If you are anything like me, you enjoy that warm feeling when you come home from a farmers market with a reusable grocery bag stuffed full of fresh produce. I guess I just get excited about the possibilities of what I can make out of my newly acquired bounty. That, and I helped some local farmers earn a living.
However, sometimes I buy too much stuff. I’ll get to chit chatting with one of the nice vendors, and more often than not I’m compelled to purchase at least a few dollars of stuff from their table. It all adds up. Other times I take home more than I planned because the prices are so good. How can I pass up spinach at half the cost I’d find at the grocery store?
Sometimes I’ll get home, look at the newly purchased pile of healthy harvest, and feel stumped about how to use it all. Sure I’d have little recipes in mind for this and that, but until recently I didn’t have a good way to utilize the majority of my bounty in one fell swoop. That is, until I tried making a soup out of purely miscellaneous vegetables. The goal is to have a way to use up everything, no matter what I end up purchasing at the farmers market.
But, can any mix of produce turn into a delicious soup? After researching many vegetable soup recipes, asking questions from trusted family sources, and a little testing, I’ve decided that it’s hard to go wrong with a good base. For French cooking, chefs use a combination of onions, carrots, and celery (also know as a mirepoix) to create a foundation for flavor used in many dishes. However, you don’t have to have all three vegetables from a mirepoix to form a good base, and you can certainly substitute the sweetness of red bell pepper instead of carrot. By using these vegetables in your soup, you’ll create an established starting point to build character, helping along the additional ingredients from your farmers market bounty.
There are several cooking methods used to develop flavor in vegetables before they hit the water of a soup, but each technique takes some time. You could always add your ingredients raw, but the soup will taste a lot less complex when using uncooked vegetables.
Turning up the background flavors can be done in a number of ways. Roasting vegetables brings out loads of flavor brought on by slow dry heat. I like this approach, but it means dirtying a baking tray or cookie sheet, along with an hour of roasting time.
Another approach is to sauté the vegetables at the bottom of a deep stock pot, which is also where the rest of the cooking takes place with added liquids. I like this method because it’s faster and there’s less clean up, but the process takes a little attention because the sauté has to be done in batches. Adding all the vegetables at once would steam them into gooey mush instead of allowing for a true sauté, giving them that nice browned exterior. That browning will help the soup develop complex background flavors.
When all the veggies have been sauteed you’ll have a now empty cooking vessel with lots of browned bits on the bottom. Now is the perfect time to deglaze those bits and concentrate some flavor. This is also when it makes sense to crank up the heat and add a stock, broth, or wine so it reduces in volume and maximizes flavors. You’ll want to include this step especially when using water for the main cooking liquid. Since water adds no flavor, adding some reduced wine will bring welcome entertainment to your taste buds when the soup is finished.
If you bought tomatoes at the farmers market, this is when you can add them as a puree (done in a blender or food processor) to your pot along with some oil. As the tomatoes cook at the bottom of the stock pot you are bringing them closer to a cooked paste, like what you might buy in a can. This step allows the tomato flavor to concentrate while building flavor and acidity, both of which will be a welcome addition to the soup.
Toward the end of the reduction process you add water, stock, or broth as the main cooking liquid. Then, bring the liquids in the pot to a boil. When you see that soup churning, it’s time to bring the heat back down to a simmer for the duration of cooking. Yes, this means your soup will take longer than if you just boiled it until the vegetables got soft, but such high heat can easily lead to overcooking and it gives less time for the broth to develop a rich hearty flavor.
Finally, I enjoyed the soup even more when I added thinly sliced aromatic vegetables right at the end of cooking, giving it a much needed foreground flavor. For one trial, I used thinly sliced fennel, and enjoyed the strong licorice tones. I never would have thought of adding fennel to soup had I not picked up too much at the farmers market.
Elastic Farmers Market Soup
- 2 cups of at least two mirepoix vegetables, 3/4 inch dice (onions, celery, carrots or red bell pepper)
- 4 cups other vegetables, 3/4 inch dice (green or bell peppers, eggplant, potatoes, fennel, zucchini, squash varieties, parsnips, turnips, green beans, leeks )
- optional: 2 cups leafy greens, rough chop (spinach, swiss chard, kale, collard or mustard greens)
- optional: 3 cups tomatoes, pureed
- optional: 2 cups wine, stock or broth
- 3 garlic cloves, rough chop (or more depending on your taste)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 Tbs canola oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- main cooking liquids to cover vegetables by one inch, roughly two quarts (water, broth, or stock)
- optional: 1 3/4 cups thinly sliced aromatic vegetables (bell peppers, fennel, sweet onions)
Place all vegetables (excluding leafy greens and tomato puree) in large mixing bowl and toss to combine.
In a large stock pot over medium heat, add oil and heat until simmering. Add vegetables to cover bottom of pot, try not to overlap vegetables. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, stir, and cook for four minutes. Stir again after another four minutes, or when you see browned edges starting on the vegetables. Using a large spoon, remove browned vegetables and reserve.
Continue this process with additional batches until all vegetables have been browned.
If using wine, broth, or stock, add to pot over high heat and boil rapidly until reduced by half. Reserve.
If using tomato puree, add to empty pot with 1 Tbs oil and cook over medium high heat for 6 minutes or until pasty and sticky, stirring constantly. Scoop out using a large spoon and reserve.
Add more oil, adjust heat to medium, then dump in chopped garlic and sauté for one minute or until fragrant.
To the garlic, add all browned vegetables, bay leaves, tomato puree, and reduced liquids, then pour in your main cooking liquids to cover by one inch and adjust heat to high. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat to low or until just simmering. Cook uncovered for one hour.
If using tougher greens like kale or collards, add them to the soup after 40 minutes. If using tender greens like spinach or swiss chard, add at the end of the hour. This is also the time to add any thinly sliced aromatic vegetables.
For a thicker soup, use a stick blender to briefly puree vegetables until it reaches a desired consistency.