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Alimentary, My Dear

Secrets From the Test Kitchen
High on Drying—Homemade Soup to Go

By Tamia Nelson

April 15, 2008

Hot soup hits the spot on cold days. This lesson wasn’t lost on Britain’s Royal Navy, which first issued desiccated bricks of something called “portable soup” to the fleet way back in 1756. Captain Cook warmed himself with it in Antarctic waters, and it soon became a staple food on many other voyages of discovery. Portable soup even accompanied Lewis and Clark on their epic transcontinental trek. That’s history. Now fast-forward to today. You won’t see portable soup in the HyperMart, but you’re sure to find its modern-day descendent—dried soup mix. It’s still a favorite with folks who venture off the beaten track. Paddlers, climbers, backpackers, and cyclists all love the stuff. And with good reason.

I’m no exception. Dried soup is a mainstay of my backcountry pantry, and its uses go far beyond those suggested by the rather prosaic name. Dried soup mixes do double duty as the bases for sauces to accompany pasta and rice, for instance, and they enhance the flavor of everything from dried potatoes to scrambled eggs. One of my favorites is Lipton’s split pea Cup-a-Soup®. Made from dried green peas, it’s almost as hearty and versatile as the real thing. It even tastes good. Um, well, no, that’s not quite true. Don’t get me wrong, though. My description is spot on. Was it hearty? Yes. Versatile? You bet! Tasty? Yep. So where did I stumble? You guessed it. The verb tense gives the game away. It was my favorite. But, like portable soup before it, Lipton’s split pea Cup-a-Soup® is now history. Unilever—Lipton’s parent company—dropped the product several years back. I guess they didn’t have any paddlers (or climbers or cyclists) in their marketing focus groups. In any case, my favorite is gone from the shelves, perhaps forever.

This annoyed me so much that I tried to contact Unilever to complain. I was wasting my time, of course. So I retreated to my kitchen to cook up a pot of real, “scratch” split pea soup. After simmering for an hour, the soup was ready. It was delicious. But I couldn’t eat the whole thing, and I soon wandered off to attend to other jobs, leaving the still-steaming, half-full pot on a now-cold burner. When I returned, much later in the day, the leftovers had thickened to the consistency of canned condensed soup—except for the residue on the side of the pot, that is. It had dried to a crumbly powder. That got me thinking. I scraped off some of the powder with my finger. Then I licked the finger. And I knew immediately just how Archimedes felt in the moment when he saw the water slosh out of the bath. I didn’t run naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” however. Instead, I started making notes. I was embarking on a voyage of exploration of my own…

Rediscovering the Art of Making Portable Soup

And I didn’t even have to leave the kitchen. In fact, it proved to be a lot easier than I’d thought possible. The success of my earlier experiments with drying vegetables and fruits on a small scale gave me all the encouragement I needed, and I already had the basic raw material: the pot of pea soup on my stove. So I ladled 16 ounces of the cold soup—it had the consistency of paste—into the shallow base of an enameled broiler pan, then spread it around with a fork to make an uneven layer about one-quarter inch deep. Here’s what it looked like:

In the Thin of It

Into the Oven

All I had to do now was to pop the pan into my electric oven, set the thermostat to WARM (the lowest setting) and wait. After about an hour, I opened the oven door and a cloud of fragrant steam billowed out into my face. The oven thermometer read 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Time and heat were doing their work. The soupy paste was drying out. Even in places where it was comparatively thick, it had become crusty, and the thin spots were already dry. It looked like this:

A Pretty Dry Story

And Out Again

My portable soup was drying and cracking like a mudflat under the summer sun, and the chunks of potato and carrot now had the rubbery elasticity of fruit leather. Things were progressing nicely, I thought, but I still had a way to go. So I broke up the remaining thick, moist plaques with a fork, redistributed the soup as evenly as possible, and put the pan back in the oven, leaving the door slightly ajar this time.

Soup on handFive hours later—six hours after my Eureka! moment—I checked my portable soup again. It was completely dry, crumbling into fragments in my hand (see picture on left). The moment of truth had arrived. It looked good, but what would it taste like? I lost no time in finding out, popping a fragment of the dried soup right into my mouth. And I wasn’t disappointed. The flavor was vivid, the texture interesting. The dried potatoes and carrots retained a pleasantly chewy consistency. There was an unexpected bonus, too. My homemade portable soup could be eaten out of hand as a no-cook snack!

Breaking Up Is Hard to DoOnly one hurdle remained. But it was the hardest. Would my portable soup make it as soup? First, however, I had to reduce the chunks in my hand to something closer to powder. My initial attempt—putting the dried soup into a plastic bag and pulverizing it with a rolling pin—left a lot to be desired. Spiky fragments of soup kept punching pinholes in the plastic. Still, it worked, after a fashion. The crumbled soup ended up as a coarse powder. But the resulting mess made a shambles of my kitchen. So I turned to a small food processor. That did the trick. (A hint: Don’t overload the processor.) The result? A dry powder with a smattering of slightly larger bits, mostly pieces of dried carrot. I decanted the powder into a freezer bag for storage. Soup to go The original 16 ounces of thick, cold “condensed” soup yielded approximately three-quarters of a cup of dry soup mix (see picture at left). Now it was time to put my handiwork to the ultimate test.

Soup’s On!I emptied a quarter cup of my homemade soup mix into a Sierra Club cup, then filled the cup with boiling water and stirred. After three minutes, I stirred the soup again. I lifted a spoonful to my lips and… My verdict? Not bad! Not bad at all. It tasted like split pea soup. Defects? Yes. Two. The flavor held a hint of overcooked, puréed peas. I blamed myself for this, since I allowed the soup to dry for a longer time than was necessary. The solids also settled out in the cup as I ate, requiring repeated stirring. Luckily, adding some instant dried potatoes to the mix cured the problem. All in all, then, I judged my homemade portable soup a success. But could I repeat the feat with other soups? The answer, I’m happy to report, was a resounding Yes. I’ve had good luck with lentil and bean soups, potato soup, cream of broccoli, and vegetable chowder. Any caveats? Only a few. Condensed soups give the best results; homemade soup should be simmered long enough to thicken to a near purée. And tackle chunky soups with caution. The chunks will require special handling: dry them separately.

That’s it. Simple and good. So if your favorite dry soup mix has disappeared from the shelves, or if you’re just yearning for the taste of homemade in the backcountry, don’t give up without a fight. The promised land of portable soup is as close as your kitchen.

Hot soup. Could any words be more welcome to a chilled paddler’s ears? And why limit yourself to store-bought? Does homemade soup to go sound good to you? I’ll bet it does. Then what are you waiting for? Let’s all get high on drying!

Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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