Category Archives: Soup

Creamy Broccoli Soup

creamy vegan broccoli soup

The phrase “comfort food” conjures up images in my mind of Italian grandmothers slaving over hot stoves all day, of Southern dishes laden with butter and bacon, and of slow-simmered Indian dishes served with more rice than should fit in a human stomach.  But for me–and for many people who grew up in my generation–our real comfort foods are often the packaged, industrial kinds that frequently nourished us at dinnertime and whose cartoon mascots coached us after-school on TV.  Foods like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Trix Yogurt are often what pop up when millennials think of our first food memories.  I mean, I’ve already shared how Nutella was basically a third parent to me.

But one of the weird packaged foods like I absolutely loved as a kid was Lipton Cup-a-Soup in the Broccoli Cheddar flavor.  Basically it’s a “food” powder that you rehydrate in hot water and that should only be served to monkeys in space.  Somehow we thought that feeding this to a sick person would make them healthy again.  But admittedly, a lot of things that happened in the late 80s/early 90s don’t make that much sense to me: (See: shoulder pads, mall bangs, crack cocaine, WHY WINNIE AND KEVIN DON’T END UP TOGETHER etc. etc.)

But what does make sense to me is creating a healthy, vegan version of broccoli cheddar soup with–gasp!–real food.  Onions and garlic give a solid flavor base, and cannellini beans create that creamy texture and pack the protein, while lightly cooked broccoli adds vitamins C, K, and A, folate, and a brilliant green color.  Broccoli, like kale, bok choy, collards and other members of the cruciferous family, is thought to help prevent cancer because of its anti-inflammatory properties and high antioxidant concentration.

If you are hungering for that old-school broccoli cheddar flavor, you could even add a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast flakes to give it a cheesy flavor and add B vitamins.  Like most blended soups, this freezes beautifully and is great to have on hand for days you aren’t feeling great or just don’t feel like cooking.  No food powder required.

Creamy Broccoli Soup
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 (15 oz) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups of water
2 heads of broccoli, broken into small florets (about 1 lb)
juice of half lemon
salt, pepper, and chili flake to taste

1. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large pot and add onions.  Saute until they soften but don’t brown, about 5 – 7 minutes.

2. Add garlic and saute an additional 30 seconds.  Stir in the beans and add salt and water.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Add broccoli florets and let sit until they turn bright green, about 30 – 60 seconds.  Remove a few florets and set aside for garnish.  Blend the soup in batches in a blender until very smooth, adding lemon juice, salt, pepper and chili flake to taste.

3. Serve immediately, garnished with broccoli florets and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Note: The lemon juice will turn the broccoli an olive green as it sits.  If you aren’t serving the soup until later, add the lemon juice and re-season right before serving if you want to keep it bright green.

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Persian Black Lime and Herb Soup

persian black lime and herb soup rezas

Some of my earliest memories as a child take place on food tours of
Chicago.  A given excursion might take me from buying mangoes and
ten-pound sacks of basmati rice on Devon to eating the city’s best
chicken koubideh in Andersonville and then finishing up the evening
with a quick swing by Taylor Street for Italian ice.  And while
these tours weren’t formal—in fact, they were mandatory and led by two
bickering parents cruising in a Subaru station wagon—they are really the root of my interest in food and culture.  And of course, why I now give food tours in Chicago.

One of my family’s major hotspots in Chicago was always Reza’s, a Persian restaurant in Andersonville, and not just because we were for some reason treated like royalty by the Indian maitre d’.  While my family certainly craved Reza’s chicken koubideh and the aromatic dill rice, the first course of an herbaceous lentil soup is what made us go truly bananas.  It was healthy and light, but also hearty and filling, with a tangy depth of flavor.  Even to this day, my sister/roommate/hero/Game of Thrones-watching partner and I have mastered the mathematical acrobatics necessary to exactly meet the minimum delivery requirement for Reza’s to get this soup delivered when we aren’t feeling well.

