A tale of many meals from Beatrice Ojakangas

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2013 - 2:40 PM

For a simple, satisfying meal, consider making your own soup and bread.

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Curried pumpkin soup with peppered cheese bread.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with chicken noodle soup. Or cream of tomato. I love them both.

But there’s so much more to sip from your spoon on a chilly day — think ginger- carrot soup, Dutch cheese soup or a root vegetable chowder. And there’s no one better to teach us how to make it than Beatrice Ojakangas of Duluth.

She does just that in “The Soup & Bread Cookbook” (Rodale, 308 pages, $23.99), her 29th volume, in which she tackles a subject that may be closer to her core than the Scandinavian baking books for which she is known.

She praises the simplicity of that most basic meal — bread and soup — which can be found in one form or another in kitchens around the world. It’s the meal I most associate with her, one that is thrifty, filling and unfussy — one so seasonal you can use it as a calendar of sorts.

Years ago, as a young reporter, I stepped into the Ojakangas household after a long snowy drive through the fields and towering pines of northeast Minnesota. After I shook off the snowflakes and stomped my boots, she led me into the heart of her home — a warm, fragrant kitchen — where a pot of French onion soup was simmering on a back burner. Talk about comfort food. One sip of that and I felt at ease. Interviewing the foremost authority on all things Scandinavian? No problem when a pot of soup was at hand.

That nourishing bowl has a way of transforming us. Can you imagine eating soup while being angry, and then staying that way after your last spoonful? Of course not. You have to slow down to eat soup. You have to be mindful of your actions or you may spill the contents as the spoon follows the arc from bowl to mouth. It might as well be the “be and breathe” of dining.

And then there’s bread, whether a hearty loaf, simple biscuit or crunchy breadstick. Whatever the shape or flavor, it is sustenance at its most basic, and as natural a pairing with soup as food is to wine.

Ojakangas has known this since she was a young girl. Her mother told her that, when eating out, she could never go wrong by ordering soup, which would inevitably come with some kind of bread or cracker. That’s good advice for the host, as well: Bread and soup is always a winner.

She has often turned to that combo while planning meals at her church, First Lutheran in Duluth, where she heads up many food efforts and makes good use of her extensive world travels, whether to prepare borscht and black bread from Petrozavodsk, Russia, or red kidney bean soup with pupusas from El Salvador, or chicken soup and cheese rolls from Colombia, all recipes you’ll find in her new book.

While many cooks reach for the proverbial “crusty” bread to serve with any bowl of soup, Ojakangas takes her menu planning a bit further, pairing individual soups with specific breads or crackers. “It makes it a little more interesting,” she says. “You want the two to match flavor-wise and texture-wise. And they have to be ready at the same time. That’s the upshot of it.”

She makes it easy for the cook by organizing these recipes by season. A spring pea soup calls for a bread that highlights other seasonal ingredients, in this case chive-dill batter bread. Curried chicken wild-rice soup pairs with oatmeal batter bread, cabbage-hamburger soup with honey whole-wheat cranberry-nut bread.

Remember the folk tale of stone soup? The CliffsNotes version goes like this: A poor, hungry man begs for food from others, who all refuse to help him until he tells them he can make soup from a stone, if they will bring him a few ingredients. He plunks a stone in a pot full of water and brings it to a simmer, as curious onlookers offer him bits and morsels to add to the mix, which turns into a filling soup.

Ojakangas brought that tale to life at an elementary school near her home where she demonstrated how to make stone soup to the youngsters who had brought vegetables from their gardens. She’s used the concept for potluck meals where each guest contributes a cup of chopped vegetables to the mix.

“It’s the stone that makes the difference,” she said with a laugh. “We’ve used the same one for years.” Not surprising, given that her husband, Richard, is a retired geologist.

There are familiar soups and breads in her book as well as surprises, though the traditional ones have flavor ratcheted up for today’s taste buds, whether it’s a simple vegetable soup or a butternut squash version.

“I couldn’t resist doing fresh tomato soup. People don’t think they can do it, but it’s easy and cheap. If you can your own tomatoes, you will be able to make it later in the season,” she said.

Then there’s chanterelle soup.

“It’s Finnish and one of my favorites. We pick the mushrooms from our forest. And one of my favorite soups is the mushroom-barley. It’s awfully cheap and simple, just mushrooms, onion and barley.”

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