Several years ago, I enjoyed a brief flirtation with gardening inspired by a book called “You Grow, Girl.”
Jay and I nailed small, wooden boxes to the outside of every available windowsill of our San Francisco apartment, and we filled them with soil, seeds and starts. Down in Santa Cruz, we tilled Jay’s mom’s yard, built a fence, laid chicken wire in the ground to deter the gophers, yanked out the weeds and wild chard that were the only thriving flora, and shoveled buckets of fertilizer into the earth. After agonizing weeks of waiting for the weather to warm, we finally dug starts into the ground: all sorts of herbs, lettuces, summer squash, exotic varieties of cucumber, tomatoes, peas, and radishes.
At home in the city, I watered our tiny beds diligently. Rare herbs like lovage and lemon verbena popped up, cherry tomatoes ripened in pots on our tiny fire escape, and freshly picked parsley and basil found their way onto every plate.
In the midst of my green-thumbed bliss, our landlord appeared one day, ordering us to remove the plants from the fire escape, as per the fire department’s behest. We brought the plants inside, and they quickly grew sad and spindly, tomato vines bearing only a leaf or two snaking toward the light like the hand of a drowning person grasping for help.
At home, as I went to lovingly pick a sprig of sage one day, I noticed the the stems and under-leaves of the outdoor plants were completely covered in tiny black bugs – aphids! I consulted You Grow, Girl, and dutifully sprayed the plants with soapy water, rubbing the leaves, trying not to squirm as my hands became covered with suffocated bugs. But my rubbing was no match for the aphids, who, the book told me, were born pregnant (“and that’s just creepy”).
We went away on vacation, and our housesitter, who oddly went on to become a farmer, managed to dehydrate our remaining plants.
Today, the only living thing in our apartment, besides us, is the cat and his cat grass, which Jay keeps alive with daily mistings. I occasionally bring home a victim of some sort – a container of thyme which I swear I’ll remember to water – but the aphids seems to resurrect themselves from nowhere like un-dead zombies and the plant ends up relegated to the city’s compost pile.
The only upside I can see to not having a garden is that zucchini are not considered baseball-bat-sized nuisances to be left in neighbors’ unlocked cars, but rather a treat to be purchased in small amounts from the local co-op. The squash are tiny, by zucchini standards, with tons of flavor and not too much liquid.
My very favorite way to prepare zucchini is in this soup, which comes from Soupmaestra Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors. When I first made it 8 or so years ago, I penciled into the book, “possibly the best soup ever…” I have yet to disagree. A silky puree of zucchini, onions, fire-roasted chiles, oodles of cilantro, a touch of mint, a corn tortilla, and a generous squeeze of lime, this soup tastes greater than the sum of its parts. It’s complex, lively, refreshing, nourishing, and green, green, green. “The corn tortilla,” Deborah Madison writes, “thickens the soup and gives it a briny, limed-corn taste,” and pan-fried tortilla strips, or totopos, make a satisfying garnish along with a dollop of thinned sour cream. Everyone to whom I’ve served this soup, including self-proclaimed zucchini-haters, have reacted with a raised eyebrow and enthusiastic requests for the recipe, or at least a second bowl.
One confession: I did some tricky food photography business here to keep the soup verdant for the camera. It will actually turn more of an army green when you follow the directions, but will taste more amazing, and have more voluptuous body, with the components heated and blended together.
Regardless of whether or not you have a green thumb, and whether or not you’re frantically trying to use up an over-abundant crop of zucchini, I hope you grow to love this soup as much as we do.
Zucchini Cilantro Soup, with Chile and Mint
Adapted slightly from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors
Chiles can vary greatly in heat, so I’d recommend tasting each one post-roasting and adding them in with discretion. I almost always make this with water, but you can use a mild vegetable or chicken stock in its place; just omit the salt, and it to taste. I’ve made this soup with olive oil and was surprised to find the flavors conflicting; I highly advise using sunflower oil as the cooking oil here. If you lack an herb garden and don’t wish to buy full bunches of mint and parsley only to use a few tablespoons of each, know that I’ve made this soup many times omitting both and it is still amazing.
This soup is best the day it’s made, when the color and flavors are bright, but it’s still an excellent soup on day two or three, and, in a pinch, can be frozen and re-heated later.
Makes 6 servings
1 poblano or 2 anaheim chiles
1 bunch cilantro, about 2 cups total
1 large or 2 small white spring onions (or 1 medium-sized cured white or yellow onion), peeled and chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower oil
12-14 ounces zucchini (3-4 medium), trimmed and chopped into roughly 1/2″ pieces
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped mint
1 corn tortilla, torn into pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt
about 3 cups water (or mild chicken or vegetable stock)
juice of 1-2 limes
The crispy tortilla strips (totopos):
2 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips (approx. 1/4″ wide by 2″ long)
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
sour cream or crème fraîche, for serving
Make the soup:
Roast the chiles over an open flame until the skins are mostly blackened. (I set mine on my stove’s burner over a medium-low flame, and turn them occasionally with tongs.) Set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel, seed, and chop the chiles.
Separate the stems from the cilantro leaves and reserve both. Chop the stems and place them with the chiles and zucchini. Reserve the leaves in a separate bowl.
Warm the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or soup pot. Add the onion and saute until slightly translucent, 5 minutes. Add the chile, cilantro stems, zucchini, parsley, mint and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is fairly soft, 5-10 minutes. Add the tortilla and enough water or stock to come up to the level of the vegetables. Increase the heat and bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the soup, partially covered, until the zucchini is very soft, about 15 minutes.
Let the soup cool slightly. Reserve a few pretty sprigs of cilantro for garnish, and add the rest to the soup. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup completely smooth. (Alternately, puree the soup in a blender in two batches.) Add the lime juice to taste, and more salt if needed. If the soup is thick, thin it with a bit more water or stock; if the soup is too thin, you can add more tortilla, simmer for 5 minutes to soften, and puree again.
Make the totopos:
Heat the remaining oil in a heavy (such as cast iron), medium skillet set over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the tortilla strips, and saute, flipping and stirring frequently with a metal spatula, until the tortillas are golden and crisp, reducing the heat if needed. Season with a pinch of salt.
Serve the soup warm, garnished with a dollop of cream, a handful of tortilla strips, and leaf or two of cilantro and mint.