In our front yard, a growing patch of vegetables started three springs ago is showing signs of fullness. Cherry tomato vines clamber up the sides of the rock wall, basking red and yellow fruit in the sun. Potatoes send tendrils from the soil beneath the baby palm, where they live as the good neighbors we all are on our block. The bean plants will need staking for the first time, and a black pepper plant that I thought had passed on has made a surprise, and welcome, reappearance.
Nothing makes a kitchen happier than fresh vegetables, and never moreso than those you grow yourself. Something visceral happens when you pick, clean, prepare and eat vegetables from plants you have grown. It connects to our own ancient souls; those lines of ancestors who kept themselves and their families fed before grocery stores, refrigeration, vendors, bazaars, traders, hunting and gathering, and so on back to the dawn of agriculture.
We can't all be gardeners, and not everyone wants to be, but for those who are interested, urban gardening is rewarding and, once you are into it, surprisingly easy to do. It's as if the plaintives we commonly put up against the very idea -- not enough room, not enough time, have to take kids and pets into account, don't know where to start -- suspend themselves as the first tendrils poke out of the soil (often after a few failed attempts). There are numerous resources to learn which food plants are suitable for home growing in your area, techniques to create a healthy environment for these living beings including space even when that is at a premium, and groups to meet with to learn, to share, and, most importantly, to garden together.
Once our garden starts yielding, the question arises what to do with our harvest. Canning and freezing preserve summer bounty, but often spring vegetables are so fresh and tender that we want to utilize them right from the garden. Fresh lettuces enliven salad bowls from a luncheon Cobb to a side salad with Manchego and dates, from cherry tomatoes to chopped greens. We simmer green beans with tomatoes, lemon andoregano and sprinkle potatoes with sumac. We serve vegetables with pasta hot and cold. But perhaps the ultimate use for fresh spring vegetables is grandma's vegetable soup.
Veggie soup is one of the ultimate comfort foods, and so it should be. The ingredients are put forth by Mother Earth with a love matched only by that of the kitchen chef putting them into a pot. Veggie soup is cooked slow to allow those bright, fresh flavors to develop in mellow concert. This soup takes advantage of produce common to the home garden, but all of the ingredients will be available at a farmer's market or supermarket. This soup is full of traditional flavors, but once you start making vegetable soup, you will find yourself experimenting with the mix of veggies that go into it. Because this is a master recipe, it will withstand almost anything you add to it, from turnips to escarole, from red bell pepper to Swiss chard, based on what you and your family grow and like to eat.
Veggie soup is the ultimate lunch whether dished into wide bowls for a table set with fresh linens or poured from a thermos at a worksite. The classic accompaniment for vegetable soup is grilled cheese, but in our urban home, in deference to my grandmother whose recipe this is adapted from, we often serve our veggie soup with squares of date nut bread spread with honeyed cream cheese. However you serve it, vegetable soup is a pleasure to prepare that gives the gift of anticipation as it slow simmers on the stovetop throughout the morning. From anticipation proceeds gratitude, and that is the ultimate lesson, responsibility, and blessing of the springtime garden and the meals that result from it.
Spring Vegetable Soup
Use safely home-canned tomatoes if you can. Other than the onion, cut the vegetables to reflect their natural shape: carrots are round, zucchini and celery are moons, etc.
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4" coins
2 ribs celery, rinsed and cut into 1/4" crescent moons
1 medium zucchini, rinsed and cut into 1/4" half-moons
1/2 pound fresh green beans
1/2 pound fresh baby potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or French Red
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 pint canned tomatoes or 1 14-1/2 can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/4 cup dried pasta, such as broken spaghetti, alphabets, or little stars,
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
- Pick through the green beans and snap off any vines, rough ends, or dark spots. Roughly chop the green beans into bite-sized pieces. Remove any eyes, brown spots, or sprouts from the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into rounds. Add the potato rounds into the colander containing the green beans. Rinse the potatoes and green beans under cool water.
- Lightly sprinkle the green beans and potatoes with salt, toss to coat, and place in the sink to drain.
- Cover the bottom of a large soup pot with a five count of olive oil. Heat the oil over medium-low heat until shimmering, approximately 2 minutes.
- Carefully add the onion to the olive oil and stir to coat. Cook the onion over medium-low heat until it starts to turn translucent, approximately 4 minutes.
- Once the onion starts to turn translucent, add the carrots and celery to the onion in the pot. Lightly sprinkle the vegetables with salt. Gently turn the vegetables to mix and cook over medium low just until the vegetables start to sweat, approximately 5 minutes.
- Open the tomatoes and gently pour into the soup pot. Measure out the stock and pour a bit into the tomato jar/can. Swirl to get all of the canned tomatoes and pour into the pot. Pour the remainder of the measured stock into the pot.
- Stir the vegetables and stock together.
- Gently shake the colander containing the green beans and potatoes to express any collected water. Gently add the potatoes and green beans to the mixture in the soup pot.
- Gently pour cold water into the soup pot to cover the vegetable-stock mixture by about an inch. Add several grindings of black pepper to the mixture in the soup pot.
- Place the lid on the soup pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, approximately two hours.
- After two hours, add the corn, pasta, parsley, and oregano to the soup pot. Stir the mixture together. Add more water or stock if warranted; the mixture should be thick and fragrant but not thin.
- Cover the soup pot and cover over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and adding water or stock as needed, until all of the vegetables are tender and the soup is fragrant, approximately 1 hour.
- Turn off the burner. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper or dried herbs as warranted, and serve the soup while hot.