Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvest Meal: French Peasant Soup

Tonight we'll have our first serious frost.  Temperatures forecast below freezing, so no ambiguity.  October is the month of goodbyes to all the bounty of summer.  The last vine-ripened tomato.  The last eggplant.  The last basil and parsley and tender sage.  A last flurry of harvests, and a growing appreciation for the sturdy leeks and kale that will hang on a few more weeks through the early frosts.  We draw in, rummage through the freezer for ingredients, turn our thoughts to the canning jars in the cellar, full of preserved spring and summer.

So today I gathered huge fistfuls of parsley.  They will keep for a few more days in the refrigerator.  You know this trick, don't you?  Place them in a large drinking glass full of water, cover them with a plastic bag, and secure the bag with a rubber band.  Really, they'll keep beautifully for about a week if they're cut fresh.

But I've also been longing to prepare a recipe I came across in Emelie Carles' book, A Life of Her Own.  It's not a cookbook, but a sort of memoir, from the era before memoirs were fashionable to write and trivial to read.  This book is sturdy, like the peasant woman who wrote it.  Yes, she called herself and her neighbors peasants, and used the term matter-of-factly, with neither pride nor shame.  This endeared her to me immediately.  I like the word peasant, and feel an affinity for it in the sense of being tied to the land.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in how people lived in a isolated mountain valley from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century.

In the Claree Valley, where Emilie Carles lived all her life, wild greens and herbs were available for the picking for more months out of the year than any cultivated crops.  She sketched a simple soup made with an evenhanded mixture of many of these foraged foods, plus a bit of garlic, and potato or rice.  It sounded far too good to resist.  So I also gathered all the herbs and greens I could find today.  Madame Carles stressed that the key was to balance all these green ingredients, so that no one flavor predominates in the soup.

"Wild" arugula - Though in fact it was something I planted deliberately once upon a time.  Now it simply shows up all over the property.

Dandelion - Began reappearing in the cool fall weather after a summer hiatus.

Sage - Only the tiniest leaves now meet my fussy standards.  The bigger ones have toughened up too much in the chill.

Nettles - A transplant put in before our long hot summer.  Apparently thrives on utter neglect.

Chives - Because the recipe doesn't call for any onion, and how could I resist?

Parsley - Surely the backbone of any herb and potato soup.

Thyme - Two tiny sprigs of regular, plus one tiny sprig of lemon thyme.

Oregano - Barely hanging on through the early frost.

Rosemary - So as not to overpower the other flavors, only the merest clipping from the top of one stem. (This one's potted up and sitting winter out in the living room.)

Altogether my herbs and greens came to 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces.  The parsley and chives were finely minced, the rest well diced.  I started the soup with a generous hunk of butter to saute the minced garlic.  I debated the authenticity of this fat however.  Would an Alpine peasant more likely cook with lard, or butter?  Lard seemed more likely to me, and I could have started the soup with some of my home cured lardo.  But I didn't feel inclined that way today, so butter it was.  Once the garlic had sizzled a bit, the finely minced parsley and chives went in to sizzle for a couple of minutes as well.  The rest of the greens and herbs went in along with a double handful of our potatoes, cut up onto bite size pieces. I added a good pinch of kosher salt and several twists of white pepper.

I added just barely enough water to cover, wanting to test how much flavor the ingredients would give a simple water broth.  There was always the possibility of adding some chicken stock later, if it needed a little sumpin' sumpin'.  So keeping the liquid minimal at this stage was important to preserve that option.  I let it simmer gently for 15 minutes and tasted.  The broth was very flavorful, but I still thought the chicken stock would benefit it.  I added 1 1/2 cups of that and another pinch of salt.  This is probably an unforgivable deviation from authentic French low cuisine.  But you know what?  It's really fantastic!  Green tasting, with a straightforward integrity, and yet also a complex interplay of flavors among the greens and herbs. And everything but the salt and pepper were produced right here.

This may well become a late October tradition on the homestead.


Darlene said...

sounds like a perfect meal to have on a chilly day,add some homemade bread and it would be heaven! said...

