Monday, February 14, 2011
A Sunny Soup for Winter; The Redemption of Dead Bread
One good thing about the dry indoor air of a northern home in winter: bread does not tend to get moldy. One bad thing: it dries out faster than you can say pain au levain. I throw away a certain amount of bread, I have to admit. Not proud of it, but there you go. I love the crust too much, so I will not plastic-bag my bread. Comes a time, then, that the last quarter of a batard, or a good-sized heel of a boule, becomes absolutely petrified, slicing is out of the question, you'd need a sledge hammer to penetrate the crust.
So a certain amount of dead bread hits the trash can here, but last week I found myself with an entire large batard of what had been delicious mixed-grain levain that had made the trip to Bide-A-Wee and back, then languished on our Saint Paul counter for a few days. When I finally took it out of the bag it was more suitable for inflicting blunt-force trauma than for sandwiches or toast.
But I couldn't toss it--a whole uncut loaf of bread? Not a chance. I recalled something I had read, I think it was from a Madeleine Kamman book, how in mountainous regions of France they do a massive baking after the wheat harvest in the autumn, and those loaves are then dried in the cool, dry mountain air, and then used through the winter. On top of that, it just so happened that Mary had encountered a similar account in the book she's now reading, Emilie Carles's memoir, A Life of Her Own (the original French title is way better: Une Soupe aux Herbe Sauvages). She writes:
This bread was meant to last the whole winter, and we carried it to the hayloft where we spread it out on the huge hanging trestles, and we'd go fetch it up there as needed. Obviously, it was as hard as wood; to soften it ahead of time, we'd hang a few loaves in the sheep pen, just above the sheep. The heat and humidity softened it to a point, but it was a far cry from fresh bread and from one end of winter to the other, we ate it stale. We used a special knife, yet it was so hard to cut that it shattered into fragments that scattered to the four corners of the kitchen. But it was good: that bread had an extraordinary smell, and what a taste! My sisters and I fought over the crusts, sucking on that bread with as much delight as if it had been cake. Dunked in café au lait, it was a feast.
Can we even begin to imagine that kind of life, that kind of approach to food and eating? It seems quaint and charming, appealing in a way, a bit repulsive in another (could that "extraordinary smell" and the fact that the loaves were softened in the sheep pen be at all related...?). Well, I love the idea of making something wonderful from what seem unpromising ingredients--that's the magic of good, simple cooking.
Dry bread immediately makes me think of soup, but I needed to treat the bread some way first, lest it empty the soup bowl of all liquid like a sponge. I took my rock-hard loaf and rended it into pieces with bread knife, cleaver, and brute force. I put the pieces in a big mixing bowl, and poured in some water, let it absorb. I checked back a couple of times, broke up the larger chunks, added a bit more water. When it somewhat resembled bread again, rather than rubble, I fried the pieces in a lot of olive oil with a couple of crushed cloves of garlic--this would be the richest part of my soup, along with the cheese. And now, I bet some of you are nodding and smiling right now, because you know what I'm going to say next: That old dead bread, shredded to raggedy pieces and fried, was uncommonly delicious. I had to stop myself snacking on it, or there would be none left for lunch.
In honor of the bare-bones salvage simplicity of my croutons, the soup itself had to be equally spare--just some oven tomatoes* from the freezer, stock, and a grating of cheese.
Salut! A splendid result. I won't be throwing away much dead bread from now on.
Winter Tomato Soup with Fried Bread
6 ounces stale bread, preferably a whole grain levain type—something with character
12 ounces oven tomatoes (or excellent canned)
1 1/2 cups stock
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small onion, sliced
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Grated gruyere or similar
If your bread is merely stale, just cut or tear it into chunks roughly 2 inches square. If the bread is very, very dry, break it into large pieces and toss it in a bowl with ¾ cup of water and cover the bowl with a plate. Let stand 2 hours, mixing occasionally. If the bread soaks up all the water before it’s soft, add a bit more. If it gets waterlogged squeeze it like a sponge to extract excess water. When you have something workable, cut or tear it into 2 inch pieces.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet and add the bread and crushed garlic cloves. Fry the bread until nicely golden and a bit crisp. Remove garlic add the sliced onion. Cook until the onion wilts a bit.
Divide the bread into 2 soup bowls. To the skillet add the tomatoes, stock, salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes. Taste for salt. Spoon the tomatoes over the bread and top with grated cheese.
* Here's my method for those, for future reference; won't do you much good right now, but the pictures are pretty. I've altered the recipe somewhat; I now peel the tomatoes prebaking, and I don't cook them down quite so much, to leave distinct chunks.
Here's a little ode to heirloom tomatoes from a while back, too.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw