Spiced vegetable soup

Time 2 hours 40 minutes
Yields Serves 10 to 12
Spiced vegetable soup
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
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I will bow to no one in my affection for holiday cooking. For our Christmas open house every year, I make gallons of posole and black beans. One family holiday tradition is spending a day decorating hundreds of cookies. There is no Christmas Eve without all-you-can eat Dungeness crab nor Christmas morning without a breakfast with migas and julekake. The month of December seems to be one solid buffet of parties, dinners and an almost constant barrage of cookies, tamales and big hunks of roasted meat.

I love it all, but every once in a while, I need a break. Maybe a quiet dinner in front of the fire with “Foyle’s War” or “Longmire.” After a long workday, you won’t believe how reassuring a baked sweet potato with good butter and lots of black pepper can be.

If I’ve got a little more time and feel like puttering, I usually find myself turning to different kinds of vegetable soups or stews. Honestly, I sometimes think you could throw an almost random selection of vegetables in a pot and bring them to a boil and wind up with something pretty tasty — if you know what you’re doing. Here are a few guidelines.

Choose carefully: Let me start by apologizing for that word “random.” In cooking — or at least good cooking — nothing is truly random. But you’d be surprised how far you can get by sticking with that old local-and-seasonal thing. Potatoes, fennel, winter squash and greens? I can think of half a dozen dishes without even trying.

You need starch: It gives soup heft. If you’re using pasta, rice or grains, cook them first and add them at the end so they don’t muddy the broth or overcook. If you’re using potatoes, use smooth-skinned boilers and add them early, so they have time to absorb flavors.

When in doubt, add greens: And then if you’re still uncertain, add more greens. I don’t know a cook who doesn’t have a few bags of odd scraps of lettuce, kale and chard in the crisper drawer. Soup is a great way to get the most out of them, and the more (and the more kinds), the merrier.

Water’s fine: Sure, you can use a vegetable broth if you want, but don’t overlook simply adding water — that way, you also can control the amount of salt more accurately. If you’ve got the right blend of vegetables, you won’t need any added flavors.

Season assertively: If there is one common fault with vegetable soups, it’s timidity in seasoning, particularly salt. As always, you don’t want the food to taste salty, but the right amount awakens all the other flavors. This is especially true if you’ve added starches — they suck salt out of a soup like nobody’s business.

Acidity is a seasoning too. This is overlooked by too many cooks, but if a soup or stew tastes a little flat, and you’ve seasoned it correctly with salt, try adding some vinegar or lemon juice to finish. As little as a teaspoon can make a big difference, giving the flavors a strong backbone to hang from.

Don’t fear fat: You’ve salted correctly and added just the right dash of lemon juice, but the dish still lacks something? A drizzle of olive oil, a dollop of herb paste or a shaving of hard cheese such as Parmigiano or ricotta salata can provide a final lift. Because the rest of the soup is basically nothing but vegetables and water, you can liven it up a little.

Here are a couple of very different but equally delicious examples from two of my favorite cookbooks of 2014 — “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts” by Aglaia Kremezi and “Persiana” from Sabrina Ghayour. One is the essence of Greek family cooking — homely in appearance but with a depth of flavor that comes only from careful, long cooking. The other is simple to make but striking enough to be the centerpiece of a holiday dinner. But even given its gorgeous looks, Ghayour promises “there are no rules for making it; the simple truth is that this soup should contain whatever you might find lying around the house and in your fridge.”


Herb oil


Put the olive oil, parsley, dill and cilantro in a bowl along with the pistachios, lemon juice and some salt and pepper, and blitz with a hand blender until the mixture is finely chopped and has the consistency of pesto. If you need to slacken the mixture, add a bit more oil.


Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to generously coat the base of the pan. Add the butternut squash, diced onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes, and cook, without browning, until the vegetables soften slightly, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Add the tomatoes, cumin, cinnamon, paprika and hot pepper paste, and give it all a good stir to ensure the spices evenly coat the vegetables. Cover the vegetables completely with water, add a generous amount of salt (I would suggest at least 4 teaspoons) and black pepper. Stir once more and continue to cook at a gentle boil until the squash is tender when poked with a knife, about 30 minutes.


Purée the mixture in a food processor or blender until you get a lovely, even, smooth soup. Once smooth, add the chickpeas and their liquid, and stir well.


Adjust the consistency of the soup with additional water if desired, then taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Cook an additional 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the zucchini and cook for a final 20 minutes before serving.


While the soup is cooking, drizzle some olive oil into a large frying pan set over high heat, and fry the sliced onion until browned and crispy. Add the reserved chickpeas and brown them along with the onions. Using a slotted spoon, remove the onions and chickpeas from the pan and set aside. This makes about 3½ quarts soup.


Pour the soup into large bowls (preferably wide, shallow ones), then generously crumble the feta on top. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the herb oil into each bowl over the feta. Finally, add the reserved crispy fried onions and chickpeas.

Adapted from Sabrina Ghayour’s “Persiana.”