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Today: A robust vegan soup with all the richness of long-cooked greens -- without the long-cooking.
Boiled-down greens might sound drab for dinner, possessing all the charm of a bowl of kelp. But, as you know if you've ever tasted slow-cooked collards, stewing down stiff greens may wash out their structure and color, but it leaves behind something soft yet substantial, earthy and haunting and sweet.
What you might not realize is that it doesn't take hours to get that kind of character from your greens -- you can get it in about 30 minutes, if you cook them like Anna Thomas, filmmaker and author of the classic Vegetarian Epicure books. She dedicated a full two chapters of Love Soup, her most recent book, to green soups -- one chapter for winter, one for warmer weather variations. When I wrote to her earlier this week, she already had a batch in her fridge.
To get there, you'll cook down a very full pot of greens, herbs, and one potato in just 3 cups of water, steaming that big pile down into a denser one, and concentrating the liquid into an intense green stock.
At the same time, you'll caramelize onions in another pan, dump those into the pot; sizzle a garlic clove, dump that in too. Splash in some sherry if you like. By splitting the action between two pans, your cooking time is cut in half -- all of this is done in half an hour, but tastes like collards that have cooked all day.
Only then do you add just enough extra broth "to make the soup a soup" that will pour from a ladle, and blend it all together. Then you shine up the flavor with lemon juice and cayenne, and serve with an essential finishing swoop of olive oil.
This is an excellent recipe, but also a template. You could use any greens, and any herbs. Instead of the potato, Thomas has bolstered the broth with arborio rice, yams, sautéed mushrooms, or squash. The caramelized onions are key for filling out the flavor of the soup, but there's no reason you couldn't use shallots or leeks instead.
Thomas first wrote about her happy experiments with green soup in the L.A. Times in 2001 and the recipe took on a cult following. Love Soup won a James Beard Award, then a spinoff article on green soups for Eating Well magazine won another. When Roger Ebert wrote The Pot and How to Use It, Thomas found herself developing a rice cooker version for him too. As Thomas told me, "Though it began as a turn to healthier eating after the holidays, it soon became a year-round favorite for all the right reasons -- it’s just damn delicious!"
It's good for dinner parties, for brown bag lunches, and for dinners alone with a fridge of greens you don't know what to do with. Thomas has also used the soup to comfort very sick friends: "More than one has told me that it was the only thing they wanted when all appetite faded, and that it brought them back to life a bit," she said. "If it never did another thing in its soupy career, that would be enough."
From Love Soup (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)
Serves 4 to 6
1 bunch chard or spinach
1 bunch kale
4 to 5 green onions, sliced, white and green parts
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 medium Yukon Gold potato
1 medium yellow onion
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Marsala or dry sherry (optional)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 1/2 to 3 cups vegetable broth
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to my Genius book assistant Emily Stephenson for this one!
Photos by Mark Weinberg