My Soup and How It Grew

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It started one January, during that post-holiday period when you need to nourish the soul but at the same time whittle off the residue of holiday truffles still riding on your hips. I wandered into my kitchen, feeling even hungrier from knowing I should eat less.

But I had been to the farmers market, so my refrigerator was full of hope and leafy greens. I started working in my favorite way-no plan. I pulled things out-chard, big shiny leaves. Green onions. Cilantro. A head of curly kale. As I washed and chopped, I thought: garlic, onions.

I caramelized the onions in the tiniest amount of olive oil. I sauteed the garlic, filling the house with the most comforting of aromas. Who could feel downhearted with the smell of sizzling garlic around? I added a potato because I'm Polish and can't help it and simmered it all together in some broth. At the end I added a pinch of pepper and a bit of lemon juice and pureed the soup in a blender.

It was so green! I ate a nice, hot bowlful and sat up straighter at once. Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, those mysterious things we don't fully understand though we know they're good for us: I could feel them racing through my system. Most important, it was delicious. That's the beauty of a good soup; like a massage, it feels great while it does a body good. I counted up the calories and grinned.

Over the next few days I dipped into the soup often-a snack while working, a bowl for lunch with a bagel, another bowl for dinner with some white cheese crumbled into it. Yum. Everyone ate it. Even my son, Teddy, who would rather eat snakes than anything green, grudgingly admitted that it was OK.

The green soup had hit the seasonal spot. I hauled home another cartload of greens from the market-spinach, leeks, turnip greens-and made another version. Here was my plan: more green soup, less of everything else. It was the poor man's spa cuisine.

One day, friends were coming to dinner. The green soup had become my private habit; why not take it out to a party? I had some mushrooms on hand; I sauteed them in a miserly amount of olive oil, with lots and lots of garlic, and when they were nice and brown I tossed them into the simmering greens. No potato this time. A dash of rice vinegar instead of lemon juice, and everything pureed again.

The green soup with mushrooms seemed more important somehow. It had mystery, the earthiness of the hidden mushrooms, the zing of acid. It was great. People started calling for the recipe.

Over the next weeks and months I made many green soups, and not one was the same as the one before. My desk was littered with scrawled green soup formulas. I lost my holiday pounds, but the green soup had become my steady.

If you cook often, you have had this experience: the dish that keeps reinventing itself. I made my soup with yams instead of potatoes. I made it with all spinach and nutmeg-it looked like paint. A friend brought me fresh watercress from her stream, and I put it together with Yukon gold potatoes-excellent.

Once I found I had no potatoes, and my eye fell upon a kabocha squash. Another time I'd been roasting beets and had all the fresh, shiny tops left, so by chance I came up with one of my favorites, beet green soup.

Usually I pureed the soup, blending the flavors into one pungent, savory essence of green, but sometimes I left the individual elements intact-pieces of squash gradually softening and thickening the broth, flecks of browned onion and always the strips of dark green. Sometimes I garnished the soup with cheese or croutons or even a spicy salsa, and sometimes I ate it in perfect simplicity.

It's not so much a recipe now as a way of life. The method is always the same, and the basic formula is this:

First: lots of greens, the nicest greens you can find, dark green, glossy, firm. No tired old greens auditioning for the compost heap. Two or three big bunches of greens are not too much for a really green soup.

Next: something to give it a little body. This could be a potato, a yam, those delicious mushrooms or some winter squash.

And then: always some onions for sweetness, slowly caramelized in oil until they are an amber-colored marmalade, and some lemon juice or vinegar for acidity.

Finally: vegetable broth (or chicken broth). Season the soup with salt and pepper, maybe cayenne. Basta. That's it. Except for all the things you change to make it different and your own, but you know about that already.

Blend It, Don't End It When you puree the soups, it's easiest to use a hand-held blender in the pot, rather than transfer the hot soup to a blender. If you do use a blender, puree the soup in small batches. *

* On the cover: bowl and plate from California Marketing Associates at the L.A. Mart, Los Angeles. Striped towel from Bristol Kitchens stores.

*

Thomas is author of "The Vegetarian Epicure" and "The New Vegetarian Epicure" as well as the movies "El Norte" and "Mi Familia." She lives in Ojai.

