Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Mama's Soul Food

It's been cold, really cold for NC (below freezing) for the past several days. As I was planning the week's menus last night, I thought back to the rich, comforting taste of my mother's homemade soup. One of the most delightful memories of my childhood is coming home from school, cold, hungry and tired and asking Mom, "What's for supper tonight?" The answer almost always made us happy, but nothing made us happier than to hear her say "Soup." Unless she said "Spaghetti," always my big favorite; while my sister's favorite was always soup. We all knew what she was talking about when she said soup, since it was the only kind of soup she ever made.

My mom was a utilitarian cook; her meals were plain, but they got the job done. She never cooked from recipes. Somehow she just always knew how to cook everything. I'm sure it was quite a challenge to stretch our meager food budget to suit everyone's tastes and needs (I was widely known amongst our large extended family as being a "picky eater"). My mother really didn't enjoy cooking, but lucky for us, she was a good cook even so. I always told my friends at school, "My mom is the best cook in the world."

Unfortunately, we never thought to get Mom to write down any of her recipes-- except her recipe for soup. I also have her recipe for what we called "Spanish rice," which I dragged out of her because I wanted to take it to a church potluck. (Thank God she still remembered how to make it!) Actually, I remember that day very well. I was home from college on Christmas Break, and I had asked my mom if she'd give me the recipe. She said she'd try to remember. When I woke up the next morning, Mom had gone to work already, but stuck to the fridge (our family's time honored way to communicate with each other) was her handwritten recipe for the rice dish. I still have that handwritten note. The Spanish Rice was a huge hit at church.

If my mom's squash was the taste of summertime, her soup was the taste of winter. But it was the taste of so much more: of comfort, warmth, and love: the taste of home. When my sister went off to college, my mom went back to work as a nurse. That meant that she cut back on long-cooking foods like spaghetti, pot roast, and of course, soup. But when my sister came home for vacations, Mom always made a big pot of soup for her. This recipe is not fancy-- it is very simple and has unfashionable ingredients to our sophisticated palates today, like cabbage and rutabaga. Ingredients which must have been economical and allowed Mom to stretch her precious food dollars and delight us at the same time. My mom may not have been a fancy cook, but she knew what was good.

Today my mom, Elsie Brooks Brown, is almost 79 years old. She lives in a retirement home in Durham. She's in pretty good health and is still able to drive. We are very blessed to have her still with us. She pretty much gave up cooking about 30 years ago. My dad was working a lot of overtime at the plant and I was busy with all my afterschool activities, so we were rarely all home at the same time-- hardly worth the bother for my mom to cook actual meals.

But just one spoonful of Mom's soup takes me back to the days when we were all together, when our parents were young and happy. It reminds me that however hectic and chaotic and full of teen angst life may be, as hard as it is to juggle work and home, this is the good stuff right now: the times we'll look back on with fondness. Of course, the "empty nest" years will have their own particular sweetness, so there's plenty of good stuff ahead, too: just different good. And I do treasure this time. I know how fast the next three years are going to pass. Then my son will be off to college. Of course, he'll be home for vacations, and I'll cook all his favorite foods-- but he'll never really live at home again.

This soup is my mother's soul food. It is food that now feeds my family's soul. It will always be the taste of home, of my mother's love.

This simple soup shows that you don't need lots of seasonings to make a good soup.

Elsie's Vegetable Soup

2-3 lbs. of boneless beef short ribs
1 lb. beef marrow bones
1 rutabaga, quartered (peel first if waxed)
1 small head green cabbage, tough outer leaves and core removed, sliced into ribbons
1 onion, chopped
2 14 oz. cans Hunts diced tomatoes

3 stalks celery, sliced
3-4 carrots, sliced
6 0z. pasta (elbows, pipettes, etc.)
3 qt. (approximately) water
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the short ribs, marrow bones, rutabaga, cabbage, onion, celery, carrots, and tomatoes 1 t. salt, and black pepper to taste in a large stockpot. Add water to cover generously. Bring to a boil and cook at a slow boil, covered, for 1 1/2 hrs., or until meat is tender. Taste the broth. If it tastes too watery, remove the lid and bring to a rolling boil so that some of the liquid can evaporate. If the broth is flavorful, add the pasta. Boil for 10 more minutes, or until the pasta is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the marrow bones and the rutabaga.

