After my wonderful Mouthwash Cake there was no stopping me in the kitchen. I was always baking or cooking something, either as a helper or on my own.
I had learned how to read recipes, and then discovered the wonderful world of cookbooks; I read them like they were novels. As a voracious reader at a young age and read at a college level while in elementary school, I quickly demolished all other reading material in the house and started in on the cookbooks. If you have never read Joy of Cooking in its entirety then you have missed a good read; it is incredible in the breadth of its recipes. In fact, I think one could safely never use another cookbook in a lifespan but what fun would that be?
One cookbook really captured my imagination: the Spice Islands Cookbook.
Besides its gorgeous orange color (my favorite), the retro illustrations and the lure of exotic spices called to me. Mom always used Spice Island herbs and spices in her cooking. Unless you grew your own, fresh herbs besides curly parsley were not readily available in the supermarket as they are today, so the sophisticated cook relied on high quality dried herbs. Back in these days, Spice Islands was the best one could buy.
In our surburban tract home we had a galley kitchen, which was the height of efficiency, but for a real cook there was never enough room. My dad came up with an ingenious solution to the storage problem of where to put the bazillion jars of spices. Under the cooktop was a decorative panel, which elsewhere in the kitchen was a drawer but this wasn’t possible under the stove because it would interfere with the stove workings. Dad removed this panel and in the small space available under the front of the stove he built a slanted box just deep enough for a row of jars of spices. He then created a bracket on either side of the box to affix the front panel so it would hinge downwards to expose the jars of spices. Unless you knew it was there, it looked just like all the other panels under the stove of every kitchen on our block.
Mom labeled the tops of the spice jars and slotted in the herbs and spices she used the most. The way the stovetop was configured the spice jars did not get exposed to heat and thus the quality and integrity of the jar’s contents were assured. I still have quite a few of these jars with her labels on top written in faded browned ink (the contents of course are fresh).
The spice drawer was an endless source of fascination for the many visitors to our home. They would watch mOm flip down the panel and extract a jar and sprinkle the contents into a pot or a mortar and pestle (filched from her laboratory days), all while still stirring whatever was on the stove, and they would exclaim at the cleverness and practicality of the design.
Naturally, as a small child, I was forever playing with the spice drawer because it was at eye level, and most importantly at nose level! I learned at a young age to distinguish between the myriad of herbs and spices, and with consultation from my mom and sister and by reading the Spice Islands Cookbook, I learned which spices go best with which dish. To this day when I’m experimenting in the kitchen I will open a spice jar and just sniff, and decide olfactorily what to add to my creation.
The Spice Islands cookbook was fascinating to me and I remember telliing mOm that *I* was going to cook dinner that night and started leafing through the book to find something I felt I would like, and then I saw it…
One of my favorite spices is cumin, especially ground cumin. As an adult, I put it on and in everything, from chicken soup to popcorn. As a child I loved cumin’s earthiness and my little eyes settled on the recipe for Sour Cream Potato Soup.
Like mOm taught me, I laid out my ingredients and started to cook. I remember thinking how weird it was to put the diced potatoes into the beef broth and then use the potato masher on them, in the soup pot?!?! But I was nothing but an obedient child and dutifully followed all the directions to the letter. Mom and my sis helped serve, and we ate in the Dining Room, which was a Big Deal.
The Dining Room had an Orrefor smoked glass chandelier from Sweden that my parents picked out when my dad visited there for a scientific convention. The floor was covered in a luxurious harvest gold shag carpeting that was considered extremely elegant and woe be to you if a morsel of dinner was ever dropped upon it. The long windows were shaded with loose woven draperies in shades of cream. The teak table was a work of art; my father made it himself in the garage based on his calculations on the shape of a perfect elipse (using a slide rule, no less) with hand turned legs. One wall was full of more gleaming Swedish crystal inside the china hutch. The Dining Room was a special room reserved for major holidays and foreign guests from my dad’s laboratory. I was so happy we were eating my dinner there, it was a special gesture.
Mom tells me she had never tried the recipe before I made it that night and I think everyone was really pleased with my dinner. They were probably more relieved rather than anything, I’m sure, that I was serving them something they actually could eat!! I don’t recall if we had anything else that night besides soup and the compliments flowed like the warm savory soup flowed off the spoon.
Ever after, this recipe became known as “Heather’s soup” and I made it upon request, a request that was indulged quite often.
You can made this soup vegetarian by using vegetable stock or water in lieu of beef broth. The original recipe calls for Spice Island’s granulated beef stock base, which is no longer for sale but a good quality boxed or canned beef broth provides a better flavor if you don’t have homemade beef stock.
SOUR CREAM POTATO SOUP
5 c beef broth
2 1/2 c diced potatoes (russet potatoes are best)
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp Beau Monde Seasoning
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp arrowroot
1 c half and half
1 c sour cream
1 T chopped chervil or flat leaf parsley
Combine stock and potatoes in a 3 quart pot and simmer until potatoes are very tender, ~ 20 minutes. Using a potato masher mash the potatoes in the broth. Add spices and taste for salt, simmer for 10 minutes. Blend arrowroot into the cream and stir slowly into the soup. Whisk the sour cream into the soup and heat gently, but do not boil, until the soup is very hot. Sprinkle with the chervil and serve at once.
Optional – Fried Potato Garnish
1 Yukon gold or red potato, cut into a medium dice
Olive oil or duck fat
Heat the oil or fat in a wide skillet until 350 F. Dry the potatoes very well on a paper or kitchen towel. Fry until golden brown and crispy and fully cooked. Drain on a paper towel on a cookie tray and sprinkle with salt. Keep warm in a 250 F oven while finishing the soup.
Sprinkle fried potatoes on top of the soup, then sprinkle with chervil and serve.
This soup is also delicious with crispy fried bacon as a garnish.
I hope you try my soup sometime soon, and hope more still that you obtain a copy of the Spice Island Cookbook. If you do, drop me a line and I will gladly share which recipes are my other favorites. It’s quite a list and I will write about them in future articles.