Saturday, September 12, 2009

Little Bear's Birthday Soup

"The pot is by the fire.
The water in the pot is hot.
If I put something in the water,
I can make Birthday Soup.
All my friends like soup.
Let me see what we have..."
~excerpt from Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik

My baby boy celebrated his first birthday this week. I can hardly wrap my mind around the reality that he is a whole year old. His tiny-babyhood passed by in what seemed to be a nanosecond, and now he is a strong, rambunctious, almost-toddler, who tries to unplug every power cord in the house, splashes in the toilet at any given opportunity, and climbs upstairs faster than you can say, "Hey! Baby boy! Where do you think you're going???" He truly is a remarkable boy!

My husband's family has a tradition of making a special dinner whenever someone has a birthday. This tradition has been a blessing to me. I'd rather have a homemade family meal than a technicolor party with the cheeseburger clown or the hyperactive pizza rodent any day! At any rate, my husband and I have started our own little tradition-within-a-tradition--
Little Bear's Birthday Soup.

We adore the Little Bear early readers by Else Holmelund Minarik, with pictures by Maurice Sendak. We have read them out loud ever since our eldest was a toddler. So, when he turned two, and we asked him, "What would you like for your birthday dinner?", he gave us a look that said why would you have to ask that question and said, emphatically, "Soup!"

Of course!!

Soup makes a fantastic toddler meal, while at the same time being enjoyable for the whole family. It is hearty and nutritious, with vegetables that are tender enough for little teeth to chew. It is also an economical way to feed an ever-growing family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Little Bear made his soup using only carrots, potatoes, peas, and tomatoes. Our version is more substantial, and extremely delicious!

I hesitate to write a "recipe" for soup...after all, soup is more of an art than a science. It can be adjusted to suit your family's tastes, dietary restrictions, or the contents of your pantry. I don't think we have made this soup the exact same way twice.

Nevertheless, I can tell you the basics of how this is done. What you make of it is up to you!

We start with 1-3lbs of venison steak, cut into small chunks. Beef works well too, of course, but there is something about the complex flavor and lean nutrition of venison that is hard to duplicate. Besides, we're pretty sure that when Father Bear went hunting, he was more likely to come home with a deer than a steer!

In a large soup pot, bring eight cups of water to a boil. Add meat and simmer over medium low heat for about twenty minutes. Skim fat off the broth if necessary--if you're using venison, you probably will not have to do this, because it is so lean. Add one large (46-48oz) can of tomato juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper, thyme and a bay leaf. Our "secret ingredient" that really adds a lot of flavor is worchestishire sauce. I never measure any of this stuff. I just use my best judgement and do a lot of tasting before the soup gets to the table.

Return to a simmer and add any and all of the following:

1/2 cup lentils
1/2 cup barley
1/2 cup brown rice
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large celery stalks, chopped

Simmer until the lentils and grains are tender and the vegetables are desired consistency, about 30-45 minutes. I find that the potatoes are a good indicator--if the potatoes are done, the soup is probably done. At this point, I like to add a bag of frozen mixed veggies and simmer just a little longer. This adds peas, corn, green beans, lima beans, and a few more carrots. Of course, if you have any of these veggies fresh on hand, by all means, add them with the rest of the fresh veggies earlier in the recipe.

If your little bear happens to be a vegetarian, you can start with your favorite vegetable soup base and increase the lentils or add other beans or legumes to increase the amount of protein per serving.

We like to serve birthday soup with Dutch Oven bread from the January/February 2008 issue of Cook's Illustrated. This is a fabulous recipe! It requires almost no kneading, and is the only way I've been able to obtain the taste of brick-oven artisan bread from my own kitchen. It does take a lot of time (I mix the dough the night before), but other than that, it is super-easy. I wanted to link to this recipe on the Cooks Illustrated website, but alas, the recipe is only available to paying subscribers. I guess it will have to remain my little secret...

Did our littlest bear enjoy his birthday soup? Absolutely! I think yours will too!



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I'm a Stay-at-Home, Christian, "crunchy" mama. I have been blessed with the calling to be a godly wife and mother. I am passionate about bringing up my children in the discipline and instruction of the LORD, through home education and discipleship. Helpmeet to my best friend and soulmate, Christopher since 1/29/2000, and mama to four little blessings, including a tiny, precious, newborn baby girl.

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Bible--Child's Story Bible by Catherine Vos, Apologia Biblical World View Book 1, "Who is God and Can I Really Know Him?"
Catechism-- "Training Hearts, Teaching Minds" by Starr Meade
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