I feel the need for some green in me, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s all very well chowing down on sugar and coconuts and chocolate – and God help me, it’s good – but it’s not exactly lunch. So here’s to soup. And the sweet fug of caramelizing onions, the searing of greens, a few cooling drops of extra virgin olive oil.
I grew up with a book called The Vegetarian Epicure, though no one as far as I could tell was a vegetarian. Omnivores all, we nonetheless used this book a lot. It was plain and unpretentious with sweet illustrations reminiscent of a children’s book from the Seventies, with easy to follow recipes. In fact it was from these pages that I made my very first dessert; a summer fruit tart – pastry smothered in lemony, zesty cream cheese, with fruit piled on top. I made this endlessly, whatever the season. But occasionally, if it all got too much, I’d turn to the soup section.
Soup was a big thing with us. Onions were cheap, as were potatoes (and of course there was potato water). Greens you could pull up in the neighbour’s garden. The big pan of spitting, lurching soup, the calm silence of the soup bowl, a handful of toughened bread and melting clumps of butter. The book was thumbed to oblivion, daubed with grease and finally hung by a thread. What I particularly liked about it were the intros, the preamble to the thing itself; it had a way of leading you to the subject like a firm but friendly teacher. At the back of the book, most intriguingly to me, was the author’s bio. Apparently, she was doing this book to fund her studies in film at UCLA (wherever that was). Anna Thomas was someone in print only. She had no bearing on my actual life.
So, imagine the oddity, the thrill, of switching on the radio and hearing Anna Thomas speak. It was hard not to feel a sense of possession; she was ‘mine.’ And she was talking about soup. I was right back in our kitchen in Devon with the long windows and the trestle table and other people’s small gardens down below. Except I was here, in LA, with Anna Thomas. I had got here where she was, unthinkingly. I was impossible that day, apparently. In the end, I had to do the only thing that made sense, the only thing that would shut me up: I opened the book and made soup.
This recipe calls for chard and spinach, but I have also used mustard, collard and turnip greens to good effect. Also, not everyone likes chard’s rather bullying strength. If you don’t want to use rice, the creaminess can come from other sources, such as cooked squash, potato, parsnip or Jerusalem artichoke. The onion jam is simply onions taken to the very edge of burnt. You want some crispness without too much charring. The trick is to leave them for a very long time over a low heat until they become sticky and sweet.
Adapted (and some liberties taken) from Anna Thomas, Eating Well
2 glugs of olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 onions, sliced into half moons
2 tbs plus 3 cups (750ml) of water
¼ cup (50g) of arborio rice
1 bunch of green chard (about 1lb)
About 14 cups/12 oz/340g (your average bag) of gently packed spinach/greens
4 cups (1litre) of vegetable broth or potato water
Big pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tbs of lemon juice, or more to taste
Heat 2 glugs of oil in a large skillet/frying pan over a moderate heat. Add onions and a pinch of sea salt; cook until the onions go translucent. Reduce the heat to very low, add 2 tablespoons of water and cover. Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then only occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, at least 25 to 30 minutes. Take a handful and put to one side for use as your garnish.
Rice: Meanwhile, combine the remaining 3 cups (750ml) water with a pinch of sea salt in a soup pot; add the rice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Trim the white ribs out of the chard (save for another use, such as to add to a stir-fry or other soup). Coarsely chop the chard and spinach or other greens. When the onions are caramelized and ready, stir a little of the simmering liquid from the rice (or whatever you have to hand) into them; add the greens to the onions, give it all a stir, and then add the broth and cayenne. Add the rice here if you are using, or if not then the starch of your choice, or nothing. Return to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring once, until the spinach is tender but still bright green, about 5-10 minutes more.
Return the handful of onions to a pan to crisp up. Puree the soup in the pot with a hand-held blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches (return it to the pot). Stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice, if you like. Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of olive oil and a few strands of the onion jam. Hot bread is good here, of course.