DELISH! So when do you open a french restaurant? :) :) This is something you would come across in a small provincial eatery. Im going to make it soon!

Wendy said...

I've always been kind of partial to the sister word: heathen :).

Mme. Carles book was great. I'll have to try the recipe, too. We still have kale in the garden, and I also noticed the dandelion greens making a comeback ;). It's always great to have more recipes for things that are not, necessarily, a part of the average American diet (but should be).

Re: the butter vs. lard question, I'm thinking that as farmers with a cow, there's just as good a chance they'd have butter as lard, but I don't really know. I'm just guessing ;).

cookiecrumb said...

It's really beautiful. I'm not frightened at all!
Boo. :)

PS: I'm planning a "weed pie," which will be made as you constructed your soup, by filching everything left in the garden (including potatoes) and cooking it all in a crust with feta cheese.

teekaroo said...

Both the book and the soup sound wonderful.

Lorie said...

Interesting, I will have to find the book. Soup looks wonderful. I spent yesterday gather herbs to dry as our first frost approaches.

Sandy said...

I just used your blog to inspire my own peasant soup...all the greens from my own garden (leftover scraps except for the kale): upland cress, baby leeks, celery leaves, parsley, kale, dandelion, sage, rosemary, chives, garlic, oregano...mmmm. I started with local bacon; removed it from the pan and used the fat to saute the leeks, garlic and kale. Then I added a handful of new potatoes and baby carrots cut in bite sized pieces from my local organic market. Simmered it all in water, added salt, pepper and a little white wine. Tossed in the bacon bits in the end. YUM. Thanks for the inspiration! THose tender bits all added up to a delicious meal!

Mitzi G Burger said...

I'm enjoying meandering around your blog. I especially like the photo of the thyme - one day I hope mine grows that tall.

Kate said...

Darlene, the potatoes were enough starch for me, but yes, it was good for a chilly day. Soup season is here.

1916, very funny. I've worked in restaurants and know very well that ownership is not for me. Hope you enjoyed your version of the soup if you made it.

Wendy, I'm all for reclaiming and embracing words that have traditionally been used pejoratively. Glad you liked the book. I don't remember her ever mentioning milking a cow, though she did mention keeping a bull for stud. I wonder if they had a dual- or multi-purpose breed. E.g. dairy/meat/draft. It would make sense, but the lack of mention about the milking routine seems remarkable to me given the way she covered topics. Certainly above the tree line in the Alps, dairy would prevail. But that's not the Claree Valley, and she does mention the prominence of lard and pork several times. Thus it's hard to say what *she* did. But the overall trend of peasant cooking is to use what you've got, so...

Cookiecrumb, thanks. Weed pie sounds quite nice. I might try that with a nice gruyere.

teekaroo, hope you enjoy them if you give them a try.

Lorie, I never think of drying herbs at this time of year. I suppose I should, since the little attention I can give to it in early summer doesn't seem to be enough.

Sandy, sounds like a nice mixture. I'm using leeks in mine next time.

Mitzi, thanks and welcome. That thyme is three years old. It grows slowly but fairly steadily.

Jennifer Montero said...

there was a blurb recently on one of our radio programmes that in the 21st century humans only consume 1/100th of the variety of greens that we consumed in recent history (sorry so vague - but you get the idea).

Some argue it's because harvested wild greens was peasant food and therefore low class. Others that markets have reduced our choices and limited our taste for strong flavoured greens. Nice to see you bucking the trend! and the soup looks great.

Amy said...

Hi there, I just stumbled on your blog. I'm enjoying reading your posts. We have similar interests and thought you may be interested in checking out my blog as well.

Kate said...

Jennifer, I've heard similar accounts of how constricted and narrow our diets have become. In principle, I'd certainly like to have a broader base of nutrients to depend on. This soup makes it quite easy and palatable to do that, so I'm going to try making it on a regular basis, so long as there are greens to be had. I like old school low class food. It's usually quite tasty, nutritive, and cheap. Contrary to modern low class food, which is exactly the opposite on all three counts.

Amy, hi and welcome. I'll be checking out your blog as time allows. Thanks for pointing me to it.