An emerald bisque with a texture so luscious you'd never guess it was made without cream. A chunky chowder rich with the earthy flavor of fresh potatoes and the pungent sweetness of green garlic. A shrimp broth enlivened by artichokes and gnocchi perfumed with fresh spring herbs.

An emerald bisque with a texture so luscious you'd never guess it was made without cream. A chunky chowder rich with the earthy flavor of fresh potatoes and the pungent sweetness of green garlic. A shrimp broth enlivened by artichokes and gnocchi perfumed with fresh spring herbs.

Springtime is the season when a man's fancy turns to love, but I can't stop thinking about soup.

During the winter months, cooks work to get flavor — roasting, caramelizing, simmering for hours. Now, with vibrant spring produce in the markets, that same intensity of taste is ours for the asking.

Green garlic slender as scallions, artichokes no bigger than a billiard ball, potatoes with skins so tender you can rub them off — the farmers markets are full of soup fixings just waiting for a pot. Just add water, indeed.

Spring soups made from these ingredients come together in a flash. They can be made low in calories and even vegetarian without diminishment of flavor. And they allow improvisation. By following a few guidelines, you can make a spring soup from just about any vegetable.

Let's focus on three soups: broths, chowders and bisques.

In broths, the vegetables are suspended in a clear soup. In chowders, they are coarsely pureed so the soup is thick but chunky. In bisques, the puree is so smooth the texture is almost creamy.

These definitions are classic but are by no means textbook. Think of them as general descriptions that will adapt to different ingredients.

A broth is the simplest and most adaptable soup. Keep the stock simple and straightforward to avoid overwhelming the flavor of the vegetables. Chicken, vegetable or fish stocks are good. Even better is a last-minute stock created by simmering the vegetable peelings in a weak broth or water.

You can use most any spring vegetable — asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, peas, even delicate greens. If you're only using one or two vegetables, cook them in the broth; they'll lend their character to it. But if you're using more than a couple, blanch the vegetables separately before adding them to the soup to keep them from losing their distinction. In this case, it's too many vegetables that will spoil the broth.

Most of the time you'll want to include a starch to give the broth a little substance. New potatoes will work well and so will pasta or rice. Cook them before adding to the soup — otherwise, they'll cloud the broth.

For shrimp and artichoke soup, the starch is a light ricotta gnocchi with fresh herbs. It sounds complicated, but making it is simple: Beat together a stiff batter and roll into balls between your hands.

Gnocchi cook in less than a minute. When you add them to the boiling water, they'll sink to the bottom. But within 20 to 30 seconds, they'll bob to the top. When they stay there 45 to 60 seconds, remove them with a strainer and cook the next batch.

The stock is even easier for this broth. Simmer shrimp shells with the trimmings from the fresh herbs you used in the gnocchi. It'll be rich and fragrant in about half an hour.

Chowders, our second category of spring soups, are almost as simple to make. Cook potatoes and one or two other vegetables in a broth, then puree just enough to make a chunky mix.

First, make sure the ingredients are cut to roughly the same size so they'll cook and puree in about the same amount of time. When it comes to pureeing, remember that less is more. You want to puree just enough to release starches that will thicken the broth. But there should be easily identifiable chunks of vegetable left in the soup.

This is most easily done with an immersion blender — one of those wands that you submerge in the soup pot. With this equipment, you can see the texture and stop pureeing when it's just right. You can also puree the soup with a food processor or blender as long as you keep it on pulse. Just two or three pulses should be enough. In a pinch, you can use an old-fashioned wire potato masher.

Make a chowder with new potatoes and green garlic and you've got an assertive version of the classic French "potage parmentier" — minus all that heavy cream at the finish. Instead, drizzle it with good olive oil and sprinkle salty pecorino Romano cheese top.

Green garlic comes in a range of shapes, depending on maturity. Right now, it is mostly scallion-slim and the green tops are very tender. Later in the spring, the bulb will swell and the tops might be tough. If that's the case, simply chop the bulbs a little finer and discard the tough greens.

Truly new potatoes have not been cured by drying. Their skins will be very tender, the flesh moist, and the taste will have a slightly bitter finish that is a nice contrast to their earthy sweetness. But if you can't find new potatoes, any waxy potato will do.

Bisques, our last category of spring soups, require careful handling. Traditionally, bisque soups were made by cooking the shells of shrimp, crab or crayfish and thickening that broth with pureed rice and cream. You can do much the same thing with spring vegetables minus the cream.

Vegetable bisque can be made with shells from English peas and garnished with shellfish. If you can't find Dungeness crab meat, shrimp will do and you can add the shells to the pea husks when you're making the stock.

The secret to a really fine bisque is to strain the soup after it's been pureed. Rub the mixture through a regular kitchen strainer. The finer the strainer, the smoother and silkier the soup will be.

