For man of us, winter means repeatedly putting on and taking off parkas, scarves, hats and gloves as a barrier to the damp and frigid temperatures. That irksome chore, coupled with shoveling snow and other cold weather activities, can build up quite an appetite. You crave hearty fare to keep warm. Hibernating sometimes seems tempting.
Then suddenly the weather turns warmer. Heavy coats are shoved back in the closet and you don’t need stick-to-your ribs soups, because you want your ribs to show. Young asparagus shoot up in the garden, and the air in farmers markets is perfumed with sweet berries and aromatic herbs. That creamy seafood chowder or robust broccoli-Cheddar bisque no longer seems so tempting. It’s now the season for lighter fare.
When making soups in spring, I look for the best seasonal and local ingredients available. Bright colors remind me of the renewal the season promises. If the first baskets of strawberries you come upon aren’t fragrant and bright red all the way through, especially when using them in a puréed soup with yogurt, forget them for at least a week. The color will be insipid pink and so will the taste.
Similarly, if the fresh peas are still big and mealy and the asparagus aren’t ramrod straight, ditto. I want my soups to shout out their flavor. And, other than late summer gazpachos, I generally gravitate toward smooth, light-textured soups that rarely include heavy cream. Coconut milk, however, is a useful and tasty liquid that is often used in tropical climates and warm weather soup.
We are fortunate that the number and quality of farmers markets have multiplied across the country and can often be found close by. Supporting local farmers and industries helps everyone. These families and workers in the community can earn a decent living and generally reward us by selling foods that taste better than those trucked or flown from thousands of miles away. There is also less chance the produce will be wilted, engineered or sprayed.
Another benefit of buying locally-grown produce is that rarely is it overly refrigerated. If it’s still warm from the sun, you might be tempted to sample it on the way home. When used in a timely fashion, you can generally leave it out on the counter.
Although I still serve hot soups in the spring, many are equally appealing at room temperature or somewhat chilled. That’s true for both the pea and asparagus soups. While the fresh strawberry soup below is always served chilled, along with an optional glass of sparkling rosé added before the soup is served, I find the taste of delicate ingredients can be blunted when served icy cold.
Buying Imperfect Produce
When buying seasonal fruits and vegetables, choosing those items that are less than perfect can be a great way to save money. In a world where consumers have been led to believe only picture perfect is desirable, irregularly shaped and mildly blemished products are often cast aside and marked down. The fact is, unless they are truly rotten or have blemishes that can’t be pared away and discarded, it won’t matter, especially when the ingredients will be cut up and/or puréed. They will still taste and look good.
If you shop later in the day, vendors want to sell their day’s crops, and the price of blemished fruits and vegetables is often reduced. So as long as what you buy is not truly rotten and unsafe, no one will know how it started once the soup is made. But do some quick math: if you’re paying for a lot of waste — even if the price is cheap — it probably isn’t a bargain.
Make It Smooth
In winter, I typically reach for my food processor or an immersion stick to make thicker, chunkier soups. By spring, my favorite piece of equipment is usually a good electric blender. The Cuisinart Hurricane is not the top of the company’s line, but easily gets the job done. It’s especially helpful when I want a totally smooth texture or I need to a purée soup that has more liquids than solids.
Mary Rodgers, director of marketing communications for Cuisinart and Waring, both owned by Stamford, CT-based Conair Corp., explained that because an electric blender spins at more than 17,000 revolutions per minute, which is faster than a food processor, it emulsifies the ingredients and holds them in suspension, thus creating that velvety finish.
I first learned to make fresh pea soup years ago in France. Back then, once the peas were cooked until soft, they were either poured into a fine strainer and mashed against the wire mesh basket or passed through a food mill to remove the unappealing outside skins. With the help of an electric blender, straining is generally no longer necessary. Although fibrous asparagus are easily puréed until smooth, I still break off and discard the woody ends before cooking the spears.
A word of caution about puréeing soups in a blender: the vegetables in both green soups below are simmered in stock until tender before they are transferred to the blender jar in batches. Take care that the lid is tightly sealed, and hold it down with a towel so that when you turn on the motor and the liquid rises, you aren’t splattered with hot soup. It’s helpful to start on low and then raise the speed to high. For the most vibrant green color, make the soup as close to when you’ll eat it as possible. It will still taste delicious a day or two later, but oxidation can change the color’s hue.
Of Garnishes And Cheese
No matter the season, adding a garnish not only makes the final presentation more appealing, it gives a clue to the soup’s main ingredients. When peas or asparagus are cooked and puréed, the soups end up about the same color and texture. It’s simple to differentiate them by adding extra peas or asparagus tips before serving.
Additionally, herbs can make or break the final flavor but their tastes can be elusive, especially when combined. Here, again, a clue is useful. A few feathery chervil leaves with hints of anise, snipped lengths of fresh chives as well as tiny mint leaves or long thin tarragon leaves all enhance a soup’s appearance and reveal the more subtle tastes. Add them just before serving so their delicate beauty doesn’t wilt.
Cheese is also a tasty option to enhance spring soups. Rather than making classic pesto with basil and pine nuts for my asparagus soup, I created a more subtle, springy tarragon-mint version that includes aged Manchego and roasted pistachios. I prefer it served at room temperature so the different flavors melt into the soup.
