One of the biggest gripes about this whole plant-based thing is that food, in many families and in mine, means love. Therefore, when we give something up, it can also feel like we’re also giving up a little bit of the traditions and love that have passed through generations. The thinking’s not wrong–I’ve wrestled with the same feelings–but I do think that we can take the spirit of a dish, bring it up to date, and start the tradition anew.
Even my shtetl-born grandmother, whose American dream was realized with done-well briskets and too much food, was willing to adjust recipes to my ever-changing eating habits. After I gave up red meat, she willingly (I think) used turkey instead of beef for her sweet-and-sour meatballs. I can only wonder what she would have done with tempeh. (Actually, I’m fairly certain she would have said, “Oh, for God’s sake…”)
That an old-world bubbe would adjust to a newer world order said a lot about how much she loved me. It also showed me that traditions can morph and grow depending on the people around you. All is not lost because I no longer eat my grandmother’s meatballs; in fact, I can’t wait to figure out a vegetarian way to recreate them.
The Vegend initially set out to tackle a plant-based version of chicken soup one day last winter. His goal was to soothe my sick self while conjuring up the love and nostalgia we can feel from a pot of homemade soup (part of the healing process, to be sure). He considered the components of traditional chicken soup–chicken, veggies, dill–and how they each contribute to the overall dish. Without chicken, he wondered, what would flavor the soup?
Turns out that it was the veggies–and lots of them–that would give the soup its golden hue and familiar flavors. The onion–the base of so many soups–does some heavy lifting with other root vegetables (carrots, parsnip) filling in the gaps. The kicker is the dill–lots and lots of dill, even if you don’t really like dill. (I don’t really like dill but believe me, it works here.) The dill somehow evokes the nostalgia of traditional chicken soup without fully replicating the original.
Though the Vegend was skeptical at first, I think he got closer to the original than he thought possible. We know this because he conducted the ultimate side-by-side taste test: he was making a pot of actual chicken soup at the same time, keeping the chicken-fied utensils and tasting spoons on opposite sides of the stove (phew!). And so, we were able to sit together, eating and enjoying similar dishes while still being able to do our own things.
Notes before you start
Our imprecise method described here should encourage you to be open-minded, trust your family memories and your taste buds, and find your own best way. Toss in a few matzah balls for an extra hit of tradition.
A bit more on the approach (per the Vegend): Soups, stews, stocks, and big sauces meld flavors together by simmering for a long time, absorbing the ingredients and combining them into something greater than the sums of their parts. The same principle applies here, but since you don’t have chicken in the pot, you need to coax more flavor out of the vegetables than normal. You adjust by adding more vegetables than you would for chicken soup and simmering longer, which means you need to add more water to give yourself some wiggle room as it reduces. If you don’t add extra water, you could end up with a teacup of broth and potful of vegetables rather than the nostalgia-inducing cold remedy you seek.
3 carrots, diced
2 onions, diced
1 parsnip, diced
2 large garlic cloves
Lots of dill
Noodles (lokshen) of choice (optional)
Peel garlic but keep the cloves whole. Dice carrots and onion and toss with garlic cloves in olive oil and salt. Roast in a 400F degree oven until tender. Allow to cool slightly so you don’t burn your hands. Reserve some of the vegetables for serving and transfer the rest to a tall cooking pot. Add dill.
Fill your tall pot with water–enough so it’s creeping toward the top but not so much it will boil over–and bring to a boil. Here’s where it all comes together: boil, boil, and boil some more until the soup has reduced (probably to about half). It will have transformed into that classic golden chicken soup color. Taste along the way, being careful not to burn your tongue (I do it every time). You’ll know when it’s ready. Season with salt to taste (the reason we do this now is to avoid concentrating the salt too much through the reducing).
Add the reserved vegetables to your servings.
If you’re serving with noodles, we recommend boiling them separately and keeping them on the side. You can then add warm noodles to each serving without worrying that they’ll be too mushy or overdone.