Cool Yogurt Soup with Fresh Herbs Snipped from the Garden
The weather swings wildly from hot and sunny to cold and rainy. One night I huddle by a fire in the woodstove to keep warm, the next night I’m outside dining on the porch as the light fades from the sky and the daytime chatter dies away. On nights like that, this yogurt soup makes a deliciously refreshing start to the meal; on cold nights, I might heat it up and add a garnish of ground lamb seared in the skillet with chopped onions and cumin. Either way, it’s a celebration of all the herbs in the garden right now—basil, cilantro, parsley, lovage (its pungent taste like a deeper, wilder version of celery), dill, thyme, chives and garlic chives; plus, a handful of wild stinging nettles and a pound of fresh green spinach from the farmer’s market. A handful of rice and an equal handful of lentils give the soup just enough stamina to serve as the main course of the meal. And omitting the lamb garnish gives you a perfect vegetarian dish.
The spinach and nettles get steamed until tender, the nettles handled very carefully, using rubber gloves–they’re not called stinging nettles for nothing though they lose their sting once they’re softened by cooking. Then drain and chop the spinach and nettles but keep their juices to add to the soup later on. The herbs—as many as you can gather from the garden or the farmer’s market—are washed and chopped and set aside. How many herbs? Enough to make at least one cup chopped, though more is always better. Set aside a tablespoon or two of chopped herbs to use for a garnish when you serve the soup.
Most natural yogurt should be stabilized for cooking, so mix together an egg and a tablespoon of flour, adding the flour bit by bit and whisking it in to make a smooth mix. Then the yogurt (about a quart—whole-milk yogurt, please, no fancy flavors) is mixed in, also a little at a time, and the whole thing is transferred to a deep saucepan, along with the chopped herbs, spinach, and nettles, and about ¼ cup each of short-grain (arborio) rice and small lentils. Bring it all to a simmer, stirring constantly. Middle Eastern cooks say yogurt should always be stirred in one direction only but I’m not sure I agree with that. The stirring is important, but honestly it doesn’t seem to make any difference if you stir it now one way, now the other. The soup should be creamy, pale with flecks of green. If it’s too thick, stir in some of the reserved water from cooking the nettles and/or spinach. Let the soup cook until the rice and lentils are tender—about 20 minutes should do it. When the lentils are done, take the soup off the stove, let it cool down, and eventually set it in the refrigerator to chill. You will probably have enough soup for 6 to 8 servings and the beauty of it is that it keeps very well in the fridge for many days. When you’re ready to serve it, add a spritz of lemon juice to each serving along with a sprinkle of the reserved chopped herbs.
And if a cold spell suddenly descends and you want to serve the soup hot, simply heat it up to simmering, again, stirring constantly. A nice Middle Eastern sort of garnish comes from sauteing about ¼ pound of lean ground lamb together with a small onion chopped fine in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When the lamb is nicely brown, add a pinch of cumin and perhaps some ground red chili pepper, then sprinkle it over the hot soup when you serve it.