Soup and Salad, by Christina Robb, March 17, 1977

“Inflation and the craft revival have scored again. Soup kitchens are cropping up all over and, in all of them, cooks are turning cheap, leftover ingredients into great soups by sheer skill.

Because they’re unprocessed, salad ingredients have to be the freshest and tenderest in the market to be good. But the ingredients of soup are processed beyond recognition — spuds and water become vichyssoise — and the method is long and a key to good cooking.

Soup is really haute cuisine, the overture to the meal that must have ‘the taste of all in it,’ as William Cowper said of manna. But soup is also the food that saves the refugee and it’s what the house smelled like when you came home from school for lunch.

Campbell’s staple — barley — how I love it. I had some beef and barley soup at Fred’s, on Boylston street at Copley Square, last week and it tasted just like the Campbell’s I used to linger over on cold rainy days as a kid. The next day Fred’s served split pea like the split pea they gave us at school; I used to put so many croutons in it was really crouton stew. . .

Later I ate some cream of mushroom soup at the Stuart Street Chowder Society, in back of the Greyhound station at 326 Stuart St., Boston, and it was as light and creamy as any elegant sauce. That’s a real art one I haven’t got, I have to add. I am not a soup cook, but I am an accomplished consumer.

Soup is ritzy and gutsy, upper crust and down home. I chased good soup all over Boston last week and I found it almost everywhere I looked.

One thing that has happened during this current soup hype is that ye olde two-bit cut of soup has gone the way of the nickel Coke. The cup of beef and barley I got at Fred’s cost 59 cents; the cup of mushroom I got at the Chowder Society cost $1. Now $1 isn’t much, but it’s a lot more than a quarter.

The cheapest good soup you can find in Greater Boston is at your favorite diner — mine is at Brookline Lunch, 9 Brook-line St., Cambridge. The most expensive is no doubt some place that’s so exclusive that none of us has heard about it. I stopped when I got to the cafe at Soup-con, 1 Beacon st., Boston, where I paid $4.50 for soup, salad, a glass of milk and a cup of coffee, with tax and tip.

If price is no object, as it often isn’t when top dollar is $5, it’s still hard to say where the best soup is, because there are so many kinds and each takes a different art.

Take fish chowder, a New England great. The secret of chowder is adding the milk and the butter right at the end; the secret of fish chowder is not cooking the fish to smithereens. The No-Name on the Fish Pier serves chowder that’s almost as thin as milk and full of fish in big chunks. The fish chowder at Legal Sea Foods in Inman Square, Cambridge, has a thicker, creamy and buttery broth that completely overpowers the taste of fish. Both are wonderful, but for different tastes. And then there’s bouillabaise — is it French fish stew or soup?

Chowder, gumbo, borscht, bisque, pasta in brodo, cock-a-leekie, krupnik, pot-au-feu, muligatawny, gazpacho — there are dozens of great soups, but only two basic kinds: clear and thick.

Clear soups are made from meat or vegetable stocks and a great stock is the key to a great clear soup. Everything goes into stocks carrot tops, chicken feet, bones, gizzards, potato skins. Soup cooks keep a bag of leftovers for stock in their refrigerators and when they’ve got about a pound they stick it in a quart of water and low boil it for an hour or less. Lots of stocks can be frozen. Then when you use the stock, you cook it all day for soup.

Thick soups are made by adding a roux of flour and butter at the beginning, egg yolks and cream at the end, or starchy vegetables like beans, lentils and potatoes somewhere in the middle. Soups that get their thickness from vegetables often come out of blenders rather than pots. Blender gazpacho, later filled with diced chunks of celery, pepper and cucumber is a matchless tomato-y salad stew. Russian soups, like borscht, get thickness from sour cream that’s spooned in after it’s served.

Scandinavians like fruit soups, hot in winter and cold in summer. The Cafe Budapest, 90 Exeter st., Boston, serves a cherry soup, that’s so thick and light that I’ve never been able to pass it up and try any of its other soups. Papillon, 1353b Beacon St., Brookline, serves clear, fruit-laden, fruit soups to eat as you play backgammon and chess.

