This is a very simple garlic soup. Don’t be afraid to use lots of garlic: Four or five heads is not too much. When the cloves are stewed in olive oil and then simmered in rich chicken stock, they lose their fiery bite and become sweet and nutty-tasting.
In late spring, the soup is wonderful made with young garlic freshly pulled from the soil. Each immature head has only a few cloves at that stage, and the flavor they add to the soup is very subtle—sweet and mild, with a faint garlicky aroma. Right now, as we head into Indian summer, half the growers at our farmer’s market are offering mature, just-cured garlic—the flavor is deeper and stronger, with a pronounced pungency. When shopping, look for plump, unblemished heads of garlic that are firm to the touch.
Like a lot of soups, this one is especially good if you make it ahead of time so that the flavors fully infuse the stock. Naturally it is also better if you use homemade chicken broth. This is important because garlic and chicken stock are the two main ingredients in the soup. Whenever I have whole chickens cut into pieces, I freeze the backs, and, when I’ve accumulated five or six, I make a few quarts of stock, usually perfumed with a few cloves of garlic, some peppercorns and a sprig of parsley. I freeze the stock in pint-sized containers: This is money in the bank–a rainy day fund for making soup or any recipe that calls for chicken stock.
The method for making the soup is found in Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. I’ve added a sprinkling of fresh herbs for garnish: purple basil flowers, a few leaves of anise-flavored Thai basil, and a smattering of chopped garlic chives. Also known as Chinese chives, these have long, flat, pungently flavored leaves that are delicious in soups and stir fries. (Right now all three are blooming vigorously after tropical storm Ernesto gave my late summer garden a much needed soaking.) A twist of freshly ground black pepper, a smidgen of grated Parmesan and a couple of toasted croutons brushed with olive oil are all you need to complete the dish.
But like my friend Susana Trilling, I also like to add a small dried red chile for a touch of spice. Her version of Mexican garlic soup, which appears in Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey Through Oaxaca, Mexico, also includes fresh squash blossoms and heart-shaped, anise-flavored hierba santa leaves. Neither is in ready supply where I live, but adding a Mexican chile de arbol or a small dried red Asian chile is a great idea. Susana also likes to serve the soup with freshly poached eggs, which makes a truly satisfying meal. (If you’d like to read our interview with Susana Trilling, please go here.)
(Adapted from Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook by Alice Waters (Random House, 1982) and from Seasons of My Heart (Ballantine Books, 1999) by Susana Trilling)
To serve 4:
Ingredients for the soup:
3 to 4 plump heads of garlic
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cups rich chicken stock,
Salt and pepper to taste
1 dried chile de arbol or imported Thai red chile (optional) (see note)
4 eggs (optional)
Ingredients for the croutons:
8 slices peasant bread or one small whioe wheat baguette
Reserved olive oil
1 cut clove garlic
Ingredients for the garnish:
4 sprigs purple basil flowers
4 small sprigs Thai basil leaves, or any other basil
4 garlic chives, minced
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
1. Separate and peel the garlic cloves. (An easy way to peel them is to smack them with the flat side of a chef’s knife to loosen the papery husks.) There should be at least 1 cup of peeled cloves, but 1-1/2 cups is even better.
2. In a large, heavy saucepan, gently stew the garlic cloves in 1 cup of olive over a very low flame for about 20 minutes, or until they are very soft. Do not let the cloves brown or they will become bitter.
3. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and reserve. Add the chicken stock (and the chile, if you are using it), cover and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove the chile. Taste, and add salt and pepper as desired.
4. Remove from the heat and let the soup cool to room temperature. If serving the next day, refrigerate over night.
5. Make the croutons by cutting 8 slices from a whole wheat baguette, or by cutting 2-inch x3-inch pieces from 8 slices of peasant bread. Toast them on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven for 8 minutes, then remove and turn them over. Brush the tops with the reserved olive oil and return to the oven for another 8 minutes. They should be lightly browned and very crunchy. Rub the tops with a cut clove of garlic.
6. To serve: Reheat the soup. Put two toasted croutons in the bottom of each bowl. When the soup is very hot, poach the eggs in the soup if you are using them: Crack each egg individually on a flat plate and carefully slip them into the broth. When they are ready, spoon one poached egg into each bowl. Ladle the soup over the croutons and poached eggs. Sprinkle basil flowers and leaves, garlic chives and grated parmesan over all and serve at once.
Note: Chile de arbol and two types of dried red Asian chilies–Sanaam and Tien Tsin–may be ordered from www.penzeys.com. Most Asian markets also carry packaged red chiles.