When I arrived in the US at age 21, more years ago than all the digits on your hands and feet, I was in for a culinary disappointment, if not a culture shock.
Indeed, the shock was on the other foot, if weak puns are permitted. My new American friends not only had to deal with my innocent observation that all Caucasians look alike (have you ever been to upstate New York?), they had to struggle with misconceptions of my life in an adobe hut instead of a high rise apartment (like Columbus, they got the continent and the Indian wrong, again).
Back in the day, vegetarians were a rare and suspect breed, evident from the exclusively carnivorous offerings on every menu. I quickly tired of grilled cheese sandwiches and Dannon fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. As for the salads! I cannot adequately express my disdain for the pointless scraps of iceberg lettuce, forlorn cherry tomatoes few and far between, and indistinguishable odd and ends all drowned in some fatty mess that instantly cancelled any dubious benefit of this so-called health food (mesclun was unheard of at the time). After an entire week of eating raw cauliflower and broccoli in salads at one memorable Gordon Conference in New Hampshire (notwithstanding the awesome science!), I finally informed the chef that the difference between a vegetarian and a goat was that only the latter did not need their food cooked.
In the midst of this culinary calamity, my housemate Catherine- a lovely British-American transplant- gave me the Moosewood cookbook. Mollie Katzen was the diva of experimental vegetarian cuisine in nearby Ithaca, with a restaurant of the same name. Inspired to spread my fledgling wings in our tiny apartment kitchen, I worked through her recipes from buttermilk beet borscht with its explosive color and tangy goodness to Yucatan salsa and Mediterranean ratatouille. It was a heady time. We held semi-pretentious soirees with professors and students jammed into our apartment and Catherine holding forth as the original social diva. I still have the cookbook with Catherine’s inscription:
So when a friend asked about soups that delivered comfort and sustenance, my thoughts went back to my first cookbook and this enchanted broccoli soup:
It is a simple recipe, that you can dress up or down as you wish.
- You will need a couple of broccoli crowns, half of a large, sweet onion, a green pepper and a couple of celery sticks if they are handy. Some low-salt vegetable stock would be nice, although I’ve substituted plain water. These days I use light cream in place of heavy, to compensate for my slothful metabolism.
- Dice the veggies and keep them handy:
- Heat together, a large pat of butter (1-2 tbs) and a drizzling of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot. The oil keeps the butter from burning. Add a bay leaf or two and let sizzle.
- Add the diced onions and let sweat on medium heat until translucent (5 minutes or so).
- Add the remainder of chopped vegetables and continue to cook on low heat for a few more minutes until the broccoli is bright green.
- Add enough vegetable stock to cover the veggies. You could substitute with water, other mildly flavored stock or a combination. I estimate using about a cup and half of vegetable stock and half cup of water. (In actuality, I poured the stock directly out of a handy carton). Season with coarse salt, cover, and let simmer. It should look like this in about 10 minutes:
- Bring out the immersion blender (or transfer to a blender jar in manageable aliquots). Purée until nicely smooth.
- Gently stir in about a cup of light cream, milk or whisk in a mild yogurt. The idea is to infuse the soup with creaminess to your taste and dilute it to a thickness that appeals. Add more salt if needed, and season with freshly ground black pepper, a few drops of tamari (soy) sauce and a dash of balsamic vinegar for balance. Do not overdo the vinegar. Do not bring to a boil, but continue to heat gently until your home is filled with a delicious, comforting aroma.
- Meanwhile, prepare the toppings. Chiffonade some basil leaves (roll the leaves into a cigar shape then slice thinly), slice some scallions/green onions on a thin bias, and break the reserved broccoli into tiny florets (did I forget to remind you to reserve some? oops). You can steam the little florets, but I decided to do a quick sauté on high heat which endowed them with intriguing brown flecks amidst the brilliant green.
Of course, I topped mine with crushed red pepper flakes! Serve with a slice (or two) of warm garlic bread. The bread business is consigned to my husband who roasts a head of garlic, mashes it in butter and slathers in on to slices before warming it, foil wrapped, in a low oven.
Catherine would have approved. Oh, if you were curious: Catherine’s inscription on my book ends with the Bengali words “Ami Tumarke Bhalo bashe”. Google Translate is not needed for those universal words of affection, “I love you”.
Much comfort and sustenance to all!