My mom spent a good part of my childhood trying to perfectly recreate this soup at home with sumac, a dried, ground, sour berry used in Middle Eastern cooking.  With this recipe, I’ve continued her good work with the discovery of black lime, another spice common in this region’s cuisine.  Black limes are basically salted, boiled, and sun-dried limes, and they impart a hard-to-match sourness to balance other flavors in a dish.  Now, yes, I realize you probably don’t have either of these spices on hand, but I strongly recommend seeking them out to add to your pantry, as you’ll likely find many uses for them, adding a brightness to otherwise flat dishes.  I picked up a huge bag of  black limes at a Persian grocery store in Chicago for under $3.  You can also find them online from LA’s Spice Station.  Just make sure to poke a couple holes in them before cooking to make sure the flavors fully infuse.  Sumac is easier to find in stores, but it is also available online.

The other characteristic quality of this soup comes from bucketloads of dried herbs, added at the beginning of cooking.  I’m the unofficial ninja master of my local grocery store’s bulk section, so I snatch up dried herbs for pennies, but you can also substitute handfuls of fresh herbs, finely chopped, if that’s more convenient.  Just be sure to add them at the beginning of cooking as well to ensure the right final consistency.

Now that the weather is getting cooler, you can skip the delivery charge and warm up with this unique homemade soup.  Because winter is coming.

black limes and sumac

Persian Black Lime and Herb Soup

serves 4

1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
2 celery stalks, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/3 cup red lentils, rinsed
1/3 cup beluga lentils, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup dried parsley
1/4 cup dried dill
2 tablespoons dried mint
1 or 2 black limes, poked with a knife
1 tablespoon sumac
about 6 cups water
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1. In a large pot, heat up oil and saute onion, carrots and celery until soft, about 8 minutes.

2. Add red lentils, beluga lentils, turmeric paprika, dried, parsley, dried dill, and dried mint, black limes and sumac.  Stir to combine.  Add enough water to cover and so that the lentils have something to absorb, about 6 cups.

3. Once the lentils are fully cooked, about 15 – 20 minutes, add the chopped tomatoes and salt.  Let simmer an additional 10 minutes, then taste for freshness (add more herbs), tartness (add more sumac) and seasoning (add more salt).

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth

seared bok choy and rice noodles in coconut broth

Ah, one-pot meals.  Few things are more satisfying to make or eat than a complete balanced meal in a single dish.  Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth is one of those meals, except, well, I actually used three different pots to make this “one-pot meal”: I soaked the rice noodles in one bowl, seared the bok choy in a pan and then added them both to a big simmering pot with the rest of the ingredients.  You might think that’s cheating, and it is, but it also reveals a secret about good restaurant or gourmet cooking: when ingredients are cooked separately and then combined, they retain unique textures that make the final product more interesting and satisfying than if they were all cooked together using the same method.

Following this recipe will give you some insight as to how restaurants get Asian soups to have firm noodles, crispy vegetables, and clear broths.  The rice noodles are soaked separately in hot, but not boiling, water.  This keeps the noodles from falling apart and prevents the broth from getting cloudy from the starch in the noodles.  The gingery, coconut broth is then cooked separately, with the tofu, snow peas, and separately seared bok choy added at the end, so nothing will overcook.  The dish is then finished with fresh lime juice and raw scallion slivers to provide contrast to the cooked broth and vegetables.

The coconut milk in the broth makes this dish luxurious and special.  While coconut milk is certainly not a low-calorie food, it provides the richness and fat necessary to round out this light meal.  While saturated fat from coconuts was maligned in past decades, science and the press–including The New York Times–has been kinder to this fat in recent years, touting the fact that it is one of the few significant sources of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that perhaps has anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties and is converted into energy rather than fat in the human body.  However, if you are concerned with reducing the amount of coconut milk in any recipe, you can buy a light version of canned coconut milk or simply dilute the regular version with water.  Even with the full fat coconut milk though, this meal is only about 500 calories per serving.

Thanks to Tom Blakely for taking another great photo!  He so generously came over with all his camera gear and in return, I made him tofu.  Which he hates.

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth
Serves 4

1 package of rice noodles (also called pad thai noodles)
2 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 small red chili, minced (vary according to your chili tolerance)
3 cups of vegetable broth
1 can coconut milk (regular or light)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
6 baby bok choy, each sliced through the root into 4 – 6 vertical spears
1 cup of snow pea pods, ends trimmed
1 block of tofu (usually 14 oz), cut into 3/4 inch dice
2 teaspoons of salt
juice from one lime, or more to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced on the diagonal

1. Prepare rice noodles according to package directions or use this steeping method: Place the rice noodles in a large bowl. Bring a kettle or pot of water up to a boil. Let the water cool for a couple of minutes, and then pour it over the noodles, completely submerging them. Let the noodles steep in the water until they are soft but still have some bite. Then drain the water and hold the noodles in the dry bowl, tossed with a little oil, until you are ready for them.

