I’ve been going through a spate of soup-mania lately. Vast quantities of soup have been making their way from the kitchen to my lips. It’s practically all I want to eat.
I mean, I always like soup, but right now something about the world, the liminality of so many things – not the least of which being the season – is making soup particularly appealing. When you’re in between winter and spring as well as all sorts of projects, just waiting (and waiting (and waiting)) for people to get back to you about pesky little things like edits and comments, what better to do than a little slurping? Soup is there to oblige all slurping needs. Also, I have a private theory that I’ve been dehydrated because of the dryness in the air, and my body is trying to make up for the fact that 10 or so cups of water a day just isn’t quite enough by steering me towards eating liquid food as well. Is that even possible? Not sure.
Anyhow, I’ve had avocado soup for lunch for about 5 days in a row. We’ve had sourdough tomato soup, and Norwegian fiskesuppe (with some extra parsnip and tiny arctic shrimp added), and creamy squash soup, and pho. To name just a few. I also just had the sudden flicker of a memory of a spinach and pine nut soup that I used to make for dinner parties in college (because I hosted dinner parties in college. With no kegs or even drinking games. Because I was that cool.). I’ll have to make that some time soon because doesn’t that sound good?
This soup, though, I consider the culmination of sorts (though not the sort of culmination that signals the end. No way. More soups to come, so if you’re a soup person you should come on over…). The soup to rule all soups, you might say. A soup so filled with wonderful things that it is a considerable stretch to call it a soup. It should be eaten with a fork. Indeed, it should be so thick a fork should stand right up in it.
A panade is really only technically a soup. It is actually more of a “bread thing,” which is approximately what panade means. It is one of the many ingenious ways, devised by thrifty, clever cooks through the ages, of saving bread that has gone stale and turning it into one more magnificent meal. And, if I had to play favorites, I think it may be my favorite of these bread saving methods. There is something about the texture the bread takes on, cooked ever so slowly in broth or milk, that is so appealingly soft and wobbly, like the knees of a young person at the sight of their love. The texture is the stuff of dreams.
I have yet to meet with a panade I don’t like, but this is one I especially love. This panade of bread, slowly stewed greens and leeks, and Gruyere (or Cantal, if you can find it) cheese is the invention of the inimitable Paula Wolfert who has taught the world so much about the cuisines from the lands around the Mediterranean. This recipe is from her cookbook The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, and it is indeed slow. I save it for special occasions or particularly languid weekends because it takes a good 4 hours (though much of that is hands-off cooking time).
It is worth every minute of that time though, in my opinion. Though it is the heartiest, humblest of peasant food, I find it to be showy and complex enough in flavor to serve to any guests. If I can bring myself to share it with others.
The base of this “bread thing” is mild, oniony leeks and a generous amount of garlic that you cook over gentle heat until they practically melt into a sticky mass, all white and green, no browning allowed to mar the mildness. Upon this you layer a massive quantity of semi-tender greens, any mix you want of greens like spinach, chard, sorrel, or others. You stew the leeks and greens together for so long that the greens become docile ribbons, tender enough you barely need to chew them. You add brightening lemon juice and nutmeg to taste, and you could, if you wished, stop right there and have some killer greens.
But don’t stop, because there are so many good things to come. You layer the leeks and greens mixture with bread cubes, toasted until golden and crunchy. You add simmering milk to come up just to the top, giving everything a warm bath, and then you top it all with unapologetically pungent cheese that melts into a bubbling, crackling lid as the panade bakes.
The transformation of the bread as it cooks for hours in the liquid is hard to believe or imagine, if you have not witnessed it before. It becomes silky and puffed, like I imagine the pillows on some fairytale sultan’s bed would be like. The bread cubes become so soft that they barely stay together, yet they do stay together, which is part of what makes the texture so remarkable. All you need is a salad to make it a simple feast.
Panade of Leeks, Greens, and Gruyere (or Cantal) (serves 6-8) (virtually unchanged from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert)
- 3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, trimmed, washed well and sliced into thin slices
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 8 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- one 1-lb loaf of good chewy bread with a relatively soft crust (I generally use sourdough), gone stale
- 1 1/2 lb mixed leafy greens (like chard, spinach, sorrel, arugula, watercress…), washed, deribbed, and chopped
- juice of half a lemon (plus more to taste)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- grated nutmeg
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1/2 pound high-quality Gruyere or Cantal cheese
- In a large (7 or 8 qt., preferably) pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Slowly stew the leeks, onion, and garlic, for 10 minutes. Keep the pot covered as they cook, to keep in the moisture, but remove it to stir several times during the cooking period. Add a tsp. of salt, stir, and cook for 5 more minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 250F.
- As the leeks stew, cut your bread into 1-inch cubes. Spread the cubes in a single layer on a well-oiled baking sheet, drizzle the bread with a touch more olive oil, and then bake them in the oven until they are crunchy and turning golden, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool until you’re ready to use them.
- As the bread cubes are baking, add the greens to the pot with the leeks. If your pot is not quite large enough, you may have to add the greens in a couple batches since they will make extra space as they cook down. Give all the greens a good stir once they’re all in there, then cover the pot, and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, uncover the pot, raise the heat a bit and boil off any excess liquid. Allow to cool slightly, then add the lemon juice, pepper, nutmeg, and salt to taste. (Up to this point the recipe can be made in advance. Cool, cover, and refrigerate, then bring to room temp. before continuing.)
- About 2 1/2 hours before serving, oil a deep, heavy, 3-quart casserole, and heat the milk to a simmer. Place one-third of the bread cubes in the dish, top with half of the greens, then repeat, ending with a layer of bread cubes. Pat the top layer down lightly to even it out. Slowly pour the warm milk down the insides of the casserole walls and over the top of the panade to moisten all the ingredients. Grate the cheese and sprinkle it evenly over the top of the panade. Cover the casserole with a sheet of foil, or a cover if it has one.
- Bake in a 250F oven for 1 3/4 hours. Raise the oven temperature to 400F, uncover the dish, and bake for 20 more minutes. Take the panade out of the oven and allow it to relax for about 10 minutes before serving. Leftover panade reheats pretty well, but if you wish, you can also shape it into patties and fry it up for panade cakes the next day. Serve with another salad and some more red wine (you did have red wine with it the first night, right?), and you have yourself yet another feast of leftover bread.