Cooking for One: Soups that make me feel better

(Merle Nacht for The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 10:59 AM

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, the answer to one question would determine whether I would drag myself in to work on days when I felt under the weather: Would my friend Chin accompany me to eat pho ga on our lunch hour? Nothing seemed to heal like that steaming bowl of rich chicken broth packed with rice noodles and clean strips of chicken breast, especially once I dropped in the basil and bean sprouts and squeezed in fresh lime juice and Sriracha.

These days, the best pho around isn't within walking distance of my workplace (although it's getting closer), so my favorite cold-recovery soups are the ones I make myself. And I'm not talking about pho, which requires more time and effort than I want to spend when I'm fighting a cold and losing.

When I got bitten by a nasty bug in November, I might have attempted a reasonable facsimile of pho if homemade chicken broth had been waiting in my freezer, as is sometimes the case; instead, I had to look elsewhere in my fridge and pantry and improvise. A swing by the Whole Foods on the way home from work was manageable; a Zipcar or bus ride to an H Mart in the suburbs was out of the question.

I have several criteria for soups to make for myself (and take to work for lunch) when all I really want to do is stay in bed: They need to contain some of my favorite make-me-feel-better ingredients; they need to be pungently flavored to get past my compromised sense of taste; and I should be able to put them together mostly, if not entirely, with things I have around. Although I love to make Mediterranean-leaning soup bases out of beans or potatoes, when I've got a cold I crave lighter approaches.

Last month, all those criteria converged pretty neatly and pointed me toward Japan, not Vietnam or Italy, for inspiration.

It's not the first time. For years, whenever I've felt something coming on, I have made and guzzled a fresh Japanese ginger tea suggested to me by my friend Deb Samuels, a cookbook author. That's how I've grown addicted to the seemingly miraculous curative abilities of ginger, which I always have on hand. I'm also a devotee of dashi, the traditional Japanese broth made from seaweed and bonito flakes, which made the perfect base for a carrot-ginger soup I put together as a first course for this year's Thanksgiving dinner. Scaled down to three or four servings, the soup has become a main course for me when I want a dose of Vitamin C and that spicy kick of ginger. I remove the seaweed after it infuses water with flavor for the dashi, and I chop it up and add it to a side salad.

Like the seaweed and bonito, the ingredients in my other new go-to cold-season soup are shelf-stable, meaning I can pull together a flavorful broth without the need for simmering bones and aromatic vegetables. Mushroom powder, which I previously had used only for Italian cooking, easily makes the leap to another Japanese-inspired soup of mushrooms and buckwheat soba noodles. Antioxidant-rich mushrooms go in fresh, of course, and the powder (which you can easily make by grinding dried porcini, shiitake or other varieties) bulks up the background flavor as well, giving the soup a double punch of earthiness.

It's just what I need when I'm sick. Making it doesn't tire me out, and the flavors are bold enough to actually taste. Eating it leaves me feeling - if only for a few minutes - ready for the rest of the workday.


Ginger-Packed Carrot Soup

Double Mushroom Soup With Soba Noodles

Yonan is author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," coming in March from Ten Speed Press.

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