Soup, as Merrie Bechtold knows all too well, is the ideal vehicle for feeding a lot of people without spending a lot on ingredients. As a former organic farmer, sheep rancher and mother of three, she made from-scratch soups and stews for dinner at least once a week.
"I'm a big believer in 'You are what you eat,' " says Bechtold, 53. "They never ate out of a box," she says of her family.
Soup also can be a strategy for filling up on vegetables, a fair amount of fiber and a bit of protein with minimal caloric consequence. Infinitely adaptable, soup also can be made vegan and gluten-free with a little time and effort, of which Bechtold spares none at her hole-in-the-wall Medford restaurant, Spoons.
She starts Spoons' stocks three days before they become soups, particularly if roasting and boiling bones is involved. Vegetable stock she can pull off in a day, but Bechtold guarantees that her broths never come from a box. She finishes soups in the morning before opening Spoons at 11:30 a.m. and ladles portions as long as they last.
"It's the alternative to fast food," says the Medford resident. "I know it's good for you."
Bechtold's oldest daughter, an "organic health nut" who resides in Eugene, originated the idea of a small storefront that would serve just a few, simple, wholesome items that could be eaten with a spoon. Looking for a business opportunity after years as a full-time mom, Bechtold opened Spoons Friday, Jan. 13, at a spot no bigger than a snack bar in the lobby of downtown Medford's Woolworth Building.
"It's a to-go counter," says Bechtold.
"I knew the concept would work," she adds. "I just gave soup away for three weeks."
For months beforehand, Bechtold perfected a repertoire of 30 recipes to sell on a two-week rotation: three soups daily in cold weather, one hot and one cold in summer. For $5, each 10-ounce cup of soup comes with a "crust" of Bechtold's homemade bread — usually a whole, fresh-baked roll or square of cornbread — and the day's "nosh," a condiment-sized melange of whatever fruits and vegetables Bechtold feels like adding to the spread.
"I don't want to make people fat."
Heartier appetites can spend an extra dollar for 12 ounces of soup or $3 for an entire pint. Spoons' "family size" is a quart of soup, four servings of bread and 12 ounces of nosh for $14.
Some of Spoons' most popular soups are five-mushroom, split pea with ham and several chicken variations. Bechtold adapted many of her recipes from the "Moosewood" cookbooks, regarded since the 1970s as vegetarian bibles. A lot of them are her grandmother's recipes, just "fancified." She also gets ideas from Bon Appetit magazine.
Customers, however, furnish much of Bechtold's inspiration, including an almost immediate request for meat- and dairy-free soups. So Spoons' lineup features a vegan soup Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a vegetarian soup Tuesday and Thursday.
"Vegetarian is easy," says Bechtold. "I'm finding more vegan (customers) than vegetarian."
Initially the proverbial monkey on her back, Bechtold's vegan cream soups incorporate almond and hemp milks, which are rich in taste but low in calories. Coconut milk also has curried favor, earning Spoons' curried root-vegetable stew the "best taste" award from a professional judging panel at this year's Smudge Pot Stroll in conjunction with Medford's annual Pear Blossom Festival.
An avid supporter of local business and agriculture, Bechtold says she purchases much of her produce at Farmers Market in Phoenix and supplements with vegetables from her own organic garden during the growing season. She picked blueberries, cherries and peaches from local farms and orchards and froze them to use at Spoons later in the year.
"I've never shopped at Costco," she says.
About the only convenience product Bechtold says she uses is canned creamed corn for her creamy cornbread, as well as canned black beans. Other legumes she buys dry and cooks as needed. If soups contain noodles, she makes them herself.
Sensitive to gluten-free concerns — her younger daughter has a gluten allergy — Bechtold is a realist. Because she bakes breads and cookies in very close quarters with other dishes, she says, Spoons is not suitable for diners who react to miniscule amounts of the naturally occurring protein in wheat, rye and barley. Flour never thickens Spoons' soups, however, and Bechtold has an assortment of gluten-free crackers to substitute for bread.
The tiny Spoons kiosk also serves 1-pound baked potatoes "loaded" with meat and vegetable toppings — make those sweet potatoes on Fridays. Like the soup-bread-nosh formula, baked potatoes and summertime salads cost $5 each.
Spoons' flat rate likely will last for quite a while, says Bechtold, explaining that costly ingredients — seafood for tom yum topping the list — balance out the less expensive ones.
"Carrots are cheap."
Whether vegetarian, vegan or just fond of from-scratch foods, Spoons' customers are eating it up — admittedly more often in cool weather, Bechtold says.
"They come in, and they can't make up their mind," she says. "Every day, my window has new people in it."