Spring is here, and what better way to celebrate the arrival of sunny weather than with a bowl of intense, beautiful chilled pea soup? This simple recipe utilizes a few versatile techniques that’ll serve you well even if you want to branch out to use other ingredients — gazpacho, roasted-tomato soup or even fancy pureed sauces to serve with meats or fish all follow the basic formula.
Ingredients (serves two generously):
2 cups fresh peas (sugar snaps, snow, English)
1 10 oz. package frozen baby peas
1 small shallot
Handful of parsley (or basil)
Approx. 2 cups chicken stock
Water to adjust consistency
Two strips bacon
Cream or sour cream
First, the peas: the sweet seeds come into season in spring, which means that any farmer’s market (and many supermarkets, for that matter) should have fresh peas for sale. The money- and time-saving secret here, however, is that the soup also uses frozen baby peas.
That might sound like the antithesis of fresh spring cooking, but are you really ready to sit down and shell a bunch of peas when the flash-frozen alternative does the job just fine? Didn’t think so. If you can taste the difference, you are the 1 percent.
But before we get to that, put one small saucepan or pot over medium heat and one larger pot full of water over high heat. In the smaller vessel, cook off two strips of bacon until crisp; set aside for garnish. Drain off the bacon fat — bacon fat is usually a treasured thing indeed, but the fat congeals in cold soups — and add some olive oil.
Throw in one chopped leek, one small chopped shallot and a pinch of salt; the heat should be on medium-low so the vegetables can sweat, or cook without browning, and retain their sweetness. Once everything starts to look tender and gets a bit translucent (about five minutes), pour in about two cups of chicken stock (homemade is best, but any premium boxed or canned stock works fine) and simmer for about 10 minutes.
The pot of water should be coming to a boil any minute now, and when it does, toss in a generous quantity of salt — the water should taste like the ocean. Salting the water not only seasons your peas during cooking but helps them keep the vibrant, emerald-green color that’s critical to the soup’s appearance.
Now blanch (quickly boil) a 10 oz. package of frozen baby peas along with a couple handfuls of chopped fresh sugar snap peas, snow peas and some shucked English peas, if you find some. The sugar snaps will take the longest to cook, so add them first; toss in the rest of the fresh peas after a minute or two and the frozen peas a minute after that. Everything should get deep green and cook through in three or four minutes total.
Add a handful of parsley — or, if you don’t like parsley, basil leaves — in the last 20 seconds of cooking. A bit of both herbs would be a great option, too, but in any case don’t leave fresh herbs out altogether. The astringent, flowery freshness of parsley or basil really adds a subtle counterpoint to the sweetness of the peas.
Drain the tender peas and herbs and add to a blender. Warning: Make sure not to fill the blender more than about halfway, as all that hot vegetable matter will splatter out the top if there’s too much! To the blender, add the simmered leeks and shallots and a ladleful of warm stock. Start blendin’ — if it won’t run smooth, add some more broth and pulse till the mixture begins to turn. The soup should have about the consistency of a smooth milkshake when you’re done blending.
Now, time to get fancy: get out a mesh strainer and set it over a large bowl that’s been placed inside of a larger bowl full of ice. This will chill the soup down fast and help maintain a bright color. Slowly pour the contents of the blender into the strainer and gently tap, stir and scrape until only a blobby mass of green leftovers remain.
(By the way, the leftover pea mush can be used, especially in pea-stuffed ravioli. That’s not just some desperate idea — star chef Daniel Boulud suggests doing so in a video demo of pea soup with Julia Child.)
If you really want to go into Michelin-starred chef mode, repeat the straining process, being even gentler in pushing the soup through the mesh. The more you strain, the smoother and more luxurious the texture of the soup gets.
Now behold the shimmering, silky elixir resting in the bowl: your soup is almost done! Adjust the consistency of the soup by adding cold water, if necessary, and taste for the right level of salt. Put the soup in the fridge to finish chilling; serve with an artsy drizzle of olive oil and heavy cream or sour cream, some crumbled bacon and a pinch of fresh-ground pepper. A spoonful of reduced balsamic vinegar also does wonders, if you’re feeling ambitious.
This might look like a lot of work for a bowl of soup, but keep in mind that many of these steps can be done in advance. The soup refrigerates well, so making a batch a day or two in advance of an anticipated date is a perfectly fine thing to do.
You can simplify things even further by cooking the peas in a single pot with the leeks and broth instead of blanching them separately, though this might affect the color a bit. And feel free to make a pea sauce instead of a pea soup out of this recipe. Basically, just reduce the amount of broth so the puree is thicker, then strain and serve warm (one recommendation: replace the parsley with mint, then serve with grilled lamb and a sprinkle of bacon. You’re welcome.)
And even if you don’t like peas, these basic techniques — taking main ingredients, cooking them and pureeing it all with some type of liquid — form the foundation of all smooth soups and pureed sauces. People love tomato soup, but you can save money by making your own gourmet version at home: Just roast some ripe tomatoes and onion until soft and caramelized and blend with chicken stock and heavy cream.
Root vegetables also work great with this formula. Oven-roast some carrots or beets in foil, then season with salt and puree with a tiny splash of broth of even just water; strain through a mesh filter. It looks gorgeous and tastes even better — the mellow, earthy sauce pairs brilliant with cooked seafood, especially crab.
And nothing makes a plate look more haute cuisine than a streak of puree. Put a big spoonful in a corner of a plate, then place the bowl of the spoon in the middle of the sauce and make a dragging motion across the plate. Arrange your meat or vegetables on and around the sauce and then bust out your phone, because is there any way you’re not Instagraming this?