Soups That Bloom In The Spring

Spring arrived in Washington, D.C., almost overnight, as it seems to do every year. From one day to the next, dirt-encrusted banks of snow became golden hedges of flowering forsythia. The cherry blossom show is now in full swing, and "Snowmageddon" is a distant memory.

I was more than happy to put away my beat-up old snow boots and snow shovel. However, one piece of equipment that is not going into storage is my soup pot. Too many cooks, it seems to me, associate soup with cold weather, and that's a shame because soup is a wonderful way to showcase the ingredients of spring, especially the young, delicately flavored vegetables that are now turning up at farmers markets, and the flowery herbs that complement them so well. Spring onions, baby leeks, sweet fennel, tender peas and asparagus, glowing radishes and tiny new potatoes are all lovely candidates for spring soups.

These soups bear only a passing resemblance to their fall and winter counterparts. Cold weather soups — often more stew than soup — are long-simmered and sturdy with grains, chunky vegetables and hearty broths. They are meant to give warmth and comfort. The soups of spring, to my mind, have a different purpose. They wake up the palate and celebrate new life. Their delicate flavors are a reflection, in a bowl, of the rebirth taking place around us in nature, and so require only minimal tampering.

This is not to say that all spring soups are alike. Far from it. Spring is a temperamental season. Mild, breezy days often are followed by cool evenings or chilly rains. The nice thing about spring soups is that they can accommodate all of these moods, taking a step back toward winter comfort if need be, or a leap forward into summer.

About The Author

Domenica Marchetti is the author of Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style and The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (both published by Chronicle Books). Her articles about contemporary Italian home cooking have appeared in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking and other publications. She is at work on a third cookbook, about pasta. Visit her Web site at domenicacooks.com.

Given my name, it's no surprise that many of the soups that emerge from my kitchen are Italian. Italian home cooking is seasonal, and cooks take pride in expressing the seasons in their creations, especially soups. One of my favorites from childhood is a gentle soup of rice and lettuces cooked in chicken broth. As the soup cooks, the crisp greens first wilt, then turn pulpy, giving up their bright colors. The resulting soup is muted in tone, with a subtle, almost nutty flavor. The rice and the addition of cheese at the end of cooking give the soup just the substance it needs to stand up to a cool afternoon or evening.

My friend Melchiorre Chessa, a Sardinian-born chef who now lives in Umbria, was raised on another nourishing soup, one that combines fresh sheep's milk with spring vegetables, pecorino cheese and broken noodles. In adapting Melchiorre's recipe, I used goat's milk in place of sheep's milk — it's readily available, and its delicate flavor echoes the flavor of the cheese.

Velvety purees make delightful soups for spring, especially as a first course at a weekend luncheon or garden party. A soup made with freshly shelled English peas is dramatically different from the split-pea version we crave in winter. Spring pea soup sports the splashy color of newly mown grass and a fresh taste to match. It takes only minutes to prepare, and is best enjoyed right away, when both the flavor and color are at their peak.

I am also partial to creamy asparagus soup, to which I add fennel for enhanced sweetness, and pearled barley for a bit of body. Accompanied by a thick slice of country bread, a bowl of asparagus soup makes a lovely weeknight supper.

I have one rule when it comes to making spring soups, and it can be summed up in a single word: integrity. Because of their delicacy, spring soups rely on good ingredients. Start with the freshest vegetables you can find. Woody, bitter asparagus or starchy peas can ruin a spring soup. If you are inclined to make homemade broth to add to your soup, I say go for it. Broth is the foundation of most spring soups, and I have yet to find a commercial product that can match the honest flavor of a homemade one.

I add just enough herbs to perfume my spring soups — I especially like flowery marjoram and the clean-tasting flat-leaf parsley — but not so much that the herbal aroma overwhelms the flavor.

Finally, spring soups are best enjoyed soon after they're made. Their color and flavor dissipate the longer they sit. Much like the season they honor, their beauty is fleeting. But that, of course, is part of the appeal of spring soups.

Homemade Chicken Broth

This simple, all-purpose broth from my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006) is at once delicate and full-bodied. It fills the house with a comforting aroma as it cooks.

Makes 2 to 2 1/2 quarts

1 whole chicken, 4 to 4 1/2 pounds

2 yellow onions, quartered, and 2 quarters each stuck with 1 whole clove

2 carrots, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 ribs celery, including leafy tops, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

Stalks from 1 fennel bulb (optional; reserve bulb for another use)

6 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 clove garlic, lightly crushed with the flat side of a knife blade

1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

4 to 5 quarts water

Kosher or sea salt

Put all of the ingredients except the water and salt into a large stockpot. Add the water, pouring in enough to cover the ingredients by about 2 inches. Bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, uncovered, skimming any foam that forms on the surface during the first hour or so of cooking. Reduce the heat to low if necessary to keep the broth at a bare simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 3 to 4 hours, adding salt to taste during the last hour of cooking. The broth is ready when it is reduced by about one-half and has developed a rich, meaty flavor.

