I have a theory about soup recipes. They are more. Because soup is really just a formula. You fill in multiple variables in different ways, which produces very different and delicious results.
Let’s go through the elements.
First there are the aromatics. Have you ever seen a soup recipe that didn’t start with a combination of onion, celery, carrot and/or garlic? Most of my favorite soups contain all of these things. (I’m sure someone will share a recipe with me that contradicts this, but I’ll say it’s a rare exception.)
Then there’s the liquid. Most often it is soup or broth, but there are other options. It can be juice or milk (more on that later) or even plain water. Liquid is the ultimate element of soup, whether it’s the primary source of flavor or the vehicle for all the stars swimming in the pool.
Next up is the “stuff”. Whatever goes into the liquid will probably end up in the soup. This is when things like tomatoes, beans, or starchy vegetables (think corn or potatoes) show up and get all the glory. If I cook, there are probably mushrooms in it. Can be rice or noodles. For those who cook with meat, this is when you think of chicken or ham. Combinations and amounts are completely variable.
Finally, there’s texture. You can change this in many ways, some without adding another ingredient. Heavy cream can bring a velvety texture to the soup. Also cheese. But some of the beans that are already there can be crushed. Or potatoes.
I started thinking about this while flipping through Suzy Karadshe’s cookbook, Mediterranean Food. I came across this recipe for chickpea and spinach soup, and I couldn’t stop thinking that it was a soup I would make every day while staring at the pantry without a plan. I turned the page and then 10 more until I realized that was the beauty of it.
You start with a large onion and garlic that fits your personality. There is a vegetable soup, and some chickpeas are crushed to thicken it. Keep the rest whole and stick with the spinach to be the star of your bowl. If you didn’t split the beans at all, the soup would be fine, it would just be thin and bland. If you pureed all the chickpeas, the soup would be fine, just thick and smooth.
The soup is delicious with ingredients selected by Karadshe. But you can think of this recipe any time you’re standing in front of the pantry without a plan. Chickpeas can become black beans, black beans or squash. Or they can turn into barley, rice or tortellini. Spinach can be turned into collards, canned tomatoes, or … what’s your favorite? It could happen.
This is the formula. Start with a chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic. Add about 4 cups of broth and 3-4 cups of canned or chopped vegetables. A few teaspoons of your favorite herbs or spices. Bring to a boil. It will be good.
So take it slow and check out this soup recipe. Then do it and enjoy. Then the next time you want soup, know that you really don’t need a recipe.
Garlic spinach and chickpea soup
Adapted from “Mediterranean Food” by Susie Karadsche (Clarkson Potter, 2022).
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing
1 large yellow onion (about 10 ounces), diced
4-5 large cloves of garlic, crushed or pressed
¼ teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Two (15 oz.) cans drained, unsalted chickpeas (can also use 3 cups cooked chickpeas with ½ cup cooking liquid)
4 cups vegetable broth, store-bought or homemade
2 cups (2 ounces) baby spinach
½ cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1 large lemon, divided
¼ cup grated pecorino romano cheese (can substitute for vegan parmesan cheese) (optional)
Crusty bread for serving
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic and salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin, coriander, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and black pepper and stir to combine.
Add the chickpeas and stir to coat the spices. Use a potato masher or the back of a large spoon to mash the chickpeas, just enough to break some of them up a bit. Add the broth and reserved chickpea liquid, increase the heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pan, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat and stir in the spinach and parsley. Let the broth rest for 1 minute, then add the juice of half a lemon. Taste and season with remaining lemon juice and/or more salt if desired.
Ladle soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and top each bowl with 1 tablespoon of cheese, if using. Serve with warm, crusty bread.
Yield: 6 servings