Monday, March 3, 2014

End-of-Winter Vegetable Soup with Farro

I have christened the soup we had for dinner last night "End-of-Winter Soup".  Sadly, the name reflects my wishes more than the reality of the weather.  Yes, it is March...and we should be beginning to warm up, but this has been such a strange winter that I don't hold out too much hope that winter is actually done.  Certainly soup was an appropriate dinner choice in the context of yesterday's weather:  It was the coldest it has been all year. Soup...or a braise...or something similarly warming...was definitely in order.  

It was actually the contents of my vegetable drawer that caused me to think of my soup as "end of winter".  I knew that I ought to be able to come up with something for dinner without making a trip to the store...but my vegetable crisper was filled with lots of odds and one thing leapt out.  Since it was almost entirely root vegetables, it really did look to me like the culinary remains of winter.  I had singletons of parsnip and celery root...a couple of kohlrabi (from a bunch purchased to test a recipe which only called for one...)...a big bag of carrots (I always have carrots)...and--on the counter—a scrawny sweet potato.  I also had some winter squash and cauliflower, but I decided I really wanted to use up the lonely sweet potato, parsnip and celery root.  Soup was the perfect solution. 

Several years ago I taught a few classes at my local Williams-Sonoma.  The classes were a bit different than those that I normally teach in that I was given a list of topics to choose from and then asked to teach recipes that had already been developed for Williams-Sonoma. (In all of my other classes I propose my own topics and choose my own recipes—often recipes I have developed myself.)  I have kept many of these Williams-Sonoma recipes in my repertoire...tweaking them as time has gone by.  The inspiration for yesterday's soup was one of those recipes:  a simple vegetable barley soup developed by Joanne Weir.  

As I looked at the original recipe so I could credit it for this post, I noticed that I have changed it so much over the years that it is not really recognizable any more.  Even if I made it with the same list of vegetables and herbs...and used pearled barley instead of wouldn't be.  But I wanted to mention it for a couple of reasons.  First, I always want to credit inspiration.  Inspiration is elusive...and it always means so much when I hear that I have inspired someone else. I want to try and do the same for others.  But secondly, and probably of more interest to readers, is that I think the changes will be instructive for anyone wanting to make a soup with the current contents of their pantry. 

The first thing I changed was to begin the soup by sweating some onion in some melted butter. As far as I am concerned, this is pretty much the only way to begin making soup.  Cooking onions (or leeks...or shallots....) in a generous quantity of fat (butter, rendered bacon fat, olive oil, etc.) until softened infuses the fat with the sweet flavor of the onions.  The fat then carries this flavor throughout the soup, giving it a depth of flavor not found in soups made by simply simmering the onions in the liquid.  The result is completely worth the extra fifteen minutes or so that it will take.  And if you are worried about the added calories, please don't be.  Without it, the soup won't be nearly as satisfying.  And even considering that I began my soup with five tablespoons of butter, it really isn't that much when you take into account the fact that you will be making at least two quarts of soup.  

The other main difference in the soups (obvious from the pictures) is the size of the vegetables.  I cut my vegetables much smaller.  I love getting lots of different kinds of vegetables in each bite, and this is made possible by the smaller cuts.  I also wanted to mirror the size of the cooked grain more closely.  Somehow large, fat chunks of vegetables didn't seem like a harmonious combination with the comparatively diminutive grains of farro (or barley, in the case of Weir's soup).  

From left to right: kohlrabi, celeriac, sweet potato, carrot and parsnip.

If you don't want to cut the vegetables quite so small (although...this is a great way to practice your knife skills!), then consider replacing the grain with something some cooked white beans or a large noodle (orrechiette, for example).  If you make the soup with beans, add them with the Brussels sprouts.  If you use canned beans, rinse them before adding.  If you have cooked your own, add them along with their delicious cooking liquid.  Pasta should be cooked separately and added only to the soup that will be served.  If it is added to all of the soup and allowed to sit, it will continue to absorb liquid and become large, soft and mushy.  Simply place a small amount in each bowl and ladle the hot soup right over it.

As far as the actual contents of my soup went, I really did just use what I had:  celeriac, parsnip, carrot, sweet potato, kohlrabi, onion, Brussels sprouts and farro.   

