It’s in a section of a book called, “How to Have Balance,” this recipe that I am going to tell you about. Balance—something that exists for me, in large part, only in concept. It is an elusive concept, somewhat taunting. It’s mentioned in my “about” section as something I’m trying to “shift,” though I’ve never been good at it, really. I’ve always been much better at dramatically hurdling myself into or against whatever thing might have captured my interest or disgust at that very moment.
Luckily for me, this section about balance has more to do with eating armfuls of bread—stale bread, bread ends, pieces of neglected crusts, squishy insides that have turned rigid and unbending—than it does with “balancing” in grander philosophical terms. It starts with the ethos put forward by M.F.K Fisher in How to Cook a Wolf: “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” This gives us more flexibility in our notion of balance—we have more time to get there. It also gives us permission to eat meals solely of one ingredient, or primarily of one ingredient. It allows us to focus, more than it asks us to balance. The scales don’t have to weigh evenly at the same moment—they can even out over time. Bread, then, doesn’t have to be taken as an aside, and it also doesn’t have to be banished entirely from our culinary repertoires. Bread can find it’s place in the meal, as the meal. It can come back to us, transformed, in a new molten expression of its prior self. It can, interestingly, become soup.
“Great meals rarely start at points that all look like beginnings. They usually pick up where something else leaves off. This is how most of the best things are made—imagine if the world had to begin from scratch each dawn: a tree would never grow, nor would we ever get to see the etchings of gentle rings on a clamshell.”
This sentiment makes the task of beginning much more manageable—that we will begin not to finish, but so that we can continue later; that things will lead one to the other and elapse over time; that, cumulatively, we will reach a point which, in its apparent finality, asks to be another beginning, or a happily unresolved end. We won’t have to start from scratch, because nothing ever does.
This makes it acceptable to start something again or to pick it up where you left off. It makes leaving off or setting aside a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It allows you to gather the scraps of old bread that, hard as stone, were doomed for the compost, and to simmer them until they melt, in a warm sputtering tangle of leeks and onions and garlic and stock and parmesan rind, yielding soup. Soup that your ancestors would be proud of for its economy, and that your loved ones will lap up heartily for its richness.
The recipe for this soup is a very short paragraph in Tamar Adler’s book that contains no measurements, and only the suggestion of a rough timeframe. I will give you something more precise, but I can guarantee that you won’t need it. You will do much better if you cook this simply trusting yourself every step of the way. How much rosemary will make the soup taste medicinal? Is there enough bread? Should I add more oil? More salt? Will fennel work in place of celery?
Smell and feel your way toward these questions, because, quite simply, you’re not going to screw it up. Also because, significantly, it’s just stale bread. When you work with ingredients that are not precious, you immediately have permission to experiment and approach your task lightly. You will learn more about cooking this way, or at least I have, then if you were locked into a recipe whose precision makes you terrified to lift a spoon or to alter a proportion. I don’t like to cook under such rigid circumstances. It makes me feel estranged from my food and from the act of cooking itself—something that, at its best, is an intimate proposal for community.
Bread soup, as Tamar writes, is “somewhere between soup and solid.” I will also add that it is thick and moderately gelatinous; shimmering with olive oil and flecked full of herbs. The quality of your bread will contribute to the overall quality of the soup—I used a country levain which gave the soup depth and body from the sour, chewy loaf. A parmesan rind, thrown in to simmer with the rest, lends nuttiness. Fresh herbs balance the whole thing. Optionally, you can also whiz together in the blender a quick parsley sauce to drizzle over top. You know when the soup is finished when, as Tamar writes, it “thwart[s] attempts to classify as one [bread] or the other [soup] and, instead of trying, take it off the heat when it tastes good.”
She’s right. You will just know. And it will taste good.
Bread Soup with Herbs (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 leeks, washed well, bulb end trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, white and pale green parts thinly sliced, the rest reserved for stock
1/2 small, yellow onion, halved again and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, smashed with salt against the blade of a chef’s knife on your cutting board
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced (the original recipe calls for celery, if you have it)
4 cups stale bread, crusts removed, cut into large cubes (you can save the crust for croutons)
4 cups chicken stock (or any other kind of broth or stock you may have)
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 small sprigs rosemary, leaves taken off the stem, and then chopped
Parmesan rind (any size piece you may have)
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot, and add the leeks, onions, garlic, and fennel. Salt the vegetables right away, so they soften rather than brown. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and bread. Give it a good stir and then add the stock and the parmesan rind. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook the soup for 25–30 minutes, or until the bread is completely broken down and transformed. It should no longer resemble bread, nor should it look entirely like soup. Add water or other cooking liquid if the contents stick.
Taste the soup for seasoning, and remove the parmesan rind just before serving. Drizzle with olive oil, top with grated parmesan and cracked black pepper. Or drizzle with parsley sauce, parmesan, and pepper. The original recipe states that leftover bread soup can be formed into patties and fried in olive oil. We ate it the next morning for brunch with fried eggs on top.
Parsley Sauce (Adapted from An Everlasting Meal)
This sauce was excellent on the bread soup, and then incredible the next day when we brought it on an oyster-eating excursion. To have it on oysters, thin the original with a couple tablespoons red or rice wine vinegar and lemon juice.
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 garlic clove
Crush the garlic clove against the side of a chef’s knife with kosher salt until it forms a paste. Put the garlic in a blender or food processor with the parsley, another pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a hefty pour of olive oil, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Blend until mostly smooth.