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Enrique Olvera’s Satisfying, Adaptable Vegetable Soup

By Merrell Hambleton

“For me, and for all Mexicans, a hearty vegetable soup is synonymous with home,” says the chef Enrique Olvera. He refers to his own version, illustrated here, as “comforting and heartwarming.”
 
Sofia Probert
“For me, and for all Mexicans, a hearty vegetable soup is synonymous with home,” says the chef Enrique Olvera. He refers to his own version, illustrated here, as “comforting and heartwarming.”

In high school, the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera was known to his friends as Pozole. The word, which means “hominy” in Spanish, derived from the Nahuatl “pozolli,” is also the name of a traditional Mexican soup or stew made from shelled kernels of corn, pork and garlic. When Olvera opened his first restaurant in Mexico City in 2000, he called it Pujol, a slurring of the childhood nickname. In many ways, soup has been a throughline in Olvera’s culinary life. He has said that his grandmother’s puchero, made from vegetables and cheap cuts of meat, is the first dish that he remembers eating. Other staples of her kitchen were a lentil soup with plantains and bacon and a vegetable soup made with potatoes, carrots, zucchini and whatever else was good and in season. “My grandfather really liked soups, so we always had them at home,” Olvera says. “He found them heartwarming.”

Somewhere between the more formal pozole, traditionally served on special occasions, and Olvera’s standard weeknight meal of black beans cooked down with onion, garlic and herbs, is the vegetable soup that the chef shares below. The tomato-based broth, bolstered with potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower and flavoured with ancho chile, is based loosely on the version his grandmother used to prepare. To make it heartier — into what Olvera calls “a perfect one-course meal” — he added ayocote beans. “It’s almost like a Mexican version of minestrone,” he says.

Another key ingredient is the aromatic epazote, a dark green, leafy herb with notes of citrus, anise and mint. “In Mexico, we obviously use a lot of cilantro, but epazote is more distinctly Mexican,” says the chef. “It’s a digestive, so if you’re feeling down or a little sick, it’s a good herb for that. It has a comforting quality.” But if you can’t find epazote, it’s no trouble. Olvera describes the dish as endlessly adaptable. He recommends tarragon as a substitute for epazote, but also encourages anyone making it to “just grab any herb that’s at its peak and grown with care.” Can’t find fresh tomatoes? High-quality canned San Marzanos will do. Or scrap the tomatoes altogether and opt for a clear broth base. “Some people add edible greens or change the beans,” he says. “If you want to add some matzo balls into it, that can work, too.” Soothing and versatile, it’s a soup especially perfect for this moment. “You can have it for dinner, sitting down and enjoying conversation with your family. But it can also just be you.” he says. “Amidst all this craziness, everyone can use a soup.”

Sofia ProbertIn this endlessly adaptable recipe, Olvera insists that the ingredients are less important than the process.
In this endlessly adaptable recipe, Olvera insists that the ingredients are less important than the process.

Serves 10

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 large white onion, cut into quarters

  • 6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • 3 medium-sized ancho chiles, roasted

  • 1 cup dried ayocote beans (runner beans), white or scarlet

  • 2 fingerling potatoes, cut into rounds

  • 4 carrots, cut into thick rounds

  • Salt, to taste

  • 10 very ripe plum tomatoes, quartered

  • 1 bunch chard, roughly chopped

  • 1 cup broccoli florets

  • 1 cup cauliflower florets

  • 2 handfuls fresh epazote (or tarragon) leaves, roughly chopped

  • 1 bay leaf

  • Key lime wedges, for serving

1. Put the beans and bay leaf in a large pot. Add water to equal double the volume of the beans (about 2 cups). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Keep a small pot with hot water on the stove in case the beans need more liquid; they should be fully submerged. Cook until the beans are tender enough to bite into, but before they are fully cooked and soft, about 40 minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots, cook for 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt.

2. In another pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the roasted chiles, chopped onion and garlic until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cover the pot and let it cook for 20 more minutes. Transfer into a blender and blend until smooth.

3. Strain the tomato mixture through a sieve, pressing with a spoon until the liquid has passed through into the pot with the beans and vegetables. Add the broccoli, cauliflower, chard and herbs and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt.