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At this time of year, I follow my Yemen-born mother-in-law's custom of always having a big pot of substantial soup ready.
Hers featured a richly flavored, cumin-scented broth studded with beef cubes and whole potatoes and accompanied by zehug, a chile-garlic relish, and plenty of bread or occasionally cooked rice. This type of soup is popular around the Mediterranean.
I find the soups of Spain particularly interesting because they share many features with those of my Middle Eastern mother-in-law. Janet Mendel, the author of My Kitchen in Spain (HarperCollins), wrote that Spanish meat soups, often called cocidos, are daily fare in village homes: "Not paella, not gazpacho, but cocido, a meal-in-a-pot, is the true national dish of Spain." Its ingredients and its name might differ from one region to another, but there are certain constants: meat, potatoes and chickpeas. More elaborate versions also include chicken and sausages.
Like our family's soup, cocido is traditionally served with plenty of crusty bread. In many village homes, the daily soup is poured into an earthenware bowl over strips of bread, which absorb the broth and make it very thick and even more substantial. For some occasions, rice is cooked in the broth. To accompany the soup, Mendel recommends a relish of pickled mild chilies, but in some regions, the soup itself is made quite spicy by the addition of cayenne pepper.
Once the Spaniards came to the New World, their soups gave rise to a host of creative new variations. Here, too, the soups have a lot in common with Israeli "Mizrahi" soups, especially in their seasonings.
At Cafe Colombia restaurant in Burbank, California, my husband and I tasted sancocho, a soup with a deliciously familiar taste. According to Patricia McCausland-Gallo, the author of Secrets of Colombian Cooking (Hippocrene, 2004), it is flavored with cilantro, garlic and cumin. No wonder we liked it! In addition to meat and potatoes, this pottage, served with rice, often has lots of vegetables: kale (dark leaves in the cabbage family), carrots, pumpkin and slices of corn on the cob.
Barbara Kafka, the author of Soup, a Way of Life (Artisan, 1998), presents a similar soup from Chile, made with chicken rather than beef and including green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and sliced corn. About the corn, she notes, "It does require that guests not be persnickety about eating with their fingers... I suppose the kernels could be removed from the cobs and added during the last few minutes of cooking, but the flavor would not be the same."
For his Mexican beef soup, Rick Bayless, the author of Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen (Scribner, 1996), also uses garlic, cumin and hot peppers as the main flavorings. As in the Colombian soup, sliced ears of corn are included among an assortment of other vegetables. Marlena Spieler, the author of Flavors of Mexico (Lowell House, 1991), calls her meat soup puchero, a name also used in Spain, and notes that versions of the soup are eaten throughout Latin America. As in my mother-in-law's soup, the meat is cooked until spoon-tender, and the soup is served with a garlicky hot pepper relish and with bread to sop up the delicious broth.
My niece remarked on the similarity of Latin American and Middle Eastern soups when we visited the Expo Comida Latina at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The flavors of a Mexican green chile stew, redolent of cilantro, garlic and lime juice, reminded her of the lemony, herb-scented kubbeh soups from her childhood in Jerusalem.
For these Latin American soups, beef shank is often the cut of choice. Veal shank is the cut used by Italians to prepare osso buco and happens to be my husband's preferred cut for soup. Even after lengthy simmering, its meat remains rich and retains a pleasing, moist texture. And it has a bonus marrow inside the bone in the center of each slice.
Latin American Beef and Vegetable Soup
Serve this flavorful soup with thick slices of crusty bread or hot cooked rice. Accompany with wedges of lemon and, if you like, with a peppery relish like green zehug. Use a heavy knife or a serrated knife to slice the corn. If using frozen ears of corn, thaw or cook them before cutting. If you prefer, substitute 1â„2 to 1 cup of corn kernels.
One to 1.4 kg. of beef shank slices or 700
to 800 gr. beef for stew cut in chunks
and add to 6 to 8 cups of water
1 large onion, peeled
1 whole bay leaf
6 small or medium-size boiling potatoes
1 large carrot, cut in thick slices
1 turnip, peeled and diced (optional)
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 tomatoes, diced (optional)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 to 2 tsp. ground cumin
1â„2 tsp. or more ground black pepper
2 pale-green squash (keeshou), halved lengthwise and cut in thick slices
2 or 3 ears of corn (fresh or frozen), cut into 2.5 or 5-cm. pieces
3 to 4 Tbsp. chopped coriander
salt to taste
Put beef in the saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to a boil. Skim foam from surface. Add onion, bay leaf and salt. Cover and cook over a low heat for one hour.
Peel potatoes and add to the pan. Simmer over very low heat for another hour, skimming fat occasionally. Add carrot, turnip, celery, tomatoes, garlic, cumin and black pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes or until meat, potatoes and vegetables are tender. Add squash and corn and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender. Discard bay leaf. Taste soup and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, in shallow bowls. Either sprinkle with chopped cilantro or serve it separately.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).