Snowstorm scrounging inspired this powerful mushroom soup

March 18, 2024

It was the middle of a snowstorm, and I had some cooking to do.

Not for myself or my family, but for a friend recovering from a hospital stay; I had signed on to a meal-train plan, my turn had arrived, and unplowed roads meant I couldn’t go to the grocery store. My only choice: to make use of my freezer and pantry, to get creative.

I know this wouldn’t excite everyone, but it did me. A chance to play!

Let me stop here and acknowledge how privileged I am to be able to afford to keep my house well-stocked with food. For far too many people, the question isn’t what to do with all the stuff they have; . I know because I’ve been there myself — and I’m grateful that I’m not there now.

I try not to take for granted the fact that I can almost always go to the store and buy more food, even when I really don’t need to. But the truth is, I too often fall prey to my own cravings and my husband’s and teenager’s, too, meaning that even though we might have the makings of a great chili or casserole in the house, if the kid feels like a pizza, I usually get what I need to make pizza — or order one.

This time, that was out of the question, so I got to pretend I was on “Chopped,” competing against nobody but myself.

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The request was for a satisfying meal with a good balance of vegetables and protein. Shopping in my own pantry, I soon realized I had the makings of a mushroom soup. Fresh produce was a little sparse, but years earlier, my husband had bought me several bags of that I hadn’t touched. I had onions and garlic, as always, and several dried pastas and grains. Fregola, toasted pearl-sized couscous from Sardinia, would add heft while cooking quickly. A quart-sized jar of navy beans I had cooked the day before () sat in the fridge, ready to add bulk, protein and, thanks to their cooking liquid, flavor and silky texture.

My spice drawer is overstuffed with flavor enhancers. I dug up one bag I couldn’t even recall buying, of dried Sicilian peppers, and a hazy memory of a friend returning from a trip started taking shape. (When your career revolves around food, friends and colleagues bring you all manner of little edible souvenirs.)

I loved how the soup came together, but I’m also lucky enough to know how to cook. If I had needed to look up a recipe that fit all my criteria, it would’ve taken me longer to figure out all the substitutes than it did to just build the flavor as I went, tasting and adjusting and making use of the bounty that all too often I don’t appreciate as bountiful.

For you, I’ve taken the guesswork out and gotten specific. I based this recipe on my snowbound day in the kitchen, after adapting it to use not the exact things I had in my pantry that day, but what you probably have in yours — or what you could easily get. I’m not going to ask you to hunt down dried Sicilian red peppers just to make this soup. Instead, since those peppers were sweet and not spicy, in further tests I successfully made it with sun-dried tomatoes instead. The raft of dried porcinis my husband mail-ordered at a decent price in bulk would cost way too much at a grocery store, if you could even find them, so I instead used a little mushroom powder (which I highly recommend as a super-powerful pantry staple, and which you can grind yourself if needed) plus fresh mushrooms. The fregola became pearl couscous (and could be any other hearty grain).

The most important thing about the soup is this: Once our roads were plowed, I got it to my friend’s townhouse in time for dinner, and it helped her and her family make it through one more night without having to worry about food. I hope it can do the same for you.

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