This time of year is perfect for lighter soups that showcase the flavors of seasonal vegetables. Taste isn’t the only reason for cooking up a big pot of spring soup. It can save you money, too. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Cornell University scientists found that the cost per serving is usually lower for in season fresh food than for processed food. Further, a recent USDA Economic Research Service analysis found that fresh seasonal produce costs 12 to 18 cents per serving on average. Eating in-season fruits and vegetables will also provide you countless health benefits, thanks to an almost endless variety of nutrients.

Italians enjoy food in its most straightforward state—no fuss, just real ingredients in their purest form, allowing for the integrity the of the ingredients to shine. They also use the time of year as their guide and work with products available, visiting their local grocers or farmer’s markets to see what is fresh. The delicate flavors in these soups are a direct reflection of the new beginnings taking place around us in our environment. Sometimes the most effortless dish makes for the most appetizing meal.

These soups provide the perfect way to incorporate spring’s most green ingredients: peas, asparagus and artichokes, to name a few. All great soups start with the basics- carrots, onions and celery- with variations like shallots, leeks, garlic and even fennel. The goal of a great soup is to build upon the basics to create a wonderful and balanced set of flavors, which can take hours or just 30 minutes. When making Italian soups, it’s best to start with traditional ingredients and then add your own personal flair to achieve something new and unique. Soups are a great way to showcase your individuality and taste.

The first two soup recipes below are two of my favorites for this time of year and I make them on a regular basis. The last group of soups are ones that I adapted from the cookbook,The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy by Domenica Marchetti, Chronicle Books, 2006. They are great examples of the kinds of soups made in Italy and in Italian American homes, that utilize all the wonderful springtime produce that are found in markets this time of year. I have changed some of the ingredients and some of the techniques to suit my family’s palate.

Broccoli Leek Soup                                                      

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2-pounds fresh broccoli
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium baking potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup half-and-half
  • 1/4 cup snipped chives

Directions:

Separate broccoli stems from florets. Using a vegetable peeler, peel stems to remove tough outer layer, then slice into 1/4-inch-thick “coins.” Break or cut the florets into small pieces. Reserve stems and florets separately.

In a medium saucepan, heat oil and butter over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add broccoli stems, potato and garlic and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add 3 cups broth, salt and pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover partially and simmer until broccoli and potato are tender, about 12 minutes.

Puree soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Return soup to the heat; add florets; bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Add half-and-half and chives and reheat on low briefly.

4 servings

Spring Chicken & Barley Soup

Yield: 10 cups

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium-sized boneless, skinless chicken breasts (approximately 1 lb, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1 large potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 stalks of celery, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 large tomato, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/2 cup pearled barley
  • 2 quarts low-sodium organic chicken stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • Chopped fresh Italian parsley for garnish

Directions:

Place barley in a bowl with just enough water to cover it.

Heat olive oil on medium heat in an 8-quart stockpot.

Add the chopped onion and garlic to the olive oil, cooking for 5 minutes.

Add the chicken to stockpot, along with the salt and black pepper. Brown for 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, vegetables and spices to the pot.

Drain the water from the barley. Add the barley to the soup.

Bring to a boil and turn the heat to medium. Cook for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender.

Pour into serving bowls and garnish with parsley.

Rice And Lettuce Soup

Rice And Lettuce Soup

Use a variety of lettuces for a mix of colors and textures, especially radicchio. The greens lose their bright hue when you cook them, taking on muted, earthy tones. If you want to perk up the color, gently stir in another handful or two of spinach during the last few minutes of cooking. Adding a small rind of Parmigiano while the soup is simmering boosts the flavor of the broth.

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1 rib celery, trimmed and finely chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
  • 1 small head butter lettuce, washed, trimmed and shredded
  • 1 small head romaine lettuce, washed, trimmed and shredded
  • 1 small head radicchio or escarole, washed, trimmed and shredded
  • 3 to 4 cups baby spinach leaves, washed
  • 6 cups homemade chicken broth or low-sodium commercial chicken broth
  • 1 small piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)
  • 1 cup Arborio or other risotto rice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup thinly shaved or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

In a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. When the butter has melted and begins to sizzle, stir in the carrot, celery, onion and parsley, and saute for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have begun to soften and the onion is translucent. Season with salt and then stir in the butter and romaine lettuces, radicchio and spinach, tossing the greens so that they are well-coated with the other ingredients. Cook, stirring from time to time, for 5 minutes or so, just until the greens have wilted.

Pour in the broth and add the Parmigiano rind. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer. Stir in the rice, raise the heat to medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and let the soup simmer gently for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. Taste and season with additional salt if necessary and a generous grinding of black pepper. Stir in 1/2 cup of the shaved or grated Parmigiano cheese.

Ladle the soup into a serving tureen or into individual bowls. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and the remaining cheese.

