Recipe: Leek and Arugula Soup with Spring Garlic Olive Oil
Since opening in the late ’70s, the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan has had a profound influence on my cooking, stirring my creativity by the force of its beautiful produce. Not since I was a kid on Long Island picking stuff from my father’s backyard garden have I been face to face with such fresh local vegetables and fruits (doesn’t get more local than Pop’s garden). I watched Union Square change from a scary, crack-infested hell hole, when the market was still a dinky cluster of vegetable farmers, to a stroller friendly park with a large, colorful market filled with upstate goat cheeses and butter, organic buffalo steaks, New York State wine (it’s coming along), wild fennel and arugula like I found on my trips to Italy, and tomatoes, eggplants, and apples in dozens of varieties.
One of my most exciting discoveries at Union Square, oh, I’d say about 15 or so years ago, was fresh spring garlic. I had never seen it before. My father never grew garlic. Up until then I thought all garlic was the papery, preserved stuff that was trucked over from California. All supermarket garlic is a soft-neck variety, which has the advantage of drying well so it can be transported long distances and used, for better or for worse, year round (it does eventually sprout and become acrid tasting). But the hard-neck type that I find at Union Square has a sturdy center stalk running up through the bulbs. It doesn’t dry well. This more fragile garlic has to be used while still moist and fresh. When its time is up, it just rots, so do yourself a favor and buy it now. Some is sold very young, when it looks like skinny scallions; some shows up later in spring and is left to mature into juicy bulbs with well developed cloves that are so sweet and fresh I can use an ample amount raw, in a salad for instance, without experiencing that gagging garlic overload you’d know from eating linguine with clam sauce in Little Italy (will these cooks down there ever get with the program?).
This year I procured some garlic early, at the scallion stage. I ate one raw, the entire thing, and it actually tasted more like a scallion, or even more like a baby leek, than like garlic, at first, until I experienced the gentle garlic heat at the back of my throat. I smashed a few of them up with the side of a knife and let them steep in good olive oil for a few hours. What an aroma. They were great brushed over grilled bread, but they’re also an excellent way to add a fancy hit of flavor to a spring soup (so much better than that mess of chemicals that passes as “truffle oil.” Don’t buy that stuff. It’s evil).
This recipe is basically a leek and potato soup, but with the added bite of arugula. I served it hot because I wanted the heat to release the garlic essence into the air for added olfactory appeal, but you can chill it if you like.
Fresh garlic oil doesn’t keep very long, so make small amounts to use within a day or two.
And for something a little different, here’s how they welcome in spring in Assisi, Italy.
Leek and Arugula Soup with Spring Garlic Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 skinny stalks spring garlic
2 lightly packed cups skinny, spiky-leafed wild-type arugula, stemmed
5 baby leeks, chopped, including some of the tender green part
2 large boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
5 scrapings of fresh nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups homemade or high-quality prepared chicken broth (or use a homemade vegetable stock if you prefer)
Pour about ¾ cup of good olive oil into a small bowl. Chop up the garlic, the entire thing (you’ll probably have garlic with very small underdeveloped bulbs and a tender stalk). Then flatten the garlic pieces with a smack from the side of your knife. Place the garlic in the olive oil, and let it sit to develop flavor for about an hour or so. Strain the oil into a clean bowl, and set aside.
Set up a medium-size pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the arugula, and blanch it for a minute. Pull it from the water into an ice bath (or into a strainer and run cold water over it). This will set its bright green color. Drain well.
Now, in a large soup pot, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, and sauté until softened, without letting them brown. Add the potatoes, and season with nutmeg, salt, and black pepper. Sauté a few more minutes just to coat the potatoes with flavor. Add the broth. Bring this to a boil, turn the heat down a notch, and then continue cooking at a lively bubble, uncovered, until the potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes. Add the arugula, and let it wilt into the liquid for about 2 or 3 minutes.
Purée the soup in a food processor, and return it to the pot. Taste for a good balance of flavor. You should have a mellowness from the leeks and potato with a slight bitterness from the arugula. The soup shouldn’t be super thick, so add a little more broth or water to thin it if needed. Adjust the seasoning.
When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup gently, and ladle it into bowls. Give each bowl a generous drizzle of the spring garlic oil.