My longest soup search was for French onion soup, because the broth is so simple that it’s true colors show fast.

Soupcon, which served me the biggest bowl, dripping with melted Emmelthal-type cheese and full of big bread sops, all toasted under a grill before serving, had the least interesting broth.

Salad Days, on Charles street, Boston, didn’t grill the cheese and crouton filled cup, but the broth was wonderful it had the bite of the salt sea and a real parmesan twang. One Potato, Two Potato, 1274 Mass. av., Cambridge, had another very interestinq, less salty, more oniony bowl. Stockpot’s was too sweet somehow.

But, overall, I would put Stockpot at the top of the soup (and salad) list of the new butcher block soup kitchens for its quality and what soup looks like (soup needs to be pretty, too, after all.) Stock-pot’s bigger place is at 57 Boylston st., Cambridge, in the Galeria’s bottom floor. Its smaller, original branch is at 119 Newbury St., Boston, and closes early (8:30 p.m. — the Galeria ‘pot’s open till 10:30 p.m.).

Peasant Stock, 421 Washington st., Cambridge, always has interesting soup on the menu. And the Turtle Cafe, 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, served me a barley soup that was very delicately spiced and flavored with just enough salt and tomatoes that really tasted like tomato, and reminded me of rainy-day schooldays and sophisticated my palate at the same time.

Reflections, 10 Mt, Auburn St., Cambridge, serves terrific thick peanut soup. Slagel’s on Spring lane, Boston, and Scandia, 25 State St., Newburyport, serve memorable soups.

Wonton is the Chinese version of minestrone and I start almost every Chinese meal I have with it. Rendezvous, 24 Holyoke st., Cambridge, serves Vietnamese style egg lemon soup.

Salad is nature’s own convenience food. It’s fresh, delicious, interesting and it isn’t ‘cooked.’ It’s all just kind of laid there.

To face the task of becoming a fabricator of fine salads, you have to abandon the notion that cooking has to do with heat and stoves and planned miracles in pots under fire. Cooking is playing with food. Cooking salads is playing with cold, mostly raw food.

It’s important to know this, since these days you wind up making your own salad almost every time you eat out. Salad bars give restaurant customers a chance to cook for themselves without getting burned. And salads are cheap, low-cal, tasty and good for you — and good for the restaurateur looking for ways to cut the cost of materials and service without compromising quality.

What goes into a salad? The salad bars I’ve visited include iceberg lettuce, maybe spinach, maybe mushrooms, beets, radishes, onions, chick peas, kidney beans, carrots, peppers, celery, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, artificial bacon bits, croutons and maybe eight kinds of dressing.

The word salad comes from the Latin word for salt, which would lead you to believe that, in the beginning at least, what went on the salad was more important than what went into it. But that is not my view and it wasn’t Delmonico’s when he started serving salads in his revolutionary New York restaurant in the 1820s. The salad vegetables that the Swiss sea captain served in European style were fresher and more delicate than anything Americans had tasted away from their own spring gardens.

The things on the following list alone or in almost any combination would make a good salad:

Cold, boiled artichokes are a salad in themselves, dipped like chips in oil and vinegar. Avocado halves filled with mayonnaise that you’ve added a pressed clove of garlic to are so good that guests who eat them accuse you of having done something much more complicated. At Christmas or when you feel like it, you can add red lumpfish roe. Avocados are ripe when the little nub of a stem falls off easily when you push it with your thumb. Most avocados sold in Boston are much too hard and need a week on your kitchen window sill to ripen to the right softness. String beans, kidney beans, bean sprouts, bananas, beets, beet greens, mustard greens, celery greens, parsley, turnips, zucchini, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips, rutabagas, alfalfa sprouts (in the supermarket lately), red cabbage, cooked asparagus, chive, melon, grapes, pineapple, apple, citrus fruits, pears, peas, macaroni, potatoes, crab, fish, shrimp, beef, ham, chicken, anchovies, olives, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, chicory, Swiss chard, wheat germ, seeds, water chestnuts, rice.