2. In a large pot, make the coconut broth. Over medium heat, add the sliced onion and saute, letting the onion soften but not brown, about 5 minutes. Then add the minced ginger and red chili and saute for 1 minute more. Add the vegetable broth, coconut milk and 1 cup of water and whisk to combine. Bring this up to a simmer.

3. In a large skillet, heat up one tablespoon of olive oil and add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Then over high heat, add enough baby bok choy spears to fill the pan and let them get a light brown color one side and then flip over and repeat. They will still be firm but with a nice seared appearance. Remove the cooked boy choy from the skillet and repeat with the rest of the baby bok choy.

4. Add the seared baby bok choy, snow peas and tofu cubes into the coconut broth along with the 2 teaspoons of salt. Let simmer lightly for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and add the lime juice and scallions. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if necessary.

5. Using tongs, divide cooked rice noodles among 4 serving bowls and ladle the broth and veggies on top.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal

lemon cilantro mung dal

In the last few years, there’s been increased media coverage about the rising cost of food, the negative environmental and health effects of eating too much animal protein, and the importance of whole foods and fiber in our diets.  It’s actually surprising to me that more people aren’t looking to beans and lentils as an easy solution.  These members of the legume family are loaded with protein, fiber, trace nutrients and come in a variety of shapes, flavors and sizes.  Furthermore, they’re totally cheapsville.  A serving of beans or lentils will cost you around 10 – 50 cents.  Compare that with the even lowest quality meat that you are willing to eat.  Also since legumes usually come dried, canned or frozen, they last in your pantry for months to years, stretching your buck even further.

But you still aren’t cooking them at home.  Why, friends?  Because they take time?  You don’t know how?  You’re afraid to eat them?  They’re un-American?  Push those worries aside.  Today you’re learning how to make an easy, knockout lentil dish.

I’m taking inspiration from some of the fabulous lentil dishes in India called dal.  One of the most basic dals uses split and husked mung beans and is called moong dal (see the pic below).  This dal is considered very nutritious and easy to digest–so much so that it’s often given to people when they are recovering from an illness like the stomach flu.  Most dals are prepared the same way: you soak the lentils, then boil them in water, and then flavor the cooked lentils with a spiced oil.  The final texture can be anywhere from a thick puree to a thin soup.  It’s an easy process, but it does require planning.  I suggest soaking the lentils the night before you want to make this dish.  Then the lentils need to cook for about an hour, unattended, and then finishing them with the oil takes only 2 minutes.  Lentils also soak up a good amount of salt (just like soups), so don’t be afraid to be generous with your salting.  Lemon and cilantro are classic finishing flavors to many dals; here, I’ve amped up the quantity to make this dish really pop with bright flavors.

Each 1 cup serving of this Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal (from 1/4 cup of uncooked lentils) has about 170 calories, 14 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber (about 61% of the recommended daily allowance) and each serving of the lentils cost 20 cents.  You can round out the meal with bread or rice and a side salad.  Leftover dal makes an easy, energizing breakfast as well.

mung dal

The dish on the left shows what dry moong dal looks like when you buy it.  The dish on the right shows what it looks like after soaking overnight.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal
Makes 4 1-cup servings

1 cup of moong dal (split and husked mung beans)
1 tablespoon of butter
2 teaspoons of olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
pinch of asofetida or garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of lemon juice, from about 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup of finely chopped cilantro leaves and stems (not roots)

1. In a fine mesh strainer, thoroughly rinse the moong dal in running water until the water runs clear.  Sift through the lentils to make sure there are no stones, husks, or dirt.  Put the rinsed lentils in a bowl, cover with several inches of water and let soak overnight on the counter or inside the refrigerator if your kitchen is hot.

