In a wealthy neighbourhood in our town, there’s a row of food stores known informally as The Thieves: a fishmonger, a butcher, a patisserie, and a greengrocer. The Thieves source, display and price their wares as though they were diamonds. Unfortunately, the quality is amazing and, for many items, they’re the only game in town. Fresh langoustines? Caul fat? Salsify? A raspberry tarte in which each berry is piped full of raspberry coulis? There’s a shop for that. They’ll rob you blind, and you’ll leave thanking them for having done so. I try to avoid them.
But there’s this one dish. I make it twice a year, in the spring. And I need to have it as soon as I can get my hands on the perfect specimen of each ingredient. January asparagus won’t do, obviously, but if I can find the real, succulent, delicious deal a few weeks before the local stuff arrives, I’m going to do it… especially now, when we’re housebound and craving the bounty of spring. That’s what brought me to the swanky greengrocer today.
I came home with more than I needed. The ramps, radishes, rhubarb and chives are for another day. Today, we’ll use the fava beans, English and sugar snap peas, asparagus and artichokes. We’ll be making a soup that has a lot to do with a Roman spring vegetable stew called vignarola, whose essential ingredients are artichokes, fava beans and peas. Traditionally, vignarola calls for braising the vegetables in olive oil, wine and water. Our version cooks them separately and serves them in a light, clear broth, finished with a shower of salty Pecorino Romano cheese and fresh mint. It’s spring in a bowl. There’s a fair amount of prep work involved, but it’s worth it… particularly since you can make the pea and bean shucking a convivial kitchen table task. Enlist child labour, if you have it, or do it over a glass of wine with an adult quarantine-mate.
The ingredient list assumes that you’re starting with a slightly cloudy homemade broth. Because this soup is all about bright, clear flavours, we’ll go through how to make the broth clear. If you already have a gimlet-clear broth, you won’t need the egg whites, leek, or lean poultry meat, and you’ll need only one stalk of carrot and celery and one onion.
Roman Spring Soup – Serves 2
- 4 cups homemade or high-quality purchased light chicken broth. Note: broth is basically stock that’s been simmered down to reach an intensity at which you can enjoy it (with a bit of salt) “as is” or as the basis for a clear soup.
- 3 egg whites
- 3 small carrots, roughly chopped
- 3 small celery stalks with leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 small onions or 4 shallots, roughly chopped
- 1 leek, green part only, roughly chopped
- 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
- 1 clove garlic, skin on, crushed
- 2 lemons
- 1/2 C white wine
- 3 oz lean, boneless, skinless chicken or turkey breast
- 1 lb English peas in pods
- 2 lb fava beans in pods
- 2 globe artichokes (the big ones)
- 10 stalks asparagus
- 1/2 lb sugar snap peas
- 2 fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
- A few leaves of escarole, shredded
- 1/2 oz pancetta cut into 1/8 inch dice
- Excellent olive oil for drizzling
- Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
- 6 mint leaves, finely sliced
- Red chilli flakes
Let’s start by clarifying the broth. This is a task that gave me fits until I finally figured out how to do it reliably. It’s not hard… it just takes a bit of attention.
Start by putting 2 chopped celery stalks, 2 chopped carrots, a chopped onion or two chopped shallots, the chopped leek greens, 3 egg whites, and the lean chicken or turkey breast into your food processor. Whizz that until it’s a foamy, colour-flecked paste.
Put your cold chicken broth in a medium pot, and whisk the paste into it. Bring that to a simmer over medium heat, stirring every minute or so, ensuring that you’re scraping the bottom of the pot so the clarification paste doesn’t stick.
As the broth comes to a simmer, the clarification paste will rise to the surface, forming a raft. Stop stirring at that point. Keep the broth at a lively simmer, but don’t boil it. Once the raft has solidified a bit, use a spoon to ease open a 2-inch hole in the centre.
You’ll be able to see the impurities in the broth coalescing and rising to meet the raft. Over 15 minutes or so, the broth will become clear.
Turn off the heat, let it settle, and then carefully ladle / pour it through a fine mesh strainer. Let the strained broth settle, and then filter it again through several layers of wet muslin sitting in a clean strainer. Sidebar: the cheesecloth you get at the grocery store is useless for this purpose (and most others). You can drive a truck through those holes. Get yourself some nice muslin and don’t look back.
On to the veggies. The idea here is to blanch each of the green vegetables to the point of tenderness, preserving their crunch and bright flavours. Shuck the English peas and set them aside. For the snap peas, pinch the edge of the stem end and pull in the opposite direction to remove the stringy seam.
For each asparagus stalk, cut off the tip plus an inch of the stalk, on a bias. Set those aside, and reserve the rest of the asparagus stalk for another purpose.
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to the boil, and make an ice bath in a bowl next to the stove. Boil the English peas and snap peas for one minute, then transfer them to the ice bath. Boil the asparagus for two minutes and do the same with it. After five minutes, remove the veggies from the ice bath so they don’t get waterlogged. Cut the sugar snap peas in half on a bias.
Now for the fava beans. I know many people haven’t worked with these before, so here’s how. Crack open the thick, gnarly pods by pressing against the “seam” near the top of the bean and running your fingers down through it to release the beans.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil, and make an ice bath in a bowl next to the stove. Boil the beans for two minutes, then transfer them to the ice bath for five minutes.
To release the tender beans from their leathery skins, pinch an edge of the skin between your thumbnail and index fingernail to create a small nick in the skin, then pop the bean out of that opening by squeezing from the opposite side.
Finally, the artichokes. Make some acidulated water to keep the sliced ‘chokes from turning brown while you work with them. Fill a bowl partway with 2 cups of water. Add the juice of a lemon. To clean the artichokes: snap the outer leaves off until you see the light yellow centre of the artichoke emerge. Cut the top of the artichoke off at the point where it meets the solid, firm heart. Trim the outer edges and stalk until they’re solid, creamy-white heart. Turn the artichoke upside down on a cutting board and cut it into quarters, slicing down straight through the stalk. Holding the cut sides toward you and using a paring knife, cut and scrape out the fuzzy “choke” in the centre until you’re left with clean, edible heart. Cut each quarter in half, and immerse them in the acidulated water.
Next, make a court bouillon – literally, a short stock – to simmer and flavour the artichokes. It’s important not to use your lovely, clear chicken stock to simmer the artichokes, because they release a great deal of sweet, tinny flavour while cooking, and this would wreck the soup.
For the court bouillon, chop a carrot, a celery stock, and an onion or a couple of shallots. Add those to a 2 qt saucepan along with a torn bay leaf, a crushed garlic clove, a few peppercorns, the juice of a lemon, 1/2 C white wine, and a cup of water. Drain your artichoke slices and add them to the pot. Bring this to a simmer and keep it there for about 15 minutes, until you can run a skewer through the thick part of a piece of artichoke with little resistance. Remove the artichoke slices from the pot and set them aside.
Finally, lightly sauté the diced pancetta and sliced shiitake mushrooms in a bit of olive oil.
Time to assemble the dish! Bring your beautifully clear stock to a simmer. Season it to taste with salt, keeping it just on the under-seasoned side because you’ll be adding salty grated cheese and pancetta at the end. Add the peas, favas, asparagus, artichokes, and shredded escarole. Heat the soup for two minutes or so. Ladle it into bowls and garnish with the pancetta, shiitakes and a few shreds of mint. Serve it with olive oil, Pecorino Romano and chilli flakes on the side. Close your eyes, and think of Rome in the spring.