Saturday, February 18, 2012

Overwintering Garden Soup

The stars were in alignment. I had lots of store-bought staples on hand: split peas, hulled barley, celery, plus carrots and onions (since we’d depleted our own harvest back in December). I had the home-grown necessities too: plenty of potatoes, and the last of one of the nicer garlic heads. (Confession: most of my garlic had spoiled after I’d left our crop in the ground when the August rains started.) And I'd just pulled a quart of turkey broth from the deep freeze, thanks to the last bird we’d roasted. Happily, I was free of any pressing writing deadlines too. And the kicker: the ground had finally thawed after our big January snowstorm. Clearly, this was my big opportunity to make Overwintering (Pea) Soup.

You may be thinking, hmmm—sounds like plain old split pea to me. But the soft ground meant that late yesterday afternoon, my reward for slogging around the garden in the cold February rain was fresh-picked leeks and parsnips. These are the veggies I didn’t pick back in November, when a late fall snowstorm caught us by surprise…again. I’m convinced it’s these home-grown, overwintered root crops that take a soup from merely delicious to sublime. Especially the parsnips—a veggie I never ate until we started growing our own. (I can’t believe I let a whole lifetime go by without parsnips!) Really, they’re the ultimate secret to amazing soup. But you don’t just peel ‘em, chop ‘em and toss them into the kettle. That’s easy, but in my mind, misguided.

No, you roast them first! Cut into chunks, put in a glass baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and garlic powder, and roast for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees. By then the sugar in the parsnips has caramelized, and it’s like eating candy. No, it’s better than candy, because you can get candy anywhere. One bite of these home-grown and hand-prepared vegetables, and you’re sure you’ve died and gone to heaven. The added benefit of cooking with parsnips is their lovely smell—a fresh, sweet, earthy scent that clings to your hands long after you’ve washed the raw-veggie grime off.

I like to think the soup turned out extra yummy because 1) I picked some new leaves of kale and chard by flashlight that had made it through the worst of winter (with only minimal slug damage) and added them in. And 2), because all the ingredients were organic, down to the organic turkey that supplied the broth. The peas were actually a little too chewy, mealy even, but that particular factor is out of our control. Well water keeps legumes from cooking down to a nice, soft texture. But I really can’t see myself buying distilled water to cook peas and beans in! There is one big problem with homemade soup, though: eating it ruins your taste buds for canned stuff, even the expensive organic brands.

Back in my red meat-eating days, in my twenties, I would have put in a ham hock, while Irish split pea soup recipes call for a couple of pig's feet!  But I think the homemade stock adds all the extra flavor you need.

While all the peeling, chopping, sautéing, roasting, simmering and clean-up took over 3 hours, I figured it was worth it. Besides, my soup project was a way to procrastinate on the de-cluttering I’ve been meaning to do! Too, it was somehow comforting to be making soup on a rainy winter night. And now we’ve got three more soup meals in the freezer.

Even better, I have a couple of dozen more parsnips in the fridge, many more leeks still in the garden, and the winter kale and chard is hanging in there…so I’m already anticipating my next batch of Overwintering (Lentil this time) Soup.