Thursday morning, I upended the Non-Staining Blue poster paint to scrawl our annual end-of-school banner, and I could feel that it was almost empty. That if I used it, I would bottom the thing out. I almost swapped it for another, fuller color, thinking automatically, They'll want that blue, later.
Followed by, Like when later?
We did use the paints once, this Spring. They may come out again, this summer. They may not. The banner reads a little differently, this year. Welcome Kindergartener Zoë!, not Welcome Summer! As my girl has been reminding me for months, "there are no longer any little kids left in this house!"
And as she's been reminding me for weeks, she is, as of 11:30 last Thursday, officially a Kindergartener. She cannot wait. I'm prone to maudlin.
Then I stood up. And my knees made the sounds our upstairs floors make, the old creaky wood ones, so loud they could wake sleeping babes. Did wake sleeping babes. Once upon a time.
They sleep soundly through, now. And talk about backpacks and sleepovers and lunchboxes and, breathlessly, the possibility of cubbies.
I still can't paint bubble letters to save my soul.
We are all, probably, just where we need to be.
We're teetering on the edge of summer, around here, so close we can taste it. Literally.
Strawberries, scrutinized for weeks, are finally reddening, ripening. We wash each one, and slice it ceremonially, and divide each half-inch fruit into fifths. The first bunch of radishes were picked, late last week, and if not clamored over, actually tried. A triumph in my book. (Saltines and butter help.)
School's already done for one, with two more set to wrap, tomorrow, and nothing of substance between now and then save pizza and parties and rhubarb soda for twenty.
I picked up my sixth grader from school last week, on the designated locker-vacating day. I had no paradigm for this. I emptied the car, pre-emptively. In the event, this was not overkill.
We've had ice cream for dinner. (Frigid) first swims. Cards played as if alarms didn't exist. More hours outside than I can keep count. Even (almost) one whole one spent weeding.
We've had sprinklers. Popsicles. Firefly sightings. First caterpillars. Last goodbyes. I'm really, really bad at those. However, I find the crinkle of cellophane covers up honks, snorts and sniffles admirably.
The peonies have gone through their blowsy phase, their baroque phase, their John William Waterhouse Ophelia phase. We are currently in Season Four: Peony, The Final Throes.
The last, late iris is up. The honeysuckle's back. The vivid Yarrow. All signs and wonders the finish line's fast approaching. So of course, I made soup.
We had an uncharacteristically chilly weekend, last weekend, and by chilly, I mean seventies. It seemed like my last best chance to make soup, at least the not-chilled sort, between now and September. Particularly as I'd been noodling over a solution to a longstanding soup problem.
Isn't it some kind of wonderful when an imagined solution actually plays out?
(Am I the only one with longstanding soup problems?)
The soup in question was avgolemono, which is nothing more than Greek egg and lemon soup, and also, nothing less. It's a simple affair—broth, rice, lemon, eggs—short in ingredients and time, long on flavor and majesty.
It's a clever soup, turning so few staples into such triumph. The lemon arrives not in teaspoons, on tiptoes, but by the half-cup, on point, exquisite. The rice is not heavy, not enough to bog down, but little flickers of tender interest. But the eggs work the real Houdini, here, thickening and enriching the broth, which under their influence, goes creamy and velvet and the pale downy yellow of still-damp chicks. That is, when the eggs work.
The awkward bit about eggs and hot broth is all the gentle, deft coaxing required. They need someone to coach them, whisper sweet nothings, convince them they want to play nicely together. Tempering, in culinary terms. Typically, this involves whisking hot broth in small measured doses into beaten eggs. The theory is sound, baby steps, slow and steady, which should result in acclimatized eggs which won't bolt faced with heat.
Should. Very rarely, in my experience, did. Maybe I am a lazy whisker. Maybe my measured doses were more like medium. Maybe I tried every angle, but still wound up more often than not with a Chinese-Greek hybrid, Egg Drop-Avgolemono, soup streaked with scrambled whites. It still tasted delicious. Still. Hrrmph.
Then it dawned on me: lemon curd. Lime curd! Curd was the answer to the avgolemono quandry. I could blitz the eggs and lemon before tempering, just as I do when making curd, which should make the soup just as foolproof as its sweet, dessert-minded counterpart.
