In many households, the lengthening daylight hours heralds the time to do some major cleaning. This age-old ritual of “spring cleaning” is rooted in religious and cultural traditions, and linked to the biology of how humans are wired.
In the Jewish custom, the home is cleaned before Passover, while Christians clean the altar before Good Friday, and Greek Orthodox clean the week before Lent. In Iran, the Persian New Year coincides with the first day of spring, and is a 13-day celebration that traditionally involves cleaning (or “shaking the house”), buying new clothes, and spending time with family and friends.
Before the era of fossil fuels, the family winter living space was lit by whale oil lamps and heated with wood, leaving a layer of soot and grime in every room. Spring was the time to “throw open the windows, beat the rugs, and clean away the dust.”
Biologically speaking, the winter light motivates me (and other mammals) to do little more than eat, sleep and hibernate. Once the northern hemisphere of the earth is more tilted toward the sun and the daylight hours increase, my energy level intensifies. Seeds are started, windows washed, and the remaining bins of root cellar fruits and vegetables are sorted and processed, and the freezer and refrigerator inventoried and cleaned.
And what does the thrifty cook do with all those vegetables?
The preparation of a big pot of Tuscan Vegetable Soup is very appealing. Delicious and nutritious, easy and quick to make, this soup is devised of any and every veggie a root cellar, fridge or freezer can yield. The secret ingredient to the success of this stew is bulgur wheat, a staple of Middle East cuisine, which helps to fuse the flavors.
Not to be confused with cracked wheat, bulgur wheat consists of wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed. Bulgur wheat has a tender, chewy texture and a taste faintly reminiscent of whole-wheat toast. Delicious in salads like tabbouleh, bulgur is available in most supermarkets, and in coops and health food stores.
This recipe is adapted from Bert Greene’s Ten-Layer Vegetable Soup, which he loosely created from a formula by Nika Standen Hazelton called Tuscan Garden Soup. It is merely a guide.
Because this soup has a tomato base and my pantry was lacking in fresh or canned tomatoes, I used a jar of salsa. Frozen vegetables like corn, green beans, peas or lima beans work well, as do fresh vegetables like cubed zucchini and summer squash. Grated Daikon radish, rutabaga or turnips are equally delicious. Layer the vegetables and bulgur, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Then add some fresh or dried herbs and a savory stock and simmer for another 30 minutes. Pass the grated cheese and plenty of crusty bread and enjoy those clean windows.
Tuscan Vegetable Soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 1 ½ cups your favorite salsa or canned tomatoes or sliced fresh tomatoes
- 2 medium onions sliced
- 4 garlic cloves thinly sliced
- ¼ teaspoon whole allspice berries ground
- 2 cups shredded or sliced greens cabbage, spinach, chard, pea shoots, etc.
- ½ cup bulgur
- 1 cup chopped parsley and scallions
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- ½ cup cubed carrots
- 1 16 ounce package frozen green beans chopped
- 1-½ cups mushroom stock
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs If available; rosemary, thyme, chives, sage
- Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
- Parmesan cheese for grating and serving
- Assemble ingredients and tools. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the allspice berries.
- Thinly slice the onion and the garlic. Chop the parsley and scallions. Peel and cube the carrot. Chop the frozen green beans into pieces.
- Cover the bottom of a heavy soup pot with the olive oil, and layer all the ingredients, starting with the salsa and onion.
- Continue to add ingredients through the green beans.
- Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes.
- Remove the lid and stir in the stock and chopped fresh herbs. Heat the soup to boiling, reduce the heat, and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
- Taste the soup and season with sea salt and fresh pepper. To serve, top with grated Parmesan cheese and plenty of bread to sop up the broth.
- Makes 6 generous servings.