The other tricky part of making a bisque is figuring how much rice you'll need to thicken it. Because starch from the vegetables will contribute some thickening, a good ballpark estimate is about one-quarter cup of rice to six to eight cups broth.

Because the rice will be pureed with the vegetables, cook them in the same pot. But note that the rice will probably take longer to cook, so you should start it first. And forget about dry, separate grains; this isn't a pilaf. This is one time you want to overcook the rice so it will be soft enough to puree easily. Watch for the ends of the rice to crack and blow out; that's the best indication the rice is sufficiently softened.

Bisques can be served cold as well as hot, but a chilled bisque will be much thicker than it is when warm, so save a little of the reserved broth to thin the soup, if necessary.

For any soup, it's important to adjust seasoning just before serving, since taste is temperature-dependent. Seasoning should include not just salt and pepper, but a jolt of acidity as well. It only takes a squirt of lemon or a drizzle of vinegar to pull flavors into focus.

This final seasoning is particularly important with bisque. The right balance of salt, lemon and sugar makes a soup that is vibrant without having one of those flavors dominate. The sugar, in particular, is only there to lend a roundness to the flavor. The soup shouldn't taste any sweeter than fresh green peas normally do.

It all comes together so easily you'll probably be surprised. But it's love that takes work; soup should be simple.


CHILLED SWEET PEA BISQUE
WITH DUNGENESS CRAB AND MINT

1 3/4 pounds English peas in their shells
1 onion, chopped
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 leek, chopped
1/4 cup rice
3 ounces Dungeness crab meat (a little more than 1/2 cup), preferably leg & claw meat
1 tablespoon slivered mint
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice

1. Shell the peas, collecting them in a bowl (about 2 cups) and putting the pods in a large saucepan. Rinse pods under running water, and add the onion and 8 cups of water, salt and the sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook until the pods are fairly soft and quite fragrant, about 15 minutes. Strain into a measuring cup, discarding the cooked pods. You should have about 6 cups of broth.

2. Rinse out the saucepan and heat the butter and leek in it. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until the leek softens, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat well. Add 5 cups of broth and bring to a simmer. Cook until the rice is quite soft, about 20 minutes. The kernels should be soft enough that they're beginning to split at the ends and should offer very little resistance when tasted.

3. Add the peas and increase the heat to high. Cook just until their color brightens and they soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Ladle about 1/2 of the pea and rice broth mixture into a blender. Cover the top with a towel to prevent splashing and pulse once or twice on low speed to get the mixture started. Once the mixture has been chopped, blend at low speed about 30 seconds, and then raise the speed to high for about 10 seconds, until the mixture is a smooth puree.

5. Strain the mixture into a pot, stirring it and rubbing it against the bottom and sides of the strainer with a rubber spatula until all that is left is a fairly dry mixture of broken rice and pea skins to be discarded. Repeat with the remaining soup. You should have about 3 cups of soup; if necessary, add a little more broth to make that amount. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate, tightly covered until chilled. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 4 hours in advance.)

6. When ready to serve, gently stir together the crab and the mint in a small bowl, being careful not to break up the crab meat. Whisk lemon juice into the pea soup and taste and add more salt or lemon if necessary. Ladle about 3/4 cup of soup into each of four shallow soup plates or pasta bowls. Carefully spoon about 2 tablespoons of the crab mixture into the center of the soup and serve.

Total time: 1 hour.
Servings: 4.
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POTATO AND GREEN GARLIC CHOWDER

1/2 pound green garlic
1 1/2 pounds fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Black pepper
Good olive oil
Grated pecorino Romano cheese

1. Trim root ends of the green garlic and the very tips of the green leaves if they are dried out. Cut the green garlic crosswise in thin pieces. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and then into about 1/2-inch pieces. Place them in a bowl of water to prevent discoloring.

2. In a large saucepan, combine butter and onion and cook over medium heat, stirring roughly until the butter melts and the onions turn soft and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and the green garlic, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the mixture is fragrant, about 5 minutes.

3. Add potatoes to garlic mixture. Add the broth and salt, increase the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Loosely cover and cook at a quick simmer until the potatoes are soft enough to be mashed with a fork, about 20 minutes.

4. Coarsely puree the potatoes and garlic. This is most easily done with an immersion blender, but can also be done in a food processor or blender if you pulse quickly. The mixture should be chunky, not a smooth puree.

5. Add 1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste and add more salt, pepper or vinegar if necessary. Return to the pan and simmer another 5 minutes.

6. Stir briskly just before serving. Ladle into warm serving bowls, drizzle with a thread of olive oil and sprinkle over 1 to 2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese or top with a sprig of parsley.

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Servings: 4 to 6.


recipes courtesy of
LA TIMES-WASHINGTON POST