Old Man Winter's stopped to do a war-dance, it would seem — one step forward, two steps back, turn around, take three paces away, pirouette and swing to centre... Or so it seems to us as we sniffle, sneeze, cough-cough-cough with the flu. He didn't quite take us down to zero like the BBC threatened, but 4° in February is quite perverse enough by me, thanks!
Unseasonal weather is what we're having this winter — even the capital, long inured to chilly Januaries, has found its many Jaipur quilts, surplus sweaters, Kashmiri shawls, export-market windcheaters and parkas, designer overcoats and 'local brand' room heaters inadequate to this frosty challenge.
Fingers are pale blue and refuse to address the keyboard. Hence the long pause between posts.) Our winter afternoon's delight in the patch of sun on the terrace or in the park has shrunk into the compass of four solid walls and tight-shuttered windows topped by a roof and heated by a radiator or blower. Our habit of clutching cups of hot tea has proved useless as the beverage almost ices over before we can sip. (Oh alright, that last is an exaggeration!)
The only thing that drives feeling back into our toes and revives our fever-numbed tastebuds is a tummyful of peppery, spicy soup. Preferably with potatoes in, to create that all-essential extra padding a la Santa's jelly belly! Which makes this one, starring red mustard 'greens', a souper-dooper discovery.
I'll grant you my cream-of-mustard matches Delhi's pea-soup smog in appearance (ask any of the 7 airplane pilots currently in a holding pattern over the airport, dying to get at a piece of runway they can't see). You'll grant me, I trust, that it is also as nourishing and reviving as the humble split-pea dal Ma made when you caught a chill.
It's my very own bowl of magical green anti-freeze for the veins. And it was dug out of the mustard patch, in a friend's kitchen garden.
So there it is — a soup of mustard greens. Sarson ka saag?! Why don't I just come out and say so, call a mustard leaf by its rightful name? Because these giant wavy leaves on a fat, fleshy stalk bear scant resemblance to our usual market-stall mustard greens, the plant grown locally to harvest mustard seeds from. This is a Japanese 'Red Giant', an Oriental 'mustard cabbage' or gai choy. Yes, it is in fact the same species as 'our' Indian mustard. But oh, such a pretty difference the variety or sub-species makes!
I like these long green, wavy-edged fronds and the red waves in my salad for a sharp bite that lifts the cold, crisp lettuce into stratospheric highs. But I found them positively life-sustaining in this soup, which soothed my sore, raw throat last week.
This recipe, published in Bon Appetite's January 1999 issue, was unearthed in the Epicurious archives. And then it was inevitably adapted to match the contents of larder and refrigerator, plus pander to the cravings of flu-nursing ol' moi. And executed by The-Boy-Who-(Usually)-Bakes. Result: a creamy thick concoction that acts much like a mustard poultice, only applied inwardly... Puts hair on your chest, it does!*
And gloriously invokes that north Indian winter staple of pungent sarson ka saag with a dollop of home-churned sweet butter — you could even serve it with cornbread instead of makki da roti for sharper resonance, though I didn't have any on hand.
Cream of 'Red Giant' Mustard Greens
4-5 hearty, peppery servings
4 tbsp oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 large bunches mature Oriental mustard greens, such as Red Giant or Green Wave
2 cups chopped onions
750g potatoes, peeled and diced
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes (plus a little more to garnish)
8 cups chicken stock (or more, depending on the consistency you want)
1 cup half and half (or cream, enough to loosen to taste)
A squeeze of lime juice
- Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a saute pan, add the garlic and saute briefly till sizzling, about 2 minutes.
- Add the greens and wilt them, stirring occasionally — about 3-4 minutes should do. Set aside.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large stock pot and saute the onions until translucent.
- Stir in the potatoes and dried red chilli flakes, coating the potatoes in the oil till glistening. Add the stock, cover and cook the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes.
- Mix in the wilted mustard greens and heat through.
- Allow to cool before pureeing until quite smooth (or leave it just a bit chunky if you prefer). Check seasoning and adjust to taste — I like it quite spicy, but then the greens are pretty peppery too, so you shouldn't need additional pepper for instance.
- Heat through before serving and loosen with the half and half. Garnish with chilli flakes, squeeze over some lime juice and plonk a hunk of seed bread on the rim of your soup plate.
It's a farmhouse soup, as any Punjabi kudi will tell you on glancing at the list of ingredients. But it's unctuous enough to serve at a heart-warming dinner with friends on a cold winter's night, too. With a grating of Pecorino for extra posh, perhaps?
* No, not really, don't worry — just my silly idea of a joke!