This Christmas dinner, I was preparing a meal for nine people including myself. At least one of them was lactose-intolerant; at least one was kosher. And the main course for the evening was unquestionably rich — a prime rib of beef, to be exact. But I still wanted to make a soup that was heady and savory. The kind of soup that makes people want to finish a whole bowl of and call it a meal. I suppose I should have bothered to ask if anyone disliked garlic, because what they got as a result equaled nearly one head of garlic per person.
There is nothing too original about lopping off a lot of heads of garlic and turning them into a potent soup. There are several Spanish versions of garlic soup, sometimes with poached eggs as well as French versions like Julia Child’s (via Julie Powell) which consider garlic as more or less a soup broth builder. Taking a slightly sweeter approach, I slow-roasted the garlic heads first, whole, scooped them out once they were softened to gooey caramelized slush, and added them to a pot of carmelizing onions. Pureed with a few slices of toasted bread, these aromatics created the denseness and silky texture that I might have otherwise gotten from cream. For a little chunkiness and subtle flavor I let chopped asparagus steep in this garlicky bath for about twenty minutes before serving it. The stalks were soft, but not mushy; their color had just began to blend into the golden soup, turning it a slight pea-green. It’s not the best color I’ve ever seen, I must note.
herbs and toast simmer
making a stalk
A little garnish, and soup was on. My penchant for picking up a different fat bunch of herbs every week has left me with quite the frequent leftover herbal muse. This oregano pesto is definitely one of the best of this oeuvre, owing to the fact that the oregano leaves are so tender, like basil, and therefore create a smooth grind. Or it could just be that fresh oregano is intoxicatingly good. Either way, I’ll definitely be having this more often as an alternative to familiar basil pesto. It is a shame, though, that the small oregano leaves need to be plucked individually from their stem.
Garlic & Asparagus Soup with Oregano Pesto
(makes 8-10 servings)
8 heads of garlic1 medium onion, thinly sliced
6 cups chicken stock (or 1 49 oz. can or carton)
6-8 1/2-inch toasted slices of a baguette (can be day-old)
1 bunch asparagus, tough ends snapped off where the stalk naturally breaks and chopped to 1″ bias-cut pieces
a few thyme sprigs and sage leaves
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons butterolive oil for drizzling on raw garlic (about 2 tablespoons)
for the pesto:
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 very small clove garlic, minced
pinch of salt
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice off the tops of each head of garlic so that the flesh of each clove is just exposed. Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle salt on top of each one. Wrap 2 or 3 heads at a time in foil and seal shut thoroughly. Bake in the oven at 375 degrees. Open foil wraps to check garlic after 40 minutes (different garlic heads require different baking times due to freshness, etc.). Garlic is done roasting once the cloves are nice and soft and slightly caramelized. Let cool.
Toast the slices of bread until golden brown.In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the sliced onions and cook, stirring, on medium high for about 5 minutes. Turn heat to low and let the onions caramelize, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Reduce heat if onions begin to brown. Add the thyme sprigs, sage leaves (or tie them together with kitchen twine to create a bouquet garni), toasted bread, roasted garlic cloves (hulls removed) and chicken stock. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the pesto: Place the oregano leaves, minced garlic, lemon juice and salt in a food processor. Pulse a few times, stopping to scrape down bits from the sides, until the mixture is coarse and uniform. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while blending until mixture is emulsified. Set pesto aside.
Remove the bouquet garni (or stray sprigs of thyme and sage) from the soup. Using a hand blender, puree the soup until smooth. Add the chopped asparagus. Continue cooking, on low, for another 20 minutes. Add the fresh lemon juice and taste for seasoning, adding salt or a pinch of black pepper. Finally, add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Ladle into individual serving bowls. Drop a spoonful of the oregano pesto on top of each soup and serve.
(for 8-10 soup servings)
8 heads garlic (at $1/5): $1.60
1 medium onion (at $1/lb): $0.30
1 49 oz. can chicken broth: $3
1 bunch asparagus: $3.50
6-8 slices day-old baguette: $0.40
1/2 lemon: $0.17
2 sprigs thyme and 2 fat sage leaves (at $1.75/big bunch each): $0.35
2 tablespoons fresh oregano (about 1/3 bunch): $0.60
2 tablespoons butter: $0.25
3-4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.50
Three brownie points: Eating tons of garlic, as luck would have it, reaps tons of heath rewards: Its complex synthesis of components is believed to lower blood pressure, regulate blood sugar metabolism, support the immune system, detoxify the liver and stimulate circulation among other benefits. Not a bad payoff for a little bad breath. On the other hand, roasting the garlic first creates extra sugars that it wouldn’t have if it had been served raw. Adding a low-calorie veggie like asparagus into the mix brings a good dose of protein, Vitamin A, potassium and even Vitamin E. With minimal fat (and mostly from olive oil), this soup is startlingly clean for its strong flavors.