The Next Course: Hard Soup

22 April, 2022
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“When I started talking about it to my friend, Paul, who lived in Tokyo for a decade, he told me about how people would eat a cup of ramen. When it got down to the spicy brothy dregs, refill the cup with sake.” Eby thought this was utterly brilliant. “In Japan you could also get soup in the vending machines right by the coffee, which, you know, meant that once I drank a corn chowder instead of a coffee. But I wasn’t mad about it." The blurred lines between corn soup and coffee percolated in Eby’s mind.

I am not a dreamer. I am a doer (and over the course of my culinary career, an on-and-off event planner), so after a tipsy night of experimentation with Eby, tipping various liquors into soups to varying levels of deliciousness and elation, I was determined to make Hard Soup Night a reality.

A playlist emerged. ‘Speak Softly and Soup Hard’ by Eby’s friend Sam Roberts.

A logo was designed, by a fiercely talented ten-year-old, depicting a drunken anthropomorphic red and white can of soup.

Liquor sponsors were secured (thank you Finlandia Vodka, Cooper’s Craft Bourbon, Pathfinder, New Liberty Distillery, Philadelphia Brewing Company, Faber Gin and Art in the Age).

Many, many Die Hard movie lines were harmed in the promotion of Hard Soup Night (Soupy-Ki-Yay!).

I furiously crocheted koozies. People were invited. People RSVP-ed. Most of them intrigued food writers, some of them genuinely confused but lured in by the aforementioned anthropomorphic soup can.

Hard Soup Night took place at Musi, my husband, chef Ari Miller’s restaurant in South Philadelphia. He provided us with mushroom broth, lettuce soup and a corn and clam liquor soup to further liquor up. Soup tureens were set in Musi’s dining room and Eby did the honors of carefully spiking each with guests’ liquors of choice, to chants of “Hard Soup! Hard Soup!” and “Let’s get souped!”

We may have sounded utterly ridiculous, but our soup cocktails were serious.

Eby concocted two magnificently balanced and thoroughly savory cocktails: a borscht martini with vodka, horseradish, beet juice, pepperoncini brine, vermouth and lemon juice, and a tom kha bloody mary of vodka, tomato juice, vegan tom yum paste, tamarind paste and lime juice. For the borscht martini, the cooks at Musi stuffed plump Spanish olives with award-winning Birchrun Hills’ blue cheese and then seasoned them with orange and lemon zest. We stabbed the olives with toothpicks and floated them into the cocktails.

The lettuce soup started with sautéed onions. Greens such as radicchio, various lettuces from local farms and rainbow chard were slowly wilted into them. The kitchen at Musi churns out some of Philadelphia’s best hummus. Aquafaba - the water leftover from cooking chickpeas for hummus - was integrated into the lettuce soup along with vegetable stock. Aquafaba lends the soup a savory, rich body. After simmering, it is pureed and salted with restraint.

Frozen corn from Green Meadow Farm’s last harvest was boiled with lobster stock, clam liquor and rice water. For the regular tasting menu at Musi, Miller cooks rice from Blue Moon Acres in excess water, as though he were cooking grain, then he strains and reserves that water – much like with the aquafaba from chickpeas. The rice goes into mujaddara on the regular Musi menu, topped with either seared monkfish loin or baked fresh tofu from Allentown, marinated in Jordanian pomegranate molasses and lemon myrtle. The cooks at Musi value this rice water almost as much as the cooked rice itself and it thickens the corn and clam soup without the use of any other starch.

“I added the wild Icelandic kelp from Burlap & Barrel to play up the sea profile with the clam and the lobster,” Miller explained his process of mimicking sea brine without salt.

“Did you at all feel we were sabotaging the carefully constructed flavor profiles of your soups by adding liquor to them and turning them into soup cocktails?” I asked him. “A lot of consideration was put into your soups.”

“A lot of consideration was put into what liquors should be added to these soups to affect their profiles, so no.”

Miller continued, “It was a really fun idea to help bring Margaret’s concept into reality. It was wonderful. Most pop-ups aren’t super refined events. They’re experimental. And I made the soups for her. My processes of composition and thought ended with the creation of the soups. They ceased to be mine when I gave them to her.”

So, cheers! Let’s raise a bowl to the next Hard Soup Night. Look hard at your next soup and at your next cocktail and perhaps for you, the lines will also begin to blur.

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