You can make any soup with your soup mom, like this garlic bread, broth, and whey soup from the closed Reynard restaurant in Brooklyn.
Photo: Melissa Hom
Over the long weekend, chef Natasha Pickowicz posted a slideshow of some very nice looking soups on Instagram. Some had beans, many had greens, a few were pasta-like. What all the soups had in common, and what piqued Grub’s curiosity, was that they had all been made from the same soup base, which Pickowicz had constantly cooked and fed with new ingredients. She calls it her “soup mom.” As a technique, the idea of an infinite stew has literally been around forever (or at least for as long as anyone realized that it’s easier to keep a single log fire going than it is to start a new one every day, or that cooking food was safer than leaving it out before mechanical refrigeration was invented), and Pickowicz is the first person to say that she doesn’t try to appropriate that idea in any way. But there was still something about her post that resonated with her 27,000 followers — including Grub Street. So we gave her a call to get a little more of her thoughts on soup during a week when we could all likely be simmering something delicious on our stoves.
Can you quickly explain this idea for the people who haven’t seen your post yet? On Instagram, you’ve written about “pursuing the idea that one meal can flow into the next” and creating large batches, in this case soup, “that evolve over time.” So Tuesday’s soup becomes Wednesday’s soup, and so on.
I think people are reluctant to blur those lines and mix everything together, but to me it just feels more intuitive when cooking feels more like a wave with different parts. It also feels more efficient and easier to me. I don’t want to hack.
I think there are certain concepts surrounding a nut, something we’re all very familiar with, whether it’s a sourdough starter or a kombucha SCOBY. I think we need to understand the idea that one concentrated thing starts the next new thing, even if it’s a bit different because it’s cooked.
I’m so interested in people’s reactions. You said you had many questions. What were they asking about?
I think a lot of people were just like that Wow, stunning emoji. I’ve never thought about cooking this way before. I think it speaks so much to how Americans in particular are conditioned to think about meals, cooking and shopping for ourselves. With things like meal delivery, we get just the right amount of ingredients for dinner for two, or the yield is a cup of rice or five florets of broccoli. I live alone. I can’t be that rigid so I’ll just use common sense.
For me, I feel like we’re losing the point of cooking. We’re so stuck in the recipes, what to do, and the quantities of everything, you forget that cooking can be that super intuitive, relaxing process that has no rough edges, but is that ambiguous thing that’s in the next thing flows .
Every few years, this idea resurfaces in the internet content cycle, and then people offer up their takes. That postpredictable, Calls it “scary”. Food & Wine once ran a piece titled “Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of This Endless Stew”.
I think that really relates to a lot of the anxiety Americans have about food safety. We just blindly believe these things, like Oh, the egg box says the eggs are expired. I will throw them all away.
My mother is an immigrant. Your approach to cooking as a Chinese will be different than someone who grew up in a white American household with different strategies or approaches. I was just at home in San Diego where my parents live and I couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that they don’t refrigerate. Again they are like in a nice mild climate good for them but I laughed because they wrapped up cheese and left it on the counter. Cooked things like rice are never refrigerated. My parents are so healthy and my mom is a crazy cook. I was just like You know what? That’s reassuring. You just have to do what feels right to you.
Right. This is not an idea at all that really relates to food safety.
I’ve worked in a restaurant, I’ve seen everything that can go wrong. I’ve also seen how a dish can stay consistent from day 1 to day 100, sometimes because there are things like a mother ingredient. Seeing tricks like that and then bringing them to my apartment – I’m not going to make a fussy little meal and then have it ready when I’ve eaten it. I don’t have that time. I want something delicious with deep flavor that instantly enhances something seemingly simple. That way, when I’m cooking and ready to eat, all I have to do is pour some broth over some rice and puree some veggies and it’s done and it tastes complete and feels nutritious.
I have a tiny apartment and a ridiculously small fridge. I’m not going to put a six-liter Dutch Oven in there if I can leave it on my counter because my apartment doesn’t really get above 140 degrees anyway. There’s a lot of that non-grandma advice where you at It doesn’t seem like it’s really scientifically based, but I kind of trust it. If I bring it to a boil I just keep eating it and it’s ok, and if it tastes weird I throw it out and that’s ok.
I’ve seen other comments from people saying they are already doing this and one from a person who was confused that others were going insane.
I’ve heard a lot of comments from people who were like Wow, I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’ve never heard it talked about or thought about it like that. If you just google this idea, you will see how this idea has been expressed around the world. In my mind, I just thought it was a Chinese thing. But then I had people from Mexico saying: This is how I cook beans. I boil beans and then I mash them up a bit at the end and add that to my braising liquid next time. Then someone else is like Oh, this is how my Polish grandmother makes this beef stewand it just goes on and on and on.
People may do this out of thrift, but you speak of it as a more intentional technique.
Yes I think so. I think it also improves the taste of food. If I boil beans and water, it won’t taste the same as if there’s also a cup of a rich, super-savory, thick liquid that’s simply the result of onions and carrots and celery simmering in it for hours. I originally made it to save money, but then I keep doing it because I like how my food tastes too.
The practical aspect makes me think of it An eternal meal.
There are definitely many great books that talk about this approach and philosophy, like Tamar Adler’s. There are a lot of books out there about how to upcycle your leftovers and this and that. But I think there’s a stigma to how we look at leftovers and try to make them appealing again, and I don’t think so about it. I think we need to stop thinking about how to improve our gross leftovers and just be more like Everything rolls into the next moment in this fluid way that is influenced by how we live our lives.
How much did you cook at home while working in restaurants? My brother is a chef and he just doesn’t have the time. So I’m curious, did you start this after COVID?
To be honest I didn’t really cook much at home because I got all my meals at work and was probably too tired to do much. But that’s how I’ve been cooking for a long time, even before I cooked in restaurants.
I think I’ve alluded to it in everything I’ve written on Instagram, but I see this style of cooking happening in kitchens already. A chef who has integrity at work and wants to take care of his colleagues will strive for a family dinner, but he has all these limitations as to what he can do. You can’t make a steak for 50 people. So it’s more like Here’s a little bit of that, a little bit of that, and I think I always have the greatest respect for the chefs who are able to question what is in front of them and somehow make it greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve definitely learned a lot by making a lot of family dinners and being like Oh, what do I do with these gray tomatoes and these leftover onions and these fermented beet greens?
And that’s a part of cooking in a restaurant that the public never sees, but which translates so well to cooking at home.
Yes. And on an emotional level, there is something beautiful about having a soup mom that simmers all day long, who fills my home with a wonderful smell that I feel connected to. Other people feel this way about their sourdough starter. These are things that should not only nourish us, but also give us joy. I’ve got soup on my stove right now and it’s brightening up my apartment more great. It’s just something that makes you feel good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.