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It’s odd to say that I was once saved by a soup, but that was indeed the case on one winter day during a trip to Philadelphia when the wind whipped hard enough to take root in my bones.
I was in Old City, part of Philadelphia’s Historic District, and stumbled on City Tavern, a colonial-themed restaurant and bar built on the original 1773 tavern site where the Founding Fathers met to create what would eventually become the new United States of America. In the quaint bar at the back of the building, I found a wide backed chair to fall into and ordered a soup that was served to me in a metal bowl. The stew-like soup, dark and spicy, teeming with chunky beef, green and root vegetables, with flavors both new and familiar, released the cold’s hold on me and I was immediately restored. This liquid savior was pepper pot soup, a dish that journeyed to Colonial America from West Africa and the Caribbean, and quickly became an ensconced culinary tradition among street vendors, tavern owners, and home cooks in Philadelphia.
A “kitchen sink” soup, it has inspired variations to its base recipe, including one from Campbell’s that Andy Warhol enshrined as part of his soup can suite. The recipe here is more approachable than the original (no beef tripe, for starters, but feel free to add tripe to give it that authentic tang) and modern home cooks can easily incorporate it into regular rotation, perhaps adding a few ingredients of their own, including leftover roast beef and potatoes, and adjusting the spice level. The ingredient list looks long but don’t let that deter you. And don’t wait for the next cold day to enjoy this hearty meal.
1.5-2 lbs cubed stew beef or leftover roast beef
3 Tbsp olive oil or butter
4 or 5 rashers of bacon, diced
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup carrot, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 cups chopped greens, such as collard greens, spinach, swiss chard, or mustard greens
1/2 cup chopped okra *optional
8 cups of beef stock
4-5 soup bones
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
1/2 ground cloves
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp chili power
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp of water to make a slurry
Chopped parsley and/or cilantro *optional
On a cutting board, rub salt into stew beef (if using instead of roast beef).
Place meat into a stockpot or Dutch oven and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Allow to cool and drain, then rinse and cut meat into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces. Wipe out pot.
In the same pot, sauté bacon over medium-high heat until the fat renders. Add onions, carrots, celery, leeks, and peppers. Sauté over medium heat until tender and fragrant, about 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Add greens and a pinch or two or salt and sauté until wilted, roughly 2-3 minutes. Add okra (if using) and sauté a few minutes until softened. Add the beef back to the pot.
Pour in the beef stock and add soup bones to pot. Add thyme, marjoram, cloves, black pepper, chili powder. Stir to coat meat and vegetables, and bring to boil. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 1.5-2 hours, until meat is tender.
Remove soup bones. Using a spoon, scoop out the marrow and mix into the broth until incorporated. Discard bones.
Add potatoes and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Add cornstarch slurry and stir. Simmer another 2-3 minutes until broth has thickened.
Taste and add salt and seasoning as needed. Portion into bowls, garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro on top, if desired, and serve.
You can substitute the 8 cups of beef stock with 4 cups beef stock and 4 cups of water.
Can substitute the chili powder with red pepper flakes.
If you prefer, a sweet potato can be used in lieu of the regular potato
If you don’t have marjoram, you can substitute with oregano