Hand Alina Mikolajczyk any two unusual ingredients and she’ll concoct a soup that’ll have your taste-buds melting for more.
White squash and tofu? Yep. Sorrel and coconut milk? Got it. Lamb and lemon? Sure. But the soup lady who’s been warming bellies at the Proctor Farmers Market for nearly a year now does more than just combine inventive ingredients: She sources fresh organic produce from local farms, draws on childhood recipes and mixes it all up with a love of seeing folks well fed.
“I’m seasonal, I’m local,” says Mikolajczyk. “I go to (the farm) in the morning and see what’s there, then make it that day. That’s my thing. I love knowing that I’m feeding people good food.”
It’s a love that Mikolajczyk learned as a girl in Poland. Growing up there her family “wasn’t dirt poor,” she says, but certainly had to economize. They had a large community garden plot near their apartment, and Mikolajczyk’s mother kept it obsessively neat and filled with veggies. They’d also pick wild ingredients like sorrel and cook whatever was at hand.
“We ate soup a lot,” says Mikolajczyk with emphasis. “My mom was an amazing cook. But I hated weeding.”
Now, though, the Tacoma woman has her own garden full of produce and cooks organic fresh food all the time at home. She started cooking soups for other people when a friend who’d organized a monthly soup supper passed her the hosting duties about eight years ago. A board member of the Proctor Farmers Market came to a supper and begged Mikolajczyk to cater their annual retreat.
“I fell in love with her when I tasted her food!” jokes Louise Anderson, who handles sponsorship and development for the market. “She brought the most wonderful food with a Polish flavor; it all had a very exotic flair.”
Anderson was invited to a soup supper and suggested Mikolajczyk start selling her soup at the market. That was last October – and since then Alina’s Soups have been a surefire seller. Juggling two young children and two other part-time jobs, Mikolajczyk cooks up three soups on Fridays to sell at the Saturday market, handing out cups with fingerless gloves and a warm smile under her short dark hair.
To anyone who’s only tasted soup out of a box or can, Alina’s Soups are a taste-bud epiphany. She makes her own stock individually for each soup, starting with a whole chicken simmered for hours or some oven-roasted vegetables. She combines unusual ingredients, such as the all-time bestselling butternut squash and parsnip, and tosses in spices, such as cumin, thyme, garlic or Thai curry paste.
She thickens with potato starch not cornstarch, uses coconut milk instead of flour and butter, and always has one vegan, gluten-free option, though at home she and her family are definite meat-eaters.
The results are silky-smooth soups that burst with homemade flavor. Among the regular favorites for market-goers are a summer gazpacho, a cold soup made with tofu and white-skinned squash, and a chicken soup with Mikolajczyk’s handmade egg noodles – a recipe learned from her mother. There’s a sorrel soup – another European standby vegetable – and one made from lamb, bean, barley, lemon, garlic and rosemary, which Mikolajczyk tossed together one day for an experiment.
“People love that one,” she says.
And this month her soups will be at three other local businesses – Proctor Frozen Yogurt, Caffe Dei on 6th Avenue, and Smooth and Juicey downtown.
“People were asking me when would I get a storefront, but I can’t afford one – so this is perfect,” says Mikolajczyk.
Anderson’s pleased that the Farmers Market is proving to be the ideal incubator for small, one-person food businesses like Alina’s Soups.
“The Hilltop Pop Shop is another great example,” she says. “There’s such a market for edible products made with local, seasonal food.”
Using seasonal, local produce is in fact the main secret of Alina’s Soups, says Mikolajczyk, who sources vegetables from Zestful Gardens in Puyallup, and meat from Scott Gruber or Cheryl “The Pig Lady” Oullette.
But a big part of her appeal, Anderson says, is the love that Mikolajczyk – who still hosts regular soup suppers – puts into her cooking.
“She loves to share food with people,” says Anderson. “There’s lots of laughter and wine (at the suppers). I think that’s how she was raised, and that’s not the norm here. So she created it.”
Mikolajczyk’s childhood background is playing with her cooking: In March, she went back to Poland to visit her mother, who spent 10 days cooking for her and gave her the idea to try the sorrel soup.
Meanwhile, she’ll keep making soup as long as people want to eat it, and if it turns into a bigger business, that’s just fine with her.
“My awareness of knowing where my food comes from, being able to shake the hand of the farmer who grew it – that’s how I feed my family,” explains Mikolajczyk. “I love soup – the things you can do with it are unbelievable.”firstname.lastname@example.org
1 red onion
3 large tomatoes
1/2 medium cucumber
1/2 green pepper
1/2 red pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 1/2 cups tomato juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
salt and pepper
Cut all vegetables to the size of your choice and mix with wet ingredients. I use an immersion blender to make it less chunky but not puréed. Serve cold.
Butternut Squash-Parsnip with Thyme
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound butternut squash, unpeeled, halve lengthwise, seeded and cut into 8 pieces
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut lengthwise
1/4 cup water
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 3/4 teaspoon dried
4 cups water
1 cup full fat coconut milk (more if you like it creamier)
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a large roasting pan. Arrange squash pieces skin side up in a prepared roasting pan. Add parsnips and 1 4 cup water to pan. Cover pan with foil and bake until vegetables are tender, about 50 minutes. Cool.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and thyme and sauté until onion is tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Scrape squash pulp into skillet, add parsnips and water. Purée or blend. Whisk in coconut milk, bring to simmer and season with salt and pepper.
Chicken with Homemade Noodles
For the noodles:
Enough flour to make a stretchy dough
Whisk eggs, and gradually add flour until you have a dough. (It's crucial not to add too much flour all at once.) Knead for a minute on a floured surface. Roll out to 1/8 inch thick - you might notice bubbles, which is the sign of a good dough. Put a lot of flour on top and spread 1 4-1/2 inch thick. Roll up the dough into a cylinder and start cutting any way you like it. (I cut some straight, some at an angle, some thin, some thick to make the noodles very rustic.) Once it's cut, run your fingers through all of it with more flour and make sure all the noodles are untangled.
Boil a large pan of water and add some salt. When boiling, add noodles and cook until tender to taste. Drain and rinse under cold water, then add to chicken soup or fry them with butter and some sugar (like my mom used to do for me when I was little and a picky eater.)
For the soup:
1 whole chicken with skin on (that's the secret). You can skip the breast but use everything else
1 leek, whole or chopped
2 carrots, whole or chopped (my mom wouldn't cut the veggies up because she'd use them later to make a yummy potato salad)
1/2 celeriac, or regular celery stick
1 clove garlic
handful Italian parsley, chopped
Cover bird with water, add vegetables and bring to boil. Reduce temperature and simmer for 2-3 hours to achieve good flavor. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chicken bouillon cubes also can be added.
When the soup is done, peel the meat off the bones, add noodles and garnish with parsley.
All recipes courtesy of Alina Mikolajczyk of Alina's Soups