Sunday, November 8, 2009

In just two bites

The allure of a good soup, so often, is that we can’t quite tell what is in it, at least at first. The color alone does not immediately give away the ingredients—especially when puréed. Take, for example, the soup I made last night. It is a deep green, but on a lighter side of the spectrum, like clover, or evergreen with a dash of cream. The aroma offers hints of cilantro, lemon and something bright and fresh and leafy, perhaps. Then comes the first bite. I think if we really break it down, for a split-second, all sense of taste is momentarily lost; in that first spoonful our senses are overwhelmed with the sheer pleasure of its warmth, and it’s only after the second bite that we can fully grasp the delicate flavors that were hinted at in the first. After that, everything starts melding together, one bite indistinguishable from the next.

I admit that’s quite a lot happening in just two bites, and this is soup we are talking about, not truffles, or chocolate, or fine wine. It’s mere vegetables, at the end of the day, gussied up and cooked with some onions, in broth, until they soften and burst. There is a grounding quality to sitting down to a bowl to a soup, particularly when the seasons are changing and one is feeling a bit worn at the edges from the cold days and longer nights, but there are also a lot of weighty, unexpected things that can happen in the space of two bites of hot soup. It’s at moments like these, at the table, that I could imagine foregoing meat altogether if vegetables could be so satisfying all by themselves. Regardless, such questions are good to ponder, I’ve found, while smearing salted butter on torn pieces of bread, one's place setting a mess of flour and shards of crust. 

In the film Ratatouille, the perpetually grouchy and aptly named restaurant critic Anton Ego has an epiphany over a plate of the dish that shares the movie’s title. He literally melts with the first bite, having this momentous flashback to his childhood. There are many things I liked about this movie, but I especially loved that the dish that changes everything is, quite simply, a French peasant’s version of stewed vegetables.

Certainly, I’ve had such epiphanies, but usually they aren’t so grand or life-altering. Nor can I say anything about the dish itself, which I've never actually had. I will say that many of my mini-epiphanies came in the form of a bowl, with something extra special inside—granola, for instance, or macaroni and peas, or soup. This time, like I was beginning to describe, it was a very green soup, perfect for those of us feeling a little bit under the weather. Like ratatouille, one of its stars is zucchini, a vegetable more known for it’s overbearing presence in the garden than it is for its culinary value. Taste-wise, somewhat ironically, it doesn’t have a very strong character, but it makes up for it in versatility. The spinach makes the soup beautiful and deep grassy green—the zucchini is primarily just there for a boost of texture and body, as are the potatoes. The last punch of green is made from the addition of fresh cilantro, a whole cupful in fact, just at the end. The result is pure comfort, yet vibrant and fresh, perfectly instilled in the hollow space of a bright white bowl.

All this began one day when I found myself with an enormous zucchini my mother had grown in her garden. I had made zucchini bread at home and we all agreed it was good, all spiced and moist with a tender crumb, but when I brought giant zucchini #2 to the City, I found a very intriguing and savory use for it on Heidi’s site. You are probably wondering how I could possibly have a zucchini when we are nearly on the brink of winter, but let's just say it was a very late crop this year, and we had an Indian summer. Anyhow, Kyla and I were on a soup run, barely having finished a butternut squash one I had made a few days prior, and she was beginning to believe I was putting her on a "soup diet." We laughed about it, but between quarts of soup from our local gourmet foods store, Bryan’s, and my homemade efforts, some not so successful, we had been quite busy heating up our meals in saucepans on the stove, I’ll admit.

A week goes by and I’m still thinking about that soup. That, and the amazing lunch we had at Chez Papa, the Brussels sprouts with bacon from Mark Bittman in the New York Times, and figs, in all their delicious forms. We had both been craving greens, thus it seemed only natural to dig out the recipe again. And so I did just that, using three small red potatoes and the other half of the zucchini that I had leftover in a zip lock bag. Miraculously, it was still good, like it was just waiting for me to hurry up and use it. I even conquered my fear of the The Blender, which nearly exploded all over me last time. Everything was going to be Okay, with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, the zucchini shining quietly through - as if Summer had lingered one more day to see the leaves of Fall, and then left, just shy of November.

To get the recipe for Spinach and Zucchini Soup, click here

My only change is that I used “Better than Bouillon” instead of actual vegetable stock. Hopefully the soup gods will forgive me for not using my own, which I do intend on making one of these days. I'd also love to try adding crème fraîche at the end, like Heidi suggests in her notes.

1 comment:

  1. Acacia, what a beautifully rendered, evocative post! your lovely prose makes me want to go out this minute and buy some spinach to bring home to the lonely brussels sprouts and zucchinis languishing in my fridge ... Even though I'm sick today, I may brave it, as your luscious soupe sounds surely has curative powers.