A peak season ingredient such as a tomato is a thing of beauty, exquisite to behold and taste. To be sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to the highly travelled shadows of their former selves that you can find in the dead of winter. That, however, matters less if you were going to add it to other ingredients, or make a sauce or a soup. With perhaps a little spice, or some well-placed sauces, even the most out-of-season ingredients become delicious elements of an ensemble dish, creating a sum of parts far more enjoyable than individual ingredients. Either on merit of pure addition, or on how it is cooked, an ingredient can go far in adding flavour to a dish of ingredients.
Indian cooks know this to be true better than most, as can be seen by the many Indian recipes that ask for a combination of ingredients. Can one reduce that list of ingredients and still make a tasty dish? Of course, but when it comes to the traditional ones, it is the combination of those exact ingredients that makes a dish taste the way you remember it. Anything else could leave you yearning for what is in your memory.
For my part, I don’t like to do much to change classic or traditional recipes, especially the ones I grew up with, because I do remember enough of their original flavour to lose some enjoyment in what converted version I have cooked instead, no matter how tasty. That only applies to a classic (or ‘mde by mom’ type) dishe though. As regards to everything else, the boundaries of flavour are limited only by my imagination, or what I can find on my shelves, which in turn completely depends on what I found in the store.
Some women lose themselves in shoe stores, time and money concerns flying out of the window. My Achilles heel in this regard is any place selling food or ingredients that will give me ideas in the kitchen. (Also, book stores, but that is a tale for another time.) I love discovering new grocery stores and have a particular predilection for ethnic food stores. I used to wander through Chinatown in San Francisco completely taken by all of the strange and unknown items I saw there. Problem was, I needed a friend with me to figure out what they were, since quite often the ingredient descriptions were in a language I did not understand. You can, therefore, imagine my delight, when I found stores like the Berkeley Bowl selling every vegetable around, or discovered the numerous Asian stores on Clement street that chose to display their ingredient tags in English. Clean and brightly lit, I could linger unobtrusively in front of an ingredient, taking in the smells and feeling the produce, oblivious to the ever-growing rush of patrons around.
On one such sojourn to the Asian store, I found myself in front of some bright green leaves that smelled like mint, but had serrated edges, different from the mint I was familiar with. A look at the label told me this was Chinese Shiso. An unfamiliar ingredient that looked like another of my favourite ones? Into the cart it went, along with some Indonesian soy sauce called kecap manis that I also discovered in the sauce aisle. It is fascinating, the sheer number of different soy sauces there are in this world and I’d never seen this one before. It was not thin and runny like soy sauce is known to be, but thick and unctuous. When I got home, I opened to bottle and tried it. It was at once sweet and salty with a serious kick of umami to it.
On the same trip I had gotten some corn on the cob with the idea of roasting it. But dinner was fast approaching and I had no idea what I was going to make. The air had turned chilly and a soup seemed perfect. I thought of corn chowder but didn’t have enough corn for that. I always have frozen peas in the freezer so I thought of combining the two. Peas and mint are known to go together, so in went the shiso. Combined with some ginger, garlic and a few spices that I had in the pantry (some acquired by gawking at them in a spice store), took very little time to put together this very fantastic soup.
There are some super-specific ingredients here, but they can be substituted. I’m sure your creation will taste a little different, but hey, this isn’t a classic dish and there is nothing to compare it to, is there? Use mint instead of shiso, add a squeeze of lemon instead of the dried lime powder, use traditional soy sauce and add a dash of honey, use nutmeg to add depth. All possible alternatives leading to one amazing soup. Instead of croutons, I used some halloumi cubes. You could even use paneer as croutons, or just use croutons.
This soup is light on the stomach but with a deep, earthy flavour that packed a punch. It got even better the next day, age only helped it cause. You can taste the peas and the corn but this soup is even better in their combination with the flavours of the sauces and spice. It was quick enough that I fully intend to put it on my continuing menu through winter, with frozen ingredients. Because sometimes you want pea and corn soup in February.
Pea, Corn and Shiso soup
Makes 4-6 servings.
Frozen Peas – 1-1/2 cups
Corn – 2 heads, shaved, approximately 1-1/2 cups of kernels
Shiso leaves – 1 bunch/ large handful of leaves
Onion – 1, large, diced
Ginger – 3″ piece, chopped fine
Garlic – 3 large cloves, chopped fine
Cumin seeds – 2 tsp
Black Cumin Seeds – 1 tsp
Dhana-jeera powder – 1 tsp
Ajwain seeds – 1 tsp
Chilli powder – 2 tsp
Dried Black Omani Lime – 1/2 tsp
Indonesian soy sauce (kecap manis) – 1 tbsp
Oyster sauce (optional) – 1 tsp
Vegetable broth (low-sodium if possible) – 1 box/ 32 oz / 4 cups
Olive oil – 3 tbsp
Salt to taste
(Optional) Halloumi – handful of small cubes
– In a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat, add the oil. When it starts to shimmer, temper with cumin seeds, black cumin seeds, dhana-jeera powder and ajwain.
– Add the ginger and garlic and fry for a minute. Add the onion and fry until softened and translucent.
– Add the peas and corn. Add the soy and oyster sauces, then add the dried lime powder. Mix together and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the shiso leaves and cook for another five minutes.
– Add the vegetable broth and bring the mixture to a boil. Then, turn down the heat, cover the pot and simmer for ten minutes, until the peas and corn are completely cooked.
– Using a blender or an immersion blender, puree the mixture until smooth.
– Serve warm with a few halloumi croutons.
For the halloumi croutons:
– Add a tbsp of oil to a small pan and sear the halloumi pieces on all sides until golden brown.
– Add four to five pieces of halloumi to each bowl of soup before serving.