Launching a New Year with Lemons - No. 180
Let lemons brighten your mood, plus a recipe for Garlicky Spinach and Chickpea Soup with Lemon and Pecorino Romano. Preserved Lemons are coming Thursday!
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU hit send on a book manuscript and bid farewell to the holidays?
A. Go on vacation? B. Download something light and unsubstantial from Audible? Or C. Get back in shape? D. Clean out the refrigerator?
You clean out the refrigerator and find a vegetable drawer packed with kale, mustard, and collard greens for some reason, so you remove all of them, rinse, drain, and place them on the stove to simmer with garlic and broth to cover. You find the missing block of extra-sharp white cheddar you’d been hunting for all December! And you find lemons, loads of them.
I don’t know about you, but I love lemons.
It’s the squeeze of juice at the end of a braise, the whisper of zest over pasta and Parm, and the laser acidity it brings to a copper pot cleaning project once mixed with coarse salt. Plus, the way it gets down to business along with olive oil and garlic, transforming tough chicken into something tender to char on the grill and tuna steaks that once seared, cut like butter.
Lemon cures the blahs and is my bright and witty friend to flavor lemon curd and lemon squares, as well as lemon pound cake and lemon tea cake, or just tea itself. It is the star of lemon meringue pie, limoncello, and Moroccan preserved lemons. I started to see my January in terms of lemons.
So many lemons, so little time
Usually if I need a new idea as to what to cook or write about, I head to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for a look-see. A walk through TJ’s on Saturday proved citrus might have been a bit slow coming into the stores for the holidays, but it’s definitely here now. Bags of oranges—rosy Cara Cara and also blood, Sumo, and Satsumas. The latter two are both mandarins and originated in Japan.
We can thank the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Japan for those Satsumas. The story goes she fell in love with them and had trees planted along the Gulf coast in 1908. And in spite of hurricanes that wipe out trees and wreck the soil with saltwater, Satsumas are growing in more places than they used to. Global warming you think?
And Meyer lemons, so sweet and orangy-lemon are actually a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange and native to China. They were a houseplant until U.S. agricultural explorer Frank Meyer found them in the early 1900s and introduced them to citrus-growing regions where they earned his name. You can read that story here. Their thin skin and sweet flesh make Meyers kind and gentle.
Not that regular lemons are so badass. They’re just acidic, but if you give them a few instructions on when to appear and what the dress code is and how to play nice, well, lemons are an invaluable addition to a recipe.
TJ’s also had seedless lemons for the impatient among us. Fishing out lemon seeds is just a part of juicing them, but that’s me. I wanted to talk with Atlanta’s Suzy Karadsheh, author of The Mediterranean Dish. She was born and raised in Port Said, Egypt, and lives in Atlanta with her family. She says lemons are about rethinking a 2023 pantry.
‘’People don’t think of citrus as a key ingredient, more of an afterthought. But it’s always in my kitchen,’’ Suzy says. ‘’It’s that one small ingredient that a bean or vegetable soup needs. The tang in the lemon balances the sweetness and saltiness of the soup. And you never detect it, but it’s there, and if you don’t add the lemon, you will be missing it.’’
Wise words. As in, you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s not there. And then with one bite, something isn’t right.
Lemons are more deserving than you think
They’re also dead-easy. How difficult is it to grate lemon zest onto pasta? And what a profound difference that makes!
‘’Zest makes things brighter,’’ says Suzy. ‘’If that’s your intention.’’
I’m not sure what my intention is sometimes when I walk into the kitchen to cook pasta. It’s the easiest meal for two people, involving just one pot and a saute pan. Open the fridge, find a bit of leftover grilled salmon or chicken, maybe the last of the cherry tomatoes, the can of artichoke hearts, but hopefully there is lemon, as well as parsley and a few capers. If I have lemon, I know things will go well.
Lemons are the best garnish, too, so elegant, but they’re equally deserving of the entire stage when they are a condiment like preserved lemons, which I will share how to make on Thursday. Or recipes like the old Shaker lemon pie where lemon slices simmer into delicious nothingness between layers of pastry in your oven.
But the lemon as a seasoning has me intrigued. I had listened to Jessica B. Harris talk about lemon in chicken yassa, and it was on my mind. I had remembered lemon in black bean soup, how it picks it up.
I asked Suzy about this, and she agreed, that beans are one of her favorite foods to brighten with lemons. And this time of the year is perfect for beans as we clean up our diets, our bank accounts, and our fridges.
So I flipped through Suzy’s beautiful book and stopped on page 148. The words ‘’garlicky spinach and chickpea soup with lemon and pecorino romano’’ were calling my name.
