Friday Oct 23

Rebecca Hart is an actor and musician and food enthusiast based in NYC. She co-writes the witty and hungry food/art/life blog "A Mouse Bouche: the Hart Sisters Eat Life" with her sister Megan Hart, also an actor. She is temporarily writing and eating in Washington DC while rehearsing a production of "Orestes" at the Folger Theatre. She is the lead singer & songwriter for the band Rebecca Hart & the Sexy Children.
a Fan Letter in Soup by Rebecca Hart


Whenever I try to pinpoint the moment I knew I wanted to write about food, there are many memories that spring to mind. Many of those walks down memory lane inevitably lead to one hardcover pastel doorway: the one on the front of Sarah Leah Chase's "Nantucket Open House Cookbook". My mother had it in her kitchen where I grew up, and the blue-and-pink cover came down from the shelf over and over, to make innovative yet totally doable recipes. (This was before the reign of Ina Garten, of course). Because I'd like this post to be shorter than War and Peace, I'll stop the history there and just say that it is now a staple in my kitchen too, and, yes, maybe because I'm an actor and maybe because I sometimes read cookbooks in bed to fall asleep and this one is particularly evocative in its descriptions, I MAY have committed some of the recipe introductions to memory. Maybe.

One such blurb is the heading for Chase's "Mushroom and Hazelnut Soup". Mind you, I've never made it or tasted it (until now).  So it's definitely a testament to the power of a well-turned phrase that I have stopped on this page every time! To have an elaborate fantasy about what it must be like and when might be the right occasion for it. And is it because I love mushrooms, or hazelnuts, so much? No! That’s the thing! Mushrooms honestly don't taste like anything to me. (A good portobello is a different story, but this recipe calls for only ordinary white 'shrooms.) And my reaction to hazelnuts is usually, "Yes, you're very interesting. Now get out of my chocolate."  So why the lust inspired by this recipe? Simply, this description:


"An outrageous soup that is velvety rich and soothing. Serve it in precious portions to your most elegant and appreciative friends."

Seriously??? Come ON! Upon reading that, who among you doesn't A) want to run out and make a list of which friends are your "most elegant and appreciative", B) wonder just what size "precious portions" might be, and C) salivate just thinking about how "velvety rich" and "outrageous" a soup would have to be in order for the writer to basically write a cautionary note about portion control?

In my mind I saw a small table of faceless Illuminati, eating a rich dark broth with teaspoons out of what looked like egg cups. 

The stars aligned. Lo these many years later, there was this issue about Soups, and I was invited to contribute. I made a weak/lame display of casting about for a good soup recipe to test/share, inviting friends' suggestions and gazing halfheartedly at supermarket shelves, when all the while I knew what I had to do. And so tonight (Monday) in order to tell the world about it by Tuesday (tomorrow), I found myself at Stop & Shop at 11PM, clutching a bag of hazelnuts, a box of plain white mushrooms, and a bottle of Marsala wine, with a manic gleam in my eye. Precious Portions by midnight!! Finally, they would be mine!! I had a perfect test audience - my college friend Z was in town staying with me. She is a performing artist who does mainly classical theatre AND a certified massage therapist. Literate, sensitive, discerning.. helLO? Elegant AND appreciative? I think so. Plus, unlike myself, she came equipped with a love of mushrooms AND "all things noisette", as she put it, already installed. Perfect.


"Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is light golden."

I don’t mind telling you this phrase struck a bit of fear into my heart. There are many Cooking Moments (making pie crust or soup stock) I've put off in my culinary life until it was simply no longer possible to avoid. Making a roux, until tonight, was one of them. It just sounded so French and complicated and likely to burn or inspire hooting laughter. But I have to say this was the best part of making this. Once I was over the initial weirdness ("I don’t get it! Is it a sauce, or a dough? Is it supposed to be liquid or roll around under my spoon like this?" (Answer = somewhere in between) and had gradually added the liquid to it, I watched in AMAZEMENT (I do not exaggerate) and wonder as, over the next 40 minutes of simmering, the liquid (chicken broth and marsala) burbled, expanded, and grew into a thick, serious, pale golden base that basically said "go ahead - hit me - I'm basically all you need." This is when cooking is just magic.

I used a leetle extra butter and a soupcon (now who sounds French??) more marsala than Chase calls for at the end, and it didn't hurt nobody.


"Finely Chop the Mushrooms"
"Hazelnuts, Toasted and Lightly Ground"

I do not have a food processor or any way of 'finely' doing or 'grinding' anything... except my hips!! In a Victory dance! I discovered that just applying your chopping knife to those little filberts will do the job just fine. Have at it. (Don’t dance for real - you're holding a knife. Seriously.)

Full disclosure: I did forget to toast them, though, and you might wanna try it; I can see what she's driving at.


"Whisk the Egg Yolks and Light Cream together in a bowl. Whisk in 1 Cup of the hot soup, then gently whisk it back into the soup."

Honestly, I have no idea either. Just do it.

... And in the end, you get this:



This soup is ...  nothing, NOTHING, like I imagined. Oh, it's delicious. Z got out of bed "just to taste it, I don’t want a whole thing" and then finished a whole mug before I could say "precious portions." And, ok, it's soothing, and certainly elegant, and if you like mushrooms and hazelnuts, it has both. But it's light, creamy, and subtle, not the "outrageous" flavor explosion I had come to both anticipate and fear. Life is funny. Heroes are fallible, adjectives sometimes miss their mark, a roux is neither a solid nor a liquid. Who knew. Here's what I think: for a lovely, elegant, White-Christmas, snowy little first course, look no further. In bowls, even. I think you can handle it.


RECIPE typed over, not from memory. From the Nantucket Open House Cookbook, Sarah Leah Chase

6 C Chicken Stock
5 tbsp sweet Marsala wine
7 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 unbleached all purpose flour
12 oz. white mushrooms cleaned
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 C milk
1/2 C hazelnuts, lightly toasted and finely ground
2 large egg yolks, room temp
1 C light cream
nutmeg, salt, pepper

1. Heat stock and 3 tbsp of wine in medium saucepan til quite hot
2. Meanwhile, melt 4 tbsp butter in heavy stockpot over med heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, til the roux is pale golden, 3 or 4 min. Gradually add the hot stock mixture, whisking til smooth. Heat to boiling. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 40 min.
3. Finely chop the mushrooms by hand or in a food processor fitted with steel blade. Toss with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Melt the remaining 3 tbsp butter in a skillet over med-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring constantly, until all moisture evaporates. Remove from heat.
4. Stir mushrooms into stock. Stir in milk and then hazelnuts over low heat.
5. Whisk egg yolks and light cream together in small bowl. Whisk in 1 cup of hot soup, then gently whisk it back to the soup. Do not let soup boil or it will curdle. Stir in remaining two tbsp marsala wine and season with nutmeg, salt, pepper. Serve hot.
Makes 6 to 8 small servings.