I would say that this is a story of soup, but then you would probably turn away, shaking your head and thinking, “no way am I going to eat soup in the middle of summer, unless it’s a cool as a cucumber soup.” (Which, by the way, I hope to make sometime here very soon as I have a bumper crop of dill in my fridge.) So, instead I will say that this is the story of a man named Anthony from Texas. Technically “from Texas” is not really part of his name, but it may as well have been because he exuded everything I think of when I imagine the good side of Texas, the openness and charm. Also the big-ness. He’s a former high school (and college, I think) American football player, and had one of those positions where, as far as I can tell, you pretty much specialize in being the human version of a reinforced concrete wall.
Anthony from Texas and I worked together for a few years, and much of our conversation was about having survived growing up in what you might characterize as ‘extreme climates.’ There was a lot of good natured sparring: “Cold?! This isn’t cold! Minus 40 degrees and having to put Vaseline on your face to keep the skin from freezing immediately is cold!” or “How can you be overheating? It’s not even hot out! Try running drills in 110 degrees while wearing layers of protective gear. That’s hot!”
When it’s (in my opinion) really hot out, I make a concerted effort to whine about at least every hour or so, on the hour. And, virtually every time I did so, Anthony from Texas would chime in, “what you have to do to beat the heat is take a hot shower, and then have some hot soup! It’ll kick start your body’s cooling mechanism, and the day won’t feel as hot in comparison.” I shudder at the thought. But, amazingly, the practice works. (If you survive through to the other side of it, which I sometimes think is questionable.)
A perfect soup for the job is a soupe au pistou – though I can’t say for certain what a Texan would think of eating a soup with a froufrou French name. But, in spite of the name, a soupe au pistou is quite simple and does a remarkable job of taking your jumble of summer vegetables and organizing them neatly into a deliciously fragrant (and steamy, aye carumba!) bowl of supper. It’s a basic vegetable soup transformed into something marvelous by the casual act of swirling in a pistou – a nutless pesto.
All you need to do is start by sautéing an onion (or member of the onion family) in some oil in a soup pot until it is soft. Add in some garlic, and some herbs – usually a bay leaf and maybe some parsley, oregano, thyme, tarragon, and/or basil. Or omit the herbs and let the veggies star on their own. Stir in the veggies to coat them with oil and flavors, then stir in your broth and allow to simmer until the vegetables start to soften. At this point, you traditionally add in some type of small pasta (like orzo, or Israeli couscous) and a can of beans, then cook everything through. I omit the beans in favor of some sausage because I can’t eat beans, but you should do whatever floats your oyster cracker (anyone else used to think that was the best part of getting soup when you were little?). Make the pistou by finely chopping or processing together a couple of handfuls of basil – or any another herb that you want experiment with – some garlic, and some pungent hard cheese (Parmesan, Gruyere, Pecorino…)
I feel like the whole purpose of this soup(e) is to try it out with whatever vegetables you’re loading up with from the farmer’s market these days, but for the sake of some guidelines, here’s an approximate recipe from what I produced the last time I enjoyed some.
Soupe au Pistou
- 1 lb. mild garlicky sausage (for example, sweet Italian), optional
- dash olive oil
- 3 leeks, washed, dark green parts discarded, light green and white part sliced
- 1 carrot, chopped into a small dice
- 1 celery rib, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbs. dried parsley
- ½ Tbs. dried thyme
- ½ Tbs. dried tarragon
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 bunch chard, washed, tough portions of stems removed, and chopped
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- 1 summer squash, sliced
- 3 tomatoes, chopped into a small dice
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 cup orzo or Israeli couscous
- 1 can white beans, drained
- ½ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
- pistou (see below)
- Squeeze sausage out of casings, and fry over medium in a large soup pot until browned, breaking into chunks as it fries. With a slotted spoon, remove the sausage to a bowl, leaving behind the fat.
- Add a little extra dash of olive oil, (if you’re not using sausage, skip those steps and just heat some olive oil in a soup pot) then add the leeks, carrot and celery to the pot. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are beginning to caramelize. Stir in the garlic and herbs and cook for a minute.
- Add the chard, zucchini, summer squash, and tomatoes, and stir to coat the vegetables with the leek and herb mixture. Cook for another couple of minutes, then stir in the broth. Bring the soup to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are just beginning to soften.
- Add in the orzo/couscous and beans, and add the sausage back in if using. Cook until the pasta is tender, another 10 or so minutes. Season with salt to taste (remembering that the pistou will also add some salt and flavor). To serve, ladle into bowls, and swirl a large dollop of pistou into each serving. Accompany with crusty bread.
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- about 4 cups basil leaves (mint is also really good)
- ½ tsp. salt
- ¼ cup olive oil
- about ½ cup grated cheese of an aged, nutty variety, such as Parmesan, Asiago, or Gruyere
- Combine the garlic, salt, and basil and either coarsely process them in a food processor, finely chop them together, or grind them with a mortar and pestle. Gradually whisk in the olive oil, then stir in the cheese.