Last summer I made a goal. After seeing the movie “Julie & Julia,” I told myself I was going to cook my way through an entire section of a cookbook. The book I chose was the “Avoca Café Cookbook,” a treasured volume I had picked up in Ireland a few years ago, and the section was on soup. (Click here.)
It took several months and not a lot of discipline on my part, but I’m happy to report that the last new soup has been made and consumed – and it was as good as the best of the lot.
I learned as much about making soup as I learned about one kitchen’s approach to this labor of love. Quite a few of the recipes begin with softening an onion in olive oil, which provides a natural sweetness. A good vegetarian stock is added later and magically, the flavors blend together, changing with each ingredient.
But most of all, the recipes were simple and straightforward, not fussy yet full of flavor. If this is what Ireland treasures, then it shares something wonderful in common with that other “I” country in Europe: Italy. The emphasis is on layering a few fresh ingredients in a manner in which they all complement each other, so you can enjoy the best that nature has to offer.
It could be something as comforting as cauliflower and cheddar or something as offbeat as parsnip, rosemary and olives.
Along the way, I revisited some old favorites, such as Courgette and Almond, just to make sure they were as good as I remembered. I also was forced to revisit a few vegetables, such as turnips, that I didn’t care for as a child and have largely avoided as an adult. (I still don’t care for them, but soft baby turnips have a more pleasant flavor than their rock-hard adult cousins.)
Some of the journey was frustrating. I had had a stand of lemongrass in the backyard, but the ugliest of winter freezes took care of that. So I had to buy fresh lemongrass from the market for the Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup. (I also didn’t have time to visit an Asian market, so I probably paid twice the price for the stalks I needed.)
Most of the recipes were vegetarian, a few were even vegan. The lone exception was a Tuscan Bean Soup that required bacon in it. And what an impact that bacon had on the final product! After the first taste of the meat boiled into the broth, I could understand why a few – not all, mind you – of my vegan friends will have the occasional piece of pork. I will remember the richness and depth of flavor it brought to the soup and use that in other ways.
I made the most of these soups during the worst of the winter, when I had a seasonal job. To save money, I would bring a jar of soup each day and pop it in the microwave. The aroma of Potato and Fennel Soup or Aztec Corn would fill the break room and often drew questions from co-workers who wanted to know where I’d bought it.
The last recipe in the section was Mixed Mushroom, which I made with button caps, brown mushrooms and portobellos. Rich and creamy, it was a fine end to a most tasty experiment.
Another goal I wrote about recently was planting a garden so I could enjoy some freshness from my own backyard.
I’m happy to report that the radishes, lettuces and arugula I planted survived the snow/sleet/slush that fell several days after planting. It’s almost time to thin some of the sprouts, which will make a great addition to a salad.
In the meantime, the potted tomatoes are thriving. I know some friends who have planted theirs in the ground already. I’m not quite ready to do that, but I do have them clustered in near the backdoor so they can get some light.
I also planted a pair of olive trees I picked up at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard. I planted the arbequina, which should survive our freak freezes and bear fruit in a few years. I would appreciate that. The loquat tree I planted eight years ago is only now ready to bear fruit, and I fear I lost some of this year’s potential harvest to the cold.
But that’s the nature of gardening, isn’t it? We never know what nature has in store for us, no matter the goals we set.