There are a few tried-and-true approaches to making vegetarian dishes really shine. One is to throw a variety of techniques at a variety of ingredients: perhaps grilling an eggplant, followed by turning its flesh into a purée with some olive oil, and combining that with some charred fresh peppers and toasted almonds to make a Mediterranean-style mezze. Another is to find a bold and equally varied combination of spices that work in harmony, an approach taken in many cuisines, including Indian, Ethiopian, and Bangladeshi, to name a few. This can be difficult to learn and equally difficult to impart: more of an art than a science, bound by thousands of years of tradition.
The approach taken here, however, is one that anyone can learn, and perhaps arguably the simplest. One of the most memorable dishes I learned to make in culinary school was a farmers' vegetable soup (potage du fermier). It's a humble dish, to be sure, especially in comparison to the grand, classical meat-based dishes with their mother sauces and variations, but the principles it taught me were illuminating.
The key here is to take your time. Building layers of flavor is a process that cannot be rushed. The vegetables are cut to a specific (and small) size to ensure even cooking and maximum extraction of flavor. This is the most important part of the recipe, more important than the cooking itself. Dicing the mirepoix isn't good enough: Instead, aim for pieces that are almost (if not literally) thin and small enough to see through. Really mince the onion, and when it comes to cutting the carrots and celery, cut them into matchsticks as if to make them finely diced, and then line up the matchsticks to slice them into thin squares. It is worth the effort, and you'll be able to taste the difference.
To save a bit of time, this is one recipe where the prep shouldn't all be done in advance. Get the mirepoix cooking first, and then prep the rest of the vegetables in the order you'll be using them. There is an order because every vegetable has a different cooking time: The potatoes take much longer than the mushrooms, which in turn, take much longer than the spinach.
And don't forget to season every time you add a new ingredient to the mix.
So make no mistake: This is a soup that will take about two hours to make. If you don't have two hours, go out and buy soup.
Game plan: Cut mirepoix | cook mirepoix | prep remaining vegetables | add broths, herbs, rice, potatoes | add mushrooms | add spinach and parsley
- 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 lg yellow onion, minced
- 2 carrots, cut into sm thin squares
- 2 stalks celery, cut into sm thin squares
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 qt mushroom broth
- 2 c vegetable broth
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 1 sprig sage
- 1 c wild rice
- 1 ¼ lb red potatoes, finely diced
- ½ lb white mushrooms, finely diced
- 1 bunch spinach
- 1 c finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery, and cook until soft and flavorful, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Stir regularly, and do not caramelize.
2. Add the mushroom broth, vegetable broth, bay leaves, and sage. Increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add the wild rice and potatoes, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
3. Add the mushrooms, and simmer until the rice is done, about 15-20 minutes. Add water if the stew is getting too thick.
4. Remove the bay leaves and sage sprig. Stir in the spinach until just wilted, about 1-1 ½ minutes. Stir in the parsley, and serve.