I made this at the beginning of the week, when an unseasonal storm shook us from our sunny complacency and the wind snapped branches from the trees. It made me feel what, these days, is known as “a bit conflicted”, culinarily at least. The fridge was bristling with spring vegetables, fresh and green and full of promise, but what I really wanted was batten-down-the-hatches food that I could sit and eat by the fire. This was the result: a simple, spring-like vegetable soup, but one that fulfilled the twin demands of freshness and comfort.
7 cloves garlic, 5 thinly sliced, 2 roughly chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced across
3 medium leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
3 sticks celery, finely chopped
4 strips lemon zest, each about 1.5cm wide and 3cm long
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt and black pepper
2 x 400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1.5 litres good quality vegetable stock (homemade if you have it)
250g leaf spinach, trimmed and roughly sliced
200g peas, either fresh (they are starting to arrive from abroad already) or frozen
8 asparagus spears, stems chopped, tips left whole
4 bulging handfuls basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few extra whole leaves, if wanted
Put the coriander and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and roughly grind.
Heat 75ml of the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the chilli flakes and ground spices, stir for a few seconds until they start to sizzle and release their aroma, then add the sliced garlic (not the chopped), onion, leeks, fennel, celery and lemon strips. Stir in ½ tsp salt and sweat gently for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, but not brown.
Add the cannellini beans and stock, taste, season with a bit more salt and generous grinds of black pepper, then simmer for about 20 minutes until everything is soft and the flavours well combined.
While the soup is simmering, put the chopped garlic in the pestle and mortar with a pinch of salt and bash to a purée. Add the chopped basil leaves and grind until you have a smoothish green paste. Stir in the remaining olive oil to give a loose purée. Put to one side.
Stir the greens, asparagus and peas into the soup and simmer for a few minutes until soft. Stir in the lemon juice, then ladle into bowls. Add a few blobs of basil sauce to each one, scattering with a few extra basil leaves if wanted.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book isGood Things to Eat.