and shoyu, but I plan on it.

I think I'll have plenty of time this winter to try lots of different soups.

Suimono: Clear soup

This is often used to precede a festive or formal dinner. It's not terribly filling, but is great as a quick warm pick-me-up.

4 cups of chicken or beef stock
1 teaspoon of shoyu
1 teaspoon of sugar
Dash of salt if needed

Combine everything in a pan and bring it to a boil.

In each of four small bowls, put a few tiny pieces of tofu, a sprig of parsley, a few small slivers of green onion, and a pinch of finely minced orange or lemon peel. Pour the boiling stock over and serve without spoons. It's customary to just drink soup straight from a bowl while picking out larger bits with your chopsticks.

Clam Soup
12-16 clams in their shells
5 cups of water
1 tablespoon of shoyu
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon of grated orange or lemon zest
4 very thin slices of orange or lemon

Wash the clams well to remove all of the sand or dirt. Boil the water to a boil and add the clams. Simmer until they open before adding the shoyu and the sugar. Taste to see if salt is needed. Stir in the zest. Place 3 to 4 clams in each bowl, pour the stock over the clams, and garnish with the slice of citrus.

Chicken Soup with Udon
5 cups of chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons of shoyu
Salt if necessary
12 dried shitake mushrooms that have been rehydrated in liquid or 12 fresh > shitake mushrooms
2 ounces of cooked udon noodles
1/2 cup of diced or chopped chicken (raw or cooked)
4 citron twists

Cook the udon first to prevent the soup from becoming cloudy. If you aren't worried about appearances you can cook the noodles in the soup. Boil the stock, add the shoyu, and taste before adding salt. Add the mushrooms, noodles, and chicken. Bring it to a boil and cook for a few minutes if the chicken was raw. Serve with the citrus twist floating on top.

You could tear a few small handfuls of spinach into pieces and cook that in the soup as well. Or you could crumble a sheet or two of nori (seaweed wrapper used for sushi) over the top of the soup for the last minute of cooking.

Shrimp Miso
5 cups of stock
1/2 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp
3/4 cup of white miso
1/2 pound of fresh tofu cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 teaspoon of fresh minced ginger
Dash of black pepper

Dice the shrimp coarsely. Boil the stock and then add the shrimp. In a separate bowl, make a paste of miso soup and a ladle of the hot stock. Once it's combined and smooth, pour the paste into the soup. Add the tofu carefully so it doesn't crumble apart. Bring until it is almost ready to boil and then ladle into bowls and serve with a garnish of fresh ginger and a sprinkle of black pepper.

Sliced Beef with Egg Soup
4 cups of beef stock
2 tablespoons of shoyu
1 tablespoon of sugar
1/2 cup of mirin (rice wine) 1 burdock or parsnip that has been peeled and sliced in 1/2-inch thick slices
3/4 - 1 pound of tender beef that has been sliced thin and cut into bite-sized pieces
4 eggs
Black pepper

Place the stock, shoyu, sugar, mirin, and burdock or parsnip into a large pot. Bring this to a boil and then add the meat. Simmer until the meat is finished. Meanwhile, whip the eggs in a separate bowl and begin pouring in a thin drizzle while the soup boils. Once the egg looks firm (this should only take a minute) the soup is finished and ready to serve with a garnish of black pepper.

Whether you're going for traditional French creamy soups that are perfectly smooth, or something a little more rustic, or even something with ingredients you've never tried before, making soup is often a simple, hearty, and affordable way to cook. And very rarely can you overcook a soup so even the most timid of cooks should be comfortable throwing a creative soup together.

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