Cooking vegetables perfectly requires skill. Crunching on vegetables more raw than cooked is as disconcerting as eating those killed by overcooking. Ever had to wrestle with undercooked vegetables on a dinner plate? When a fork or knife can't penetrate, things can get very messy: carrots, broccoli or beans are projected, missile-like, across the table.
But there are times when vegetables are best cooked to completely tender. There's an essential pleasure in simmering or stewing them well beyond reason in dishes where the rich vegetable concentrate that results from long cooking is an integral part of the recipe, not to be drained away. These dishes, cooked in a manner the French call paysanne, have deep agrarian roots.
For me, there are three vegetable soups that deliver this kind of simple enjoyment. They're not the vibrant green or exotically spiced purées of celebrity chefs. They're made with little more than fresh vegetables, some good meat stock, and salt and pepper to taste.
The first is Marcella Hazan's Minestrone di Romagna. So dear is this soup to me (and to my father) that I used it to pay tribute to Marcella when she passed late last year. Here, a mixture of hardy roots and tender green vegetables are simmered over very low heat for three hours. Miraculously most of the vegetables retain their shape while hovering perilously close to deterioration. Because the simmer is slow and gentle, at the end of cooking discernible cubes of potato and zucchini remain along with the green beans. The vegetables that do meld into the base are the sliced caramelized onions that start the flavour-building process, and the shredded Savoy cabbage that marks the finish of the vegetable additions. They add sweetness and form a tender soft mush that is the soup’s underbelly. It's the kind of humble nourishing meal that would be found in the bowl of the farmer in the painting Il Mangiafagioli (The Bean Eater) by Annibale Carracci. Marcella writes that this soup "has a mellow dense flavour that recalls no vegetable in particular but all of them at once."
That descriptor perfectly suits another soup that I adore. It comes from a book I think no discerning cook should be without: Simon Hopkinson's Week In, Week Out. His Simple Cream of Vegetable Soup would be on my deathbed menu. When fully cooked and puréed, its colour calls to mind the muted green and golden yellow of split pea soup, the two bunches of fresh watercress called for losing their brilliant spring green after an hour of cooking. Hopkinson claims to have learned how to prepare this soup "as a keen young apprentice at The Normandie, the renowned French restaurant near Bury, Lancashire, when I toiled there during a couple of school holidays in the 1970s."
Like its colour, the soup’s flavour is a gentle mix of sweet and earthy from leeks, carrots, mushrooms and watercress. Its smooth, slightly thickened texture owes much to being puréed in a food mill rather than a blender, and it's finished with a lavish amount of whipping cream, no surprise given its Normandy roots. It's a soup that speaks of another time and perhaps that's what I like best about it. It's a reminder of wonderful simple dinners in French bistros, and of mature chefs who cling with fierce pride to the dishes of their youth.
Simon Hopkinson's Cream of Vegetable Soup
The final vegetable soup comes from The Roux Brothers French Country Cooking by Albert and Michel Roux, who were seminal influences during my apprenticeship. I met Michel Roux once and when I asked him to sign this book (now sadly out of print), he beamed and told me that it was his favourite book because most of the recipes were his mother’s. It was a golden moment for me.
Their recipe for Soupe au Pistou is stuffed full of just that kind of Gallic charm. It stands head and shoulders above all other versions. Over time, I have made a few small revisions to the recipe—I use good-quality chicken stock instead of water and cook the pasta separately—believing the brothers would approve. The cooking time here is the shortest of the three vegetable soups so the broth remains clear. The final flourish of thick pesto, stirred in just prior to serving, is a triumph. As the soup arrives at the table, an ethereal herbaceous cloud, pungent with fresh basil, envelops the eater, stimulating the appetite. This soup was on a lunch menu I crafted when I worked at The Old Prune in Stratford, Ont., and customers would often wax poetic about it (and about the goat cheese soufflé from the wonderful chef Sally Clarke of London, England).
If there were little in my culinary repertoire besides these three vegetable soups, I'd still be considered a damn fine cook. They're old fashioned, elegant and accomplished. So complete that they need little else—a good loaf of bread, some fine butter, a piece of ripe cheese and local fruit to finish.
Much is made of modern chefs planting gardens and turning to vegetables as a primary source of inspiration. Chefs everywhere want to be seen with their kitchen clogs sinking into a garden’s dark loamy earth. This trend is often pitched as a revolutionary state, a modern innovation, like nothing we've seen before. And in its subtleties it could well be. But when I look into a bowl of one of these three vegetable soups, I can see its roots. I know with great certainty that, where vegetables are concerned, everything old is new again.
 Hazan, Marcella. The Classic Italian Cookbook. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) p. 63