Someone once said that if you need to make more of a dish, just add to it whatever you have most of. That would hardly ever be beef steaks or lobster. Water? No problem.
To feed a crowd on a little, make soup. That’s why we have soup kitchens, but not roast chicken kitchens.
Still, despite its potential for a downscale image, soup is popular stuff, and can be very rich and elegant, as well as thin and paltry. Soup and salad. Soup by the bowl or cup, soup and a sandwich, or soup and half a sandwich, soup for the first course, soup du jour; no eatery of any repute would dream of not having soup on its menu.
Soup is a mainstay of our weekly community lunches at the Baptist Church Fellowship Hall. A variety of soups offered up for the public delectation works as a fundraiser for a class trip. Our preschool sells fabulous seafood chowder on Election Day in the fire station next to the public safety room where we vote. People buy a lunch-sized portion, then buy a couple of quarts to take home.
Soup is my favorite lunch in cooler seasons—a hot concoction, usually of some sort of leftover vegetation, scraps of meat and beans or grain. Today, for example, en route to a frozen chicken deep in one of my freezers, I bumped into a quart-sized yogurt container with a tape label on top announcing that “Zucchini Soup” was inside. Hmmm, I thought, and brought it upstairs to thaw on the shelf of my wood-burning cookstove.
Somewhere along the line, I had already added some kind of broth to a lot of grated and cooked zucchini and seasoned it with dill and onion. It tasted just fine as it was, and I could’ve stopped right there, but I had a dab and a half of leftover cassoulet which I couldn’t bear to throw out, plus about half a cup of cooked farro, that newfangled, ancient grain that we are all talking about now. In they went. The cassoulet contributed depth, and the farro added a little needed substance.
And that is usually how it goes. I look in the fridge to see what bits and pieces might get along nicely and go from there. Leftover mashed potatoes get onions, corn and milk added to make imitation corn chowder. Sometimes, just a little mashed potato smooths out a rough-edged mixture: I had the start of homemade tomato soup, just a little sour still, but the mashed potatoes straightened it right out. Leftover baked beans with some leftover spaghetti sauce added and some beef broth is awfully good.
Some combinations, though, I don’t mess with. Real chowder, for instance, or bean swaggon.
Real chowder has to have salt pork, onions, potatoes, fish or shellfish and milk or cream. You can use corn you want, because somehow corn stands in for shellfish from time to time. Manhattan chowder is a real chowder, but it is not our chowder because it has other vegetables in it and leaves out the milk.
Of the species called chowder, there is a variety found both in some parts of coastal Maine and Rhode Island that has no milk, but rather relies on the broth created by adding water to the ingredients. That chowder is a relic of our earliest chowders; milk was rarely added to chowder in New England until the 1800s, and the chowders of Maine coast fishing stations in the 1600s and earlier, and of everyone else through the 1700s, were not milky. They were thick with ingredients, but had a broth, not a gooey cream sauce. I learned here on-island that evaporated milk is requisite for chowder; it’s a wonderful addition, and I always use it. We will pass over the issue of pilot crackers for our chowder, because it is too painful a loss to dwell on.
Just because some kind of soup is thick doesn’t qualify it as chowder. We have to have some standards, you know, and I think we ought to stick to our guns on the matter of what is real chowder and what is merely thick soup.
Bean swaggon is thick, but not chowder, and a lot more delicious than you might think. All it has in it are beans, water, onion, salt pork and milk. And you don’t have to use salt pork. With a batch of bean swaggon, you can feed a large group inexpensively, such as a camp full of lumbermen, or a family of 12. It is a hopeless cause, I finally concluded, to try to figure out why it is called swaggon. If you know, you can tell me. Here’s the recipe.
1 to 2 pounds of dry beans
¼ to ½ pound of salt pork (optional)
1 small onion chopped
1 ½ to 3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper
Dice the pork and put it with the beans—not soaked—and onion in a large Dutch oven or other heavy cook pot. Cover with cold water and cook for a two to three hours over medium heat, covered, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the beans soften. Add plenty of water as needed. When the beans are completely soft and begin to break up, cut the heat to very low, remove the pot cover and add the milk and butter. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve when heated thro ugh. Serves eight or so.