My blissful soup making experience turned out to be different than I expected.

The first challenge I faced was that Whole Foods did not have any boneless short ribs. Usually the butcher offers to cut some for me, but not today. I was stuck getting the ones with the bones. I was able to find some very nice marrow bones, however.

The next thing that happened was that my timing got completely thrown off when I arrived home at about 6:30 p.m. with the groceries. DS called from his band's rehearsal to say he needed a ride home, which I hadn't expected. I rushed home, and DC helped me drag the groceries into the house. And then I had to go pick up DS, which took about 20 min.

By the time I got the groceries put away and was finally ready to start cooking, it was almost 8.

So I decided that to save some time, I'd cook the beef and bones in the pressure cooker for 25 minutes or so while I was getting the veggies ready to go.

Short ribs in the pressure cooker

Adding the marrow bone

After adding water, salt and some oil to help de-scummify the pressure cooker so it won't clog.

Beef simmering in the pressure cooker at high pressure.

A closer look at the pressure guage

For those of you who have never seen one, this is a rutabaga. It's kind of like a cross between a turnip, a carrot, and a potato in flavor. This one had wax on it, so I had to peel it.

Peeled rutabaga in the veggie pot

This is how I cut the carrots for this soup

Carrot, celery & rutabaga in the pot

My cabbage was not very green. I had already removed the tough outer leaves.

You can see the core in the center of the cabbage

I've removed the core from one half of the cabbage and cut it into two pieces

Almost done slicing the cabbage into ribbons. This was a pretty big cabbage, so I only used 3/4 of it.

Cabbage and tomatoes added to the pot

Veggies are simmering

Something pretty amusing happened while I was cutting up the veggies. Huckleberry, our dog, was keeping a watchful eye on me, in case I needed him to police the area. Proving that he has unshakeable faith that anything that falls from the counter is utterly delicious and much better than dog food, he actually ate the rutaba peel I dropped on the floor enroute to the trash can.

Huck eating rutabaga peel

My timesaving scheme would have worked well, except that I added too much water to the vegetables. So once the beef was cooked, and I added it and the beef broth to the vegetables, it was WAY too watery. Which meant that I had to spend the next 1/2 hour or so boiling the broth down. It would have been a great idea to boil down the beef broth by itself, since there was less in that pot, but I didn't think of that until too late!

Beef is done and ready to add to the veggie pot

The soup was kind of pallid tasting so I added the bones to it so it would get more flavor while cooking down

And then, once the soup was done, I had to pick all meat and bones out, so I could separate the meat from bones and that kind of yucky connective tissue that attaches it to the bone. It was hot so it took a while. I also cut the meat up into smaller pieces (that would fit on your spoon better!)

The soup is done; I've removed the marrow bones and the rutabaga

HOT meat and bones to separate!

Meat ready to add back to the pot

Again, I'm pretty lucky: my guys are usually pretty patient while I'm in the kitchen. Although DS did ask so many times when dinner would be ready I finally said, "Look, I don't know-- it's not as if the soup and I have a contractual agreement!"

I had plenty of time to make some from-scratch buttermilk biscuits while I was waiting, and I will post about them shortly.

But in the end, the soup finally got ready, and it was delicious! Worth waiting for.

Finished soup

Homemade soup and from-scratch buttermilk biscuits: YUM-O!


  1. There's nothing better than hot soup in the winter.

    That soup reminds me of my mother's "Cocido de Res" (Mexican version I guess) it's a beef soup with a medley of vegetables eaten with corn tortillas or alone. (kinda like how yours is a beef stew to and instead of tortilla it's biscuits)

    You might like to check out my mother's beef soup:

  2. I saw that recipe, and am looking forward to trying the Cocido de Res. It looks SOOO GOOD. I am going to make the Potaje de Frijoles Colorados, in the next day or so. I really enjoy eating bean stews/soups.


Go ahead! Make my day! I LOVE comments!

I try to respond to every comment. I usually answer comments Right Here, so check back. If you are new to DomesticMuse, Welcome, and I will be by to visit your blog soon!

Chi miigwetch SCL: thank you to my son for creating this logo
CLICK to enlarge image