Shepherd's Soup

Shepherd’s Soup

This recipe is Sardinian based and uses tender vegetables and broken spaghetti in a simmered milk-based broth. In Italy, this soup is made with fresh sheep’s milk or goat’s milk.

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups cut-up thin green beans (1-inch pieces)
  • 7 baby carrots (3 to 4 inches long), halved lengthwise
  • 1 pound baby yellow or new potatoes, scrubbed clean and halved or quartered (about 2 cups)
  • 1 1/4 cups broken spaghetti (1-inch pieces)
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for garnish
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

In a medium Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, combine the milk and water and bring almost to a boil over medium-high heat (do not let the liquid boil over). Stir in the salt, green beans and carrots, reduce the heat to medium, and cook at a bare simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to turn tender. Add the potatoes and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until they are just starting to soften. Stir in the pasta and simmer gently for 15 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Stir in the peas and cook for 2 to 3 minutes if using frozen, or slightly longer if using fresh, or until they are tender but still bright green.

While the peas are cooking, put the cheese in a small bowl and add a few spoonfuls of the milky broth. Stir the cheese and hot broth together to make a thin paste and stir this paste into the soup until fully incorporated. Add a generous grinding of pepper and stir gently but thoroughly.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with an additional sprinkle of cheese.

Creamy Asparagus Soup

Tender green asparagus, spring onions and fennel combine in this for a typical spring. Adding pearled barley to the mix gives it a little more substance. Accompany the soup with country bread for a one-dish supper.

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups water
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • 1 cup pearled barley, rinsed
  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 spring onions, bulbs and tender white part of stalks sliced crosswise, about 1 cup
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and quarters thinly sliced crosswise
  • 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 6 cups homemade vegetable or chicken broth or low-sodium commercial broth, heated to a simmer
  • 6 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese

Directions:

Put the barley on to cook before you start the soup: In a large saucepan, combine the water and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Slowly pour in the barley. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until the barley is tender but still a bit chewy. It should not be mushy. Reduce the heat, if necessary, so that the barley cooks at a gentle, steady simmer. Drain the barley in a colander placed in the sink and let it sit for 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside.

While the barley is cooking, trim off the tough ends from the asparagus and discard them (or add them to the pot in which you are heating the broth to enhance its flavor; remove them before adding the broth to the soup).

Cut the asparagus stalks into 1-inch pieces. Set aside the tips. You should have about 4 1/2 cups asparagus pieces, not including the tips.

In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the spring onions and fennel, reduce the heat to medium-low and saute, stirring from time to time, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened.

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir vigorously to combine. Pour in 1 cup of the heated broth and stir for a minute or so to incorporate thoroughly.

Slowly pour in the remaining 5 cups of broth and add the asparagus pieces — except for the reserved tips — and the parsley sprigs. Increase the heat to medium and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until all the vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and let the soup cool for 10 minutes.

Using an immersion or standard blender, puree the soup until smooth.

Stir in the cooked barley and asparagus tips and heat gently over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve the soup, stir in 3/4 cup of the cheese. Ladle the soup into a large serving bowl or tureen and top the remaining 1/4 cup cheese.

Sweet Pea Soup With Radish

Makes 4 servings

For the radish topping:

  • 3 to 4 radishes, cut into thin slivers or small dice (1 cup)
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into thin slivers or small dice (1 cup)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 small spring onion (bulb only), thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Mix together the radish and cucumber with the coarse salt. Place the radish and cucumber in a small colander set over a bowl and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Gently squeeze out the excess liquid and pat vegetables dry with paper towels.

Transfer the radishes and cucumbers to a bowl and stir in the spring onion, oil, sugar and a grinding of pepper. Gently toss to combine. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature until serving time.

For the soup:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup thinly sliced spring onions or leeks (bulbs and tender parts of stalk)
  • 1 small sprig fresh marjoram
  • 1 small sprig fresh thyme
  • 3 to 4 cups homemade chicken or vegetable broth, or low-sodium commercial broth
  • 4 cups shelled peas (about 4 pounds in the pod) or 4 cups good quality frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup evaporated whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Mascarpone or ricotta cheese, for serving

Directions:

In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the spring onions and saute, stirring frequently, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until they have softened but are not browned. Add the marjoram and thyme and cook for 1 minute, stirring.

Pour in the broth, raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Carefully tip in the peas and cook for 6 to 8 minutes for fresh peas; 3 to 4 minutes for frozen, or until they are just tender but still bright green. Take off the heat and remove and discard the sprigs of marjoram and thyme. Using an immersion blender or a standard blender, puree the soup until smooth.

Return the soup to medium heat and stir in the milk, salt and pepper to taste. Heat until just warmed through.

Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of mascarpone or ricotta cheese and top with a spoonful of radish mixture.

 

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