Crunchy French tuiles are another cheesy garnish. They look like tiles and are made with cheese melted on a cookie sheet in the oven, then laid over a rolling pin to cool. They are delectable. As these are spring soups, sometimes I even use a few flowers as a garnish. Marigolds and baby roses are fine. Where I used chives, I could have also added chive flowers. The only caveat is to make sure that whatever you put in your soup is edible.
Finally, think creatively about how you serve your soups. Should you choose mugs versus small or large bowls? All will work; go with what you have, mixing and matching, if necessary. Small 3-ounce shooter glasses work for a soup hors d’oeuvres or as a light finale to a meal, like the strawberry-yogurt soup. Demitasse cups are also appealing.
It may be spring, but it’s still a great season for soup.
Chilled Strawberry-Ginger Soup
This luscious pink soup is flavored with subtle notes of ginger, vanilla and mint then finished with a shot of sparkling rosé, sliced berries and small mint leaves. It’s a festive soup to serve as an aperitif or hors d’oeuvre, for lunch or afternoon snack, or as a light finale for a warm weather meal when accompanied by gingersnaps or other cookies.
Makes 3 cups: Serves 4 for hors d’oeuvres; 2-3 as a luncheon soup
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced (3 cups), a few small berries reserved for garnish
1 cup thick 2 percent Greek yogurt, plus a little more for garnish
¼ cup honey
¼ cup roughly chopped mint leaves, plus small leaves for garnish
¼ cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp ground ginger
3-4 Tbsp sparkling rosé wine or champagne
In an electric blender, combine the strawberries, yogurt, honey, mint, orange juice, vanilla and ginger; purée until completely smooth. Chill for 2 hours.
To serve, thinly slice the remaining berries lengthwise. Ladle the soup into small bowls or decorative glasses. Pour about a tablespoon of sparkling rosé around the outside of each cup or bowl, add a few strawberry slices and small mint leaves, and serve with a small glass of the sparkling wine, if desired.
Fresh Asparagus Soup With Chervil And Mint-Tarragon-Manchego Pesto
For a celebration of spring flavors, try this fresh asparagus soup scented with leeks and chervil. It’s complemented with tarragon-mint pesto made with pistachios and aged Manchego, which is drier and easier to shred. An electric blender transforms the fibrous asparagus into a smooth texture. A small amount of rice is a great thickener that doesn’t change the flavor.
Mint-Tarragon Manchego Pesto recipe follows
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 cups sliced white and pale green parts of leeks (2-3 medium)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp uncooked white rice
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1¾ lbs young asparagus, woody ends snapped off
½ cup chervil leaves, chopped, plus a few leaves for garnish
1 cup water, if needed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Tarragon leaves, for garnish
In a large heavy pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Stir in the leeks and garlic, cover and sweat until softened, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rice and stock, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, recover and cook until the rice is tender, about 30 minutes.
Prepare the pesto (below) and cut off the tips of the asparagus, blanch or steam until just tender, drain and shock with cold water. Pat dry and set aside.
Chop the remaining asparagus into 1-in. pieces, add to the pot and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the chervil.
Transfer half of the soup to an electric blender. Cover tightly with the lid, holding it in place with a towel, and purée until completely smooth. Return to a clean pot. Repeat with the remaining soup and add to the pot. Add the reserved asparagus tips, along with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste; heat until hot. Divide the soup among six bowls. Add a generous tablespoon of pesto to each bowl, sprinkle on a few chervil leaves and serve.
Pistachio Pesto With Manchego, Tarragon And Mint
Makes about 1 cup
2 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ cup shelled, roasted and salted pistachios nuts
1 cup loosely packed mint leaves
1 cup loosely packed tarragon leaves
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup shredded Manchego cheese, preferably aged about 9 months
½ tsp salt, if needed
In a food processor, pulse the garlic until chopped.
Add the pistachios, mint, tarragon, lemon juice and zest and pulse until the nuts are finely chopped.
Slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube and process until blended.
Add the cheese, pulse a few times to blend. Taste and add salt, if needed.
Spring Green Pea Soup with Parmesan Tuiles
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1 small head Boston or Bibb lettuce, cored and julienned (about 3 cups loosely packed)
6 cups shelled fresh peas (about 6 lbs pods) or 6 cups defrosted frozen Petite peas ½ cup reserved for final garnish
1 ½ tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp sugar, or more as needed
½+ tsp ground cardamom
3 cups chicken stock
Finely chopped chives
3 oz boiled ham, cut into fine dice (optional)
Make the Parmesan tuiles (below)
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, stir in the shallots and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the lettuce, peas, salt, sugar and cardamom; cover the pan and simmer until the peas are tender, about 10 minutes.
Transfer the peas to the bowl of an electric blender in two batches. Starting on low speed, and then turning to high, purée until the soup is smooth, holding the lid tightly with a towel. Return to a clean pan.
Add the ham, chives and reserved peas. Taste to adjust the seasonings. Ladle the soup into bowls, or chill before serving. Serve with Parmesan tuiles.