As hard as it is to believe, it seems we’ve officially entered the mad holiday dash. This is the time of year when recipes for cookies, holiday party fare and festive cocktails abound on the internet; while I usually love the holiday spirit that overtakes the blogging world in December, this year I’ve been more interested in savoring the quiet delights of my daily routine than in worrying about creating a lavish holiday spread or trying yet another cookie recipe. While there is a part of me that feels a bit cut off from the usual brand of holiday magic–tinsel, glitter and Christmas carols and cookies–that I like to revel in, I know that I’ll be getting my fair share of these things as soon as I arrive in Pennsylvania next week. For now, there are other pleasures to be had: mugs of steaming hot cocoa with marshmallows, nights spent curled up on the sofa reading Night Film and brisk walks with the dog around the beautifully decorated neighborhood with the unseasonably (for the Bay Area at least) cold and very wintry wind blowing around us. Most importantly, on these chilly evenings, there has been cause for soup, lots and lots of soup.
While I like to consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, the truth is that I would be happy eating soup for dinner each and every day. This has been the case for as long as I can remember, from childhood afternoons spent eating what I considered my “specialty,” lumpy cream of mushroom soup (i.e. a can of Campbell’s with only the tiniest bit of water or milk mixed in; maybe I shudder to think of it now, but I really loved it then. I’m also convinced that I must have suffered from a sodium deficiency for this to have tasted good to me) to the semester when I lived in St. Petersburg and was treated to a big bowl of soup, the traditional Russian first course, at each evening meal. And my first years of grad school, in addition to pushing me to fill the gaps in my knowledge of the Russian canon, were all about discovering the homey pleasures and simplicity of split pea (largely thanks to this lady) and lentil soups.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, each year I inevitably add one or two soups to my repertoire of “cold weather food” and this year has possibly been even better than most. Not only have I tagged a peanut and sweet potato soup in Vegetable Literacy that sounds like perfect winter fare, but I’ve also made a stunning leek and yogurt soup (I’m saving this recipe for the New Year) and have discovered what is now my favorite way of cooking with Swiss Chard: a Tunisian Soup that combines chard with harissa (a Tunisian hot chili sauce), lemon, chickpeas cumin, tomato paste and, for substance, egg noodles. In fact, since June, when I first discovered this recipe (I would have written about it sooner, but because most of the world, unlike the Bay Area, experiences warm to very hot weather in the summer months, I decided to hold onto this one for a while), I’ve made it no less than five times. It’s appeared on our table so frequently that it’s now pretty much an accepted fact that if we bring chard into our home, it will be turned into this soup.
Although we’ve been eating this soup over and over again for the past six months, we still haven’t become tired of it. In fact, strangely enough, the first spoonful of a freshly made pot can still take us by surprise. There’s something about the complex combination of flavors in the soup, as well as how much harissa you decide to stir in, that makes each batch almost entirely novel. It’s as soothing as a soup should be, but it’s also got some sass. And like most soups, its flavor only improves with time. All of that being said, the other thing I really like about this soup is that it asks you to use both the chard leaves and chard stems; it’s nice to find a recipe that incorporates both (of course, chard stems make a nice addition to any vegetable stock, but that’s no reason not to eat them) and eliminates waste. This really allows the chard, not the flashiest of ingredients, to shine.
Tunisian Soup with Chard, Chickpeas and Harissa
yields 4-6 servings
adapted, ever so slightly, from Gourmet/Epicurious
While the recipe calls for a “rich and flavorful chicken stock” and I’ll admit that that does yield a delicious soup, I’ve also made this soup with homemade vegetable broth, as well as with either chicken or vegetable Better than Bouillon (a great addition to any pantry). All versions have turned out, so feel free to make substitutions.
I also tend to like more noodles in my soup, although I realize that they will absorb the broth; if you don’t mind a little less broth and a lot more substance, I recommend going the hearty route and adding a few ounces more of egg noodles. On a similar note, depending on your spice tolerance, you might want to be careful with the harissa; the first time I made it, I either bravely or stupidly added two tablespoons. The next time, after having been jolted awake by the heat, I cut back to 2 teaspoons. Since then, I’ve been adding 1 tablespoon and I think that leads to a noticeable bite, but one that isn’t overpowering.
Also, while toasting and grinding cumin seeds will lead to a more fragrant soup, if you’re pressed for time, this step can be skipped. Ground cumin won’t affect the soup’s flavor.
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground or 1 teaspoon ground cumin (toasted if desired)
1 pound Swiss chard, stems and center ribs chopped and leaves roughly torn or chopped (leaves will be reserved until the end)
1 large onion (yellow or red), chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
2 quarts homemade chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 tablespoons harissa
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, rinsed
4-8 ounces egg noodles (about 1 1/2 – 3 cups)
salt and pepper, to taste
lemon wedges, for serving
-Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat.
-Add chard stems, onion, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon cumin and salt (if using store bought stock, make sure it’s reduced sodium or skip the salt at this stage) and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to brown.
-Then, add the tomato paste and cook, constantly stirring, for 2 minutes.
-Add stock, harissa and lemon juice and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
-Then, add chard leaves, chickpeas and noodles and simmer until tender, about 7-10 minutes.
-Adjust seasoning and serve with a lemon wedge and the additional 1/2 teaspoon of cumin.