When I was a kid, I was obsessed with “Stone Soup,” the classic fable about a band of hungry travelers who build a pot of soup using only water and a haphazard mix of randomly donated ingredients from the nearby villagers.
The intended moral of the story is that sharing can create something greater than the sum of its parts, but my takeaway was that you could make soup out of anything as long as you had a pot of water. At the risk of revealing just now nerdy I was and still am — how cool is that?
As a grown-up person who now understands how cooking works, I know that it’s not exactly revelatory that you can make soup starting only with water. That said, I rarely do, relying instead on homemade or store-bought chicken broth for a bulk of the flavor, and building from there.
Recently, I found myself wanting a bowl of noodle soup, but I didn’t have any chicken broth (or a chicken to make broth). Not willing to, you know, go to the store or anything, I decided I’d make do with what I had, which at the time was an unopened package of mushrooms, a few allium bulbs and the contents of my pantry. “Very ‘Stone Soup,’” I thought.
I’m not sure how good that stone soup ended up tasting, but I hope it was at least half as good as what I was able to throw together. The broth, made of only some mushrooms, a few cloves of garlic, a shallot and some fresh chilies I found lurking in the back of my refrigerator, doctored with soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, was significantly better than it had any right to be. It was deeply meaty but had no meat; it was savory and complex but took less than an hour to cook. I found myself feeling deeply grateful for those mushrooms, which were the reason for the soup’s surprising excellence.
Of course, you can’t just throw a bunch of mushrooms into a pot of water and hope for the best — you’ve got to give them some love and attention. Cooking them long enough to brown is a key step: The water inside the mushrooms evaporates, and their magical, earthy flavor concentrates.
The umami-rich bits that form on the bottom of your pot are what give the broth richness and depth, so be patient and let that happen. The type of mushroom you use is less important, although to maximize textures and flavors, I like mixing fancier wild mushrooms with the more common cultivated varieties.
Then there are the sliced-and-toasted garlic and sweet rings of shallot that caramelize alongside the mushrooms, which also contribute to the deliciousness. But it’s the soy sauce and rice wine vinegar that make this light-bodied broth so highly drinkable.
Turns out, deciding I’d make do was one of the best decisions I’d made in the kitchen in a while. Salty and tangy, this soup is a glorious example of something being greater than the sum of its parts. Very “Stone Soup,” indeed.
SPICY NOODLE SOUP WITH MUSHROOMS AND HERBS
By Alison Roman
- 3 tablespoons canola or olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 large shallots, thinly sliced
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- 1-1/2 pounds mixed mushrooms, such as maitake, oyster, cremini or shiitake, torn into bite-size pieces
- 1 to 2 fresh red or green chilies, such as Fresno, thinly sliced (or 3/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes)
- 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more to taste
- 8 cups water
- 8 to 10 ounces noodles, such as udon, soba or rice
- 2 cups herbs (tender leaves and stems), such as cilantro, mint, chives, parsley or a mix, for garnish
- Sesame seeds, sesame oil or both, for garnish (optional)
Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium. Add garlic and shallots; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots start to turn a nice golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add mushrooms and half the chilies; season with salt and pepper.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have softened, released much of their water and turned a deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. (A browned mushroom will have infinitely more flavor than an unbrowned mush- room, because the water inside it evaporates and the flavor concentrates. So do not skip this step.)
Add soy sauce, vinegar and water. Bring to a gentle simmer; season with salt and pepper. Continue to simmer until flavors have melded and broth tastes good enough to drink (you will be drinking it), 15 to 20 minutes. Season with more soy sauce and vinegar as you like.
Meanwhile, cook noodles in a large pot of salted boiling water until just al dente. (The timing will depend on the type and brand of noodles, so consult the package.) Add noodles to the pot with the broth, and let them hang out in there for a minute or two to finish cooking and soak up all that flavor.
>> To serve: Divide noodles and mushrooms among bowls, then ladle hot broth over the top. Serve with remaining chilies, herbs, sesame seeds and oil (if using) on the side, so diners can dress their bowls to their liking. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.
AND TO DRINK …
Matching wine with chili heat is tricky. Noticeable tannins will clash, and high alcohol levels will fan the fire, so a lighter wine is best. Add to that some sweetness, which seems to temper the heat, and the answer is clear: German rieslings with residual sugar. A kabinett or spatlese riesling would be delightful with this noodle soup. If you prefer a dry white, a French sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley would be delicious, as would any number of Italian whites. Really want a red? Pinot noir would be a good choice, especially with the mushroom flavors. You could try a Beaujolais-Villages, too. If wine fails, a crisp lager would be great. — Eric Asimov, New York Times