Green light: The transition to spring
Despite the cold front predicted for next week, I know that spring is on its way. A couple of hellebores (gardening.about.com/od/plantprofile1/p/Hellebore_Pro.htm) have managed to poke up through the snow, determined and perhaps just a bit reckless. I’m looking forward to tramping into the wet woods in search of vernal pools and the salamanders and frogs that inhabit them.
I’m dreaming of what we will plant first and itching to forage for wild mushrooms. (Now is the time to keep an eye out for ash, sycamore, dead elm trees and the old apple orchards where morels tend to pop up.) At this time of year, I’m possessed by the urge to clean out drawers and closets, reorganize the attic and generally freshen up the place—and myself. From bears to humans, we’re all preparing to shed the protective layers of winter and emerge into the sunlight.
Soon we’ll be tempting our weary palates with baby vegetables, sweet peas and the first slim stalks of asparagus and rhubarb, but, until then, we need a transition between spring’s delicate bounty and the heavier soups and stews that have seen us through these last months.
Since I’m craving all things green, a light vegetable soup is the perfect bridge between seasons—fresh and vibrant, warm and satisfying. It’s so simple and easy that you really don’t even need a recipe, but this one from Anna Thomas’ Love Soup (you may know her from her Vegetarian Epicure books) is the perfect template. Feel free to adapt it according to whatever greens you’ve got on hand: kale, chard, spinach, broccoli.
If you don’t have vegetable stock, water is fine or even chicken stock. The addition of a little starchy short-grain rice thickens the soup a bit and imparts a silky texture, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. What’s essential is to really caramelize the onions and to pay careful attention to creating the right balance with spices, lemon juice and salt.
Once spring’s tender options emerge, you can even make a similar soup with asparagus, garlic shoots, baby turnip greens and nettles. And, when the weather warms up, stir in a little buttermilk and chill it. Nothing goes down better on a hot summer’s day. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves...
Adapted from Eating Well by Anna Thomas
2 Tablespoons olive oil, plus more for garnish
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
2 Tablespoons plus 3 cups water, divided
1/4 cup short-grain white rice
1 bunch green chard, or tender kale (about 1 lb.)
14 cups gently packed spinach (about 12 ozs.), tough stems removed
4 cups vegetable stock, or water
Fat pinch ground cayenne
1 teaspoon each ground cumin, fennel and/or coriander to taste, optional
1 Tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add 2 tablespoons water and cover. Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the remaining 3 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a soup pot or Dutch oven; add rice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Trim the white ribs out of the chard (save for another use, such as to add to a stir-fry or other soup). Coarsely chop the chard greens and spinach.
When the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, stir in the chard greens. Return to a simmer; cover and cook for 10 minutes. When the onions are caramelized, stir a little of the simmering liquid into them; add them to the rice along with the spinach, stock, cayenne and other spices, if using. Return to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring once, until the spinach is tender but still bright green, about 5 minutes more.
Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches. (Note: Be careful when you puree hot liquid in a blender; pressure builds up inside and the lid can fly off, spewing hot liquid.) Return soup to the pot. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt, if desired. Garnish bowls of soup with a drizzle of olive oil.