Making a chickpea soup with, what else? Lemon!
To make Suzy’s soup, which I am sharing with you, I had most everything in the house. I would have had it all but used those last two cans of chickpeas for homemade hummus. Note to self: Restock chickpeas! So I made a quick dash to the store.
It’s a lovely recipe and nothing more than a saute of onions and garlic to which you add seasonings like cumin and coriander plus paprika and red pepper that make the soup. Plus those chickpeas, broth, and at the end handfuls of fresh spinach, chopped Italian parsley, then the grated Pecorino Romano.
I should know that it takes longer for a soup to cook than most recipes allow. Soup making is subjective, and we all have our idea of what simmered down looks like. I wanted to cook the chickpeas enough to make sure they were softened. And while Suzy’s recipe said to ‘’roughly mash the chickpeas,’’ I should have also paid attention to what was written in parentheses—‘’you’re just looking to break some of the chickpeas.’’ From the looks of my soup, I was giving the chickpeas a full-body workout.
And the waste-not part of me couldn’t let that half zucchini in the fridge go unloved, so I diced it and added it to the soup as well. (It was lovely!) Soups are a catch-all for me, and maybe’s that’s why I have a hard time following soup recipes.
But importantly, when you make this soup, remember that canned chickpeas and stock off the shelf are salty. You can buy low-sodium chicken broth, but chickpea liquid in the can is salty on its own, and simmered down it gets more concentrated. Suzy calls for 1/2 cup of the liquid. So don’t add a lot of salt on the front end. Wait til you get that chickpea liquid in the soup, and add your broth and everything simmers down to correct the seasoning.
Lastly, that soup is finished with the squeeze of half a lemon, which is the great equalizer, bringing together salty and sweet, and balancing everything. This may be lemon’s greatest culinary gift.
While you usually hear from me in the morning, I wanted you to know today was crazy as I turned in my book manuscript after midnight, and there were a few hiccups in its delivery electronically, but I got those figured out. And now I am feeling much better, this soup has perfumed my house, and the lemons have brightened my mood. We’re off to a brand new year. Plus my fridge is cleaned out!
- xo, Anne
This Thursday for Subscribers
Preserved Lemons! It’s a group Preserved Lemon Project! I can’t wait! I’ll send the recipe and include a checklist and materials like the Ball jar and bay leaves needed. And we’ll coax each other along the way.
What do you make when you’re hungry for lemons? How do lemons save you?
Garlicky Spinach and Chickpea Soup with Lemon and Pecorino Romano
The mix of spices is totally up to you. No cumin? Add a teaspoon of curry powder or chili powder. Use a 1/4 teaspoon of tumeric, too, for a more golden soup. You could definitely veer away from the Mediterranean and toward the East with this soup, adding a dash of fish sauce, some grated fresh ginger and 1 cup canned coconut milk instead of some of the broth. Serve with rice. Or flavor it like Spain with a handful of chopped cherry tomatoes and a pinch of saffron. The possibilities are endless!
Makes 4 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
Cook: 45 to 55 minutes
2 cans (15- to 16- ounces) chickpeas
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped (a full cup)
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Kosher salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, if desired
Ground black pepper
4 to 6 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 to 3 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley
1 large lemon, cut in half
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Crusty bread, for serving
Drain the chickpeas, reserving 1/2 cup of the liquid.
Place the olive oil in a large pot, and add the onion and garlic. Stir and saute over medium-low heat until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add a pinch of salt. Add the spices—cumin, coriander, paprika, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, or the spices you like. Toss to coat the onions and garlic. Add the chickpeas, and toss to coat. Mash some of the chickpeas to give the soup texture but leave most of them intact.
Add 1/2 cup of the reserved chickpea liquid and 4 cups of the broth. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and let boil, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add another 1 cup of broth, reduce the heat to low to let the mixture simmer, and then partially cover it. Let it cook down 30 to 35 minutes. Check the liquid in the pot and if desired, add the last cup of broth and let it cook another 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, and stir in the spinach and parsley. Cover the pot, and let the mixture sit several minutes so the spinach wilts. Remove the cover, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the pot and stir.
Spoon into bowls and top each with a drizzle of more olive oil, and grated cheese. Plus lemon wedges for more squeezing, and crusty bread.
And what have you created with the block of found cheddar?
Congrats on finishing your manuscript. As I’ve told younger writers, so few people actually finish a book! Anyone can *start* a book, lol. And this recipe sounds delicious. I know the juice around chickpeas is aquafaba, and often used as a substitute for egg whites in merengue and other foods. It must thicken this soup.