Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spring Harvest Meal: Cream of Lovage Soup

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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the Lovage info. I have a Lovage plant that I obtained from a plant swap last year. I planted it in my herb garden not knowing much about it - not even knowing it would come up for me every year ;) So this year when it came back, I started reading into a little more.

Unknown said...

Stupid Question-Do we have lovage in the UK.

I can drink soup all year, even been know to have in hot climates during my travels in places like Africa (Butternut Squash was particularly delicious I seem to remember..).

We have beautiful weather here in the UK at the moment...more like summer than spring but if you offered me your soup I would love it!

Sft x

Monica said...

Thanks for the extra info Kate. Of course my lovage won't be ready for a while since I started it from seed early this year (January?). I am looking forward to trying it out though since....well...I never have.
And your "methodology" of cream of soup. Though I haven't gone to culinary school of any type I did figure out long ago that if you know how to make a can make a LOT of things. Add cheese to the roux and the possibilities seem to become almost limitless (especially if you use more than just Cheddar!).
Anyway..good lovage info.Thanks!

M L Jassy said...

Lovage is served at a groovy restaurant in Tasmania called Garagistes. They also serve sloe! The soup looks great, bon ap!

Hazel said...

SFT, we do have lovage in the UK. It was brought here by the Romans, but fell out of favour in more recent times when 'domesticated' veg like celery became more prevalent and tastes changed.
As Kate said, it's more than just wild celery. I'd not thought about cardamom, but certainly something spicy/resinous about it.
Mine is about 2 foot tall at the moment.
I've not been very adventurous with mine, but have been thinking of ways to make better use of it, as it grows so well. I'm reading some food history books, which may give me some ideas, otherwise, with eggs or in bread seem popular combinations, or even lovage wine using a parsley wine recipe.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much Hazel for the lovage info.

Sft x

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - You've highlighted just two of my failings in one post: I've never eaten lovage and I'm a terrible soup maker. It's a strange cooking blindspot for me.

I'm going to find a shady corner and try lovage, as a bloody mary straw at least. Thanks for the all interesting post.

Unknown said...

I love lovage, the smell of it is great. I am way down in Florida and tend to have to keep mine in semi-shade as it gets way too hot in full sun, especially in summertime.

Great blog!

Kate said...

Allison, you're welcome. If this is your second year with lovage, it'll probably get twice as big as it did last year, and also put out some blooms. Enjoy it.

SFT, I'm glad Hazel answered your question, because I couldn't have answered it for certain.

Monica, yes, roux is a useful substance in the kitchen. Your lovage plant may get large enough this year to be used lightly as a flavoring. We don't live near the ocean, but I see a lot of recipes pairing it with fish and shellfish. I think it works well with poultry and stuffing too.

Mitzi, is that a place that serves garage vints? It's always fun to watch (from afar) what foods and trends are the darlings of hip restaurants.

Hazel, thanks for the assist. I'd be curious, if you taste your lovage if you see the similarity with cardamom. I wonder if it's particularly notable to me because cardamom is probably my favorite spice.

Jennifer, that is an odd cooking blindspot. Soup just seems so anything-goes. I'm glad to encourage you to try lovage, and I cherish the image of you with your feet up after a long summer day of work, sipping a bloody mary through a lovage straw. When that happens, I hope you'll post about it.

xysea, do you pair your lovage with seafood? How do you use it?

ThiftedBliss said...

Kate , this soup sounds fantastic-I will certainly try it. I use lovage chopped in mixed green salad, in tuna salad and egg salad, deviled eggs, in tomato soup and chopped up in salsa. I also add it to my herb concoction when I make steamers in the summer. Karen from CT