Today I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite cookbooks. I don’t cook from it very often, but it has made it through each quarterly-ish cookbook purge I’ve conducted since it came into my possession in 2016. I sometimes look at it, consider donating it, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Because not only do I find this book fascinating from a wonky cookbook nerdery angle, it also brings me quite a bit of joy.
I am talking about Soup of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year by Kate McMillan.
This book does exactly what the title says: it’s 365 recipes for soup, each pegged to a different day of the year. Some are chunky, some pureed; some noodley or full of grains; some world-famous and some entirely made up. It’s a party trick of a book: tell me your birthday, I’ll tell you your soup. (Brillat-Savarin said that, didn’t he?) It’s a simple and maybe a little obvious concept that’s also elegant in execution. It’s put out by Williams-Sonoma. It’s part of a series, with Salad of the Day and One-Pot of the Day and Vegetable of the Day and others. It’s not the kind of cookbook I usually write about.
It can tell your future and help you decide what’s for dinner tonight. It probably contains the secrets of the universe.
As a cookbook, it works in a number of ways. On the surface, it’s a bunch of ideas for soup, loosely pegged to the time of year. Recipes are short and fairly simple, with brief headnotes. Most don’t have photos. Given its seasonal nature, it also works as a sort of deck of cards with dinner ideas: flavors and ingredients you might find appealing on February 6 or May 12 or September 23. The simple recipes lend themselves to adaptation, and you could easily use the same flavors in different applications. July 21’s Chipotle-Corn Puree with Bay Shrimp and Avocado Salsa has potential as a salad if it’s a thick and sweaty day, or a pasta, or shrimp tacos, or, or, or.
Then there’s the sheer quantity of recipes. Any book with more than, say, 150 recipes is a lot; 365 is massive. Can’t really commit to the concept and avoid that number, though, so 365 it is. And with that comes some unavoidable repetition. That’s a good thing: if you set out to learn to make soup, like really learn how to make soup, and start working your way through these recipes, you’ll start to notice patterns in both technique and flavor. Which vegetables work well in noodle soups? Or perform well as purees? What ingredients get added at the end for a flavor boost again and again? How does one deploy cream in a soup? How do you build flavor? How do you approach garnishes? What exactly is a “soup?”
You can see how, before long, you’ll graduate from Soup of the Day fully certified as a soup expert.
These are all very practical reasons to love a cookbook: it helps you get dinner on the table in an efficient and delicious manner, it teaches you how to cook its professed subject with skill and ease. But I also have reasons for loving Soup of the Day that are a little less terrestrial.
Because of course there’s a bit of an astrological side to Soup of the Day. After all, when presented with a book full of dates, it’s only natural to look up one’s birthday. What can one learn from knowing one’s soup? What does your soup say about you? Take me, for example: my November birthday lands me as a Cheddar Cheese Soup With Ale. Being from Wisconsin, it feels a little on the nose, but also knowing that this book somehow saw me coming boosts my confidence in reading into the birthday soups of others. Here are the birthdays of some famous people and their soups:
Oprah Winfrey, January 29: Vegetable Lentil Soup with Sherry
Elizabeth Taylor, February 27: Ham, Bean, & Escarole Soup
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, March 15: Miso Soup with Shrimp and Pea Shoots
Prince Rogers Nelson, June 7: Lump Crab in Tomato-Rosemary Broth
Serena Williams, September 26: Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Five Spice
Britney Spears, December 2: Cream of Onion Soup
I’m not sure what exactly and specifically we can tell about these people from their birthday soups, but I do know when a soup feels right. Elizabeth Taylor’s Italian-ish soup feels correct, as does Serena Williams’ pureed pumpkin soup with the added warmth of five spice. Prince can have whatever soup he likes as far as I’m concerned, but his delicate broth at least feels appropriately fancy (and dare-I-say slightly 90s). Britney Spears, though, and her staid, perhaps even old fashioned onion soup feels off. Perhaps it is a soup for a Britney of the future, that we have yet to meet.
I don’t really think the author, Kate McMillan, had these interpretations in mind when she selected the recipes for this book, although I imagine one might be inclined to provide special recipes for the birthdays of loved ones, say, or anniversaries. But human beings have used astrology and tarot and other more established means of divination for centuries. It’s human nature to seek meaning in or identify yourself with seemingly random signifiers like the stars or a deck of cards; if it tells you something, makes you realize something, gives you an idea, or even comforts you, what’s the harm? Why not find that in a bowl of soup?
Today’s soup, April 9, is Udon with Chicken and Spinach. I hope you take that energy with you into your day. Have a great weekend.
Udon Noodle Soup with Chicken & Spinach
Excerpted from Soup of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year by Kate McMillan. Weldon Owen, 2016. All rights reserved.
Japanese udon noodles are often served chilled in the summer and hot in the winter, and toppings chosen to reflect the seasons. Here, they are paired with spinach and green onions and topped, just before serving, with an egg that cooks gently in the hot broth.
1/2 teaspoon granulated dashi mixed with 1 cup (250 ml) hot water
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
Ground white pepper
3/4 pound (375 g) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces
For the broth:
3/4 teaspoon granulated dashi mixed with 6 cups (1.5 l) hot water
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound (500 g) udon noodles
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cups (90 g) loosely packed spinach leaves, cut into 2-inch (5-cm) strips, immersed in boiling water for 1 minute, drained, and squeezed dry
4 green onions, white and pale green parts, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon chile powder
In a saucepan, combine the dashi mixture, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch. Add 1/8 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the chicken pieces, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken is opaquer throughout, 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat.
To make the broth, in a large saucepan, combine the dashi mixture, soy sauces, vinegar, and sugar. Add 1/8 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Keep warm.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Stir in the noodles and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until the noodles are just tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain and divide among bowls.
Top each serving of noodles with the chicken mixture and spinach. Crack and egg into each bowl and gently pour the hot broth over the top. Serve, garnished with the green onions and a dusting of chile powder.
In Case You Missed It, In Tuesday’s Issue: The astrology of cocktails (it’s not just for soup)! A mother-daughter duo self-publishes a book of Indonesian recipes! Food52 and Gastro Obscura cover reveals! And more!