Mother Nature's Comfort Food
Soups have a long and richly deserved reputation for being a comfort and a “cure-all
Soups have a long and richly deserved reputation for being a comfort and a “cure-all.” As long as soup is not subjected to prolonged cooking at high temperatures, the carbohydrates, proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients are still available. Simple and delicious soups need neither culinary training nor labour to provide you and your family with satisfying health “boosters.”
One way to add both flavour and nutrients is to rediscover the age-old art of making soup stocks. Most culinary traditions have their own distinctive stocks which add a special nuance to exotic soups. You can start a stock using fresh whole vegetables, which have more nutrients the closer they are to harvest. Those commonly used include potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, squash, parsley and parsnips. It’s wise to avoid members of the brassica family such as cabbage, cauliflower and rutabaga as they have a strong flavour. You can also affect the colour of the stock by using or avoiding beets.
Vegetables are coarsely chopped and added to a large pot of water. For stronger or more unusually flavoured stocks, add garlic, ginger or tomato to the pot. After the vegetables have simmered to a soft state, remove the vegetable chunks so that a clear stock remains.
An economical stock is made with fresh parsley stems, potato peels (as long as they’re not green), carrots, the tough portions of celery or bok choy, shiitake mushroom stems and unused onion pieces. Many “scraps” that often end up in the compost can also be added to the stock pot. The trick is to remember to throw these scraps into a pot of water as you make something else with the rest of the vegetable parts. Add whole peppercorns, some apple or pear quarters and a couple of bay leaves to make a rich and flavourful base for a wide range of soups. This stock can be frozen for later use.
Waste Not Want Not
Vegetable stocks are a great way to use vegetables which may be slightly past their prime but still rich in nutrients. The underlying philosophy to what my mother called “refrigerator soup” is to draw the nutrients out of what would otherwise go to waste. By simmering these vegetables in a pot of water, you create a nutrient- and flavour-infused bonus for your next soup or stew. And given that you are starting with a rich base, simple soups will allow you to enjoy the flavour and nutrition of the individual ingredients.
There are also some specific items that you can include in your soup which can really boost its healing properties. Miso is a rich paste which ranges from dark reddish brown to light caramel in colour and can be found in most health food stores. An anticarcinogen, miso has a long and well-documented history of countering the effects of environmental pollutants–felt by some to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of cancer. In order to enjoy the benefits of miso, it’s important to add it to the soup just before serving so that the precious beneficial bacteria are not destroyed by exposure to high temperatures. One third of a cup of miso (enough for a medium-sized pot of soup) adds approximately the sodium equivalent of one teaspoon of salt. There’s no need to add more.
Another food common in eastern culinary traditions gaining popularity in North America is the shiitake mushroom. Shiitake mushrooms are food “powerhouses” and are available dried but can be found fresh as well. They contain all eight essential amino acids and are particularly rich in lysine and leucine. Amino acids enable the vitamins and minerals we consume to perform their functions properly. Leucine and lysine promote the healing and repair of bones, skin and muscle tissue. There is much research documenting the shiitake mushroom’s ability to work both as an immune regulator and as an antiviral and anti-tumour agent. They are also used to treat a range of diseases including AIDS, environmental allergies, candida infections, cancer and other conditions associated with a depressed immune system.
A teaspoon of miso, some finely diced shiitake mushroom, minced green onion and a few mung bean sprouts added to a hot cup of your own vegetable stock will make a healthy and satisfying home-made “cup-a-soup.”
A “Prickly” Alternative
An often ignored treasure in nature’s bounty is the lowly burdock root. While most people only recognize it in the burrs they remove from their pant legs and dogs after a walk, it’s well worth including in soups and stir-frys. Burdock has a rich, earthy and slightly sweet flavour and a moderately chewy texture. Sometimes identified by its Japanese name, gobo, the long, deep, brown roots can be found fresh in health food stores and Asian markets. Because burdock grows so deeply in the soil, it has a rich source of nutrients (iron, potassium, protein, calcium and phosphorus), which may not be available to more shallow-rooted plants. An anticarcinogen, it’s also used for the treatment of arthritis, for general kidney support and for liver detoxification. Burdock is a good blood cleanser, supports digestion, aids in the elimination of toxins and is used in anti-cancer remedies.
Having lost my mother and several close friends to cancer, I know that there is no miracle cure for the disease. Diet and lifestyle is both the prevention and the cure. As I watch my own children grow, I actively promote a whole food diet and a relationship to food as both a daily pleasure and the maintenance of all cells, organs, muscles and tissue. It makes sense–knowing that this increases the chance that we will live a long life together.