Foretaste: An excerpt from Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s new cookbook
Alexis Soyer was perhaps the first celebrity chef who felt compelled to reach beyond the elites he was paid to feed. A Frenchman from Meaux, and chef to the British aristocracy for many years, he decided to do his bit for the Irish famine in 1847, the same that would eventually kill nearly a million Irish.
He opened a soup kitchen in Dublin on behalf of the British government, where he premiered what he called a famine soup. The recipe, at least in the version reported at https://sortedfood.com/recipe/10727, is not to my taste (200 gm of salt for 450 gm of beef?), but perhaps something was lost in translation.
Or perhaps there is some truth to the allegation that Soyer was chosen because he was willing to work with the very stingy amounts that the British were willing to spend to save Irish lives. This was certainly an era when the powers that be in Britain worried that anything done to make the lives of the poor easier would encourage them to stop working; this was the express justification, under the new poor law of 1834, for shutting down soup kitchens.
The famine forced some relaxation in Ireland, but this entirely unfounded accusation – there is really no evidence that starving makes anyone work harder – continued to drive British colonial policy on famines (and poverty, more generally) for many years after that.
During the Great Deccan Famine of 1876–78, for example, the explicit policy was to minimize ‘gratuitous’ relief (i.e., relief that did not come with an explicit requirement to work long and hard days). Some five million people starved to death in those two years, but one still hears the inheritors of the British colonists in Delhi drawing rooms harrumphing about how we have to stop the dole (what a horrible word) because it makes the poor lazy.
But that is another story and another book. For now, I just want to underscore the connection between poor relief and soup: it’s a soup kitchen, not a bread kitchen, nor a gruel kitchen. My guess is that this is because soup has the capacity to be all things to everyone. To the ‘concerned observer’, who reads about the soup kitchens in the press, soup is how she remembers it: softness and succour, warmth in winter and cooling in the summer. The platonic ideal, rather than its Soyerian manifestation.
To the penny-pinching economist, it offers the possibility of working with the cheapest ingredients. Minestrone starts from a small piece of salt pork, which somehow casts a magic spell on a potful of carrots, celery, cabbage, courgettes and cannellini beans....
Throw in whatever you have – leftovers, bits of bone and gristle, some ageing carrots that you found in the basement, at a pinch even a few extra cups of water. Give it time, set it on a slow simmer or let the flavours meld together in the fridge, and it will probably still taste okay.
That is, I would imagine, how a lot of these soups got invented. A cook who needed to stretch the food out a bit dunked some dry bread in a bowl of chopped tomatoes or threw some ageing chickpeas into the broth that was simmering, and a small miracle happened.
The point here is not that you can save money by cooking soup – you could surely save more by not buying this book and spending it on boiled eggs and bananas – but to underscore the pleasure of getting something wonderful from (almost) nothing.
Instead of throwing away those chicken bones, that piece of Parmesan rind or that sagging celery, think of what delight you might be missing.
TOMATO & STRAWBERRY GAZPACHO
This is for a fancy lunch or dinner (though if truth be told, I serve it for all kinds of meals and it’s always a winner). Serve it to that person in your life (there is always one) who positions himself as a foodie, but secretly yearns for the easy comfort of the sweet and sour. It will simultaneously play to his aspirations and provide solace to his tongue
3” piece of baguette, peeled (using a bread knife slice off about 2 mm from every side of the baguette and the two ends. It should be mostly crust-less by now, and you will see how to remove the rest of the crust) and sliced in 4
Tomatoes, cored and quartered, about 2 cups or ½ kg in total. (If you want to avoid the occasional piece of tomato skin, you can throw them in boiling water for 20 seconds and then drop them in ice water. It should be easy to peel the skin off now.)
2 cups strawberries, with the green part removed, about ½ kg
1 level tsp coarse salt (or about 2/3 tsp regular salt), plus more if you think it needs it (I think it does.)
1 medium clove garlic
4 tbsp good-quality extra virgin olive oil. (Olive oil gives the whole thing taste, so use a nice oil that is rich flavoured but not too sharp)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped red onion
2/3 cup coarsely chopped green pepper
1 tbsp good-quality aged balsamic vinegar (Aged balsamic vinegar is sweeter and brings out the sweet of the strawberries. If you don’t have any, use 1 tbsp regular balsamic vinegar.)
A few turns of your pepper grinder
¼ cup soft and fresh goat cheese, frozen for a couple of hours
Lay the bread at the bottom of a bowl and cover it with the rest of the ingredients, other than the goat cheese. Put in the fridge to meld together for, say, an hour.
Take it out of the fridge, blend till you stop seeing bits of tomatoes, onions or green pepper. Add ½ cup of ice-cold water, blend again and pour into a bowl. Serve in small glass or light-coloured china bowls that will highlight the colours of the soup with the frozen goat cheese grated over the top as a kind of snow. A pinch of crushed pink pepper, used as a garnish, will add both taste and colour. Feeds 3 in small portions as a starter for an elegant dinner. Doubles effortlessly.
(Excerpted with permission from Cooking to Save Your Life by Abhijit Banerjee with illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier, published by Juggernaut Books)