Strain the broth through a colander lined with damp cheesecloth into a clean bowl or container. Let it cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until well chilled. Skim off and discard the congealed fat on the surface before reheating. Use the broth within 3 days or freeze.

Resourceful Italians would never discard the cooked chicken meat. Remove the meat from the bones, discarding the bones, skin and any pieces of cartilage or other unattractive bits. Serve the chicken, together with some of the carrots and celery drizzled with some good olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. It makes a delicious, light main course to follow — what else? — spring soup.

Rice And Lettuce Soup

Every spoonful of this soup, with its tender morsels of carrots and shredded greens, is a welcome taste of spring. Arborio rice and thinly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese add just enough heft. Use a variety of lettuces for a mix of colors and textures. I especially like to add radicchio di Treviso, a longer, slimmer version of the more common radicchio di Chioggia, but either is fine. The greens lose their bright hue when you cook them, taking on muted, earthy tones. I find the softened appearance pleasing, but if you want to perk up the color, gently stir in another handful or two of spinach during the last few minutes of cooking. Adding a small rind of Parmigiano while the soup is simmering boosts the flavor of the broth. This recipe is adapted from my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006).

Rice And Lettuce Soup
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 6 first-course servings

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped (1/2 cup)

1 rib celery, trimmed and finely chopped (1/2 cup)

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (1 cup)

1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste

1 small head butter lettuce, washed, trimmed and shredded

1 small head romaine lettuce, washed, trimmed and shredded

1 small head radicchio di Treviso, radicchio di Chioggia or escarole, washed, trimmed and shredded

3 to 4 cups baby spinach leaves, washed

6 cups homemade chicken broth or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial chicken broth

1 small piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)

1 cup Arborio or other risotto rice

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup thinly shaved or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. When the butter has melted and begins to sizzle, stir in the carrot, celery, onion and parsley, and saute for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have begun to soften and the onion is translucent. Season with salt and then stir in the butter and romaine lettuces, radicchio and spinach, tossing the greens so that they are well-coated with the other ingredients. Cook, stirring from time to time, for 5 minutes or so, just until the greens have wilted.

Pour in the broth and toss in the Parmigiano rind, if using, and bring the broth to a gentle simmer. Stir in the rice, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and let the soup simmer gently for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. Taste and season with additional salt if necessary and a generous grinding of black pepper. Stir in 1/2 cup of the shaved or grated Parmigiano cheese.

Ladle the soup into a serving tureen or into individual bowls. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and the remaining cheese.

Shepherd's Soup

This recipe was given to me by Melchiorre Chessa, a Sardinian-born chef who now lives in Umbria. This soup was a favorite of his as a child, and indeed, its gentle flavor and nourishing qualities are perfect for children. Tender vegetables and broken spaghetti are simmered in a soothing milk-based broth. In Italy, Melchiorre makes this soup with fresh sheep's milk, an ingredient that is hard to come by here unless you own a herd of sheep or know someone who does. An excellent substitute is goat's milk, available at many supermarkets and health-food stores, though cow's milk will do in a pinch. This recipe is adapted from one in my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006).

Shepherd's Soup i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Shepherd's Soup
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 4 first-course servings

4 cups whole goat's milk

2 cups water

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or to taste

2 cups cut-up young green beans (1-inch pieces)

6 or 7 baby carrots (3 to 4 inches long), halved lengthwise

1 pound baby yellow potatoes, scrubbed clean and halved or quartered (about 2 cups)

1 1/4 cups broken spaghetti (1-inch pieces)

1/2 cup fresh or frozen English peas

1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for garnish

Freshly ground black pepper

In a medium Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, combine the milk and water, and bring almost to a boil over medium-high heat (do not let the liquid boil over). Stir in the salt, green beans and carrots, reduce the heat to medium, and cook at a bare simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to turn tender. Add the potatoes and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until they are just tender. Stir in the pasta and simmer gently for 15 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Stir in the peas and cook for 2 to 3 minutes if using frozen, or slightly longer if using fresh, until they are tender but still bright green.

While the peas are cooking, put the cheese in a small bowl and add a few spoonfuls of the milky broth. Stir the cheese and hot broth together to make a thin paste, and stir this paste into the soup until fully incorporated. Add a generous grinding of pepper, and stir gently but thoroughly.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with an additional sprinkle of cheese.

