The modern-day conception is unmistakably French although soups of this nature undoubtedly floated all around Europe before the codification of national cuisines in the 19th century.
They rely on only a handful of ingredients for flavoring and they can be tailored to both the seasons and the occasion. The soup can be made limpid and elegant or hearty and robust using just a few tricks.
The recipe at its heart is simple. Onions and/or related alliums — leeks, garlic, shallots are sautéed in olive oil till they are golden. Then water (or a clear broth) is added and the mixture brought to a boil. To this are added some vegetables which are cooked until tender. The vegetables (typically root vegetables) add their own flavor to the broth. At the last minute, finely chiffonaded greens are added and the soup is taken off the heat and served.
The recipe is so extraordinarily simple that naturally the CC needs to explain it in copious detail.
Simplicity frequently belies an underlying deep complexity.
The allium family, of which onions are a member of, are rich in volatile sulfur compounds. This is what causes their pungency and all the tearing. Only a small amount of molecules make their way to your eye but it's enough for you to start crying. It's a defense mechanism to prevent them from being eaten by animals but, of course, we humans figured a work around.
The flavor is coming from the sautéeing of the alliums. The sulfur compound that causes the tearing (1-propenyl sulfenic acid) converts in the presence of heat into another compound (3-mercapto-2-methlylpentan-1-ol) that is strongly present in meat broth. This is perceived to our tongues in the presence of salt as a very strong savory flavor. We're using alliums but our tongues and stomach are screaming "MEAT!!!".
This is why many cuisines worldwide use onions as the base of any recipe. It also shows how strongly the evolution of our tongue and diet has relied on meat, the last few thousand years of modern-day vegetarianism notwithstanding.
The addition of vegetables to this broth increases the savory quotient and results in an intensely flavored broth. The greens add complexity, nutrition, textural and visual interest.
The vegetables are almost always paired with their corresponding greens. Beets and beet greens. Turnips and turnip greens. Carrots and carrot fronds. Potatoes and dandelion greens (weeds). You get the idea.
This recipe is clearly a peasant recipe that got refined and passed upwards into the nobility. It's origins clearly betray the fact that it was meant as a recipe that doesn't waste anything. You use the beets and the greens that come up with the beets. The entire plant and no wastage. Something that should appeal to the present "back-to-the-past waste-not-want-not" movement.
Heft can be added in one of four different ways:
- Broth instead of water.
- Cooked beans which add more protein.
- Soup poured over stale bread.
- Sprinkling of parmesan on top (more umami.)
For the record, the CC once made the lightest alternative for his mom as part of a three-course lunch and he was greeted with, "I want a second helping."
This is a meta-recipe that clearly belongs in the Pantheon of the Greats.
2 small golden beets with greens attached
1 head spring garlic
3 cups water
black pepper (lots!)
1/2 cup white beans pre-cooked (optional)
4 slices stale bread (optional)
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano (optional)
Note 1: The recipe is made with golden beets because it respects the "clean" broth look that this recipe entails. The water has a light golden color. Regular beets would work but they would color the broth pink. The recipe has a clear limpid texture even though that's not obvious in the picture above.
Note 2: For a more elegant presentation while adding heft, make some parmesan toasts.
Separate the beets from the greens. Cut out the central stem of each frond retaining just the leafy green part.
Peel the beets and chop into flat medium-thick rings.
Chop the onions into quarter rings. Chop the garlic into slivers.
Sautée the onions and garlic in some olive oil at medium heat. Add the black pepper. When they are golden (but not colored) add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down. Add the beets and beans (if using) and let cook covered for about 6-7 minutes at medium heat until the beets are done.
Taste the broth for salt and add as much as necessary.
Once more bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Add the greens and turn the heat off. Let them sit for 1 minute.
Serve at once over bread (if using) with parmesan (if using).