I have a theory about soup recipes. They’re superfluous. That’s because soup is really just a formula. You fill a few variables in different ways to end up with wildly divergent and hopefully delicious results.
Let’s go through the elements.
First there are the aromatics. Have you ever seen a soup recipe that didn’t start with some combination of onion, celery, carrot and/or garlic? Most of my favorite soups have all of those things. (I’m sure someone will share with me a recipe the contradicts this, but I’ll maintain that it’s a rare exception.)
Then there’s the liquid. Most often, it’s broth or stock, but there are other options. Could be juice, or dairy (more on that later), or even simple water. The liquid is the definitive element of a soup, whether it’s the main source of flavor or a vehicle for all the stars swimming in the pool.
Up next is the “stuff.” Whatever goes into the liquid is probably what will end up in the name of the soup. This is when things like tomatoes, or beans, or starchy vegetables (think corn or potatoes) show up and take all the glory. If I’m cooking, there are probably mushrooms in there. There could be rice or noodles. For those who cook with meat, this is when you’d be thinking about chicken or ham. The combinations and amounts are completely variable.
Finally, there’s the texture. You can change that a lot of ways, too, some without even adding another ingredient. Heavy cream can bring a velvety texture to a soup. So can cheese. But so can just mashing some of the beans that are already in there. Or potatoes.
I started thinking about this as I was flipping through Suzy Karadsheh’s cookbook, “The Mediterranean Dish.” I came across this recipe for a chickpea and spinach soup, and initially I passed right over it, barely pausing, thinking that it was the kind of soup I make any given day when I’m looking at my pantry without a plan. I turned the page, and then maybe 10 more, before I realized that was actually the beauty of it.
You start with a big onion and as much garlic as befits your personality. There’s vegetable broth, and some of the chickpeas get smashed to thicken it. The rest stay whole and team with spinach to be the central stars of your bowl. If you didn’t smash the beans at all, the soup would be good, it would just be thinner and chunkier. If you pureed all the chickpeas, the soup would be good, it would just be thicker and smoother.
The soup is delicious with the ingredients Karadsheh’s has chosen. But you can think of this recipe anytime you’re standing in front of the pantry without a plan. The chickpeas could become black beans, navy beans or butternut squash. Or they could become barley, rice or tortellini. The spinach could become collards, canned tomatoes, or . . . what’s your favorite thing? It could be that.
That’s the formula. Start with chopped onion and a couple cloves of garlic. Add about 4 cups of broth and 3 to 4 cups of canned or chopped vegetables. A few teaspoons of your favorite herbs or spices. Let it simmer. It’s going to be good.
So slow down and take a look at this soup recipe. Then make it, and enjoy it. And then know that you don’t really need a recipe the next time you want soup.
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Garlicky Spinach and Chickpea Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large yellow onion (about 10 ounces), roughly chopped
4 to 5 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Two (15-ounce) cans no-salt-added chickpeas, drained with liquid reserved (may also use 3 cups cooked chickpeas with 1/2 cup of cooking liquid)
4 cups vegetable broth, store-bought or homemade
2 cups (2 ounces) baby spinach
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1 large lemon, divided
1/4 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese (may substitute vegan parmesan cheese) (optional)
Crusty bread, for serving
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In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic and salt and cook, stirring regularly, until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin, coriander, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and black pepper and stir to incorporate.
Add the chickpeas and stir to coat in the spices. Use a potato masher or the back of a large spoon to roughly mash the chickpeas, just enough to break some of them up a little. Add the broth and the reserved chickpea liquid, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pan with a lid and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat and stir in the spinach and parsley. Let the soup sit for 1 minute, then add half the lemon juice. Taste, and season with the remaining lemon juice and/or more salt, as needed.
Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil, and top each bowl with 1 tablespoon of the cheese, if using. Serve hot, with crusty bread.
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Per serving (1 1/2 cups), based on 6
Calories: 194; Total Fat: 6 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 235 mg; Carbohydrates: 29 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 7 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
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Adapted from “The Mediterranean Dish” by Suzy Karadsheh (Clarkson Potter, 2022).