Beef It Up: Nostalgia in a Soup Bowl

Winter here is airy and bright, just the time for slow-cooked soups full of fresh seasonings like cilantro and fennel.

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Beef and tomato soup. Fresh tomatoes all year long.
Beef and tomato soup. Fresh tomatoes all year long.Credit: Dan Perez

When the first few raindrops fall, I hurry to put the soup pot on the stove. My family has been in this dry, arid country for nearly a century now, but something in our genetics still yearns for a deep, white winter. Perhaps it’s the pace of life that has been imprinted in us for generations that insists on slowing down and staying close to home to keep warm, sitting for hours around the heater until the steamed-up windows clear.

And soup is something you cook to make the taste linger, just as a photograph makes a memory linger. In the poor towns and villages where my ancestors wandered, there was very little real meat to be had, if any. Instead there were bones, lots of potatoes, and plenty of water from melted snow. When you cook it all together long enough, the water picks up as much flavor as possible from the scraps of meat, and so the food, like life itself in that diaspora, becomes partly about the present and largely about the past.

After two thousand years, my grandparents finally returned to this land, which they always called their homeland, even though their parents and grandparents were not born here. And now there is no longer a need for such longings and yearnings, no need for the soup and the hamin; you can eat your fill straight from the field – salad, cheese and eggs. And still, it’s only now that we’re here that we really understand that it wasn’t the exile and the persecutions that were the cause of the family melancholy come winter; it seems we are just the yearning kind.

Golden beef soup

In Europe, beef soups tend to be very thick and heavy, suitable for when the snow is piling up outside and you spend long days indoors. Here, the winter is airier and brighter, and after sipping some soup we go right back to work, usually without even an umbrella. With this soup, you sauté the meat a bit first and add the seasonings to the hot olive oil so that all their flavors will come out in the liquid during the slow cooking, without making the consistency too heavy. The cilantro and fennel have a very fresh taste, and together with the cardamom, add a wonderful zest that will entice people to eat one spoon after another. If you really prefer a thicker soup, add the polenta in the recipe, and if you prefer a thinner soup, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over it.

800 gr beef shoulder
or shank
3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
2 white onions
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cilantro seeds
4 cardamom pods
4 tbsp dry polenta
2 cups water
3 medium potatoes
1 celeriac
1 parsnip
4 stalks celery
12 sprigs parsley
sea salt
coarsely ground black

Trim the meat of fat and tendons and cut into 1½ cm cubes. Pour the oil into a wide pot, turn the heat up high and when the oil is hot, gradually add the meat, not all at once, so that the oil won’t cool off and cause the meat to stick to the bottom of the pot. Stir with a wooden spoon until the meat is gray in color. Do not fry the meat even lightly or allow burned spots to form.

Chop the onion, add it to the pot with the meat and stir. Pound the turmeric, fennel seeds, cilantro seeds and cardamom using a mortar and pestle until a paste is obtained, and add to the pot when the onion is translucent. Stir vigorously. Add the polenta and two cups of water, stir and let the water come to a boil over a medium flame. When the water starts to bubble, lower the fire and keep simmering at a low, steady boil.

Meanwhile, peel and dice the potatoes, celeriac and parsnip and add to the pot along with the celery. Add the rest of the water, turn up the heat and again bring to a gentle boil and then lower the flame. Add the parsley sprigs, cover and simmer for about two hours.

Check to see that the meat has softened, then season with salt and pepper. Taste the soup and adjust the seasonings if needed. Remove the parsley and celery, ladle into bowls and serve with toasted pita.

Beef and tomato soup

In Italy, no two tomato soups are alike – it all depends on the tomatoes and on the bread baked in rustic ovens. You use fresh tomatoes in the summer, when they are ripe, and use preserved tomatoes in winter. Here, we have fresh red tomatoes all year long from the hothouses in the Arava, and this soup can also be enjoyed when it’s really cold outside. You could forgo the paprika and suffice with the taste of the fresh tomatoes, but the sweet pepperiness adds a special local flavor.

800 gr beef shoulder
or shank
3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
1 red onion
5 garlic cloves
1 tbsp sweet Moroccan
paprika in oil
10-12 ripe tomatoes
4 thick slices sourdough
bread, without the crust
1 liter water
leaves from 2 sprigs
of thyme
lemon juice
sea salt
coarsely ground black pepper

Start as in the above recipe. Clean and cube the meat and brown it in oil with the onion just until the meat changes color and the onion becomes translucent.

Slice the garlic cloves and add to the pot with the paprika. Stir for about a minute until the aroma of the garlic fills the air. Peel and chop the tomatoes, add them to the pot and stir. (To peel the tomatoes, use a special tomato peeler or slit them on the bottom and place in boiling water for a minute until the peel easily comes loose.)

Crumble the bread into the pot and continue stirring. Add the water and thyme and bring to a boil. Lower the flame to a slow boil, cover the pot and let simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally. Keep the heat very low and make sure the solids in the soup don’t stick to the bottom and burn.

Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper, taste and then adjust the seasonings if needed. Some people like to remove the meat and then blend the soup so that it’s smooth. I prefer the version that has more texture. When serving, you can also place on the table a dish of white rice or boiled potatoes, either of which may be added to the soup.