Laura Barton started it all off. She was at her desk one afternoon, just across from where the mighty engine that is the Weekend Guardian team was huffing and puffing away. We were talking about soups, as one does. "Onion soup," she said. "There's a female soup if ever there was one."
I was startled. I had never thought about classifying soups by gender. In fact, I had never even considered that they might have one. Laura's theory was a bit thin on supporting detail - I couldn't make out why one soup might be male or another female. Was it ingredients? Sure, most male soups had meat in them, which maybe lent them a certain hunky, chunky, hunter-gatherer quality. But then, fish is a bit hunter-gathererish, too, as are mushrooms.
Still, Laura was adamant that it was so, and went on to classify other soups accordingly. One colleague was a bit dubious to start with, but the longer the discussion went on, the more involved she became. Then another chipped in, and pretty soon suggestions were flying back and forth.
"Definitely female - it's such a gorgeous colour."
"Purple's pretty male, I'd say."
"No, it's delicate and dainty ."
"OK, Tuscan bean?"
"Oh, hunky male."
And so on: consommé, female; pea and ham, male; vichysoisse and watercress, both female; crab bisque "with cheesy croutons", male.
There was even a classification for transgender soup: minestrone and tomato came under that heading. Now, I can understand a certain gender confusion over minestrone, but I'm baffled why there should be any doubts about tomato soup - it's uncompromisingly male, I'd say.
All recipes serve four.
Pea and scallop soup
There's not much doubt about the gender of this elegant combination.
40g unsalted butter
2 carrots, finely diced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
1 litre chicken stock
150ml Chambery vermouth
450g fresh (or frozen) peas - podded weight
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
4 fat scallops
Melt the butter in a pan, and very gently stew the carrots and onions for 10 minutes. Add the stock and vermouth, and cook for five minutes. Add the peas and cook until tender. Add the parsley and mint. Blast the lot in a blender until smooth. Pass through a sieve, if you want a seriously silky appeal.
Slice the scallops across the centre into three thin discs (or in half if you can't manage that). In a frying pan, heat two tablespoons of olive oil until smoking. Put in the scallop slices, and cook for no more than 10 seconds on each side. Divide the soup between four plates and place the scallop slices on top. Serve at once.
I am not sure I agree with Laura about borsch. She has it down as female. I think it depends on the recipe. This one comes from Old Polish Traditions In The Kitchen And At The Table, by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, one of the greatest cook books of all time. It contains no meat and its clear, penetrating sweetness with earthy notes seems unmistakably feminine to my perhaps cloddish tastebuds.
'Carefully wash red beets [about 1.4kg], peel and slice thinly. Place them in a glass jar and cover completely with barely lukewarm water. Place a thin slice of wholewheat bread on top, which hastens the process. Cover the jar with gauze and place in the warmest place in the kitchen. After four or five days, carefully remove the foam from the surface and pour the ruby-red soured juice into clean bottles.
Christmas Eve borsch is prepared with the concentrated stock of the following vegetables: celeriac and parsley root, carrots, leeks and one onion. Cook the veg, along with four red beets, peeled and sliced thinly, adding 10 grains of black pepper, two grains of allspice and a small piece of bayleaf. In a separate pot, cook 55g-85g dried mushrooms (boletus) in two cups of water. Pour both the vegetable and the mushroom stocks through a sieve and then stir together. Now add the appropriate amount of soured beet juice (425ml for every 1.4 litres of stock). Heat the borsch until it starts to boil, but not more. If the colour is not right, it may be corrected with the juice of a fresh beet, grated to a pulp.
Flavour the borsch very carefully. Its final flavour depends on individual preferences. Apart from salt, the taste may be corrected with a little sugar. The acidity may be enhanced with a wine glass of dry red wine or lemon juice, but never with vinegar. About 15 minutes before serving, add a crushed garlic clove, which gives an interesting taste and aroma.'
Pasta e fagioli
Laura nominated Tuscan zuppa di fagioli - bean soup - as being of the male persuasion, which is probably right, but I prefer this Neapolitan version. It's quite as macho as the Tuscan. If you're cooking for four, unless they're very, very greedy, you'll have a fair bit left over.
200g dried cannellini beans (or 400g fresh, if you're lucky enough to get your hands on them)
3 cloves garlic
1 small red chilli
2 celery stalks, with leaves
2 large tomatoes
90ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 litre water
Salt and pepper
If using dried beans, soak them for 12 hours or overnight. Drain, cover with fresh, unsalted water and cook for two hours until tender. If you've got fresh ones, simmer for 30-40 minutes in unsalted water. In either case, strain off about a quarter of the beans with a little cooking liquid, and purée.
Finely chop the garlic, chilli and celery stalks and leaves. Peel, deseed and chop the tomatoes. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the chopped vegetables and fry for three to four minutes. Add the water and season. Add the bean purée and the whole beans. Bring to the boil, then add the pasta. Simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the pasta is cooked. Rest for a few minutes before serving, adding some basil leaves to each plate as you do so.
This didn't come up for discussion, possibly because not many people know of it. Anyway, I have this down as a female soup. Its glorious pink colour, soft texture, refreshing, sub-acid tone all seem feminine to me. As taught me by Polish mycophage, brewer of krupnik, fisherman and culinary master craftsman, Adam Gebel, aka Adam the Pole. You can buy buttermilk at most supermarkets; smetana is a Polish variation on sour cream, which you can buy at most east European delicatessens.
2 285ml pots buttermilk
285ml pot smetana
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
1 bunch radishes
1 cooked beetroot
1 tbsp fresh dill
Mix the buttermilk and smetana in a bowl. Slice the eggs and stir in. Peel, deseed and dice the cucumber into small cubes and stir in. Wash the radishes, slice thinly and stir in. Peel and cut the beetroot into small cubes and stir in. Add the dill and stir in. Leave to meditate in the fridge for at least 12 hours. Eat cool