Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Posted by Kate at 3:28 PM
The temperature is gradually warming up, but the weather has been grey and damp and dreary lately. The herbs are all coming on strong, and the asparagus are just breaking ground in their raised beds. I got my spring haircut, so the nape of my neck is bare, which only means I don't have a great desire to be outside more than necessary when the sun is hidden. This is all a roundabout way of saying it's soup weather.
So today I whipped up a bare bones, easy-peasy cream of lovage soup. Cream soups were a staple of the curriculum at culinary school. There we were taught a formula and a methodology rather than individual cream-of recipes. Pretty much, you can make a cream-of soup out of any ingredient. Now, having told you there's a formula, you might reasonably expect me to tell you what the formula is. Sadly, the exact proportions are lost in the mists of time, at least to my mind. What has stuck are the ingredient list and the methodology, which is admittedly a bit fussy in the sense that too many pans get dirtied. It is after all, a French recipe.
When I was in culinary school "lilies" were shorthand for anything in the onion family. I believe at one time all onion relatives were classified in the lily family by botanists. In any case, the chefs just referred to "lilies" in a formula, while an individual recipe would specify which lily was called for, such as onion, shallots, leeks, ramps, scallions or even garlic. Lilies are one cornerstone of a cream-of soup, and the other is the main ingredient. Then of course there's the cream. Since this is a French recipe, it goes without saying that multiple additions of butter are also involved, one of which is likely to be roux. Roux is just a cooked mixture of flour and butter. (Enough divagations yet? Can we move on?)
So my cream of lovage soup recipe took advantage of my three-year-old lovage plant, which is up and at 'em very early in the year. Convenience came into it in other ways as well. There were those salvaged and precooked leeks hanging out in the chest freezer, and scrumptious canned stock made from our home raised turkey. Also there was some parsley butter (a convenient means of preserving last year's herbs) in the freezer. Those four convenience foods made this soup a snap to pull together in no time.
The prepped leeks were roughly equivalent to one medium leek, already chopped up and partially cooked in butter. These went into a soup pot to thaw over medium heat. When thawed, I added two bay leaves, a good pinch of kosher salt, and half a pound of lovage - the chopped up stalks first, the leafy tops initially reserved. There was enough butter in the leeks to handle the lovage stalks too. When these were nicely sweated and softened, I added the leafy tops, a quart of our smoked turkey stock, and about 2 tablespoons of the parsley butter. While that warmed through, I cooked a very thick roux with a couple tablespoons of butter and three heaping tablespoons of flour in a separate pan. I went to the hassle of straining the solid ingredients from the liquid (removing the bay leaves) in order to puree them. The strained liquid was gradually (to avoid lumps) mixed into the roux, and then the pureed solids returned to the pot. (A wand blender, if you have one, would get you close enough to the same effect with less bother and cleanup.) From there I added a good glug (1/2 a cup or so) of cream, tasted to adjust seasonings, and then warmed the soup through for serving. It was very nice, but light enough to need some toasted bread for extra ballast
If we'd had any potatoes left, they would have been a perfect addition to this soup. They'd give it some heft, turning it into a far more substantial meal, and would be a satisfying way to use up the last of the winter stores by pairing them with a bright new flavor from one of the earliest spring crops. Another option that suggests itself to my tastebuds is the addition of wild rice to this soup. I think the complex flavor of the lovage would complement the dark nuttiness of wild rice very nicely. And fully cooked wild rice is an excellent thickener when pureed. With the addition of either potatoes or wild rice, the roux could be omitted, making the dish gluten-free.
I suppose I should talk about lovage, since it's not the most familiar herb to modern palates. The taste of lovage is commonly likened to celery, but I think there's a great deal more to it than that. While I certainly taste the kinship to celery, lovage also reminds me strongly of cardamom. The later in the season, the more the celery taste recedes, and the more the cardamom flavor predominates. But lovage has something else all its own that is neither celery, nor cardamom. It's hard to describe, but lovage is a big flavored herb, far stronger tasting to my palate than self-effacing celery. The stalks of lovage are round and hollow, so some people apparently use them as straws - particularly for bloody marys, which benefit from the celery-ish taste imparted by the stalks.
As a plant, lovage has many virtues too. It's perennial and hardy to zone 4 or 5, depending on whom you believe. On my homestead it tolerates half a day or more of total shade, and actually requires partial shade in warmer zones than mine (6b). It is reputed to improve the health of many other crops when companion planted, and it provides habitat for beneficial insects, especially hoverflies. Though it can become bitter and tough in hot weather, you can cut it back hard in summer to encourage the growth of tender new stalks with milder flavor. Like many herbs, lovage is unfussy about soil type, water, and temperatures once it has established itself. In the second and subsequent years it gets tall by mid-summer - up to 5 or 6 feet, but is not an aggressive spreader. This is an herb that I have utterly ignored except for an occasional shovelful of compost side-dressing once in a while, usually in fall. It comes up reliably for us and is much appreciated at this time of year, when we crave green things. It can be propagated from seed or root division, which we plan to try next year.
So that's the run down on lovage. If you've got a shady spot that has gone begging, you might consider giving it to this early, delicious, and easy to grow herb. If you already grow and cook with lovage, I'd love to hear what you do with it.