2. The next day, drain the lentils and give them a quick rinse.  Put the lentils in a medium-sized pot and cover with 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and let this cook for about 1 hour.  Skim off any foam that forms on the top and add more water if necessary, but mostly you can leave it alone.  You want the lentils to get fully softened (with no grittiness) and start to fall apart. Then give them a mash with the back of a ladle or an immersion blender to make a smoother puree.  You should end up with about 4 cups of a medium-bodied puree.  Add more liquid or cook longer to adjust the thickness to your liking.

3. Once the lentils are cooked, take another medium-sized pot and melt the butter and oil over medium heat. Then add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, stirring, and let these cook for about 30 seconds until they start to sizzle and pop. Quickly add the turmeric and asofetida or garlic powder. Then immediately add the cooked lentils and stir to flavor them with the spices. Add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and let the mixture come up to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and cilantro.  Taste to see if it needs more salt or lemon juice and then serve.

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita

green pea soup with cucumber raita

Chicago has two seasons: an arctic Winter survivable only via heinous marshmallow-shaped coats and convenience store robbery face masks and a skin-melting, eyeball-liquifying Summer.  But for a few short weeks in May, we enter what people in most cities would call “Spring” but what my friend Claire aptly describes as “Seasonal Limbo.”  It’s freezing, then it’s hot, the flowers start to bloom, then they all freeze and die, then it rains so much that you regret not buying that ark when you saw it on sale at Target.

The unpredictability of Seasonal Limbo calls for a flexible meal plan.  Not only is this soup made in about 15 minutes from ingredients like onions and frozen peas that are easily kept on hand, but it can also be served either hot or cold.  I like to have it hot when its fresh and then cold as leftovers.  The only difference is that you’ll want to salt the cold version more than you would the hot version: an extra pinch or two will do.  Like in the Mushroom Walnut Pate, your palate can’t perceive saltiness as much in cold food as in hot, so cold dishes require extra salt.

While the basis of this soup is almost painfully simple (cook onions, broth and peas and puree), I’ve deepened the flavors by adding a dash of cinnamon for a warming spicy hint and lemon juice and mint for brightness.  Pureed soups like this are often topped with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, and I’ve taken that as an inspiration to swirl in raita, a traditional yogurt condiment in North Indian and Pakistani cuisine.  Raita can be made with a number of spices, seasonings and raw vegetables, but here I’ve kept it simple with minced cucumber and dried mint for a cool contrast to the sweet soup.  You can also make this raita on its own to use as a condiment to a fiery Indian dinner or as a dip for veggies or shrimp.  Thinned out with water, it also makes a great dressing.

The soup and raita call for two different kinds of mint, but feel free to substitute fresh for the dried if you don’t have it.  Dried herbs like mint and parsley are one of the hallmarks of Middle Eastern cuisine, so if you like cooking that type of food, they may be worth the investment to help you attain more authentic-tasting results.  Regardless, this hot-cold soup and its Seasonal Limbo Green color will help you get through the “season.”

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita
Serves 2 as a main; 4 as a starter

For the Soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 16-oz bag of frozen peas
2 tablespoons chopped mint, loosely packed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, about 1 lemon

For the Raita:
1/4 cup minced or grated English cucumber, with the seeds and peel (extra for garnish, optional)
1/2 cup plain yogurt, non-fat OK
1/4 teaspoon dried mint
pinch of salt

1. First make the cucumber raita by mixing the minced cucumber, the yogurt, the dried mint, and the salt in a small bowl. This can be made ahead and kept in the fridge.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the diced onions and the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. You do not want any browning on the onions. Stir in the cinnamon and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the vegetable broth and the water and bring up to a boil. Stir in the frozen peas and cook until just defrosted and warm. If you cook them longer, the soup will lose its bright green color.

3. Pour half of the soup into the blender with the lemon juice and the fresh mint and blend until smooth. Then repeat with the other half of the soup. You should never fill a blender more than half-way full with a hot liquid, so work it more or fewer batches according to the size of your blender. Combine the pureed soup into one container and taste to see if it needs more salt.

4. If serving hot, ladle or pour the soup into bowls. Then take a spoonful of the chilled raita and swirl it in a spiral pattern into the bowl and garnish with some extra minced cucumber if you’d like. If serving cold, add an extra pinch of salt and then chill for several hours. Swirl in the raita and serve.