Very early on in my career as a chef I remember sending out a pea soup that I was very proud of. It was a vivid green, and it certainly tasted of peas – and so it should, because it had nothing but peas in it. I was trying to adhere to an idea that I had heard repeated over and over again: that a chef’s job was to bring out the natural flavour of an ingredient.
I think the chef who had said this was Alain Chapel, who was one of the French chefs credited with helping to found the “nouvelle cuisine” movement. Chapel had died in the 1990s so I never had a chance to get to his restaurant, but, maybe more than any other chef, I would have loved to have eaten his food.
I should also put this soup I was serving into context. I had a new job as head chef of a local coaching inn. When I arrived one Monday morning for my first shift, the part-time chef, who was bravely struggling to keep the place going, was making the soup. I can give you a brief recipe – keep all of the leftover vegetables from the weekend carvery, boil a large pot of water, add some dried chicken stock and then blitz the water and leftover vegetables together. The rust brown residue was to go on the menu as “country vegetable soup”. This was the kind of food the regulars were used to.
The carvery wasn’t the problem, it was the rest of the food which this place served. Every cheap trick and desperate measure was used to keep the place afloat and my brief, given to me by the area manager of the brewery, was to sort the food out.
So it was to this end that I sent my fresh-looking, emerald-green pea soup out into the dining room. I confidently expected the customers to love this new, bright, fresh-tasting food. Then the waitress cleared the table and passed on the customer’s comments. She said she didn’t like the soup because “it just tasted like a bowl of puréed frozen peas”.
However much I disliked the comment, I had to concede that it was true. The soup was made by leaving peas to defrost in the fridge overnight before boiling them briefly and rapidly, then blitzing them in a blender with a bit of sour cream. I thought it tasted delicious but the customer obviously didn’t agree – and to add insult to injury, had guessed more or less exactly how it was made. Clearly I still had a lot to learn.
At the time, I was really into the food of Bernard Loiseau, a second-wave nouvelle cuisine chef who later sadly took his own life. Loiseau was obsessed with purity of flavour. He would use water instead of chicken stock in his soups and purées because he believed that stock detracted from the true taste of the ingredient.
There is a story that Loiseau was once being photographed with Paul Bocuse, both of them standing next to a stream, and Bocuse pointed at the stream and said, “Oh no, Bernard: look at all that lovely stock going to waste.”
So my recipe below is an adaptation of that original pea soup but made with broccoli. It may be that you find the taste a bit too simple and need the usual additions of onions and stock which may lend some complexity to the end result. But I like the simplicity and speed of preparation, not to mention the intense colour – and the way the recipe uses the vegetable itself to thicken the soup.
This idea obviously started when food processors and blenders began to be widely available in the early 1970s. This is why I was so shocked when only a few years ago I was served a pumpkin soup in a restaurant which had been thickened with flour. The gloopy texture served to mask the real taste of the pumpkin.
Even if it is really a purée rather than a soup, I think that this makes a lovely quick lunch alongside a cheese sandwich, for which you can either follow my nouvelle cuisine-inspired recipe, or use your own.