Cream Of Asparagus Soup With Pearled Barley

Tender, grassy green asparagus, aromatic spring onions and sweet fennel mingle harmoniously in this soup honoring the first flavors of the season. Adding pearled barley to the mix gives it a little more substance. Accompany the soup with country bread for a nice one-dish supper. This recipe is from my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006).

Asparagus soup
Guy Hand

Makes 6 first-course servings

6 cups water

Kosher or sea salt

1 cup pearled barley, rinsed

2 pounds asparagus

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 spring onions, bulbs and tender white part of stalks sliced crosswise, about 1 cup*

1 fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and quarters thinly sliced crosswise

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

6 cups homemade vegetable or chicken broth, or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial broth, heated to a simmer

6 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese

Put the barley on to cook before you start the soup: In a large saucepan, combine the water and 1 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Slowly pour in the barley. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes partially covered, or until the barley is tender but still a bit chewy. It should not be mushy at all. Reduce the heat if necessary so that the barley cooks at a gentle, steady simmer. Drain the barley in a colander placed in the sink and let it sit for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.

While the barley is cooking, trim off the tough ends from the asparagus and discard them (or add them to the pot in which you are heating the broth to enhance its flavor; remove them before adding the broth to the soup). Cut the asparagus stalks into 1-inch pieces. Set aside the tips. You should have about 4 1/2 cups asparagus pieces, not including the tips.

In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the spring onions and fennel, reduce the heat to medium-low and saute, stirring from time to time, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir vigorously to combine. Pour in 1 cup of the broth and stir for a minute or so to incorporate thoroughly. Slowly pour in the remaining 5 cups of broth and add the asparagus pieces — except for the reserved tips — and the parsley sprigs. Increase the heat to medium and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and let the soup cool for 10 minutes.

Using an immersion or standard blender, puree the soup until smooth. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any tough fibers, and return it to the pot. Stir in the cooked barley and warm the soup over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

While the soup is reheating, put the reserved asparagus tips in a steaming basket placed in a pot of boiling water, cover and steam for 4 to 5 minutes, or just until tender. Or, put the tips in a plastic storage bag along with 1 tablespoon water. Set the open bag in a microwave oven and cook on high heat for 3 minutes, or until the tips are bright green and just tender.

To serve the soup, stir in 3/4 cup of the cheese. Ladle the soup into a large serving bowl or tureen, and top with the reserved asparagus tips and the remaining 1/4 cup cheese. You can also serve the soup in individual bowls, garnishing each serving with a few asparagus tips and a sprinkle of cheese.

Sweet Pea Soup With Pickled Radish

This light soup, adapted from a version in my book The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books 2006), is nothing like its heavy winter cousin, split-pea soup. Fresh marjoram imparts a delicate perfume, and a splash of cream gives it a velvety texture. The soup has a beautiful, grassy green color and a delicate fresh taste. I like to garnish it with a dollop of mascarpone and a spoonful of quick-pickled radishes and cucumbers, which add a bright contrasting note in flavor and color, as well as an appealing crunch. Look for freshly harvested English peas at the farmers market, and make sure they have not been hanging around too long — peas lose their sweetness and turn starchy quickly.

Sweet Pea Soup With Pickled Radish i i
Domenica Marchetti for NPR
Sweet Pea Soup With Pickled Radish
Domenica Marchetti for NPR

Makes 4 first-course servings

For The Pickled Radish

3 to 4 radishes, cut into thin slivers or small dice (1 cup)

1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into thin slivers or small dice (1 cup)

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 small spring onion (bulb only), thinly sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

For The Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced spring onions or leeks (bulbs and tender parts of stalk)

1 small sprig fresh marjoram

1 small spring fresh thyme

3 to 4 cups homemade chicken or vegetable broth, or best-quality fat-free, low-sodium commercial broth

4 cups shelled English peas (about 4 pounds in the pod)

1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Mascarpone cheese or creme fraiche, for serving (optional)

To Make The Relish

Mix together the radish and cucumber with the coarse salt. Place the radish and cucumber in a small colander set over a bowl and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Gently squeeze out the excess liquid and pat vegetables dry with paper towels.

Transfer the radishes and cucumbers to a bowl and stir in the spring onion, vinegar, oil, sugar and a grinding of pepper. Gently toss to combine. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until serving time.

To Make The Soup

In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the spring onions and saute, stirring frequently, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until they have softened but are not browned. Add the marjoram and thyme and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Pour in the broth, raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Carefully tip in the peas and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until they are just tender but still bright green. Take off the heat and remove and discard the sprigs of marjoram and thyme. Using an immersion blender or a standard blender, puree the soup until smooth. If you want a perfectly smooth soup, strain it through a medium-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth and discard the solids.

Return the soup to the pot and place over medium heat. Stir in the cream, salt and pepper to taste. Heat until just warmed through.

Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of mascarpone topped with a spoonful of pickled radish.

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