The Greens of Winter: Soup Base

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Earlier this week I walked through my frost-killed garden to see what was left. For the most part I don’t make any special effort to protect my garden in the fall because after a long summer I’m ready to move on to the things I do in the winter, so the pickings were slim, but I found lots of chicory, dandelion, chard, broccoli leaves, alfalfa tips, celery, and kale, along with green garlic and green onions, and some of the herbs were still in fine shape. I decided to make soup, and since I had a lot more greens than I remembered planting, it occurred to me to make a soup base that could sit in the freezer, ready at any time to be turned into soup in a hurry. To the garden ingredients I added a large onion and a largish handful of sun-dried tomatoes from earlier in the summer. You could also use a jar of dried tomatoes in oil, drained.  The celery was used from base to leaf tip. I used roughly equal volumes of all the greens types, about the equivalent of a medium-sized supermarket bunch of each.

The onion was sliced thinly and sautéed very slowly in olive oil while I washed and prepared the greens. I was aiming for a rich caramel color, which meant low heat and frequent stirring, which is no extra trouble if you’re in the kitchen anyway. I used my wok because I knew that the volume of sliced greens would be considerable. First the green garlic and green onions were cleaned, finely slivered, and held separately, then everything else was washed and midribs removed and cut in cross section into roughly 1/2″ slices.

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When the onion was a nice toffee color I added the chopped green alliums, cooked about another five minutes, then added the other greens and some more olive oil along with about a teaspoon of salt. Don’t stint on the olive oil. You want sautéed flavor, not steamed flavor.  The heat was turned up to medium and the whole mass stirred and turned with a wide wooden spoon about every five minutes to keep it cooking evenly. As soon as the greens were in the pan I ground the sun dried tomatoes into small powdery chunks in the blender and added them to the wok. They rehydrated well enough in the moisture from the leaves.  Keep cooking until the greens are soft when chewed.

When you have a darkened dense mass of soft greens, put the whole business in the food processor and grind to the finest paste that you can achieve. Taste. You want it on the salty side, because that helps with preservation and it’s going to be diluted later. Add more salt if needed. I prefer to use fish sauce rather than salt to season at this point because it adds a wonderful rich savor. I used about a tablespoon. Don’t use this if you might be serving vegetarians.

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Now cool your soup paste and pack it into one-cup containers, each of which makes about a quart of finished soup. Coat the top with olive oil, push lids on tightly, and freeze.

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When ready to use, put a quart of any kind of salt-free or low-salt broth you like in a saucepan, add a cup of soup paste, and simmer until thawed. Correct the texture with a stick blender if it needs smoothing out. Taste for seasoning and adjust in any way you like. The caramelized onions, deeply sautéed greens, and fish sauce gave a meaty-umami flavor to the potful I made for lunch today, so I salted to taste and added a swirl of fat from my homemade bacon and a generous sprinkling of thyme leaves, a meaty-umami herb if ever there was one. Yum. With toasted buttered slices of my low-carb fake-o cornbread, it made a perfect light healthy Thanksgiving brunch to lead into the excesses to come at dinner.

This basic formula can be varied endlessly according to what you like and have available. If you serve vegans at your table, using some miso rather than fish sauce and good olive oil for the final swirl with water or vegetable broth as the liquid would suit their needs while fully satisfying the omnivores. If you don’t like the brownish color, leave the tomatoes out and it will be more green. Pan-grilled small oyster or other mushrooms would make a good garnish. A fried or poached egg adds tremendous heft to soup if you want a richer meal, or some bacon lardons fried crisp would satisfy any ardent carnivore with a minimum of actual meat. You can add cow or coconut cream for a cream soup (try a toss of chopped fresh tarragon for the final garnish,) or some leftover tomato sauce for interesting tartness, or finish it with a handful of good freshly grated Parmesan along with olive oil and let the cheese dissolve in the hot soup. For a more Cretan effect, use crumbled feta and olive oil on top.  There are a hundred possibilities and you can get any of them from freezer to table in well under 20 minutes. Serve any kind of bready stuff that suits your diet alongside, and you and your table mates will be full. I say that a quart of soup is two servings, but I understand that normal people can serve three or four with a quart. Know your family’s tastes.

In my opinion the celery is necessary rather than optional, and I strongly advise including at least a small portion of bitter greens (dandelion and chicory in this case.) When making mixed greens, I’ve often noticed that a savory-meaty element is lost if I don’t include some bitter greens. The proportion is small and the final product isn’t bitter and is enjoyed be people who don’t like strong greens in other contexts. Besides, they’re so damn good for you.

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