I believe I’ve said elsewhere, more than once, OK more than let’s say, twice, that soup is my favorite food. Something about its fluid sapidity splashing across all taste sensors at the onct, I suppose -- subtlety (or extreme heat) of a broth, savoryness of a smooth puree (or chunky mélange), snappy saline creaminess of a chowder or restrained smoky umami of shiro miso. Really, all kinds, but soup made entirely of vegetables is what concerns me today.
Concerns me many days, you could say, because I make it a lot. Always have, but with increased regularity since we’ve been eating veg two nights a week. We eat veg fairly often anyways, just works out that way, but for all sorts of reasons that everyone is familiar with so NO need to post a litany of them. Here it’s been a goal. An easily-met goal, may I say, which is a major bonus.
Aside from those alluded-to yet not explicated reasons there are also those that don’t appear on lists nearly often enough but are fully as compelling. Here’s one: I LOVE VEGETABLES. For me there is no cooking, no good cooking, without vegetables as the foregoing central focus. I get a weird excited feeling inside when regarding the offerings of my friends the farmers at the farmers’ market not unlike the one I used to get perusing the Vogue Designer Originals section of the Vogue Patterns book.
Another has developed over the years I’ve been cooking: A tendency to seek subtlety as often as takes-off-the-top-of-my-head bombast. Oh I have nothing against bombast, God knows, and pride myself on my heat tolerance, for example, but there is beauty and value also, maybe more so, in catching a light, elusive, upper-palate flavor and really tasting it.
From the start my vegetable-soup jag was not an exercise in privation, but rather creating an opportunity to shoe-horn more vegetables from my friends the farmers into a week’s aggregate menus, while at the same time without even trying simultaneous-like collaterally satisfying Those Reasons Which Shall Remain Unenumerated.
My soup varies in its constituent makeup and is descended in my cooking from Madeleine Kamman’s classic garbure, which I like to make but is not 100% veg and a bit more of a catch-all, in fact is the best way to make use of refrigerator odds & ends. Something is owed to familiar old minestrone too, and in that way there is no reason there couldn’t be beans and small soup pasta. Sometimes my soup takes a borschy bent, as when Ivan craves his native beet-cabbage-potato flavor profile, with sour cream, and fresh dill if he’s lucky, at serving. There is often cabbage, even without the beets; I try to buy my $1 cabbage (which is sometimes $1.50) every week. People: buy yourself a cabbage.
Often potato, though not always. Always at least a little carrot, I’ve been having kind of a thing with the mature gorgeous carrots from one of my favorite veg vendors for a couple of years now and there’s always at least one in the fridge. Celery, maybe, fennel bulb, frequently. Leafy greens, even the outer leaves of Romaine that didn’t make it into salades. Kohlrabi, purple, white, pale green. Green beans. Squash, winter or summer. And onion family, come on down: Just now the giant fresh onions of springtime are so delicious, but there is nothing at all wrong with a brown winter onion, neither. Or leeks. Or the 1/2 bunch of scallions kicking around. Overripe, or under-, for that matter, tomato. A clove or two of garlic.
Whether I’ve purpose-bought or am gleaning from what’s in stock, I take a gander at what I’ve got, and prep commences. In the universe I create in my Veg Soup, everything is chopped to the same size. Sometimes larger dice, sometimes smaller, but I have a real bugaboo about things not cut to the same size in some preparations. This is one. There should be quite a lot of raw veg -- the reduction in volume during cooking is astounding even for solid-seeming stuff. Onion is set to sauté with some butter, some oil. Could SO easily be all olive oil and then hey presto it’s vegan. Garlic is added after some time, doesn’t need much sautéing. Unlike the onion, whose golden brown will inform the entire soup in a very good way, the garlic’s contribution will come during the simmer as it softens and dissolves.
When the onions are golden brown and the garlic is in, the rest of the prepared veg can go, and get seasoned with salt and pepper and a hit of cayenne and stirred a few minutes until everything is sizzling. This is the first chance to NOT underseason, the first and the most important. So, don’t. Add water to cover, plus -- not by several inches, maybe one inch. I like plain water, rather than vegetable stock, which could certainly be used. The subtle fresh broth that results just from the vegetables in the mix is one of the main points, to me. Liquidity will be adjusted later; less is better during cooking for extracting the vegetables’ essences without destroying their structural integrity. Simmer, covered, until everything is very very very tender. Longer and slower is better than faster and hotter -- better for flavor, better for texture. As things start to get tender, be ready to season again.
At times I put in herbs, what I felt like or what was burgeoning in the garden, but honestly I think it’s better without. Herbs can be very strong, even fresh ones in judicious quantity. Parsley stems, I have liked, when I made a celery-dominant version after Ivan and I had sort of an O. Henry celery story at the farmers’ market; he thought he was supposed to get celery, I thought I was, so we each did. Parsley stems, if you have the Gigantica variety especially, support celery in a way that makes so much sense to the palate that the combination must be as old as stone. Another of Ivan’s favorites, the celery version.
When all is very tender (this is not a crunchy-vegetable trip), and one has stinted neither on the salt nor the black pepper, i.e. seasoning has been adjusted as we say euphemistically but which really just means DO NOT STINT ON THE SALT, we can call the soup done.
With it we always have bread, sometimes a toasted crouton with or without cheese in the bottom of the bowl or on the side, or the fantastic rustic multi-grain from the Japanese-French baker, sometimes a bread I have made. This first round we eat as it is, clear broth with the veg dice. For a second meal, I sometimes puree and add a little cream (and need I say it, seasoning.) With the addition of cream, several minutes’ simmering is necessary to activate, and pepper might need checking. If you reach critical mass with black pepper you can get away with minimal cream for maximum creamy effect. Not enough pepper and you can add lashing after lashing and it’ll never taste as creamy.
I think I might prefer the puree. Might be the cream, might be the flavor development over a day or two in the old Cambro. Or might be I finally apprehend the flowery ethereality that’s been in there all along.
Priscilla writes from a Southern California canyon with desultorily paved roads and pleasantly anachronistic cultural lag, and is the founder of hyperlocal, Orange County-centric OCFoodNation.com.
Previously by Priscilla:
Give It Up for Lent
The Last Caprese