Mugwort Soup, Potage or Cream

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This is a charming spring soup that can be prepared and served three different ways. It can be a rough country soup, a robust puree or a subtle and warming cream soup. Either way, it has a very unique flavor.

Blanch in boiling, salted water for one minute :

8 cups loosely packed mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) leaves, collected early to mid-spring

Drain, rinse immediately with cold water, then squeeze free of liquid and allow to dry.

Bring to a simmer :

8 cups chicken or strong (but not roasted) vegetable stock

2 fresh bay leaves (optional)

Add :

1 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed

1 tsp ground ginger or several thin slices of fresh ginger root

freshly ground white or black pepper to taste

4 oz celery, diced

Simmer for 5 minutes, then add :

12 oz potato, peeled (or not) and diced

Simmer for 20 minutes, then add :

The prepared mugwort, finely chopped

1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

The soup can be served as is. If that is your plan, you may wish to make the chopping of the celery and potato more uniform. If I am serving it like this I will keep it more rustic, like a rough country soup made quickly at the end of the working day. In fact, that is exactly what this is, a soup that takes only an hour or so in total and most of that spent simmering.

Alternatively, you can puree it. Pureeing will give you a complex bright olive green soup that is an intriguing first course for a spring meal. It’s equally great as just plain eating, but it has a mysterious flavor that might have your local foodies scratching their beards to describe. I like to think of it as a mix between parsley and sage, but not quite that… although handling the plant itself also makes me think of those two herbs.

Another option would be to puree, then add :

2 tbs butter

1/2 cup light cream

This makes for an even more elusive tasting soup, which can be garnished very nicely with bright violet flowers and bittercress pods, if you like, or forsythia blossoms and chives. A perfect soup from early to mid-spring.

Cream of Roasted Cauliflower Soup

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Cream of roasted cauliflower soup, garnished with roasted cauliflower florets, cilantro and scallion greens.

This is relatively complicated soup to prepare, but well worth the effort. It basically consists of three separate procedures : roasting the cauliflower, toasting and grinding the spices, and composing and pureeing the soup. You could just as well serve this soup rustic-style (without pureeing), but I think its’ worth the extra time and energy to puree for a more elegant soup, one that would happily grace the most sophisticated table. The fact that it is so simple, rich and creamy and also vegan may come as a surprise to some–it’s a great dish to introduce to people who may be skeptical about how deep a flavor one can get from healthy, vegetable-based cuisine.

First, prepare Roasted Cauliflower & Cauliflower Greens using a 2 pound head of cauliflower. This can be done ahead of time, as far in advance as a couple of days. You may try that, I usually can’t resist gobbling up the roast cauliflower as is, so I have to move quickly if I’m making the soup!

Second, make the spice mix.

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Spice mix for cream of roasted cauliflower soup : coriander, fennel, cumin, urad dal.

Place in a small skillet over medium-low heat :

1 tsp whole fennel seed

2 tsp whole cumin seed

1 tsp whole coriander seed

1 tsp urad dal (white gram bean) (optional)

Toast the spices until slightly colored and aromatic. Whole spice seeds burn easily, so keep a close eye on them and shake the pan occasionally. Allow to cool and then grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Thirdly, assemble the soup.

In a large saucepan or deep sautée pan with raised sides, bring to heat over medium heat :

2-3 tbs olive oil

Add :

5 oz celery, chopped fine

6 oz onion, chopped fine

2 oz scallions (white parts only), chopped fine

(You could just as easily use another mix of onions here, providing they come out to about the same weight. A good option would be a mix of shallots and spanish onions, or mix of leeks and onions, or ramps and scallions, etc. Look for a total of 8-10 oz. for best flavor)

Sautée, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or so, then add :

2 oz chiles, chopped fine

Sautée, stirring occasionally, for another ten minutes or so, or until all the vegetables are tender.

Add and quickly stir in :

2 tbs flour

Cook for one or two minutes to remove the raw flour taste.

Add, slowly, one half cup at a time, stirring all the while :

8 cups of vegetable stock (or whatever stock is handy/preferred)

Bring the soup to a simmer.

Add the ground spice mix to the soup. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper (optional) to taste.

Chop the roasted cauliflower and greens into small pieces, reserving any if desired to use as a garnish. Add to the soup.

Simmer at a low to medium simmer for 30 minutes or so, until all the vegetables are nicely tender and the liquid has reduced a bit.

Allow to cool.

Puree the soup in small batches. If a completely emulsified soup is desired, pass the soup through a metal strainer or cheesecloth.

Return the pureed soup to heat before serving. Adjust for seasonings. If the soup is too thin, cook to reduce to the desired consistency.

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Serve this soup as hot as possible. It can be prepared in advance and served days later if desired.

The spices used give this soup a mellow, complex flavor that accentuates the natural taste of the cauliflower. When serving, choose garnishes that add an element of sharpness or freshness to the soup. Of course, if you have reserved any small florets of roasted cauliflower, you can add those. I usually heap them in the center of the bowl and then add greenery around them. Thinly-sliced scallion greens or field garlic, cilantro or another fresh green herb, raw or prepared chiles are all excellent choices. A dusting of paprika or fresh ground chile powder will show up nicely against the creamy beige of the soup, as will black sesame or nigella seeds.

Though it seems deceptively simple (if somewhat elaborate in preparation) in terms of ingredients, this is really a very rich and hearty soup perfect for the end of winter. One can prepare many delicious “cream of” vegetable soups in a similar fashion, choosing spices and seasonings most appropriate to the vegetables involved, without ever desiring to add actual cream to the dish.

Onion Beer & Cheese Soup

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Sautée in 3 tbs oil or butter over low to medium heat :

8 oz. green vidalia onions, white parts only, chopped. You could also use leeks or the white parts of scallions.

1 oz garlic, minced

Cook the onions until they become wilted and nearly tender. Bring the heat to medium.

Add :

2 tbs all-purpose flour

Stir and cook for two minutes or so, until the floury taste is gone. Maintain a medium heat.

Slowly add, 1/4 cup or so at a time, stirring all the while and incorporating the liquids into the soup :

1 1/2 cups beer (room temperature if possible)

1 1/2 cups stock (warm or room temperature if possible)

At first this will be like making a roux or a gravy, but gradually something resembling a soup begins to emerge. Cook for as long as required until the onions are tender and the soup seems close to thick enough to serve. As quickly as possible, working in small batches, blend the soup in a blender or food processor. Return to pot, return to heat, then add :

1/2 – 1 cup freshly shredded SHARP cheddar cheese.

1 tbs mustard powder

Dash of maggi or golden mountain seasoning or worcestershire sauce (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt the cheese and reduce the soup (if needed) to the desired serving consistency. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

Serve as hot and as quickly as possible and garnish with something bright and spicy. In the above photo, I’ve used spicy Vietnamese style pickled carrots and pickled chopped cherry peppers. Also good are diced raw hot chiles and cilantro, or spring onion and sriracha.

Key : The key to this recipe is in the selection of the beer : in order to avoid either excessive bitterness or sweetness, one wants a well-balanced brew that is mild in its’ character. So if you go with a pale ale, avoid excessively hoppy ones. Lager? Stay away from over-sweet or malty beers. Wheat beer? Don’t pick one that has strong citrus or spice notes or is sugary sweet.