Green Soup

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes * Vegetarian

I like to garnish this soup. Some kind of crumbled white cheese is a natural. My favorites are cotija, a dry Mexican white cheese, and feta. Parmesan cheese is also good. So are croutons, especially if they're made from rye or pumpernickel bread. Garlic croutons are the bomb, as my kids say. And of course, there's always sour cream, but because I like the low-fat quality of the soup, I use a spoonful of yogurt cheese instead.

1 large bunch Swiss chard

1 bunch kale

1 bunch green onions, sliced

1 cup cilantro, loosely packed

5 to 6 cups water

Salt

1 large baking potato

2 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

2 onions, chopped

Marsala or Sherry, optional

2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 cups vegetable or chicken broth

Freshly ground black pepper

Dash cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste

Wash the greens thoroughly, then cut the chard and kale off their stems and slice the leaves. Combine the chard, kale, green onions and cilantro in a soup pot with the water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Peel the potato, or just scrub it well if you prefer, cut it into big pieces and add it to the pot. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for about half an hour.

Meanwhile, heat 11/2 teaspoons of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and a sprinkle of salt and cook them over low heat until they are golden brown and soft. This will take up to 45 minutes; don't hurry, you only need to give them a stir once in a while, and it's the slow cooking that develops the sweetness. If you like, you can deglaze the pan at the end with 2 tablespoons of Marsala or Sherry. Increase the heat to medium, remove the skillet from the stove, and add the Marsala. Return it to the stove and cook the onions, stirring, 1 minute. Add the onions to the soup.

Put another teaspoon of oil in the skillet and cook the garlic over low heat, stirring, until it sizzles and smells great, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic to the soup pot and simmer everything for a few minutes more.

At this point there won't be much liquid in the soup, so add enough broth-about 3 cups-to make the soup a soup. Coarsely puree the soup but don't over-process it. Anything with potatoes in it can get slimy if you work it too much.

Return the soup to the pot, bring it back to a simmer and taste. Add salt as needed, grind in a little black pepper, add the cayenne and the lemon juice. Stir well and taste again. Now you're on your own-correct the seasoning and serve big steaming bowls of green soup.

8 servings. Each serving: 109 calories; 742 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 2.58 grams fiber.

Green Soup With Beet Greens and Spinach

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours 10 minutes * Vegetarian

This is one of my favorite variations. Beet greens give the soup a rich flavor with an edge of sweetness, which is balanced by the lemon juice and cayenne. I also find that when I use beet greens, the soup has a creamier texture. I prefer greens from golden beets, but any variety can be used. I prefer using red or Yukon Gold potatoes.

2 large onions, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt

2 boiling potatoes

5 cups water

2 large bunches beet greens, about 1 1/4 pounds

1 large bunch spinach

1 cup sliced green onions

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

2 cups vegetable broth, plus more if needed

Freshly ground pepper

Dash cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste

Crumbled queso fresco, feta cheese or garlic croutons, for garnish

Cook the onions in the olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, adding a sprinkle of salt and stirring occasionally, until they are soft and golden-brown, 30 to 45 minutes.

Scrub and trim the potatoes, dice them, put them in a soup pot with the water and 1 teaspoon of salt and bring the water to a simmer.

Meanwhile, wash the beet greens and spinach thoroughly, trim away the tough stems and coarsely chop the leaves. When the water in the pot is simmering, add the beet greens, spinach, green onions and cilantro. The greens will look like an enormous pile at first but will soon shrink down into the liquid. When the onions are caramelized, add them to the soup as well.

Simmer the soup until all the vegetables are very soft, at least half an hour. Add the broth and puree the soup. Process just until the texture is velvety smooth but no longer, as over-processing can make potatoes gummy.

Return the soup to the pot, bring it back to just under a simmer and season it with additional salt, pepper to taste, the cayenne and at least the lemon juice, adding more if you like. (Remember to add the seasonings a little at a time.) Stir well, wait a moment, then taste. If the soup is too thick, it can be diluted with some additional vegetable broth or a bit of water.

Garnish each serving with crumbled queso fresco, feta cheese or garlic croutons.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 79 calories; 333 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 4.28 grams fiber.

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