Saturday, September 23, 2006

Favorite food. mushroom soup.

There is a moment in From Russia With Love (the book, not the movie) where Ian Fleming describes the soup that Tatiana Romanova is having for dinner, just before she is summoned to a meeting with Rosa Klebb and ordered to seduce Bond. Fleming describes every detail of every scene in such minute detail that you are drawn into his world, from the opening description of the assassin's golden body sunbathing by the pool of his villa to the hot soup that Tatiana is planning to eat, made with dried mushrooms, and a few shreds of meat as a special treat. (I hope I've remembered this correctly, since I can't find my copy of the book). Whenever I have cream of mushroom soup I think of Ian Fleming.

Cream of mushroom soup is a childhood food. It came in a can, sliding out with a thump, a quivering, ridged, solid cylinder of condensed soup that you broke up with a spoon, added milk or water, and heated over a low flame. (It sounds disgusting when I describe it like that). I would stand over the stove, stirring the lumpy mixture with a spoon or a whisk until it dissolved into the smooth, creamy soup, pale beige interrupted by the occasional chunk of mushroom. We would sprinkle in a little more salt, a scattering of black pepper. It was what my mother made for me when I was home sick, warm and soothing. Because it came from a can, it always tasted the same, which is part of its charm. It was a staple in the school cafeteria, dipped up from a deep stainless-steel vat, getting thicker as you got closer to the bottom. The soup came in thick white cups; I would crumble packets of saltine crackers into it.

In college we ate cream of mushroom soup all the time. (For variety sometimes it would be cream of celery, or cream of chicken). We would add chopped mushrooms and onions and diced chicken breasts, all cooked in butter, pour the soup over rice, stir it together into a faux risotto. Comfort food. When condensed soup was four cans for $3 or something ridiculously cheap like that we would buy a dozen. Now I realize it has been years since I have made cream of mushroom soup from a can, although I've recently made it myself with chicken stock and mushrooms and onions sautéed in butter and olive oil, pureed in the blender. Without cream, it is lighter and more intensely flavored.

Restaurants serve it in wide-rimmed soup plates, rich with cream, sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with sherry or drops of some flavored oil. If you are lucky there might be croutons fried in butter. Nearly every time I see mushroom soup on the menu I have to order it. Today was one of those days. Lunch, at Palomino. They make their mushroom soup with Portabella mushrooms, serve it in little round gratin dishes. It is velvety and creamy and made bright with sherry and flavored with little bits of onions, and for a moment I am completely happy.

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