By Anna Thomas, "The Soup for Life,"September/October 2011
It was a gray-sky day in the San Bernardino Mountains, and outside the cabin a bitter wind was swatting down the last damp leaves. I needed to put myself in a better mood—and to lose a few pounds.
So I went down to the farmers’ market, picked up bunches of the dark greens that thrive in cool weather: great, shiny leaves of chard, spinach, kale, Italian parsley and cilantro. I started to chop. I threw some sliced onion into hot olive oil and heard the happy sizzle. I added garlic. Soon the cabin was filled with that greatest of perfumes. My spirits were already lifting.
The washed greens went into another pot with water and sea salt and a diced potato. When the onions, slowly sizzling in the skillet, turned the color of caramel toffee, in they went to the soup pot. A pinch of red pepper, a splash of lemon juice and I pureed the soup.
So easy. So green. And so delicious.
I ate that first steaming bowlful, and I sat up straighter and grinned wide. I was infused with phytochemicals, those mysterious, good-for-you compounds that I didn’t completely understand. Did I realize then that green soup would change my life? No, but over the next week it was green soup for lunch, more for a break while working, and then a bowl of green for dinner, dressed up with croutons or crumbles of moist feta cheese—divine. I had my new diet plan. More green, less everything else.
Soon everyone in the family was eating it, even my kids, even their friends. I hauled back larger loads of greens—mustard greens, cavalo nero kale, leeks. I made green soup every week, no two alike but every one following that original template. I used rice instead of potato, watercress and spinach instead of chard and kale. Once I had lovely fresh greens from beets I roasted, so I made a beet green soup, an instant favorite. The formula seemed bulletproof: a pile of leafy greens, some slowly cooked onion for sweetness, a little something starchy for body and that finish with cayenne and lemon.
One night friends were coming for dinner. By then I was back in my skinny jeans and green soup was my steady date; I decided it should come out to a party. I had some mushrooms, so I sautéed them with garlic and thyme until they were dark as mahogany, added them to the simmering greens and pureed it all to a velvety cream. That soup was earthy, mysterious, a bit smoky from a touch of Spanish paprika. The next day people were calling for the recipe. This should have tipped me off about what was to come.
Many pots of soup later, I wrote about green soup for the Los Angeles Times, and the avalanche was unleashed. E-mails—a trickle, then a flood. I love that green soup… I used to make one with turnip greens… my version has broccoli… I lived on parsley soup all through graduate school… The world loved green soup and wanted to talk about it. I’d never had such an outpouring of responses. Some of the messages had a positively religious fervor. Green soup is in the house. Hallelujah!
I probably cooked forty or fifty different green soups over the next decade, posting the recipes on my website. The e-mails kept coming. When I began writing my soup book, Love Soup, I realized I’d have to have a chapter devoted to green soups. Then I realized that one chapter wouldn’t be enough. I wound up with one for fall and winter soups, one for spring and summer. And new inspirations for green soup keep on coming.
The green soups here include my newest and take green to another level—into the exotic scent of green curry, the hearty pairing with Le Puy lentils, the luxury of spinach and chevre in a bisque and the pure rustic pleasure of Baker’s Pasta, which is loaded with parsley, walnuts and garlic, re-imagined as soup. Green, green—not so much a soup as a way of life
Anna Thomas wrote her first cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure (1972), while she was a film student at UCLA. It was a phenomenal success and remains a classic today. Her latest book, Love Soup, won the 2010 James Beard award for best Healthy Focus cookbook.