It started one January, during that post-holiday period when you need to nourish the soul but at the same time whittle off the residue of holiday truffles still riding on your hips. I wandered into my kitchen, feeling even hungrier from knowing I should eat less.
But I had been to the farmers market, so my refrigerator was full of hope and leafy greens. I started working in my favorite way-no plan. I pulled things out-chard, big shiny leaves. Green onions. Cilantro. A head of curly kale. As I washed and chopped, I thought: garlic, onions.
I caramelized the onions in the tiniest amount of olive oil. I sauteed the garlic, filling the house with the most comforting of aromas. Who could feel downhearted with the smell of sizzling garlic around? I added a potato because I'm Polish and can't help it and simmered it all together in some broth. At the end I added a pinch of pepper and a bit of lemon juice and pureed the soup in a blender.
It was so green! I ate a nice, hot bowlful and sat up straighter at once. Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, those mysterious things we don't fully understand though we know they're good for us: I could feel them racing through my system. Most important, it was delicious. That's the beauty of a good soup; like a massage, it feels great while it does a body good. I counted up the calories and grinned.
Over the next few days I dipped into the soup often-a snack while working, a bowl for lunch with a bagel, another bowl for dinner with some white cheese crumbled into it. Yum. Everyone ate it. Even my son, Teddy, who would rather eat snakes than anything green, grudgingly admitted that it was OK.
The green soup had hit the seasonal spot. I hauled home another cartload of greens from the market-spinach, leeks, turnip greens-and made another version. Here was my plan: more green soup, less of everything else. It was the poor man's spa cuisine.
One day, friends were coming to dinner. The green soup had become my private habit; why not take it out to a party? I had some mushrooms on hand; I sauteed them in a miserly amount of olive oil, with lots and lots of garlic, and when they were nice and brown I tossed them into the simmering greens. No potato this time. A dash of rice vinegar instead of lemon juice, and everything pureed again.
The green soup with mushrooms seemed more important somehow. It had mystery, the earthiness of the hidden mushrooms, the zing of acid. It was great. People started calling for the recipe.
Over the next weeks and months I made many green soups, and not one was the same as the one before. My desk was littered with scrawled green soup formulas. I lost my holiday pounds, but the green soup had become my steady.
If you cook often, you have had this experience: the dish that keeps reinventing itself. I made my soup with yams instead of potatoes. I made it with all spinach and nutmeg-it looked like paint. A friend brought me fresh watercress from her stream, and I put it together with Yukon gold potatoes-excellent.
Once I found I had no potatoes, and my eye fell upon a kabocha squash. Another time I'd been roasting beets and had all the fresh, shiny tops left, so by chance I came up with one of my favorites, beet green soup.
Usually I pureed the soup, blending the flavors into one pungent, savory essence of green, but sometimes I left the individual elements intact-pieces of squash gradually softening and thickening the broth, flecks of browned onion and always the strips of dark green. Sometimes I garnished the soup with cheese or croutons or even a spicy salsa, and sometimes I ate it in perfect simplicity.
It's not so much a recipe now as a way of life. The method is always the same, and the basic formula is this:
First: lots of greens, the nicest greens you can find, dark green, glossy, firm. No tired old greens auditioning for the compost heap. Two or three big bunches of greens are not too much for a really green soup.
Next: something to give it a little body. This could be a potato, a yam, those delicious mushrooms or some winter squash.
And then: always some onions for sweetness, slowly caramelized in oil until they are an amber-colored marmalade, and some lemon juice or vinegar for acidity.
Finally: vegetable broth (or chicken broth). Season the soup with salt and pepper, maybe cayenne. Basta. That's it. Except for all the things you change to make it different and your own, but you know about that already.
Blend It, Don't End It When you puree the soups, it's easiest to use a hand-held blender in the pot, rather than transfer the hot soup to a blender. If you do use a blender, puree the soup in small batches. *
* On the cover: bowl and plate from California Marketing Associates at the L.A. Mart, Los Angeles. Striped towel from Bristol Kitchens stores.
Thomas is author of "The Vegetarian Epicure" and "The New Vegetarian Epicure" as well as the movies "El Norte" and "Mi Familia." She lives in Ojai.