Monday, April 28, 2014

Ugly Food.

There is no shortage of naturally beautiful food.  Any quick look online for vegetable-centric recipes will turn up thousands of images:  brightly colored carrots and peppers, enough shades of salad greens to fill a forest, vibrant pink-red beets, unnaturally bright yellow and orange citruses.  Most of the time, cooking vegetables lends color to the plate and a deep satisfaction to ones body as she eats.  The variety of colors and textures, by nature, are photogenic.  And Pinteresters, Instagrammers, Facebookers and the like are all happy to oblige.

broccoli mushroom soup

I have about half a foot in the digital world.  I enjoy photographing things as I've made them as a way to preserve the art form I generally consider cooking to be.  It gives me visual cues to remember them for the future.  My process of creation for the foods I choose to make are as important as the the final plating; I certainly give thought to how something will appear in the end, but I don't let it overtake my frugality or health-mindedness.  I like to think that anything can look beautiful if given the opportunity, but often, I don't brag about the ugly but sustainable foods coming from my kitchen.  The concoctions that arise from the seemingly empty refrigerator go unrecorded, and don't find a way to social media boasting.  The ugly foods are eaten quietly alone for lunch without fanfare, tasty but completely unsightly.

Late last week I did a thorough fridge cleaning.  I cleaned out dozens (I wish that were an exaggeration) of partially full jars, things that had turned and things that were just collecting dust and unlikely to be used due to age or contents.  I was left with a vastness in there: brightly lit glass shelves that I could see through once again.  I found a whole cabbage that had somehow gotten crowded out and pushed to the back, a couple of stalks of broccoli that I all of a sudden remembered buying when it was on sale last week, some mushrooms that needed immediate attention or imminent tossing.

Saturday I wished I had more broccoli as I remembered the impressively simple broccoli soup I had made from Franny's a while ago.  I even considered running out and getting more until I acknowledged the guilt I had for the rapidly decaying mushrooms now occupying their own clean shelf toward the front of the fridge - right where I could be reminded of their presence every single time I opened the door.  Why couldn't I make a broccoli-mushroom soup using Franny's method of hot-searing the ingredients on one side only?  Who cares if I was bound to consume a dirt brown bowl of soup, something I couldn't well be proud of sharing on the Internet...

broccoli mushroom soup

My great-grandmother made the best soup of foraged and dried mushrooms.  It too was kind of an ugly soup, creamy colored and studded with wrinkly rehydrated mushrooms.  It had plenty of tang from sour cream and vinegar, and my Mom is able to make a version that tastes just about like I remember - although I've never reproduced it myself with good luck.  I added vinegar to this soup in memory of that soupYou could even add a little more, but I was feeding a baby as well as myself and so opted for only a couple of tablespoons. 

Broccoli-Mushroom Soup (inspired by Franny's)
 yields about 6 cups
  • about 5 cups of broccoli, florets cut and the stalks trimmed and cut into small pieces
  • 8 oz. (give or take) crimini mushrooms, possibly of questionable freshness, caps only
  • 3-4 good sized garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium-large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • olive oil, at least 9 T.
  • unsalted butter, at least 3 T.
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 c. water
  • 1-2 T. apple cider vinegar
  •  asiago cheese (or other salty, firm Italian cheese) for serving
In a large dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over fairly high heat (I aim not to scorch the oil or send it to smoking and rendering it not quite as healthful).  Add about half the broccoli in a single layer and let it cook undisturbed for 3-4 minutes - until it is blackened on one side, bright green, and crisp-tender.  Transfer it to a large bowl, heat another 3 T. of olive oil and repeat. After transferring the rest of the broccoli to the bowl, dust it with kosher salt.  Then, heat a little more oil and arrange the mushrooms in a single layer, cap side up.  Put the lid on the pot and let the mushrooms cook for about 2 minutes, just until some moisture is released.  Then, flip the mushroom caps over, and continue cooking with the lid off for another 2-3 minutes until they are nicely roasted looking and somewhat dried out.  Transfer the mushrooms to the bowl with broccoli and reduce the heat under the pot to medium-low heat.  (Maybe give the pot a minute or two to cool down before continuing.)

Add some butter and maybe a little more oil to the pot, and add in the minced garlic.  Try not to let it brown.  After it cooks for a minute or so, add in the onions and a pinch of salt and saute for 4 minutes or so until they are nicely softened.  Add the broccoli and mushrooms back to the pot and add the water.  Taste, and adjust for additional salt, and grind in some black pepper.  Increase the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes until the broccoli and mushrooms are fully soft.

Remove the pan from the heat and blend with an immersion blender or in a blender until it is of the consistency you prefer.  Taste to adjust for salt, and add the cider vinegar to taste.  Eat as hot as possible, with plenty of grated asiago cheese.  (Cubing the cheese is also nice, as is a big spoonful of kefir cream...)

broccoli mushroom soup

The only way I can tell it is spring for sure (other than the date on the calender) is the bright green that has suddenly popped up in my lawn.  The trees aren't really even budding out yet, and overcast rainy days in the mid 30's or 40's has me perpetually thinking about the Nick Cave song that starts out "It was the dirty end of winter, along the loom of the land..."  The dirty end of winter is the time for dirty looking soups like these, vegetables that nourish and taste so good while not looking so good doing it.  It's the ugliest food, getting used up before the explosion of fresh, young things - and it's no less delicious. 

It reminds me of my most favorite, loathsome looking foods: army green pea soup made with dried split peas and bland and flabby looking pasties with cabbage and potatoes, cooked until the pastry is flaky but devoid of any life giving color.   The rhubarb kuchen made with the old industrially-colored workhorse rhubarb that springs to life every year at my parents house (not the pretty, pinky crimson variety favored by every food blogger on the planet), and beef soup made the way my forebears did it by combining everything (including the humbly brown, ground meat) with water and bringing it to a slow simmer with canned tomatoes and whatever else needs using up.  These are real life giving foods, although ugly - and they deserve at least these few moments in the Internet sun.


  1. Maybe I'll take a photo of my use up all the roots lentil soup that I made yesterday. Not pretty but super tasty and good for you too!

  2. Aw, I love this post, Rebecca. Hip hip for ugly foods. I think the soup sounds divine.

  3. The day you posted this, I read it as some food I pulled from the fridge came to room temperature. I had some bits and bobs languishing in there--mushrooms and leftover root veg gratin. I was planning on making soup with them all, just like you. And the resulting soup was grayish brown, utterly ugly, but so delicious. Quite possibly the same color as yours. I am about to eat some for breakfast right now! Cheers, to ugly food eaten alone, in all of its unphotogenic glory.


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