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Herbal Soups 

Waiter, there's a salad in my soup

Last summer, I bought a pile of bitter eggplant at the farmers market. I'd never heard of it, but the green, red, yellow and orange wrinkled spheres drew me in. The farmer, an immigrant from the Laotian mountains, and the advice she gave me, sealed the deal.

Soothe your wintertime blues by combining flavorful broth with crunchy herbs and veggies. - ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux
  • Soothe your wintertime blues by combining flavorful broth with crunchy herbs and veggies.

She recommended slicing two bitter eggplants in half and simmering them in a large kettle of water with pork. And dill leaf, she added.

"When should I add the dill?" I asked. "Cook it or add it fresh at the end?"

"Both," she said.

Cooking it with dill helps cover the extreme bitterness of the eggplant. Adding dill at the end so that it doesn't cook for very long adds additional kick.

My mom's chicken soup is anything but bitter, and includes a lot of cooked dill. And I like to add some fresh at the end, too.

You've probably tried pho, the Vietnamese soup famously served alongside a plate of herbs, sprouts and other raw fixings. The better pho restaurants will serve a differently formulated garnish plate with each flavor of pho. Andrea Nguyen, author of the James Beard award-winning "The Pho Cookbook" (which I helped recipe test), is a connoisseur of this auxiliary salad plate.

"Fresh herbs add vibrant color, flavor and aroma to pho," she told me. "Whether it's chopped cilantro in the bowl before the hot broth hits everything, or torn mint, Thai basil or culantro leaves added at the table, herbs are an essential part of the pho experience." (Culantro is also known as sawtooth, a type of Vietnamese herb)

Posole, the brothy Mexican corn chile soup, is a lovely winter soup, similarly finished with a plate of fresh herbs and strong-flavored veggies such as cilantro leaves, chopped onions, and sliced radish. Chicken Kaeng Om, a dish from the northern mountains of Thailand, calls for a strong and complex broth flavored with lemongrass, galangal, turmeric root and chicken. That rich flavor is elevated to new heights with the final infusion of raw basil, dill, kaffir lime leaf, thin-sliced cabbage and spring onion tops. Japanese nabemono, also known as sour beef hot pot with fresh herbs, meanwhile, gets finished with basil, cilantro, mint and serrano pepper.

In winter, growing herbs indoors can be an easy way to keep fresh local greenery in your life. My supermarket sells potted basil and other herbs in the produce section, ready to grow on your windowsill, to be plucked as needed and added into your broth. And many of the vendors at my local farmers market sell herbs from heated greenhouses.

Herbs are full of oils and various oil-soluble aromatic compounds that disperse in the broth, permeating every sip and bite. Other raw vegetables like onions and peppers can similarly improve a broth. But not every herb or strong-flavored vegetable will be a winner in every bowl. The herbs and veggies you add to a soup should work together and with the broth. Dill may work in Mom's chicken soup and bitter eggplant broth, but that doesn't mean we want dill in the pho, where it would clash with the other flavors.

The easiest way to make herb soup is to get some broth, get some herbs, and start playing. Vegetables, meats, mushrooms, bones, and other soupy ingredients are allowed as well, just as long as the soup remains more brothy than chunky.

The best broth will always be homemade. Perhaps from the bones of a holiday carcass, or the bones from a rack of lamb. But there's no shame in using bouillon, pre-made stock or simply your instant ramen of choice. From there, may the best herbs and aromatic veggies win.

Herbed Ramen

Camping in southern Nevada last week, I made a trip Las Vegas, where I found a bowl of Oxtail Pho at a restaurant called Viet Noodle Bar. I got it to-go and brought it back to camp, where I re-heated the oxtail in the broth. Then I added the noodles and served it with the many garnishes: basil, cilantro, sliced onions and jalapenos, a lime quarter and a pile of crunchy mung bean sprouts, along with hoisin and sriracha sauces in little packets. It was the best of all worlds: soup and salad, raw and cooked, wilderness and civilization.

During my Vegas run I also made a quick pilgrimage to Greenland Market in the Koreatown district, where I purchased some cutting-edge ramen, including Nongshim brand's non-fried noodle soup with dried anchovy paste and Samyang brand Chewy Chewy Su Tah ramen, among others. I had also loaded up on fresh herbs for the cooler.

Thus, I was ready to cook herbal soup from scratch in my camp, with ingredients I cobbled together from my cooler. It turned out great.

Serves 2

1 package high-end ramen
6 button mushrooms, sliced into quarters
1 carrot, chopped crudely
1 12-oz package of silken, non-refrigerated tofu, sliced into 1-inch cubes (one of these halves is probably enough)
1 egg
Soy sauce, to taste
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced
1 bunch of cilantro, leaves stripped

Add an extra cup of water to the pot beyond what the ramen directions dictate. Add the flavor packets to the water and heat it on high. Add the carrots, mushrooms, tofu and noodles, and bring to a boil. Add the egg, cook for a minute and turn off the heat. Season with soy sauce, if necessary, and serve with cilantro leaves and jalapeno slices.

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