This recipe is what we dream of soups being, what two-dimensional illustrations in children’s books and on Pinterest promise us—a dash of this, a spritz of that, voila! One belly-nourishing meal in a steaming bowl, just for you.
Of course our grown minds know that the best soups are often built layer by layer, with onions and garlic softening, whole chickens bobbing away for long spells to form the fullness and mealishness we’re looking for.
Not here—here, we have a springy pea soup from prolific seasonal cookbook author Nigel Slater that you can pretty much consider instant, if you have homemade stock in your freezer or a trusty store-bought broth you like (Better than Bouillon, perhaps?). Once your broth is hot, the greens go in, then quick blasts of lemon juice and torn fresh mint bring it all together. Even the bonus Parmesan toasts need barely pass under the broiler to do their best work.
The recipe's speed is partly a matter of expectation. “It has come to that point in the year when I want food that is light, gently flavoured, and peaceful,” Slater wrote in The Guardian when he published this recipe in June of 2015. There's no need to carve out deep layers of flavor when the effect you're going for is minimal and pristine.
But it's also about smart ingredient whittling. Lemon and mint, peas and delicate greens are the aromatic, just-powerful-enough ingredients that you can rely on to quickly carry a dish, with plenty of shimmy. “I hate the idea of food standing still,” Slater writes.
You might be noting that I haven't justified the wackadoo secret ingredient yet—the shredded lettuce (I know you saw it up there). Looks just like what you put on your tacos and cheeseburgers! But here, what will look like a massive amount of lettuce wilts down immediately, as spinach or other delicate greens do, except tasting lighter and more spring-like and retaining a bit of its bite.
Sure, wilted lettuce in a salad or on a burger is a sad experience, because you’re looking mainly for crunch. Any nuances of lettuce's fresh flavor end up steamrolled by ketchup or vinaigrette or other high-intensity get-ups. But in a delicate soup like this, lettuce gets to relax and be appreciated for its green, sweet self.
Given ongoing romaine lettuce safety concerns, please do not use romaine for now—but Bibb, green or red leaf, and especially all the lovely lettuces popping up at farmers markets will be excellent in this soup. I even made it with a bag of “Ugly Greens” castaways from a local supplier and they bloomed to a gorgeous bright kelly green in the hot broth—just the makeover they needed.
And for all those times when you’re up for cooking for longer than an instant: Make Slater's roasted chicken stock included in the recipe below. It’s a two-step, mostly hands-off exercise and a very good hack for fast, rich chicken stock. Instead of depending on a stash of random bones, he roasts chicken wings—neat packages of all the things we want in stock: meat, bones, connective gnarly bits and all—to a well-browned state, then simmers them for just an hour. It may not be instant, but it will take your soup—this one and others—to another level.
The rest of the time, feel free to take the whiz-bang approach, and pretend for a moment that life is just like it looks in children's books.
For the soup & Parmesan toasts:
- 1 quart chicken stock (the roasted chicken stock below, or use your favorite)
- One 10-ounce/283g bag frozen peas or 2 cups (300g) fresh peas
- 10 cups lightly packed (400g) shredded lettuce (we recommend Bibb, green leaf, or local varieties grown at the farmers market—do not use romaine until safety issues are cleared)
- 8 leaves fresh mint, or more as needed
- One fresh lemon half, or more as needed
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 4 thick slices ciabatta
- Olive oil for drizzling
- 3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
For the roasted chicken stock:
- 8 whole chicken wings (or 16 sections, drumettes and/or wingettes—about 1 1/4 pounds)
- Olive oil for drizzling
- 1 1/2 quarts (1 1/2L) water
- 1 medium-sized onion, peeled and cut in half
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 fresh bay leaves (or 1 dried)
- 6 black peppercorns
Photos by Rocky Luten
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]—thank you to writer, stylist, and wackadoo ingredient expert Sarah Jampel for this one!