Should. Did! Twice, in one week. Because avgolemono, absent the scrambled egg, is pretty addicting stuff. And because, once I'd nailed the method, I realized this is a soup made for Spring. And began embellishing, madly. I topped bowls with tiny green peas, and sweet pink shrimp, and asparagus, steamed to just-tender and trimmed to bite-size and so right against that lemony sea. It brought to mind congee, that spare wonderful porridge of soft rice and endless embellishments. It brought to mind also chawanmushi, Japan's delicate steamed custard of seafood and veg. It brought to mind, finally, asparagus and hollandaise, but served by the big greedy bowlful. Then, seeing as its soup, served up again as generous seconds.
I never did use that blue. Turns out, it was dry as dust. Eight, nine years will do that to paint. Ideally, they'll yield up a little wisdom, also. And if that doesn't yet include handling the passage of time with grace and blubber-free aplomb, and if that only includes elfin victories like crossing the avgolemono finish line without scrambles, then I'll take it.
There's always next year. And purple's nice, too.
Avgolemono + Spring Veg
adapted heavily from The Best Recipe: Soups & Stews by The Editors of Cook's Illustrated and Mad Hungry Cravings, by Lucinda Scala Quinn
Yield: Serves 4 as a Main Course
please note: you will need a stick (ideal) or stand blender
Vegetable stock can be used in place of chicken, and the shrimp ommitted, for a vegetarian take. I've made this, also, minus the rice, and topped in this way, it remains lovely. As to the spices, they add wonderful flavor, but don't let lack of them stop you; they can be ommitted. If you do use them, tie them up in a bit of cheesecloth, or a clamp-shut tea strainer. As to peas, the best I've ever had, fresh or frozen, are Trader Joe's frozen petite peas. They go straight from freezer to strainer to bowl in our home, at least once a week, no cooking necessary. Homemade chicken broth will shine, here, but the lemon and egg are enough to carry storebought stock, handily.
4 cups chicken broth
10 green cardamom pods, lightly bashed (or 1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds)
2 bay leaves
6 tablespoons long-grain white rice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, from 2-4 lemons
2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks
kosher salt, to season
cooked, diced asparagus
minced chives + lemon zest to garnish (optional)
Bash whole cardamom pods lightly in a mortar and pestle, or with a can from the pantry. Tip cardamom onto a small (6x6") square of cheesecloth, add bay leaves, and tie shut. Place herbs, chicken broth, and rice in a medium heavy saucepan, and bring to a boil. Turn down heat, and let simmer 15-20 minutes, or until rice is tender.
Meanwhile, juice lemons into a large, 4-cup, heat-proof measuring cup. Add eggs. Blitz eggs and juice with a blender (directly in the cup, if using a stick blender; by pouring into the jar, if using a stand blender) until thoroughly combined, 30 seconds.
While soup is cooking, prepare your toppings: slice asparagus stalks into small coins, 1/4-1/3" thick, and leave tips whole. Bring a small saucepan with 1" water and 1 teaspoon salt to a strong simmer, tip in asparagus, cover, and simmer-steam until just tender and still bright green, 4-7 minutes, depending on thickness. Drain well. Defrost peas in a strainer under running water until room temperature, 1-2 minutes. Drain well. Sauté shrimp (defrosted, and well-drained on a towel, if frozen) in a small skillet, slicked with a tablespoon of heated olive oil, 1-2 minutes, until hot and bright pink.
When rice is tender and cooked, ladle 1/2 cup of hot broth into the lemon juice/egg mixture. Blitz briefly, 15 seconds, minding the hot liquid. Add another 1/2 cup, and repeat. Add a third 1/2 cup, and repeat. Pour now-tempered lemon juice and eggs into the simmering pot, whisking to combine. Continue to simmer another 2-3 minutes, until soup turns opaque, eggs cook through, and broth thickens. Taste for salt: depending on your stock, you will likely need 1/2 - 1 teaspoon. Add, taste, adjust.
Top soup with asparagus, peas and/or shrimp, as desired, and garnish with minced chives and/or lemon zest, if using. Serve hot.