Last weekend, New York City finally got its first glimpse of spring. In context of a winter that has been surprisingly harsh and enduring, with months on end of polar vortex blanketing the city in shades of grey and gloom, this flash of warmer weather seemed to spontaneously energize every small being in the city. As if choreographed by nature, New York, long asleep, awoke all at once. Trees that had been barren for so long shot out bright green leaves as sparrows sang out to each other on well-rested voices beneath a cloudless blue sky. New Yorkers ventured out of their stuffy apartments to bask with nature in refreshed enthusiasm, lingering in the sunlight on newly crowded streets and rediscovered park benches. And I, dressed in short sleeves and a smile that involved my whole body, set about to make a meal that expressed the glory of this early spring.
After so many months of heavy stews and chilies, spring inspired me to create a lighter take on soul-warming soup. It’s time to forget about root vegetables and heavy spices and turn my attention to bright, clean flavors that resonate with the season. While the spring’s best greens will hide under soil for yet a few more weeks, I can still prepare winter’s alliums in a way that hints of the season to come.
First, I prepare a rich chicken broth, which is necessary to warm in these still-chilly evenings. Then, to complement this base, I sweat loads of onions and fennel (whose bright licorice flavor and delicate green fronds make them the springiest of winter vegetables) until they have given up their pungent aliases and divulged a creamy and sweet character. Finally, to bring the color and freshness I crave, I finish the soup with rosy radishes, a mess of cilantro, and saline olives. The overall effect is warming, but it warms in the manner of golden sunshine on lightly clothed skin. In other words, it’s exactly what you want during the week when New York weather teases with spring on the weekends.
Soup for Early Spring
- 6 cups chicken broth
- 2 lbs. chicken thighs (bones and skin on)
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 2 tbsp cooking fat of choice (I used coconut oil for a clean flavor; you could use butter or ghee as well; or olive oil if that’s what you have around, though I don’t love that for higher heats)
- 2 onions, sliced into half-moons
- 2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced into half-moons, fronds reserved
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp dried oregano (or fresh, using double the amount)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes (or an abundance of fresh diced tomatoes, if in season)
- 1 bunch radishes, cut vertically into quarters or eighths if very large
- Cilantro or parsley (or whatever herb is in your fridge)
- Black olives
- Prepare all your ingredients. See recipe endnote for detailed slicing instructions if you need them.
- Bring chicken broth to a boil. This is the part where we make store-bought chicken broth incredible (or homemade broth even better). Add the chicken thighs. If you want your broth to be, as I said, incredible, don’t try and cut a corner by using boneless-skinless thighs. The bones and skin add flavor and body, as well as loads of nutrition. Simmer the chicken in the broth for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Remove chicken to a plate and allow to cool. Set broth aside in a large bowl.
- Heat the fat in a large pot over medium-high. Add the onions, fennel, garlic, and oregano, then season liberally with salt and pepper. The goal with all these alliums is to elicit a sweet and soft character, not a caramelized and crunchy one. Don’t skimp on salt here, as it is vital in drawing water out of the vegetables so that they soften. Cover the pot and allow the vegetables to hang out for a good long while so that they reduce by about 50% (this could take up to 30 minutes). Stir occasionally to keep things from getting browned (though your onions will probably still taste great if that happens). While all this is happening on the stove, pull apart your now cooled chicken. If you’re like me, you’re going to toss the bones and skin into your special “Future Broth” bag in the freezer. If you can’t imagine ever making chicken broth at home, toss them out.
- Once the vegetables have cooked down considerably, add back the chicken broth. Add the canned tomatoes, radishes, and shredded chicken. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the radishes are tender.
- Stir in herbs and olives right before serving.
- Serve soup warm and garnish with fennel fronds.
- To slice onions into half-moons, cut first vertically (slicing through the stem) and peel. Cutting through the stem end leaves all the layers in each half bound together by the stem, so the onion doesn’t fall apart on your cutting board. The slice horizontally across each onion to produce half-moons.
- Fennels can be confusing creatures if you don’t know how to tackle them. Fear not, it’s easy and they’re delicious. First slice off all the stems and fronds, if attached. Then remove the tough outer layer, which might be stained brown. Placing the fennel upright on the cutting board, slice down through the stem. There is a core you can now see towards the bottom of each half of the bulb – slice that out with a diagonal cut on either side of it. Finally, put the fennel on its side and slice across into half-moons as you did with the onion.