Whether eaten alone, cupping a wide, steaming bowl between your hands, or daintily sipped from tea cups at a dinner party, the endless variations on the theme of soup continue to impress me. There is an almost spiritual aspect to it, from creating quantities of food from simple ingredients and water, to feeding an entire community from the same pot. It brings to mind warm hearths, hearty repasts, soup kitchens, resourcefulness, nourishment. I feel like a good friend when I feed my friends soup.
This may sound funny, but it took me a long time to learn how to make soup. This most humble of dishes has bubbled and simmered across the world since time immemorial, and yet somehow it eluded me for years. In my first college apartment, the top floor of a crooked, drafty 19th-century building that has since been torn down, I learned to cook the usual meager-wallet, just-turned-twenty staples: rice, lentils, pasta, and, because I was in Portland, sautéed vegetables and stir-fried tofu. I remember my first vegetable soup with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement; it consisted of a few sad carrots and undercooked potatoes floating in a broth that tasted like a faint memory of garlic. I stuck to stir-fries for most of college.
Over the years I saw how easily friends could whip up an impressive soup, quickly and without recipes. Single-ingredient purees that burst with color and flavor, vegan chowders that tasted better than their milky, buttery originals. I could feel the almost primeval pull of soup, and began slowly, and not very methodically, collecting an understanding of how soup is built.
It didn’t come instinctively for me. I had to learn not to put too much water or milk in my purees, and not to put too little salt into the pot. I learned what happens when I sweat my aromatics, or roast my main ingredients, or add an underlying note of garlic by sauteing it in oil then scooping it out of the pot. I learned (the hard way) not to put too many fennel fronds in my vegetable stock. I learned you can always punch up a thin vegetable soup if you have leeks or onions and good olive oil laying at hand.
Nowadays, the hardest part about making soup is anticipating what our mood will be over the next few days, and exactly what type of soup will be just what we need. That’s easy over the winter: lots of warming spices like coriander and cumin, or else something almost unbearably hearty, full of beans and root vegetables and European aromatics like bay and thyme. It’s harder to make just the right soup at this time of year, when the weather shifts wildly from day to day and often throughout the same day, and you can’t really be sure, if you’re chilly this morning, that you won’t be stripped down to a T-shirt in the afternoon.
This soup fits nicely into that strange awkward place. It is hearty with chickpeas, warming with cumin, and bright with spinach. It will feel good and sustaining if the day turns out rainy and cold, and it will remind you that asparagus and rhubarb are just around the corner. If the day turns out sunny with a pleasant breeze, the Spanish flavors will have you yearning for deep blue skies and a hot summer. I recommend eating this soup outside if possible, with a crusty white bread, chilled white wine (a Spanish wine, naturally, if you can), with spring flowers blooming nearby and church bells ringing in the distance.
This soup features a Castilian technique of frying bread and garlic before pureeing it into a sauce. Along with the mashed egg yolks and spices, this sauce technique brings body and flavor to the broth.
Spinach Chickpea Soup
Adapted from The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
3 medium waxy potatoes, peeled if conventionally-grown, and quartered or cut into sixths
28 oz. cooked chickpeas
5 1/2 C chicken or vegetable stock
1 lb. spinach, stems removed
1 T red or white wine vinegar
2 hard-boiled eggs
1/4 C olive oil
4-5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 slices bread, crusts removed
1 t paprika
1 t cumin, ground
pinch of chili powder
salt to taste
Put potatoes and chickpeas in a large saucepan with 4 C of stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Add spinach and cook 5 minutes. Add vinegar and salt and cook 10 minutes more.
Remove the yolks from the hard-boiled eggs and reserve. Chop the egg whites and reserve.
Heat the olive oil in a small skillet and fry the bread and garlic until golden, stirring constantly. Keep a close eye as they will brown quickly. Drain on paper towels.
Put the bread, garlic, paprika, cumin, and chili powder in a food processor or blender and blend to a paste. Add the egg yolks and blend well. Gradually pour in the remaining 1 1/2 C of stock and blend into a creamy sauce.
Pour the sauce mixture into the soup, stir well, and adjust seasoning. Cook another 10 minutes, then stir in the egg whites. Add water if necessary but the soup should be thick.