Tag Archive: broccoli


On Wednesday night, I am back in the library coffee shop for another helping of leftovers, this time alone. The sparsely populated, blindingly lit room is full of empty tables. Two girls chatter over their Macs, their tones distinctly sorority girl-esque, but one can never be sure. Two tables down, another girl who was alone eating a chicken Caesar wrap now has a companion. Near the back is a man in a suit and tie, looking a little out of place among the more actually dressed occupants of this establishment. He is teaching another student a foreign language that I cannot identify from the “gus in front of verbs” comment I catch drifting through the air, practically devoid of people but cluttered with the usual coffee shop noises. Every now and then, someone else filters in for a soda or to use the restroom. As for myself, I sit next to two unoccupied tables with a black laptop bag overloaded with books. No one but today’s issue of the student newspaper sits next to me, strategically placed on the table to my left.

I’m waiting for my soup to finish cooking in the microwave, which is separated from me by a distance of roughly thirty feet. I’m much farther away from it. I’m immersed in pages written over a century and a half ago, determined to make every minute between the end of my shift and the beginning of my class mean something, even if it’s just turning one more page in the fictional Victorian saga of an independent woman.

This is my third time reading the novel. I’ve read it twice in the past nine months for my thesis, once as a preliminary glance to something that could be potentially useful, and once again not more than three months later as a text I planned to use for the fourth and final body chapter. Like my last bowl of leftovers for the week, I value this text no more or less than the first. I give it its due appreciation. I taste the subtle hint of feminism lurking between the black lines. I have covered its pages in my own annotations, hasty pencil strokes that look like they were made with a dull knife. This third time around, it almost tastes better than it did the first time, more complex, a polyphony of flavors, but it has definitely lost some of its power to captivate and compel. No longer am I infatuated by its suspenseful moments, nor am I duped by the hopes that this woman will be any different than her predecessors in my literary experience. Having gotten to the bottom of this particular pan twice already, I know that the dregs of these chapters are not exactly scorched. They do, however, have a smooth texture and a sharp flavor that reminds me of bleu cheese. I can appreciate it for what it is, but this particular flavor is one that I will never bring myself to fully like.

Like many Victorian women, and like all of her predecessors (at least the ones that I have encountered), this heroine inevitably relinquishes her independence for marriage. I see this happen in modern novels whose titles I will not mention to avoid spoiling them, and whereas most of my friends cheer for this fairytale ending, I find myself inwardly cringing.

Maybe it’s because I have practiced studying literature for longer than I have practiced cooking, but I have learned over the years that no ending can be entirely happy, not in Victorian literature, and not in terms of soup. By the time I eat the last bowl of a full pot, I am sick and damn tired of tasting the same flavors and running my tongue over the same textures. I crave a change despite my habit of supplementing these bowls with sandwiches, salads, and my fair share of nights out at the bar or at a decent culinary establishment. It isn’t quite the same with literature. Much like a frozen brick of soup in the back of my fridge, a book that has remained untouched on my bookshelf for an appropriate amount of time has a savory flavor once it has been extracted and thawed out. I find something new to appreciate as I turn the pages a second or third time, as I immerse my mind’s spoon in this bowl again, first sipping the broth tentatively, then devouring the page, noodles and all.

I can’t help but wonder, as I play the voyeur to Helen’s family drama, as I peer into her moments of fury and solitude, whether this view bears any relation to how I down day after monotonous day, soup after bowl of soup, from the same insipid pan. I find myself wondering if my life, or anyone’s, can really have a happy ending.

The coffee grinder whirs. The microwave dings.

And I turn just one more page.

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I went to Panera Bread for the first time as a freshman in high school with a friend of mine and her mother in the days before I understood that restaurants would customize your order. When I first saw the menu, I had no idea what to buy. I hated mayonnaise with a passion (and still do with few exceptions), and practically every sandwich on the menu utilized one form or another as a condiment. Worse still, practically everything had tomatoes, a food that, in its raw form, is only just now becoming tolerable to me at the age of 24. I gave the menu one of my blankest looks, much like the one I would give my calculus text book three years later. I had been ordering for myself at restaurants for probably six or seven years at that point and cutting my own meat for a year longer, but thus far, I never had to make such a life-altering decision in my brief and sheltered existence.

