Most people who remember Mitchell Parrish recall him as one of America’s great lyricists -- he wrote the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” one of the 20th century’s most romantic and widely covered songs, as well as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Moonlight Serenade” and the English version of “Volare.”
But I remember him as a guy who inadvertently gave me one of my favorite soups. My husband, a jazz journalist, interviewed Parrish shortly before his death at age 92 in 1993. Parrish had talked about his years in Paris, when he loved to go into a little bistro and order potage St. Germain, which he described as pea soup.
Hmm, I wondered, was this different from split pea soup (soupe de pois casses)?
As it turns out, it is fresh pea soup. To make it, you saute some sliced Bibb lettuce in butter, add young peas (frozen are best, unless you have some just-picked fresh ones), cover with water and simmer, covered, for about 40 minutes. Puree, correct the seasoning, and it’s extremely wonderful -- silky and sophisticated as Duke Ellington’s lady, with very pure pea flavor. Stir in a little lemon zest or chopped mint at the end, if you like.
A few years later, when my son was a baby, and I was determined to get him to eat vegetables, I simmered some broccoli in a little chicken broth till the broccoli was tender, put it all, vegetable and broth, in the Cuisinart, and pureed. Voila! -- a silky, dark green, wonderfully nutritious soup that he slurped up with glee.
In my naivete, I thought this dish’s best attributes were that it was quick (only 15 or 20 minutes for the broccoli to get tender) and an easy way to sneak cruciferous vegetables into my unsuspecting son’s diet.
But I kept admiring the way it looked -- so green and creamy, despite the fact there was no cream in it -- and I could never help myself from taking a few spoonfuls. Delicious. Sometimes I used cauliflower, sometimes baby bok choy. Always, it was a pure expression of the starring vegetable. I started making it for the whole family, and even serving it at dinner parties. Naturally, I seasoned ours more assertively than the baby’s, sometimes stirring in a little creme fraiche. When I realized that this was the easiest first course in the universe, no more work than making a salad, it turned into a habit.
Once I thought about it for half a minute, I realized I hadn’t invented it. It’s the same technique that Julia Child used for one of my longtime favorites, potage parmentier -- the leek and potato soup that she called “simplicity itself.” You just simmer sliced leeks and potatoes in water, pass them through a food mill (I always just used a food processor; a mill makes it even smoother) and stir in a little cream or butter and parsley or chives. Use chicken broth instead of water, chill it, and it’s vichyssoise. Toss in a big handful of watercress five minutes before it’s done, and it’s watercress soup.
Then there’s my most frugal, yet luxurious soup, a puree of asparagus. When local asparagus makes its appearance in spring, first I go through an asparagus vinaigrette phase. I peel the spears, simmer them gently in salted water, drain and sauce with a vinaigrette. But wait -- don’t throw away the asparagus cooking water: Save it to use as a base for a creamy asparagus soup. Once you have a few batches’ worth (about a quart), use it to simmer two bunches of unpeeled asparagus until they’re just overcooked. Then puree. It’s asparagus heaven.
But it’s the chicken broth-based purees that are the quickest and easiest: Roughly cut up some vegetables, add a carton of chicken broth, turn on the heat, and you’re almost there. If you use an immersion blender, you don’t even have the fuss of transferring the liquid to the bowl of a food processor or blender, nor the mess of an extra pot (since it never all goes in one batch).
Best of all, you can dress them up or dress them down. Toss in extra vegetables -- whatever’s in the fridge. Or give them a dapper garnish, depending on the soup.
The broccoli soup is terrific as is, one of those cases of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Or you can finish it with a little lemon juice or zest, stir in some creme fraiche or butter, or sprinkle on a bit of grated Parmesan. This one works just as well with cauliflower. If you want something a little richer, stir in some cream. When truffle season rolls around, a creamy cauliflower puree is a magnificent canvas for shaved white truffles.
I frequently toss a handful of arugula into other puree soups just before they’re done cooking. (This is an especially handy trick once the arugula is looking a little too tired to appear in a salad.)
But what about a very, very arugula-intense soup? We started by simmering Yukon gold potatoes in the broth, so the soup would have some body. Then we added two whole bags of baby arugula. The green’s peppery flavor softens when it’s cooked, but in the end it still wants a little fat to round it out. A dollop of creme fraiche swirled in makes it creamy; alternatively, a touch of olive oil keeps it more Italian.
The fennel-carrot soup departs a little from the formula, because you saute the aromatic vegetables (including onion) in olive oil first. From there, just add the broth, simmer and puree. It’s delicious as is, but a little Dungeness crab on top wouldn’t hurt either.