Saturday, March 8, 2008

Spring Cleanup Soup

Among my many sins, I have been neglecting for months a small patch of beets in one of my garden beds. It just so happens that this bed parallels the alley from our driveway to the front door, so that I frequently pass by these beets and remind myself that I should be doing something with them.

To put an exclamation point on my guilty feelings, I looked back in my garden journal and saw that I originally planted these beets on August 4 of last year. Could they possibly be seven months old? Granted, this is an area that receives only morning sun and the winter sun is not much. But most of the plants had never advanced beyond the wee juvenile stage. They were still leafy and obviously alive, however, sagging when things got too cold, perking up again as the weather improved. They just seemed to be in some sort of state of arrested development.

Well, yesterday we started our spring cleanup and planting. The beds where the beets were located is destined for other things. I lifted the beets out of the ground with my forked spade and began sifting through them. Curiously, some of the beets were still mere seedlings. (So what have they been doing all this time?) None were what you would call "mature." But several were big enough to bother cooking, and after tasting a sample, I determined that all the greens were indeed edible.

This sounded like the component of a meal--what, exactly, I wasn't sure. Then I remembered not one but two containers of homemade chicken stock in the fridge that absolutely needed to be consumed. A quick check of the pantry revealed a one-pound bag of small red beans that have been sitting around doing nothing forever. A small bag of brown rice was perched on top of a canister, looking for a permanent home. The glimmerings of a soup began to appear.

Start with 1 red onion that is beginning to sprout on your kitchen counter. Remove the green center where it is growing and cut the rest into medium dice. Dice another leftover 1/2 onion from the crisper drawer, plus three medium carrots. Start cooking the onion and carrot in about 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom of a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven set over moderately-low heat. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt to bring out the juices. Next add three cloves garlic, crushed and chopped fine.

When the onions are soft, stir in about 12 cups homemade chicken stock. Add 1 pound small red beans and two or three sprigs fresh thyme. Raise heat, bringing the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the beans are cooked through. This will probably take three or four hours. Now stir in 1 cup brown rice and cook until the rice is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and add 1 can of diced tomatoes, drained, and about 1 gallon of beet greens, cleaned and coarsely chopped. (This would also be an appropriate time for other winter greens you might have, such as kale or collards, but I might have cooked them separately before adding to the soup.) Season to taste with salt and freshly groud black pepper.

Our soup turned out pretty thick. You can always thin it with more chicken stock or water if you like. In the picture above, a scoop of queso fresco, or fresh cheese from the Latin market, completes the ensemble. You could also use finely grated cheddar or jack or another or your favorite cheeses. What sits before you now is a complete protein, you don't really need anything else, except perhaps a nice glass of red wine.

You should have enough soup to freeze several servings, in addition to filling an 8-cup container that will make breakfast for the foreseeable future. And if you are wondering what happened to all the beets--I cleaned them and peeled them and roasted them. I went out to run an errand and let them cook a bit too long, but they were still perfectly edible. Which begs the question: How long can you leave a beet in the ground and still eat it?

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