For the longest time, I believed my mom’s story about nail soup. Maybe still do. I mean, why not? It rang with details of authenticity, even if every time she told it, the notes of taste, texture and flavour would bubble dreamily from hot to cold, sweet to sour, brothy to big — and more. Why? Because that was the magic of always anything-and-everything delicious nail soup.
She told me that she learned about nail soup one summer Monday when she was hanging sheets on a backyard line, locking them in place with big wooden pegs, as nought but a soft zephyr blew in from the south. Enough to dry sheets, towels and knickers in a minute.
As sometimes happens in small country towns, where things used to be laid back and easy, a stranger came into the yard that Monday, a friendly-faced, hard-done-by elderly gentleman who, after extending compliments to mother and her wash, asked if he might exchange an hour of work around the garden for a lunch — nothing more than a bowl of soup. And because things rarely went awry in those small country towns, she thought that was a pretty good offer, and gave him a shovel.
He smiled and thanked her, but before he began, he dipped his hand into a pocket, and produced a shiny four-inch nail. “This,” he said, “is a magic nail. And with it, I can make the finest soup you’ve ever tasted … If you could take it inside and cover it in a pot filled with six cups of water, I’d be most grateful.”
Mother took the nail and filled the pot with water, and the stranger went to work. Fifteen minutes later, he called into the kitchen: “Missus. Would you happen to have a nice big onion you could cut up and throw into the pot? It will make the magic happen even better. And a carrot or two will help. So will a leg or diced breast of chicken. Salt and pepper too. And maybe a bay leaf, and some fresh herbs right from the garden. Turn on the heat under the pot and let it boil away while you finish hanging the washing.”
And all the while, the stranger dug away in the garden.
As my mother told it, there were many other things that went into the nail soup that washday Monday. Special seasonings from the back of the cupboard, a splash or two of white wine, some soy, even fresh noodles. They all bubbled together, the four-inch nail clanking away against the bottom of the pot.
An hour later, the stranger looked at the newly dug garden, then at his watch. “Reckon the soup’s ready,” he said. As my mother told it, he ate two big bowls of nail soup, along with four slices of bread loaded with butter. When he had finished, he thanked her, and said: “Now I’ll be on my way. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take my nail.”
As she told it, by the time she had taken the wash from the line and folded it all fresh-smelling and nice into her wicker basket, the stranger had gone. Down the hill, around the corner by the church, and away on the soft summer wind.
I’ve had this recipe around since the days we used to dig for clams on the generous beaches of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, letting them clean themselves overnight in a pot of oats. You may be doing the same thing where you are; or, if not, you’ll have access to a store where you can pick them up in a can. I won’t get involved in the everlasting white thick vs. red thin chowder argument. Both are great!
250 g bacon, diced
Oil, to taste
2 large onions, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
2 cans baby clams
1 can clam nectar
3 cups water
4 new potatoes, unpeeled, less than bite-sized
Flour, butter, and cream for a thickening roux
In a large pot, fry the bacon over medium heat until less than crisp. Pour off most of the fat. Add a splash or two of oil and simmer the onion, celery, herbs and spices. Add the clams, the nectar and water.
Add potatoes, bring to boil, them simmer over low heat for an hour or so.
Make the roux in a pan and add to the chowder. Simmer another hour. For extra whitening and body, you may wish to add some cream, milk powder and white wine.
Serve with a hearty bread and some white wine.
boneless chicken congee
My friend Stephanie Yuen of Vancouver, who knows everything about Asian food and cooks it with enviable grace, made congee from scratch at a dinner at our place last summer. It’s remarkably simple and particularly flavourful. Is it the ginger? Or what? Whatever, it’s certainly delicious.
1 2.5- to 3-lb chicken, rubbed inside and out with 1 tbsp sea salt and stuffed with 3 stalks of head-on green onions and 6 1/4 inch long slices of fresh ginger. Set aside in a cool area away from the sun or heat for 40 minutes
1 1/2 cups long grain rice (you can add or reduce the amount of rice depending on how thick you like your congee)
3 pieces dried scallops (optional; available in Chinese markets)
Cold tap water to fill 2/3 of a 12 qt stock pot
1/2 cup chopped green onion
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tsp sesame oil and 1 tbsp light soy sauce, poured into a small bowl
Place stuffed chicken, rice, dried scallops and water in the stock pot, cover and bring to a boil. Remove cover and let it boil for 15 minutes on high, reduce to medium high and cook uncovered for 45 minutes.
