We’re in the thick of what I like to think of as soup season.
Of course, you can eat soup any time of the year–perhaps eating cold soups in the summer, or, as my father liked to do, eating hot soup as a first course for lunch or supper no matter what the weather. In my mother’s senior residence, they serve soup at every meal except breakfast — there are a lot of German-born folks who want soup all year round.
But I think the real heart of soup season, the time when soup stars as main and most appreciated course, is that extended wintry period between November and March, when the weather is cold, gloomy, stormy, snowy, rainy, foggy, cloudy, chilly. Then a hearty soup warms and soothes you like nothing else.
In late December, just before the record rainstorm hit Southern California, Steve and I had the pleasure of visiting Anna Thomas (of Vegetarian Epicure fame) in her home in Ojai. Anna’s most recent cookbook, Love Soup, won the prestigious James Beard award for “healthy focus.”
Anna had a welcoming pot of green soup for us on the stove (which was decorated with a row of ripe persimmons). We ate bowls of the lovely green soup (it had kale and white yams, onions and I’m not sure what else), topped with a drizzle of olive oil, some toasted pumpkin seeds and crumbles of feta cheese. Along with some multigrain bread, it was just the kind of meal we love. And we had slices of those persimmons for dessert.
In Love Soup, Anna writes about how she first devised green soup–a puree of kale, cilantro, potato and sauteed onions and garlic–in order to lose some holiday pounds one January. She soon was experimenting with all kinds of varieties–adding sauteed mushrooms, substituting yams for potatoes, using spinach or watercress or beet greens for the greens–and inviting friends over to share her discovery.
“I lost my holiday pounds, but the green soup became my steady,” she writes. “I’ve probably made forty or fifty different green soups over the past ten years. It’s a way of life now.”
I think of Anna Thomas as The Queen of Green.
For me, soup season includes my favorite version of green soup (parsley and potato, a recipe that my friend Peggy gave me years ago), as well as an earthy mushroom-barley soup, a velvety butternut squash soup, a sweet-and-sour cabbage-beet borscht, and many, many pots of that infinitely adaptable standby, minestrone….otherwise known as vegetable soup.
Sometimes I even open a cookbook and try something new. When I was testing out lemon recipes, I looked in Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and tried the recipe for a Lebanese soup called Shorbet Adds bil Hamud, or “Lemony Spinach and Brown Lentil Soup.” It was so good that it’s become a regular part of my repertoire. The greens brighten up the brown lentils and plenty of lemon juice gives a fresh lively flavor–a great combination.
Plus it’s simple to make. And fast — the lentils and diced potatoes cook in under half an hour, and you toss in the greens and have a nice nutritious and tasty bowl of soup ready before you know it.
Quick, uncomplicated, healthy, good-tasting. What else could you ask for in a soup? Oh, yes, it’s vegan as well.
Lemony Lentil Soup
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 cup large brown or green lentils, washed
- 2 medium potatoes, diced
- 2 quarts water or stock
- 1 pound fresh spinach or frozen leaf spinach, defrosted
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- Salt and pepper
- Juice of 1 ½ medium lemons, or more, to taste
In a large pan, sauté the onions until soft and golden. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to color. Add the lentils and potatoes, and the water or stock and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.
If using fresh spinach, wash the leaves and put them in a pan with the lid on—and only the water that clings to them—over low heat until the leaves collapse into a soft mass. Cut the cooked fresh or defrosted frozen spinach into thin ribbons. (Toby’s note: I just cut fresh spinach into shreds and toss it into the hot soup. Don’t cook too long or you’ll lose the bright green color.)
Add the spinach and cilantro to the soup and season with salt and pepper (another note: I sometimes also stir in some cumin). Stir well and add water, if necessary, if you wish a lighter consistency.
Cook a few minutes more and add lemons to taste (it should be nice and tangy) before serving.
Variation: For an alternative flavoring, fry 4 or 5 crushed garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with 2 teaspoons ground coriander until the aroma rises. Stir this sauce, called takelya, into the soup just before serving.