Everybody has their own version of comfort food. Sometimes it’s something you make because it’s what your mother made. Other times, you buy it from a favorite store or restaurant. Occasionally, the best comfort food comes about sheerly by accident, something you make up from random ingredients that are hanging around in your refrigerator and freezer.
Potsticker Soup is one of those recipes.
Background: Many years ago, I had surgery. Afterward, I took pain medications that nauseated me. The only thing I could eat was wonton soup from a local restaurant. The wontons were handmade, as evidenced by the ragged edges of the dough; the broth had the rich, savory taste unique to homemade stock.
When a dear friend was going through her first bout of chemo, she too discovered that wonton soup did the trick. My favorite restaurant had long since closed, and the only version we could find fell far short: the wontons were clearly purchased, and the broth tasted like standard chicken stock from a can. Even so, it was just the right thing.
Last year, I had a serious bronchial infection that laid me low for several days. In the midst of it, my mother had a nasty gastrointestinal bug that I managed to catch even though I wore a mask when I was in her presence. Somewhere along the line, when I dragged myself out to the store to get food, I spotted bags of potstickers in the frozen food aisle. I remembered vaguely that I’d once had a recipe for potsticker soup which was, in essence, wonton soup. I bought the potstickers, pulled some frozen chicken stock from the depths of the chest freezer, tossed in whatever veggies were on the verge of spoiling, and voila—my own version of that long-ago wonton soup.
(At this point, you may be saying, “What the hell are potstickers?” Simplest answer: dumplings. They’re dough pockets with a filling of some sort, usually pork or vegetables. Odds are good that if you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, you’ve had them, except they were called steamed or fried dumplings. A more delicate variation, gyoza, shows up in Japanese restaurants. In a pinch, you could put tomato sauce over them and pass them off as an exotic type of ravioli.)
This evening, I decided to make soup. This was primarily because I had a bunch of things in the refrigerator that needed to be used before they went bad. For instance, last Monday, I cooked a chicken in the crockpot. As I always do after cooking a whole chicken, I tossed the carcass, juices, giblets, the lemon pieces with which I’d stuffed the chicken, and some garlic back into the crockpot and let them simmer for about 24 hours. Then, I strained the stock and refrigerated it. The next day, I made chicken soup to take to my parents, but I still had stock and chicken left.
Also, I went food shopping last weekend. At that time, I bought baby carrots and green beans. While carrots have staying power in the refrigerator, fresh green beans have a limited lifespan, and these were starting to show signs of age.
I poked around the refrigerator to see if anything else was approaching the “use it or lose it” stage. A small container of leftover cannellini beans perched atop the remaining half of a container of mushrooms.
This was getting better, but I needed a starch. Noodles or pasta or . . .
I dug into the freezer, and there it was: half a bag of frozen potstickers.
With that, I was ready to roll.
First, I poured the chicken stock into a pot. For two servings, I recommend starting with at least three cups of stock or broth; you can add more if you like a lot of broth to your soup. I grated in some ginger (another freezer staple) and added a spoonful of minced garlic. Then, as the stock heated, I cut up the carrots, green beans, mushrooms, and chicken. I also poured some olive oil and a bit of sesame oil into a skillet so I could pan-fry the potstickers. (Note: this isn’t strictly necessary. Perfectly good soup can be made by dumping the potstickers directly into the stock. I just happen to like the pan-fried version when I have the time.)
The important thing to remember about soup is that the order of the ingredients matters: the items that need to cook for the longest time go in first. So, start by dropping the carrots into the stock. After the carrots have been cooking for a few minutes, add the green beans and the mushrooms. Around the same time, put the potstickers into the hot skillet. Add the cut-up cooked chicken to the soup, along with some minced parsley if you happen to have that in the freezer from last summer’s garden. Toss in the leftover cannellini beans since they’ll only take a minute or so to heat up.
If you have an assistant, sharing a shred or two of chicken is a kind gesture.
Turn the potstickers in their skillet once. When they’re browned on two sides, transfer them to the soup.
And that’s all there is to it. Within minimal effort, you have a delicious, nourishing, economical, healthy, comforting meal that you could never, ever have gotten from a restaurant.
“But wait!” you say. “What if I don’t have green beans or carrots? What if all I have is some spinach and half an onion?”
No problem, my friend. The beauty of homemade soups in general (and this one in particular) is that they are completely idiosyncratic. You can assemble them out of whatever you have lying around (except maybe not hot fudge or Cheerios), including any bags of vegetables you may have in the freezer. Your basic ingredients are broth of some sort (although perfectly fine soups have started with water), protein, veggies, and some sort of starch like noodles or potatoes. The more you have in the way of herbs, the more you can play with the flavorings. In my personal opinion, adding a splash of sherry near the end can never hurt. If you prefer a cream-based soup, that’s your call. (Someday, I’ll tell you about my crab and corn chowder which involves removing the kernels from six ears of corn and simmering the cobs in milk.)
The more you experiment with soup-making, the more you’ll figure out what you need to do to get the flavors you like. For example, I don’t care for onion, but if I were going to include it, I’d probably start off sautéeing it in some hot oil at the bottom of the soup pot before adding other ingredients in order to mellow its onioniness. Ditto with garlic sometimes, although that’s up to the cook.
In her first book of essays, Home Cooking, the late great Laurie Colwin included a wonderful essay entitled simply, “Soup.” She spoke of how some soups are like a lost chord—you hit on the perfect combination once, and you never quite find it again.
But then, that’s the beauty of soup: there’s always a new twist waiting to be discovered.
While I can’t say there’s an actual official recipe for Potsticker Soup, here’s my best guess at the version I made this evening. Note that all amounts are subject to adjustment. Also, if there’s something here that you hate, leave it out, and if there’s something you love that you think would be good in this soup, toss it in. Flexibility is the key.
3-4 C. chicken stock or broth
1 T. grated ginger
1 T. minced garlic
1 C. diced cooked chicken
½ bag frozen potstickers
¾ C. fresh or frozen green beans, cut into 1” pieces
¾ C. raw carrots, cut into 1” pieces
4 oz. raw or canned mushrooms, sliced
½ C. canned cannellini beans, rinsed
2 T. olive oil
1 T. sesame oil
3 T. sherry
soy sauce to taste
Bring chicken stock to a boil. Add ginger, garlic, and carrots.
Put oil in skillet and heat to shimmering.
Add green beans and mushrooms to stock.
Place potstickers in skillet. Cook approximately 3 minutes. Turn potstickers browned-side up.
Add remaining ingredients (except soy sauce) to stock. Cook until potstickers are done, approximately two more minutes. Add potstickers to soup. Season to taste with soy sauce.