Food Cart Capitol; Off the Carts

This one is for JC, who firmly believes that my all-from-scratch soups are oh-so-good they should be shared with the rest of the world by being readily available on supermarket shelves. My soups even scored number two on her Top Twelve of 2012 list of favorite eats– how humbling. So, naturally, while in Portland I tasted the best soup I’ve ever had, of course I thought of her.

It all started on a Tuesday night when the guinea pig and I went on a dinner date; he suggested to go someplace nice that night, not necessarily fancy but not a stand on the side of the road either. I put on my orange strap wedges and chose the venue: Farm Cafe, which ended up being a block down from our hotel. I made reservations for 7:30 and we were unusually on time. Our hostess was spacey. She wore round spectacles and short pigtailed hair and a blank expression on her face, fitting right in with the Oregon scene. We sat outside under the shelter of an umbrella; you never do know with Portland skies, and ordered  beers. The guinea pig and I both love trying all things local when we travel, especially microbrews. I did find Oregon beers a little too hoppy for my New England taste; their IPAs do not tickle my fancy. Many of our bar adventures did not include vast options of local microbrews on draft, but the Farm Cafe offered a decent variety, and I was able to avoid another hoppy IPA for a dark, heavy stout.

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We were sitting comfortably in our light jackets in the patio with lines of lightbulbs decorating a brick wall and grape vines climbing up the entryway, when our appetizers arrived, baked brie and a bowl of the soup of the day, both to share between the two of us. The guinea pig fell for appearances, diving into the fancy brie, that came hot in a white porcelain boat topped with pine nuts and strawberries that had melted in its own sweetness in the oven. I started the soup, mixing in the black pepper sprinkled on top. Oh that soup. Only inhaling its aroma and warmth was ecstatically satisfying. Beer, cheddar, and leeks. Must I say more? Executed unsurpassably. It couldn’t have been done any better; I doubt it could. It was beautifully smooth, like one of those  Venus commercials where a silk scarf slides off of their recently shaven, perfectly airbrushed legs, but all on my tongue, the background music playing and my taste buds rejoicing.

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We exchanged appetizers. I tried the brie, gooey and warm, sweet from the fresh but baked strawberries, crunchy from the pine nuts, and crispy from the crusty bread. I am a cheese-fanatic. While I have not yet met anybody who does not like melted cheese, I am admittedly a bit of an extreme. So, I surprised myself that although I had no criticism for the baked brie, I wanted the soup back. I thought, it might be my lucky day, since the guinea pig prefers his soup chunky and not blended into baby food, maybe he’ll push the bowl back without my intervention. I’d get what I want and not come off as greedy. Imagine how I felt when I heard him make love to the soup, my soup.

But could I blame him? This was a bowl blended into the perfect consistency of harmonious flavors. The good news is that my last bite, before the entrees were brought out, ended back on the soup: beer, cheddar, and leek. And all’s well that ends well.

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Surely dinner did not end at appetizers. It ended on a sweet note, with dessert. The guinea pig and I couldn’t come to a unanimous decision so we thought to get two and share; one a chocolate molten cake with coffee ice-cream, the guinea pig’s choice, and another a tart rhubarb  crumble with a scoop of cold vanilla bean melting a-top. And these came after entrees, my dijon-spicy eggplant and breadcrumb veggie-burger that came in an almost doughnut-like of a bun, and the guinea pig’s rabbit on spaetzel. Yes everything was delicious; what a wonderful dinner that was. But that soup; I will never forget that soup. If it was not the soup-of-the-day and a permanent menu item, you would have found me skipping out on the food cart scene and at the Farm Cafe every lunch and dinner with a bowl of cheddar, beer, and leek.

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JC, if you find yourself in Portland, (Portland, Oregon obviously), I do hope it’s when the Farm Cafe’s soup of the day is their cheddar, beer, and leek again.

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Soup and Salad Bar

My friend JC is a loyal customer of canned soup. Before meeting her, I didn’t know you could actually stomach canned soup, and before meeting me, she didn’t know there was a possibility that soup could come from places other than a red and white labeled tin can.

Our friendship grew when she came over one winter’s day with boy complaints, and I offered her a cup of the cream of broccoli I had simmering on the stove. She asked what it was, and I repeated, “cream of broccoli.” She repeated her question, making clear that it was leaning towards the brand, rather than the kind.  It was then when the truth was revealed; that was her first bowl of homemade soup- you could say she lost her “real soup” virginity that day. I, however, still am, and probably will die, a canned soup virgin.

I will, however, when I’m pressed for time, open a can of two things, tomato products (crushed, sauce, etc.) and less frequently, black beans (which is completely against my father’s will. Every time it slips, he rambles about the harms of canned goods, and how simple it is to soak the dried beans then boil them for hours of time). On a streak of cold weather, I’ll make a pot of “everything soup”, starting with diced carrots, celery, and onions, then a can of crushed tomatoes, scallions, herbs, sometimes squash, and beans. If the soup is up to my father’s standards and I am cooking the beans that have been soaking in water since the morning with some salt, I’ll cook them separately first, before adding them to the soup- they’ll dull the color otherwise. I give my soup a little bit of spice and a lot of time, sometimes stirring in some freshly chopped parsley towards the end and a squeeze of lemon.

Now, JC, is my number one fan of any soup I make. She is so devoted, she has it in her head to start a business, ironically but sweetly proposing to can my soups and marketing them, not realizing that is going completely against my food philosophy. There is a reason I’m a 25 year old canned soup virgin.

And, while she may be queen of the microwave, with her Lean Cuisine freezer foods and Campbell soups, she is also a beautiful salad empress. My first experience of her “everything salad” left me impressed and inspired. A bed of green leaves hovered in baby carrots, sliced red bell peppers, cucumbers, and what I believe to be what sets it apart, chopped turkey breast slices and feta cheese crumbles- salad soul mates.

We made a tradition of it, girl’s nights with my soups, her salads, a bottle of wine, and a bit of gossip. Some weeks, there was a movie involved. But, when JC left Hanover for a two month adventure in New Zealand, I had to start making my own salads that were meal-replaceable worthy and able to hold me over.

The thing with salads and an appetite like mine is, my jaw usually tires of chewing before my stomach feels the slightest bit full. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good salad. And so, I’ll make my version of an “everything salad” of spring or 50/50 mix (sometimes JC would use exclusively baby spinach but I find too much of it in the raw leaves you with a dry, uncomfortable feeling mouth), grated carrots, celery, cucumbers, yellow peppers (my favorite of the bells), olives, a chopped up hard boiled egg (for added protein in hopes of holding me over an extra thirty minutes- plus I like how the velvety yolk adds body to the vinaigrette when mingled with oil and vinegar), dried cranberries, an avocado, and of course, sliced turkey breast and feta (or sometimes, for the Iranian in me, when I can get my hands on some, white sheep’s cheese instead.) And, every time, my last fork-full will be a single leaf, cucumber wedge, a bit of olive, and turkey and feta, because the last bite has to be perfect.