I don’t know if this is the same for everyone else but, to me, Cream of Mushroom Soup is inextricably linked to being off sick from school. Regardless of the ever-growing gulf of time between now and that period, the association never lessens; either Mushroom or Chicken soup, heated from the can, were the first things considered safe enough to consume after a bout of nausea; the canary in the coal mine of post-sickness meals, presumably on the basis that they went down and if necessary, up easily.
Despite this rather grim connotation (and unlike a similar one with jelly which, due to an upsetting incident I don’t clearly remember at a children’s party some time in the mid ’80s, I can’t touch to this day. Even a pork pie is a stretch) my feelings towards Cream of Mushroom Soup are wholly positive, perhaps because it signifies being on the mend, and things looking up, or maybe simply because it’s filled with comforting flavours: cream, a little too much salt, stock and the irresistible earthiness (what someone who either knew more about food, or was more gullible than me might call ‘Deep Umami Flavours’) of mushrooms.
Despite all this, it’s not something I’ve ever made. I rarely think of soup when considering something to have for dinner. It somehow seems an anti-food; a starter at best, but not even a fun one (I have never, ever been one to order the soup at a restaurant, when tasty scallops, creamy pates or hammy delights might be on offer instead), with the exception of Japanese Ramen, or Vietnamese Phô, both of which fill me with a kind of wonder that I can’t fully explain. Every time I DO take the plunge and make some though, I realise I am the fool of the world, and a home-made soup is a wonderful thing that, alongside a passable loaf of bread and a substantial salad, has as much right to be called a meal as anything else.
I slightly bent the half-hour with this one by sticking a couple of chicken carcasses (I keep a rather gruesome bag of them in the freezer) in the stockpot at breakfast time, but you could easily use some pre-prepared stock or, at a push, a cube (I have a feeling Nigel takes a dim view of powdered or cubed stock and, for a meal like this, where it constitutes the bulk of the recipe, I’d tend to agree, though I often use the fake stuff for flavouring, heathen though that may be) if you were in a hurry or caught short. Whatever the case, you’ll need 900ml of it.
The other thing that slightly stretched the time limit on this one is the prep: there are those out there who may be able to finely chop an onion, a clove of garlic and 225g of mushrooms (which is a lot) in two minutes, but my knife skills aren’t quite there, so I stuck the radio on and took my time with it.
Anyway, I sweated finely chopped onion, garlic and mushrooms (lovely, big portobellos) in a very generous slice of butter, til the liquid from the mushrooms had evaporated and the onions had softened somewhat (if I wasn’t up against it with this, I must say, I’d probably give the onions and garlic fifteen or twenty minutes on their own before adding the mushrooms), and then added a couple of tablespoons of flour, which fried away for a few minutes to make a pretty rough roux. Atop this, I poured the stock, and let the whole lot simmer, the flavours melding, for a generous ten minutes. I added a 50/50 mix of cream and milk to the tune of around 500ml, blended the lot with a stick blender, then added generous grating of nutmeg, and an even more generous helping of salt and pepper, which immediately bought the thing to life.
The recipe didn’t stipulate any further simmering, but I was ahead of time, so I did a little, just to thicken the soup up a touch, not to the gelatinous degree of the canned stuff, but enough for it to cling pretty determinedly to the back of a spoon.
We ate the results alongside a (rather too) freshly baked loaf of bread and a large salad of gem leaves, watercress, pea shoots and avocado, spiked with microscopically thin slices of raw onion, long ribbons of parmesan and a generous glug of french dressing (vinegar, oil, honey, mustard).
It felt rather inappropriate eating such an earthily wholesome soup on a warm August evening, but it was undeniably delicious, and definitely provided all those aforementioned nostalgic comforts.
If nothing else, it provided a useful reminder: Make More Soup.
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