THE CALIFORNIA COOK
Ready to get fresh? Time to flirt with spring soups
Seasonal vegetables inspire vibrant bisques, chowders and broths.
A silky chilled bisque of English peas is topped with crab and slivers of fresh mint. (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
This is the season when a young man's fancy turns to love, but I can't stop thinking about soup.
Maybe, as my daughter tells me, it's a sign of advancing age. But I think this obsession has more to do with spring vegetables showing up in the markets.
During the chilly winter months, cooks have had to work to get flavor -- roasting, caramelizing, simmering for hours. Now, with all of this vibrant spring produce at our fingertips, that same intensity of taste is ours for the asking.
Green garlic slender as scallions, little artichokes no bigger than a billiard ball, potatoes with skins so tender you can rub them off with a thumbnail -- the farmers markets are full of soup fixings just waiting for a pot. Just add water, indeed.
Spring soups made from these kinds of ingredients come together in a flash. They can be made low in calories and even vegetarian without diminishment of flavor.
And they allow all kinds of improvisation. By following a few broad guidelines, you can make a spring soup from just about any vegetable you choose from the farm stall or pluck from the garden.
For the sake of simplicity, let's focus on three types of soup: We'll call them broths, chowders and bisques. In broths, the vegetables are suspended in a clear soup. In chowders, they are coarsely puréed so the soup is thick but chunky. In bisques, the purée is so silky smooth the texture is almost creamy.
These definitions are based on classical precepts but are by no means textbook. Think of them as general descriptions that will adapt to suit many different ingredients. Unless you're a real stickler, the fact that you won't find them in Escoffier shouldn't detract from your enjoyment one bit.
Broth with character
A BROTH is the simplest and most adaptable. Keep the stock fairly simple and straightforward to avoid overwhelming the flavor of the vegetables. Chicken, vegetable or fish stocks are good. Even better is a last-minute stock created by simmering the vegetable peelings in a weak broth or water.
You can use most any spring vegetable -- asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, peas, even delicate greens. If you're only using one or two vegetables, cook them in the broth; they'll lend their character to it. But if you're using more than a couple, blanch the vegetables separately before adding them to the soup to keep them from blurring and losing their distinction (in this case, it's too many vegetables that will spoil the broth).
Most of the time you'll want to include a starch of some kind to give the broth a little more substance. New potatoes will work well, and so will pasta or rice. Cook them before adding them to the soup -- otherwise, they'll cloud the broth.
In the shrimp and artichoke soup recipe, the starch is a little fancier -- light ricotta gnocchi with fresh herbs. It sounds complicated, but making it is simple: Beat together a stiff batter and then roll it into balls between your hands.
Gnocchi cook in less than a minute. When you add them to the boiling water, they'll sink straight to the bottom. But within 20 to 30 seconds, they'll lighten and begin to bob to the top. When they stay there -- 45 to 60 seconds -- remove them with a strainer and cook the next batch.
The stock is even easier. Simply simmer shrimp shells with some aromatics and the trimmings from the fresh herbs you used in the gnocchi. It'll be rich and fragrant in about half an hour.
Chowders, our second category of spring soup, are almost as simple to make. Cook potatoes and one or two other vegetables in a broth, then purée them just enough to make a chunky mix.
There are a couple of tricks here. First, make sure the ingredients are cut to roughly the same size so they'll cook and purée in about the same amount of time. Most important, when it comes to puréeing, remember that less is more. You want to purée just enough to release starches that will thicken the broth. But there should be easily identifiable chunks of vegetable left in the soup.
This is most easily done with an immersion blender -- one of those wands that you submerge in the soup pot. With this piece of equipment, you can see what the texture is and stop puréeing when you've got it just right. But you can also purée the soup with a food processor or blender as long as you keep it on pulse. Just two or three flicks of the switch should be enough. And, in a pinch, you can use an old-fashioned wire potato masher.