You should see what you could make with the contents of your pantry.  Maybe you have potatoes or winter squash on your counter instead of a sweet potato.  If you happened to have them, turnip or rutabaga (Swedish turnip) would be delicious instead of one of the other root vegetables.  I happen to think that the parsnip was a particularly important addition...too much would have been overpowering, but I would have missed its aromatic presence, so I'm glad I happened to have it.  The Brussels sprouts could be replaced by diced cabbage...or even finely chopped broccoli florets (as in Weir's original).  If you use broccoli florets, consider peeling and dicing the stems and adding them to the soup with the root vegetables.

The cored and thinly sliced Brussels sprouts could be replaced with diced 
cabbage or minced broccoli florets.

Finally, when composing your soup, I would recommend limiting your selection of root vegetables to five (or fewer) different kinds.  More than that and it seems like the flavors might be too muddied.  Finally, please don't use old, tired, wrinkled or otherwise decaying vegetables in your soup.  Since root vegetables are good keepers, if you cook with vegetables on a regular basis it would not be unusual to amass a small quantity of odds and ends appropriate for a soup like this one.  But if the vegetables in your larder look like they are beginning to compost, they would not be improved by adding them to your soup.  And worse the soup will suffer; you will have wasted your time and effort.  It is so much better to go with a lesser variety (or a smaller batch of soup).

Last night's soup...served with some cheese and whole grain bread...did make a very satisfying end to a bitterly cold day.  Happily, it also used up most of the stray items in my vegetable bin.  I do still have half of my celery root...and now I have one solitary kohlrabi...but, not to worry, I'm sure I'll come up with something.  The weather is set to warm up by the end of the week.  Maybe I'll make a batch of "end-of-winter" slaw....

End of Winter Vegetable Soup with Farro

5 T. unsalted butter
1 large or two small onions (about 10 oz.), cut in 1/4-inch dice (2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 T. minced fresh thyme
5 c. diced (1/4- to 1/3-inch) root vegetables (see note)
6 cups chicken stock (or more, if you prefer a soup with a greater proportion of broth)
1/2 c. pearled or semi-pearled farro, rinsed
4 to 5 oz. Brussels sprouts, trimmed, cored and thinly sliced (1 1/2 cups sliced)
2 T. coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley, optional

In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt butter.  Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until very soft (about 15 minutes).  Add the garlic and thyme and cook another minute or two, or until fragrant.  Add the root vegetables and cook until hot and beginning to sizzle in the butter. 

Add the stock and bring to a boil.   Taste and season with salt.  Add the farro, return to a simmer, cover and simmer gently until the vegetables are almost tender—15 minutes.  Add the sprouts, return to a simmer and cook until the farro is tender—another 10 minutes or so.  If you would like a soup with a greater proportion of broth, simply add broth (or water) to obtain a soup that pleases you—I prefer a soup that is filled with vegetables that are snug, but moving freely in the broth.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve sprinkled with minced parsley if desired. 
Makes about 2  quarts of soup.

Notes &Variations
  • As noted in my post, I simply used the root vegetables that I had on hand...1 large parsnip, 1 small (6 oz.) sweet potato, 1 medium kohlrabi, 1/2 a celeriac and 1 large carrot to round it out.  But you could also use potato, turnip, rutabaga (swede), or winter squash.  I would limit the variety of root vegetables to 3 to 5 different kinds. 
  • If you like...and you have it on hand...a couple of leeks would be a delicious substitution for the onion.
  • Cabbage would be a fine substitute for the Brussels sprouts.  Cut it small squares to mirror the other vegetable shapes.  Or, follow Joanne Weir's lead and use chopped (small) broccoli tips instead of cabbage.  If you use broccoli, peel and dice the stems and use them as part of your volume of "root vegetables"...adding them to the soup when you add the root vegetables.


Jennifer said...

Can't wait to try this! Matt wants to make it when he's home for spring break. Looks delicious!

Bonnie Beth said...

What a lovely soup, Paige! Thank you! I'll be making this with the hopes of encouraging spring!
Thank you!!

Paige said...

Jennifer, I'm so pleased to hear that Matt wants to make this! One of you will have to let me know how it turns out.

Bonnie, Wouldn't it be wonderful if we really could hurry Spring along just by making a delicious bowl of soup?

Thanks to both of you for commenting...I hope you enjoy the soup!

Jennifer said...

I decided to start my winter with the end of winter faro soup- delicious! Great recipe! Love the flexibility in the root veggies. I used a parsnip, carrot, celeriac and honey nut squash. Perfect for the first cold snap.

Paige said...

I was just thinking about this soup yesterday. It is very warming :) . I'm glad you enjoy it! Thanks for letting me know.