In this foodie's experience, the real test of culinary prowess is the ability to make a genuinely delicious bowl of vegetable soup.
THERE’S AN adage that the true test of a cook’s skill lies not in how high they can tower the gelatinized lobster bisque or how expertly they sous vide the loin of spring lamb, but how well they can do the most basic kitchen tasks: dress a salad, make an omelet, cook perfectly fluffy rice. These are tricky things to master, at least if the subpar versions I’ve been served by otherwise competent cooks are anything to go by.
My own view on what constitutes the ultimate culinary test is a little different, though, thanks to the decade I spent as a vegetarian. In my experience, transcendent salad, omelet and rice experiences are a dime a dozen compared to the real hen’s tooth of the culinary world: a genuinely delicious bowl of vegetable soup.
What is it about a bowl of vegetables in broth that stumps even the most talented cook? Too often used as a dumping ground for crisper-drawer dregs or else a victim of its own healthfulness, vegetable soup is the kind of dish that even in otherwise capable hands seems to inspire mediocrity, more often than not taking the form of an anemic liquid clogged with soggy, barely identifiable vegetables.
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Without doubt the worst vegetable soup I ever ate was the one in my college dining hall, where every few days they would recycle all the leftover peas, carrots and overcooked spaghetti from the steam trays into a stomach-turning “minestrone primavera.” As it was usually the only vegetarian option, my choices were eat it or starve.
As for the best, well, until a few years ago I would have been hard-pressed to name one. Even the vegetable soups I made myself ended up tasting more like penance for my gastronomic sins than anything I would ever make and eat for pleasure.
But then I discovered a vegetable soup from Spain that restored my faith in this culinary stalwart. It was so good, it single-handedly made up for every bowl of dining-hall minestrone I’d ever choked down.
Ironically, even in Spain this particular soup is something of an anomaly. Truly vegetarian soups — or truly vegetarian anything for that matter — are thin on the ground there, as I discovered during my yearlong tenure as an exchange student. This soup, though, a somewhat obscure specialty of the sun-kissed region around Murcia, has not a speck of meat. Instead, it gets its heft from a garden’s worth of vegetables and legumes and its sophisticated, complex character from a riotous supporting cast of saffron, almonds, vinegar, mint and pears.
And just as unusual as its taste is its name: olla gitana, or gypsy pot. No one’s quite sure if the gypsies actually invented it, but probably not; it’s just that in Spain anything meatless used to be associated with poverty, and this soup with its anarchic list of ingredients must have appealed to that popular stereotype of gypsies, too.
Whatever its origin, it’s a little-known gem: a hearty, hypnotically good pot of soup that’s healthy to boot. With a big green salad and some crusty bread alongside, it’s been lapped up with gusto by everyone from lifelong vegans to dyed-in-the-wool carnivores to all those in between. I’ve seen people revise their entire outlook on soup, not to mention vegetables, after just one bowl.
The best part, though, is that it basically gives you a free pass on the salad, since with soup this good no one will notice if your skills in that department aren’t quite up to scratch.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Olla Gitana (Gypsy Pot)
Serves 4 to 6
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained
1 large carrot, peeled and thickly sliced
8 cups vegetable (or chicken) stock
1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
10 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 firm-ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
1/3 cup blanched almonds
1 slice rustic white bread, torn into pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 pinch saffron threads, crumbled
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons slivered fresh mint
1. Combine the chickpeas, carrots and stock in a large, heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin, green beans and pears and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the vegetables have softened, about 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté the garlic, almonds and bread until all are golden, stirring constantly. Using a slotted spoon remove everything to a bowl, leaving behind as much oil in the skillet as possible. Add the onion to the oil and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds, then add the tomatoes along with a few tablespoons of the stock and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Gently stir the tomato mixture and the saffron into the soup.
3. Continue cooking the soup until all the vegetables are very soft and the pumpkin is almost falling apart, stirring in additional broth or water if it seems very thick. Meanwhile, place the fried garlic, almonds and bread in a food processor or coffee grinder and process until finely ground. Stir this into the pot along with the vinegar. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and/or vinegar if necessary. Let the soup cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each serving with slivered mint.
— adapted from “The New Spanish Table” by Anya von Bremzen