When I consider about what I enjoy about cooking, it always comes down to the pleasure of becoming familiar with spice and flavor, the ability to cook without recipes yet to achieve what you want in the end.
The first time I set out to make pasta sauce, in a college dorm kitchen nonetheless, I remember vividly dumping the cheapest can of tomatoes into a shallow pan on the stove and thinking: just how do I make this taste the way I want it to? I had no idea at the time of course, no familiarity with garlic, with the browning of onions, or the debate about the many ways to cut acidity in tomatoes with something sweet, with something fatty. I owned no cookbooks. I didn’t yet know that I loved food blogs and journalism, or the personal empowerment of cooking well for myself. At that moment, stirring cans tomatoes with no direction, all I could muster was add in a few pinches of dried herbs. It was just me alone with unseasoned tomatoes, masquerading as sauce. Yet I ate those warmed up tomatoes on basic boiled pasta, as a college girl is want to do, all the while with the question of how does one actually cook already circulating in my brain.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I began tasting with purpose, in the search of what makes dishes exactly as how you want them to. I started asking all the right questions when I cooked: What is the relationship of depth of flavor by the process at which you add to a dish? How do you spice according to the final meal’s flavor profile to get the perfectly matched meal?
That absolutely basic idea–how do I make this taste the way I expect it to–is what keeps me interested in learning to cook ever since I tried to make that can of tomatoes into something glorious but failed.
So in the spirit of cooking without recipes and with the accumulated knowledge of spice and flavor, one of my favorite free dishes is a simple chickpea-tomato soup. It’s a favorite because you can style the basic recipe any which way but simply changing the flavor profile of the spices used. Below I feature the rough basics of the recipe. You can easily adjust and change the portions of the ingredients. Following the instructions are outlines for suggestions in changing the flavor profile to be inspired by the varied cuisines I cook the most from. Nothing is meant to approximate so-called authenticity in cooking–a debate for another time whether food is ever authentic–but meant as a guideline to discovering how a set of spices evoke different tastes and food practices.
Chickpea-Tomato Soup with Greens, Several Ways
The Basic Ingredients:
A 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes (drained)
One can of chickpeas (or the equivalent in cooked chickpeas.)
A diced onion, carrot, and celery stalk (you’re at home, no one cares but you if it’s finely diced or not, let’s get real.)
a few tablespoons of olive oil
a clove of garlic, mashed or minced or cut to your heart’s desires
around 4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (secret, add water if you need more, I always cheat and do this.)
a few handfuls of greens, roughly chopped or ripped by hand and rinsed/dried a few slices
The Basic Process:
1. In a large soup pot, heat up the olive oil and brown the onion, celery, carrot. Add in any additions. Then add the garlic.
2. Add in spices.
3. Stir until brown.
4. Add in the drained tomatoes, chickpeas, and broth. Bring to a boil. Add in the greens until wilted. Add in any additions. Reduce to a simmer and cook a few more minutes more to meld the flavors. Adjust cooking time if you are adding in any additions that require more cooking.
5. Eat with garnishes. Also salt and pepper to taste.
The Several Ways:
Feel free to pick and choose from the suggestions to tailor this soup to each flavor profile.
North African Inspired: Spices–add in a tablespoon of cumin, a few teaspoons of cinnamon, a pinch of ground ginger, some heat from cayenne if you’re daring, and a bit of fresh lemon juice. Additions– add in a grain like couscous or rice with the broth, cooking until done if grain is uncooked, or roasted cubes of eggplant at the broth stage. Garnishes–pickled vegetables, raisins, olives, plain yogurt, and parsley/cilantro. Try with toasted pitas or flat breads.
Mediterranean Inspired: Spices– add in a teaspoon of dried rosemary, oregano, thyme each, and a bay leaf, plus a pinch of red pepper flakes. Additions– try with more cloves of garlic, three or four, browned with the onions. Add in slices of fennel, in the step when you brown the onions, or rice or pasta when you add the broth, cooking until done if grain is uncooked. Try adding a Parmesan rind for a richer broth too. Garnishes–fresh grated Parmesan cheese or feta, stir in pesto or kalamata tapenade into each bowl. Try with toasted pitas, Italian bread, or seasoned croutons.
Spanish Inspired: Spices– add a tablespoon or two of a good smoked paprika, a pinch of saffron threads, a few pinches of cayenne. Additions– add browned chorizo sausage when browning the onions and garlic with spices or frying extra chickpeas at this stage with more olive oil. Try with cubed potatoes at the broth stage, adjust liquid quantity and cooking time to ensure doneness. Garnishes–extra olive oil, toasted bread, fried garlic, slivered almonds, large Spanish olives stuffed with garlic.
Indian Inspired: Spices– add a half tablespoon of cumin, either a curry powder or garam masala, plus a few pinches of coriander and ginger and add a bit of fresh lemon juice. Additions– You can add a cup of coconut milk as well as a cup of cut up potatoes or cauliflower when you add the broth, cooking longer to ensure doneness. Garnishes–top with cilantro and yogurt mixed with mint and cucumber. Try with a flat bread or pita.
Mexican and Southwestern Inspired: Spices– add a tablespoon of cumin, a teaspoon to tablespoon of chili powder depending on your liking of heat. Additions– add a cup or two of cubed sweet potatoes, cooked or uncooked quinoa when you add the broth, adjusting cooking time for doneness of the grain, beer or brewed coffee with some of the coffee in replace of some of the broth or in addition to. Garnishes– top with shredded cheese, avocado slices, sour cream/yogurt, with scallions or cilantro. Try with tortilla chips.