Make sure to cook the congee on high heat so the chicken keeps rolling in the pot, to avoid sticking to the bottom and to allow the meat flavour to penetrate into the congee.
Transfer chicken from pot to a dish, wait for 5 to 10 minutes. Using two soup spoons, remove and discard skin, debone and shred as much meat as possible. Return shredded meat to pot and cook for 10 minutes on high. Discard the bones.
Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 5 minutes, turn off heat. Serve in individual bowls, drizzle on sesame oil and soy mixture and garnish with green onion and cilantro.
While you’re working, sip and savour a single malt scotch.
gazpacho with avocado salsa
A variation on the traditional classic, I borrowed this one from 400 Best-Ever Soups (Hermes House). Cold, fresh tastes for a summertime lunch. (And the story about the restaurant patron who called the waiter to complain that his gazpacho was freezing cold is not true!)
2 slices day-old white bread, cubed
600 ml chilled water
1 kg fresh tomatoes
1 red bell pepper, halved, seeded and chopped
1 fresh green chilli, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
30 ml extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lime, 1 lemon
A few drops Tabasco sauce
Salt and ground black pepper
8 ice cubes to garnish
Handful of basil leaves, to garnish
for the croutons
2 slices day-old bread, crusts removed
1 garlic clove, halved
15 ml olive oil
for the avocado salsa
1 ripe avocado
5 ml lemon juice
2.5 cm-piece cucumber, diced
1/2 red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
Place the bread in a large bowl and pour 150 ml of the water over it. Soak for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, place the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds, then cool and remove skins and seeds; finely chop the flesh.
Thinly peel the cucumber, cut in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Discard the inner part and chop the flesh.
Place the bread, tomatoes, cucumber, red bell pepper, chilli, garlic, olive oil, citrus juices and Tabasco in a food processor with the remaining 450 ml chilled water and blend until well combined, but still chunky.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and chill for 2 to 3 hours.
To make the croutons, rub the slices of bread with the garlic clove, cut into cubes and place in a plastic bag with the olive oil. Seal the bag and shake until the cubes are coated. Heat a large, non-stick pan and fry the croutons over medium heat until crisp and golden.
Just before serving, make the avocado salsa. Halve the avocado, remove the pit, peel and dice. Toss in the lemon juice to prevent browning, then place in a serving bowl and add the cucumber and chilli. Mix well.
Ladle the soup into four chilled bowls and add a couple of ice cubes to each. Top each portion with a good spoonful of the salsa. Garnish with the basil and sprinkle the croutons over the salsa.
Champagne before you begin.
hot and sour prawn soup
You may have noticed in your travels that hot tastes often go with a hot climate; that when summer comes, we’re quite happy to splash on the fiery sauces, knowing that the sweating that follows — especially when there’s a cool breeze beneath the palm trees — will help to cool us down. I went to my Bangkok connection for this soup, a recipe that will have four of you breathing chilli fire.
500g uncooked prawns
2 small red chillies, chopped
1 tbsp sliced fresh lemongrass
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 tsp fish sauce
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tsp sugar
4 shallots, chopped
425 g can whole straw mushrooms, rinsed and drained
Make from scratch — see below — or purchase canned at an Asian market.
500 g white fish bones
2 1/2 litres water
2 stems lemongrass, chopped
1 small red chilli, halved
4 dried Kaffir lime leaves (available at an Asian market)
3 pieces dried galangal (available at an Asian market)
To make the stock, combine all ingredients in a pan, bring to a boil, simmer covered for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
To make the soup, shell prawns, leaving tails intact. Measure 6 cups stock into a pan. Add prawns, chillies, lemongrass, ginger, sauces, juice, sugar, shallots and mushrooms.
Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered until prawns are tender.
Serve with a frosty glass of Singha beer.