Cream of Broccoli and Sorrel Soup

This afternoon, I looked at the big heads of broccoli, abundant sorrel, numerous zucchini, and heads of butter lettuce in my raised beds and thought, “How the hell am I going to eat all this?” I didn’t expect to reach this state of affairs quite so early in the summer. I am barely keeping up with the lettuce, which the rising temperatures are soon going to fry.

The pleasant challenge of vegetable gardening, however, is to find congruent flavors in disperate plants. Today, I decided to pair broccoli with sorrel in a cream soup. The lemon in sorrel, I thought, would complement the broccoli. And I turned out to be right. But first I looked for a model recipe to adapt. For the first time in a while, my cookbooks let me down. Not even ol’Basics, by Ludkin and Russo, had a cream of broccoli recipe. Time to wing it.

I used what I had in my fridge:

About 2 ounces of smoked bacon, cut into lardons

1 yellow onion

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

6 cups chicken stock

Water as needed

2 pounds broccoli, cut into florets and the stemmed trimmed of touch outside skin

a bunch of sorrel with stems removed and leaves roughly chopped

1/2 cup cream

1 ounce soft goat cheese (optional)

In a large 5- or 7-quart pot, fry the bacon pieces until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towel. Nibble at them, if you want a velvety smooth soup. Pour off most of the bacon fat, leaving about 1-2 tablespoons in the pan. Add the chopped onion and sauté a few minutes, until soft. Add the carrot and celery and continue to sauté for a few minutes. Add broccoli and sorrel. Stir to coat with fat. Add the stock and enough water to cover all the vegetables. Bring to steady boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the broccoli is soft.

Before pureeing in a blender, let the soup cool a bit. When the stock is cooler, puree the stock and vegetables in a blender in several batches. Do not fill your blender jar more than a third of the way up. Pour the pureed soup into a small soup pot. When the entire soup has been pureed and poured into the soup pot, pour in cream and stir to blend. Adjust seasoning at this point. Be careful not to add too much, since the smoked bacon will contribute salt to the soup. Having said that, however, try and adjust the seasoning just so. Salt will enhance ever so slightly the flavor of the bacon in the background.

I’ve had this soup hot for dinner and, the next day, cold. At dinner, I crumbled a little soft goat cheese on top before I took my first spoonful.

Judy Rodgers’s Asparagus & Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper

from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, p. 166.

The warm weather is fast approaching, which means I have to get busy and make chicken stock. When the heat sets in, the last thing my house needs is a big simmering pot exuding heat throughout the bottom floor. I should, therefore, be hoarding the frozen blocks of poultry essence in the freezer, but — as she has so often in the past — Sherry drew my attention to a recipe that I had overlooked.

In this one, Judy Rodgers has devised a near perfect recipe. To describe it as a near perfect blend of ingredients would be accurate but trite. I don’t know what to say that would make that less of a cliché. Nevertheless, there are one or two aspects of this soup that need practice. Otherwise, just leave it alone. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, as they say. I was tempted to add parmesan. No. Or at least, not before you’ve made 40,000 times and are sick of it. I want to make it again to figure out what wine would go with it. Rodgers recommends a riesling. I read that too late to chill one. That is the main challenge. Nothing or practically nothing goes with asparagus. Here, the basic oeno-incompatibility is complicated by its juxtaposition with the softened onion, the pancetta, the stock… and so on.

Oh, just make it and figure it out for yourself!

Judy’s prescription:

Makes about 4 cups soup.

6 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups diced yellow onions (8 oz)

salt

1/4 cup white rice

About 3 1/2 cups Chicken Stock

1/2 cup water

About 8 oz asparagus, woody ends trimmed

3 to 4 oz pancetta, finely minced (1/2 to 2/3 cup)

Freshly cracked black pepper

Warm about 1/4 cup of the oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, stirring regularly. don’t let the onions color; they should “sweat” their moisture and then become tender and translucent in about 10 minutes. Add the rice, chicken stock, and water and bring to a simmer. Cover tightly and cook until the rice in nutty-tender, probably 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the rice you choose. The broth will be cloudy and should taste sweet from the onions. Turn off the heat.

While the rice is cooking, sliver the asparagus, slicing it on an angle about 1/3 inch thick. Don’t worry if th eslivers vary a little in thickness; the irregularity will guarantee uneven cooking and a pleasantly varied texture. You should get about 2 cups.

Warm the remaining 2 Tbl oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and asparagus slivers and stir once to coat, then spread them out and leave to sizzle utnil those at the edges of the pan begin to color. Toss or stir once, then leave to color again. Repeat a few time until the mass has softened and shrunk by about one-third.

