The Country Kitchen Soup Cookbook is a slim self-published pamphlet printed on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper folded over and wrapped in green cardstock. There are thirty-eight recipes spread out over thirty-two pages, each lovingly rendered in hand-drawn calligraphy and simply illustrated. This book was a Mothers’ Day gift from my brother to my grandmother, and handed down to me after she died.
The Country Kitchen Collection was written and illustrated by New England artist Jean Childress. The series originated in 1983, and by the time The Country Kitchen Soup Cookbook was published in 1985 there were already eight books in the series. The Country Kitchen Collection eventually grew to nearly thirty titles up until Ms. Childress’ unfortunate and untimely passing in 1999.
As the series grew in popularity The Country Kitchen Collection was reinvented to focus on “simply delicious All-American food.” The concept required “that the recipes be simple and straightforward, the ingredients be fresh and delicious, and the preparation time be within 30 minutes.” Later as of The Country Kitchen Soup Cookbook look very different from my 1985 edition. The format is the same: small, softbound, and hand-illustrated, but at least a dozen of the recipes have changed and many of the more distinctive recipes have been omitted. Gone are the borscht and curried chestnut soup and Chinese winter melon stew, replaced with cream of cauliflower and green potato soup. The soups are still glorious, but I certainly prefer my older edition.
The book lives up the promise on the cover to deliver “distinctive and delicious soups for all seasons”. There are hot soups and cold soups and summer soups and winter soups and sweet soups and savory soups. There’s a frosted melon soup that mixes ripe melon, citrus, and champagne perfect for summer. The curried chestnut soup seems like an upscale cousin of the Peanut Soup from Depression Era Recipes – a simple mix of chestnuts, cream, and a hint of curry powder. There is no cultural context or personal anecdotes and precious little filler beyond cooking tips and the occasional folksy quote or poem.
One of the more elegant recipes in The Country Kitchen Soup Cookbook is “Mushroom Velvet”, available in both my OG and later editions. It’s a simple cream of mushroom soup made with onions and beef broth and then pureed with sour cream until smooth. It’s rich and meaty on its own but also a wonderful playground for variations.
I’ve used fresh shiitake mushrooms instead of white or brown grocery store mushrooms and substituted Mexican style sour cream to take off some of the edge. Creme Fraiche would be a suitable alternative, but I find that Crema Mexicana gives me the same result for a quarter of the price. I’ve topped the soup with Chinese black fungus for texture and added some chopped garlic chives for color. This is simply personal preference: I feel that a little bit of texture helps accentuate the sophistication and ‘smoothness’ of the soup. As an alternative you might cook a few extra shiitakes – finely chopped they’d make an equally elegant garnish. If you prefer your velvety soup to stay velvety you may omit the toppings or garnish altogether.
For the soup
- 1 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
- 1 sweet onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup butter
- 4 cups beef broth
- 2 cups Crema Mexicana (such as Darigold or Cacique brand)
- Add the black fungus to hot water (not boiling) and allow to soak for 30 minutes, until roughly doubled in size.
- Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and tender, taking care to minimize browning. Add mushrooms and continue to saute until tender, 8-10 minutes, stirring as needed to minimize browning.
- Remove from heat and stir in broth and crema, reserving 1/4 cup of the Crema Mexicana. Working in batches, blend until smooth in a blender or food processor. An immersion blender is a suitable alternative. Return to the cooking pot and heat through.
- Ladle into bowls and top each bowl with 1 Tbsp of the reserved crema. Garnish with fungus and garlic chives, divided evenly among each bowl.
Chinese black fungus (or cloud ear fungus) can be found thinly sliced and dried at most Asian markets. They don’t taste like much, but even when hydrated they have a little bit more crunch than your average mushroom. Wood ear fungus is an acceptable substitute, and in America the two may be sold under the same name.
Garlic chives, also sold as nira or Chinese leeks, look an awful lot like their American put-it-on-a-baked-potato counterparts but, unsurprisingly, taste more like garlic than onions. They are also grown and cultivated in Mexico and can be found fresh at well-stocked Asian markets. American chives or scallions are an acceptable substitute.