“The broccoli cheddar soup here is really good,” my friend insisted.

I confess I was dubious. “The problem is I don’t really eat a lot of raw cheese, so I’m not really sure if I’d like a soup with a cheese base.” I associated any sort of “cream” soup with the milk and roux mixture we served at home. Chunks of potatoes or broccoli floated around in milk broth, but I canned up my complaints about the flavor to avoid offending the chef, whether that was my mom or my dad. Uttering one word of disdain was like cranking a pan full of spaghetti sauce on high and simply walking away from it: if I spawned more heat and threw off the equilibrium, the white stove top of a calm evening would look less like an appliance and more like a massacre. Of course, I only mean words, but as the only child, I tried to keep parental perturbation down to a minimum.

I wasn’t seeing any other solutions to the problem, and the menu wasn’t responding to my glances. “Get it in a bread bowl,” she suggested. “At least try it.”

Fortunately, this was before Panera became less restaurant and more madhouse. There were only a handful of customers already dining, and we were the only ones in line. It was about 11:30. Nowadays, there aren’t even any tables left at 11:30, and the line of diners stretches helter-skelter towards the door. I placed my order and got a glass of water to accompany my lunch.

If I had to choose one word to describe my first encounter with that soup, it would have to be euphoric. I became more attached to it, ordering the dish every time we visited the restaurant (until I discovered the Sierra Turkey sandwich; then, I began alternating between the two).

A few years ago, this friend added a little too much heat to my stable existence, and I simply rammed her into the back of my subconscious, relegating her to the bottom shelf and cutting all ties. The problem was that as we grew older, I aged like a barrel of wine: I was cumbersome and still had a very limited perception of the world, but my flavor was developing, changing, growing, and (hopefully) improving. I began to see the world through glass that was not rose-colored. I labored at a Pizza Hut, tolerating my menial minimum-wage job, disdaining my slacking coworkers, and at times wanting to toss a full vat of sauce on the customers. People were not all nice, and life was not easy. Conversely, she aged more like a Twinkie. As another only child, she lives in a smaller container than I do, a plastic wrapper where she sees the world not quite as it is but how she wants to. She was preserved by an abundance, and maybe an overabundance, of affection. I saw ugly sides of her that I will never share with anyone else, and those sides reminded me that unlike her, I had to earn my gas and spending money. She got sizable handouts of money from her parents regularly, but for me, every dime was a drop of sweat, every quarter a rock of the knife on the board, every dollar a spot of hot oil singeing my flesh and leaving small, white, dalmatian-spot scars.  She still appears in my dreams sometimes, usually as an antagonist, and when I wake up on mornings like that, I find myself wondering if she ever changed.

Although my relationship with this particular friend came to an abrupt end and I no longer frequent Panera, my bond to broccoli-cheddar soup grew infinitely stronger when I found this recipe and began making my own. I actually prefer my own broccoli-cheddar soup to Panera’s because the broccoli is chunkier and never overcooked.

Mount Pleasant is rumored to be getting a Panera Bread in the next six months. I jokingly tell people that the reason they don’t have one already is because I can make their broccoli-cheddar soup better than they can. It seems odd to me that Panera is just now coming here when I’m getting so close to leaving, so maybe there is some truth in this.

But it’s probably just a coincidence.

Chicken and Broccoli Cheddar Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 4 baby carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 4 oz fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, separated into 1 tsp portions
  • 1 ½ tsp flour
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add onions and cook until onions are caramelized.
  2. While onions are caramelizing, defrost chicken tenderloins in microwave for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter and mix with flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes until flour/butter mixture is pasty and golden.
  4. Add chicken stock to the pan and whisk until roux is fully dissolved. Add half and half. Lower heat to a simmer. Dice chicken and add to pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Add carrots and celery. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Add broccoli. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
  7. Add sharp cheddar in ¼ or ⅓ cup batches. Whisk each batch until it is fully melted and combined with the cooking liquid.
  8. Add nutmeg and black pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

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