Scrape the pancetta and asparagus into the broth and bring to a boil. Add lots of pepper. Boil for about 1 minute. This soup is best when served promptly, while all the flavors are still bold and the texture varied.

My response: Amen to that!

Nothing I’m about to say here should be taken as a corrective. I don’t even mean my suggestions as an enhancement. I merely want to relay my experience.

I prepared all the ingredients at once, ahead of schedule. As usual, I used kosher salt. Basmati rice was all I had on hand, but I won’t use that again. I want something a tad firmer.

When it came time to tip — as Nigel would say — the pancetta and asparagus into the pan, Michael Chiarello’s wise words came back to me. Just let it all sit and crisp up. If you adjust the high not too high and not too low, you shouldn’t have to touch it for at least five minutes. Stirring is what mucks up the crisping endeavor. Even I, after all the advice I’ve given myself, tend to stir too early. In this instance, it turned out fine. But don’t stir until you absolutely feel you have to. I would not stir the asparagus and pancetta around more than three times.

Black pepper, yes. But I sneezed and choked a little on the amount I grated over it. I must find the proper amount.

Final thoughts:

Fat is vastly underrated. Fat is savory-sweet. You have to render the fat of the pancetta in order to understand how all the ingredients come together. How simple can a soup get?

Nigel Slater’s Onion Soup without Tears

img_9769.jpgfrom The Kitchen Diaries, p. 16-17.

At the end of the year, I put post-it notes in The Kitchen Diaries on the pages at the head of each month that contain lists of that month’s recipes. I’m starting the book all over again. Too many recipes to take in on the first circuit. What I sampled makes me want to keep the book around for the next decade. But this second time around I intend to reduce his recipes to appropriate proportions for one serving (ok, maybe two for leftovers). His recipes lend themselves easily to adaptation. Tonight I felt the urge for something warm and comforting. Onion soup — especially now that I am recently returned from Paris — seemed to fit the bill.

Here are his free-form directions:

onions — 4 medium

butter — 40 g

a glass of white wine

vegetable stock — 1.5 litres

a small French loaf

grated Gruyère, Emmental or other good melting cheese — 150 g

Set the oven to 200 C [about 400 F]. Peel the onions and cut them in half from tip to root, then lay them in a roasting tin and add the butter, salt and some pepper. Roast until they are tender and soft, and toasted dark brown here and there. You might have to turn them now and again.

Cut the onions into thick segments. Put them in a saucepan with the wine and bring to the boil. Let the wine bubble until it almost disappears (you just want the flavour, not the alcohol), then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for about twenty minutes.

Just before you want to serve the soup, make the cheese croutes. Cut the loaf into thin slices and toast lightly on one side under a hot grill. turn them over and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Get the coup hot, ladle it into bowls and float the cheese croutes on top. Place the bowls under a hot grill and leave until the cheese melts. Eat immediately, whilst the cheese is still stringy and molten.

Enough for 4.

My version:

Enough for 4 my arse. Nigel is being unusually parsimonious. Most of his recipes will feed twice as many people as his servings call for. Here, he underestimates his portions. I halved most of the ingredients and ate most of it. My version goes like this.

2 big onions, halved in the way Nigel prescribes

about 1 T butter

1 cup white wine

stock — preferably beef stock, but I used 2-3 cups of my own veal stock, which worked very well

two thin slices of boule-type bread — I used two slices of my own

about 2 ounces of grated Emmental

I cut the onions as he prescribed and placed the four halves, cut side down, on a sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet. I placed a little bit of the T of butter under each halve. Then I sprinkled kosher salt and grated some pepper over the halves. The onions took about 30-40 mins to reach the point where I thought they were soft enough, caramelized enough, and sweet enough to enhance the soup. Once I transferred them to a cutting board, I trimmed the root ends and sliced them with the grain into not especially thick segments, as Nigel recommends. Into the saucepan with a full complement of one cup of wine they went, where they simmered furiously until the wine was nearly but not entirely boiled away. At that point, I added the nearly 3 cups of veal stock I had defrosted yesterday. I brought it all to a boil and set the timer for 20 mins.

In the meantime, I grated a bit of Emmentaler and cut two slices of bread. While the bread toasted until the grill (as Nigel the Brit calls his broiler), I quickly grated the cheese. I removed the bread from the oven, poured a generous but not piggish helping of soup into a serving bowl, placed the bread, toasted side down, on the surface of the soup, and strewed the cheese over the top. Under the broiler for less than five minutes and it came out perfect.

Last thoughts:

I was happy with how the soup came out. Still, I wish the flavor had been more intense. I think everything about onion soup depends on the intensity of the stock. Somehow, I can’t imagine the soup working well with vegetable stock, but I might be missing the point. It may be a point I’m willing to miss. This recipe motivates me to work on my veal stock recipe.