Author Notes: For my entire life, that date had been known as my sister's birthday. Remember how you could practically hear the jangle of everyone's nerves? Not long after, Ruth Reichl wrote a story in the late, great Gourmet Magazine about a soup she prepared to calm her and friends's jangles. There was no recipe, merely a description of flavors and qualities. It was almost more of a tisane to be sipped from a favorite cup cradled in needy hands.
It spoke to me. I immediately began working on bringing it to life for myself and anyone who needed a bit of peace, perhaps of hope. It has been through many iterations, the most recent one including star anise.
From the beginning I tied up all the aromatics in a gauze bag to simmer in the stock and infuse it lightly yet deeply. By the time the soup arrived in bowls, flavors were present, though their ingredients were by then missing. I added silken udon noodles because I felt that in order to be a true soup, it should have a bit of texture. But just a bit. Just enough to draw one's attention away from worry and fear to focus on goodness.
Typically, when I prepare a noodle soup, I cook the noodles separately and add them to bowls along with soup at the moment of serving. Otherwise, the noodles tend to take up excessive amounts of liquid and go all soft and spongy, especially as leftovers. Here, though, I break the udon noodles into pieces about an inch or so long and simmer them right in the soup. There is never anything leftover.
I'm deliberately a bit imprecise about some measurements: soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, chili oil. They all come together to perfectly complete the soup, but I am aware that they are also strong flavors and should be added judiciously. That said, I go around looking for things to which to add fish sauce and chili oil; what is just right for me might be overpowering for others. On the surface, this is just soup; more deeply, it is about making a moment in life just right for you and those you love. - boulangere
Serves 2 generously, or 4 average sized portions; simply increase to feed more
FOR THE STOCK
- 1 quart good chicken stock
- 1 pod star anise
- 12" piece of cheesecloth and string to bind it
- 1 dried Thai chili or 2 japones
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 tablespoons dried lemongrass, or 1 of fresh
- 4 slices fresh ginger, 1/4” thick
- Handful of dried shitake mushrooms
- One dozen stems cilantro
FOR THE SOUP
- All of the stock, aromatic bundle removed
- 10 ounce package of udon noodles
- Sesame oil
- Soy sauce and fish sauce to taste
- Chili oil
- Lime wedges for garnish
- Bring the stock to a simmer in a soup pot. Tie up the aromatics in the cheesecloth to make a sort of sachet-shaped bundle. Add it to the pot. Cover the pot. Simmer for 30-45 minutes, until stock is deeply flavored. Remove the sachet and discard.
- Raise the stock to a boil. Break the udon noodles into user-friendly pieces not more than 2" long and add them to the pot. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook until noodles are silken and tender, but not excessively soft, about 10 minutes.
- Ladle into your favorite bowls. Give each a golden kiss with sesame oil, then let your guests season each to taste with the soy and fish sauces, and some drops of chili oil. Don't forget the lime wedges. Inhale the goodness. Makes a great birthday soup!