It’s safe to say that “Caldo Verde” (Kale Soup) is likely the most famous of Portuguese soups. Its garlicky puree and toothy kale, finished with “Chourico” (smoked sausage), is a delight. But despite the popularity and ubiquity of Caldo Verde, the three Portuguese soups that are dearest to my heart and ideal meals for the cold months ahead, are the “Sopa de Feijao” (Bean Soup), “Sopa de Feijao Verde” (String Bean Soup) and “Sopa de Abobora” (Pumpkin Soup). I associate these three hearty soups with three people and a place—my mother (Maria do Ceu) and my two aunts (Tia Lucinda and Tia Benvinda). The place is Bemposta do Campo, the village where my maternal family hails from in the southern-central region of Portugal, the Beira Baixa. Here is where my grandmother Isaura cooked her soups inside a black iron pot nestled in the fireplace. The iron pot, and I imagine the fireplace, imparted a non-replicable smokiness into each soup. Or maybe, it was into the air. Whatever it was, I have since then never had a similar soup experience or that kind of comfort in a bowl. The closest I can get to it is through these three soups, made effortlessly by three women who hardly ever start a meal without a bowl of their soups—or, when I visit the region’s restaurants. In these traditional restaurants, it’s customary for the waitstaff to plop a silvery soup terrine on the table that everyone serves themselves from. You can get a waft of the soup even before it gets to your table, usually thanks to the commonly-used fragrant “Segurelha” (Savory) herb—that has a thyme and oregano quality to it, but I would say sweeter, like rosemary. The region also boasts one—if not the largest—soup festivals in the country. In May, the annual Festa das Sopas Tradicionais is held in the village of Proenca-a-Velha, featuring nearly 90 different soup recipes for sampling.
In America, there are Portuguese restaurants that sometimes nail these soups, but it’s a rarity. I’m lucky that the folks in the kitchen of my local Portuguese Cultural Center have a bit of a knack for making these comforting soups, but they’re not quite there yet either. So as the red and golden leaves slowly sway off the trees in my backyard, the days get shorter and the air crisper, I turned to my source for comfort soups: my mother. Her trademark would have to be the Bean Soup; Tia Lucinda’s the String Bean Soup and Tia Benvinda the Pumpkin Soup. But, my mother can pretty much pull them all off brilliantly. As a tribute to pumpkin season, I kick our recipes off with the Pumpkin Soup. I also include wine-pairing suggestions for each soup. Though, I will confess, I rarely drink wine with soup. This experiment, however, may have influenced me to keep playing with this pairing in the future. Let’s get our soup on:
Sopa de Abobora – Pumpkin Soup
- A 2lb or so Sugar Pumpkin (or canned, if out of season)
- Large Zucchini
- Fresh Parsley
- Ripe Tomato
- Large Carrot
- Large Onion
- 6 Garlic Cloves
Preparation: Peel the pumpkin and carrot and cut into cubes, slice the zucchini, and add all to a large pot of water with salt (to taste). Peel the onion, dice and add to the pot. Peel the garlic and add whole to the pot. Add the diced tomato and torn parsley. Bring to boil, then when it’s all cooked, pierce with fork to check, reduce to a simmer, and add water if too thick, and allow to boil again on low heat. Then lightly puree, easiest is to use a hand blender. Check for salt, add a strand of high-quality olive oil and serve. NOTE: Want to spice it up? A couple of minutes before turning the heat off add small or minced shrimp.
Pair with: with a Malvasia Fina varietal white or with a Gouveio blend. The hints of molasses and nutmeg in the Malvasia are naturals with pumpkin. Gouveio adds body and maturity, which complement the smooth, meaty pumpkin puree. Let it sit for a couple of minutes before serving with the soup, which will pair better since it’s a hot liquid and allows these varietals’ rich flavors to open up. Visit princetoncorkscrew.com or take a trip to LBV Cellars, Newark, NJ, for these wines and those that follow.
Sopa de Feijao Verde –String Bean Soup
- About 2lbs of String Beans
- 2 Carrots
- 4 Potatoes
- Large Onion
- Ripe Tomato
- 1 Zucchini
Preparation: Add diced carrot, zucchini, tomato and leeks to a large pot with water and salt (to taste). Boil and when all is cooked, reduce heat and puree. Then, add the string beans (cut diagonally about three times, like penne pasta) and cook in low heat for about 10 minutes. Add a couple of strings of olive oil and torn mint, or if you can find the Segurelha herb (savory), add that instead. NOTE: For an even heartier version, boil some elbow pasta on the side and add to the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the soup.
Pair with: an Antao Vaz, a variety that produces white wines with body, warmth and mineral quality that complements the grassiness of the string beans. Allow to sit a couple of minutes before serving, which lifts this wine’s aging (maduro) quality.
Sopa de Feijao – Bean Soup
- 4 cans or one bag of Red Kidney Beans (white or a mix will do, too). Boil from the bag or use canned; keep in mind that boiling them will create a richer soup since the beans do not fall apart. If boiling, let soak in water the night before.
- 5 potatoes
- 2lbs of Sugar Pumpkin (or canned if not in season)
- 3 turnips
- 3 Carrots
- Kale or Cabbage
- 4 Garlic Cloves
Preparation: Add half of the beans to a large pot with water and salt (set the other half aside for later). Slice the potatoes and add to the pot, along with two carrots and the pumpkin quartered, diced turnips, leeks and whole garlic cloves. Boil and when all is cooked, reduce the heat to low and puree. Then add the third carrot diced, the rest of the beans, and let cook for 10 more minutes on low heat and stirring. Add the kale/cabbage and cook for another 10 minutes on low, stirring (add more water if too thick). Let it simmer for a few minutes and finish with a string of olive oil and torn mint.
Pair with: an earthy, smoky Castelao red.