Armistice Day & Soup

November 12, 2011

There never was a good war, or a bad peace.
~Benjamin Franklin

11.11.11.11.11—it turned 11:11am on November 11, 2011. The War To End All Wars, World War I, ended 93 years ago yesterday.

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on November 11, 1918 near 5:00am, but was not effective until 11:00am that same day, allowing commanders to spread the word along the fronts. The inglorious eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Armistice was executed in a carriage of Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s private train, CIWL #2419 (Le Wagon de l’Armistice), and terms addressed such issues as the prompt cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German troops to behind their borders, prisoner exchanges, promises of reparations, the internment of the German fleet, and the surrender of munitions. A fragile peace had been reached.

By the time the Armistice had been signed, military and civilian casualties stood at some 35 million. The French countryside had been decimated—buildings, homes, farms even entire villages were leveled; armies would soon leave behind devastated factories, bridges, roads, railroads; shell craters punctured pastures as far as the eye could see with unexploded munitions scattered everywhere; solitary torn, burnt trees strained to rise above the rubble; stiff horse and livestock carcasses lay motionless far and wide; wrecked tanks, gnarled helmets, barbed wire, twisted scrap iron in all shapes were surreally strewn on barren land; and abandonned trenches after trenches were bizarrely carved into once fertile fields. A post-apocalyptic, almost lunar landscape.

And sadly, the final day of World War I still produced nearly 11,000 troop casualties; more than those amassed on D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of occupied Normandy less than three decades later.

Precious young life and limb was lost on this last half-day when some field commanders, knowing that an Armistice had already been signed, insisted on forging ahead in battle. Major General William Wright, of the 89th American Division, was one such culprit. Having received word that there were bathing facilities in the nearby village of Stenay, he ordered his men to storm the town just so his exhausted, filthy troops could refresh themselves. The town would have been peaceably handed over to these forces in a matter of hours. Wright’s lunacy cost some 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for reasons beyond comprehension.

That same day in the nearby Argonne region, American private Henry Gunther was part of a pointless, inexplicable charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to occur. Ironically of German descent, he was shot dead less than a minute before 11:00am on that day. Pvt. Gunther carries the infamous label as the last soldier to be killed in action in World War I…and senselessly so.

It is a somber day. While vets should doubtless be honored for their sacrifices and losses, it should also be remembered that the predominant victims of modern warfare are civilians, not soldiers. World War I began that inexorable trend toward considerably more innocent men, women and children dying in war than combatants (without even taking into account the untold civilian displacement, disease, destitution, and famine). Those disregarded, soon forgotten and collaterally caught in the crossfire tend to suffer most.

How to rise from such gloom? Breaking bread is a start. Food nags us at times of both celebration and sorrow. A simple meal is sustenance, ritual, comfort, even quiet joy…a gentle, peaceful kiss. So, please share some primordial fare.

MUSHROOM & ROOT SOUP

2 T dried mushrooms (porcini, morels or shitakes)
1/2 C chicken stock + 1/2 C water, heated

3 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 medium parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium celeriac, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 C chicken broth

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Pinch of dried thyme

Fresh chives
Crème fraîche

Soak the dried mushrooms in the warm stock and water about 20 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed. Reserve the soaking liquid as well.

Melt the butter and olive oil in a deep heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, parsnips, celeriac, carrot, thyme and bay leaf. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are soft, translucent and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Then, add the broth and the soaked dried mushrooms. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a quiet simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large, heavy skillet. When the oil is shimmering and hot, add the wild mushrooms, stirring with a wooden spoon, and allow to just lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper, then turn the heat to medium and sauté 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms are just soft and cooked through. Add the garlic and thyme and cook 1 minute more.

Add the sautéed mushrooms to the soup and allow to simmer until the parsnips, celeriac and carrot are tender, about 15 minutes or so.

Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Purée the soup in a food processor fitted with a steel knife, a blender or even an immersion stick. Correct the seasoning and thin with the mushroom soaking liquid and/or broth, if necessary.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls. Garnish with chives and a drizzle of crème fraîche. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

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Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
~Franz Kafka

Often, the divine derives from the decomposed. At least so say most funeral directors.

(You are aware that Dexter was preceded by decades—over a century ago—by Franz Kafka, right?)

Fungi are members of a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts, molds and my beloved mushrooms. Eukaryotic, you say? Derived from the Greek for “noble” or “true” combined with “nut” (an intriguing match), eukaryotes are organisms whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. A single eukaryotic cell contains membranous compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place.

Decomposers that feed on the remains of dead plants and animals, fungi are taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants, animals, protists and bacteria. Not green for lack of chlorophyll, they have cell walls that contain chitin, unlike the cell walls of plants, which are composed of cellulose.

From a genetic view, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Animals and fungi share a common evolutionary history, and the limbs of their genealogical tree branched away from plants over one billion years ago. The common ancestor of animals and fungi actually was a protist—a single celled creature that very likely possessed both animal and fungal characteristics. It is surmised that this precursor spent part of its early life cycle in a membranous and mobile form resembling a human sperm, and then morphing into its next stage by growing a stiff chitin cell wall more resembling the mushroom that graces our tables.

All murk aside, this is a silky, luxuriant soup worthy of your spoon. If you opt for a more meaty, handsome texture, simply omit the blending stage and keep the mushrooms sliced.

CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP

1 ounce dried mushrooms (porcini, morels, or shitakes)
1 C chicken or vegetable stock, heated

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

1/2 C shallots, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T fresh thyme, finally minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 lb shitake mushrooms cleaned, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb oyster mushroomes, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1/4 C Madeira
1/4 C all purpose flour

5 C chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 C heavy cream

Chives
Truffle oil

Soak the dry mushrooms in 1 cup of warm stock about 30 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve, along with the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed.

Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and then add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes, until the shallots are soft and translucent but not browned.

Turn heat to medium high and add the sliced mushrooms, thyme, bay leaves and sage. Cook mushrooms to exude liquid until they become quite soft, about for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add Madeira and flour and stir constantly for around 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and the dried mushrooms along with the soaking water. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the herbs, then add the cream and working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor or an immersion blender until smooth. Return to the pot and keep at a very low simmer until ready to serve.

Garnish with chives and drizzle lightly with truffle oil.