Tomatoes aren’t on the list. I know everybody always puts tomatoes in salads. But in winter, the baseballs they send us from Florida, genetically trained to turn pink in gas chambers, don’t deserve to go into anything but garbage cans. I just don’t serve tomatoes in salads out of the native season any more; they’re too awful and juicy summer ones are too good to be reminded of in such a grotesque way. If you want something red in your salad, add a little pimento between October and May.

Onions aren’t on the list because I like to put them in the dressing instead of in the salad. That way, as the vinegary dressing sits around in the ice box, the onions get a little pickled and they seem to have more fun.

All dressings start with oil and (preferably) wine vinegar in the classic ratio of 3 to 1, unless they’re the Greek kind that start with yogurt and garlic (or chives). But they can go on to include egg yolks, tomato puree and any number of spices.

House dressings are often cherished, tightly kept secrets and there’s a long tradition of that. When my great-grandmother died, nobody knew how old she was and only my grandmother knew how she made her dressing. If you develop a sharp palate from paying attention to how things taste, you can usually figure out the special something that makes somebody’s dressing tick. Sometimes it’s lemon or garlic or a good blend of both. The secret of my great-grandmother’s dressing is lots of celery seed and a fat pinch of sugar. The other herbs in it are just what you’d expect of a souped-up vinaigrette: marjoram, sage, thyme, ore-gano, sometimes a dash of lemon peel, a little rosemary and a lot of basil, salt, pepper and the cut-up onion.

The secret of any good potato, macaroni, fish or shellfish salad is pickle juice. The genius it takes is deciding which kind of pickle juice goes in which salad on what day.

Decisions, decisions. Let us proceed to the lettuce debate. Everybody’s down on iceberg lettuce. It’s all water, dull, almost flavorless, they say. Spinach, romaine or Boston lettuce, endive, Chinese cabbage, tuber greens, Swiss chard — anything but iceberg lettuce should be the basis of a salad.

I have spent about four years of my salad-making career without iceberg lettuce — either because you couldn’t get it or because of a boycott — and I was not happy. And I will never get enough of it now that it’s around again, if it’s sometimes at heaven-help-us prices. What iceberg lettuce has, that no other lettuce approaches, is juicy crispness. That marvelous tactile quality is worth a loss in flavor, especially since you can make it up in other ingredients.

Most salad bartenders agree with me and base their offerings on iceberg lettuce. But for the few who want lots of flavor in their greens, and on them, the salads at the Turtle Cafe, 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, come in a fine variety. Peasant Stock, a mile northwest at 421 Washington St., Somerville, also serves t interesting, icebergless salads.

Salad Days, on Charles street, Boston, has the most generous and inclusive salad bar I found in Boston.

Blazing Salads sells salads in a Syrian bread pouch on City Hall plaza during the summer and year round at its Quincy restaurant, 1388 Hancock st.

Wayland House, on Rte. 20 in Wayland, has a salad bar some suburbanites say is tops.

Boca Loca, 1300 Cambridge St., Cambridge, serves cactus in its Nopalito salad.

The final question about salads is when to eat them. French people often eat salad after the main course, before desert. Californians almost always eat it first, before the soup, and the habit has spread east. I like to eat salad after the main course, because it’s a nice, fresh rest in the meal and because finicky wine-fanciers often don’t want to eat anything with vinegar in it while they’re enjoying wine. They say vinegar sabotages the taste of wine. I’ve only noticed this effect once or twice, but I guess it’s worth avoiding.

If you always eat salad last, or first, try eating it the other way tonight and see how you like it. Then try it again a week from now, when the novelty’s worn off and see if the salad isn’t fresher than ever.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of, The Boston Globe, “Soup & Salad,” by Christina Robb, March 17, 1977

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