Long ago I worked as the lunch cook at a lively little café in Montpelier, Vermont, and every day meant coming up with a new soup du jour. I was relatively green and had no formal training, and I struggled to continually invent new combinations. At night, I would scour my meager cookbook collection for recipes I could master (this was long before Google), and the next morning I’d do my best to interpret these into something our customers might enjoy. Looking back, I can’t say that every soup was a winner—not by a long shot—but my soups did improve over time, especially once I learned that the best way to create anything truly tasty was to start with a single good idea and build from there. The starting point might be an ingredient or flavoring, and then it’s a matter of selecting complementary ingredients to generate complexity of flavor without it becoming a muddle. Through trial and error, my early soup experiments taught me that carefully handling a few well-chosen ingredients always produces a better result than assembling a thoughtless jumble. I also learned to taste my raw ingredients before adding them, and then to taste at every step along the way in order to best steer my cooking toward deliciousness. This process of thoughtfully tasting and tinkering is how this very recipe came to be—and it’s the approach I still use to get it right.
The starting point here are the chickpeas (either canned or home-cooked), and whenever I make this soup, I start by tasting a few to remind me of their nutty, slightly sweet taste and almost creamy texture. I also sample the liquid from the can (or the bean cooking liquid, if I had time to cook them from scratch). The liquid (the stuff in the can is called aquafaba and is sometimes used as a vegan egg white substitute) should be slightly viscous with a mild bean taste. I add it to the soup to provide light body and to underscore the bean flavor. For the balance of liquid, I use plain water, because it gives the soup a certain lightness and I like the way it lets the ingredients shine bright. If you want to make a deeper, heartier soup, you could certainly swap in broth (vegetable or chicken would be my first choice).
Once I have the taste of chickpeas fresh in my mind, I envision the round-up of flavorings that will highlight this humble legume without overpowering. Gently sautéed onions add sweetness and a silky texture. Carrots provide heft, more sweetness, and their cheerful orange color complements the buff tones of the beans. For seasoning, a heady mixture of garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and cayenne pays homage to the cuisines of North Africa where chickpeas prevail. And finally, tender spinach leaves bring a welcome jolt of green and their earthy minerality balances the sweet.
Every time I make this soup, I’m amazed at how the simple lineup of ingredients can come together to produce such a satisfying and gorgeous soup. I also marvel at the transformation that happens in the 30 minutes it takes for the chickpeas to become silky and tender. When you make this at home—and I hope you do—I urge you to keep a tasting spoon nearby to sample the soup every step along the way. It’s a great lesson in building and layering flavor, and a reminder of how a good pot of soup becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
- 2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
- 3 medium carrots, chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
- 6 cups loosely packed fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh lime juice
How to Make It
Drain chickpeas, reserving liquid. Taste chickpea liquid to determine if you want to use it for the soup; it should have a mild flavor and no off taste. Pour into a quart-size measuring cup, and add enough water to equal 1 quart. If the bean liquid doesn’t taste right to you, discard it, and measure 1 quart cool water. Set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot or medium Dutch oven over medium. When shimmering, add carrots. Cook; stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring often, until onions are golden in spots, about 10 minutes. Push onion mixture to one side of pan; add garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and remaining 1 tablespoon oil to empty side of pan. Cook, stirring spice mixture constantly, until fragrant and spices coat bottom of pan, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Add chickpeas, reserved 1 quart of bean liquid and water, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt to pan. Partially cover, and bring to a simmer over medium. Reduce heat to low, and gently simmer, partially covered, until chickpeas and carrots are very tender but chickpeas still hold their shape, about 30 minutes. (You should have about 5 1/2 cups of the cooked bean mixture. If needed, add additional water to equal 5 1/2 cups.)
Transfer 1 cup chickpea mixture to a blender, taking care to get a good mix of solids and liquid. Process until smooth, about 40 seconds; return to pan. Return the soup to a gentle simmer over medium.
Gradually add spinach in batches, stirring until wilted. Stir in lime juice, and add additional salt and cayenne to taste. Ladle soup into bowls, and drizzle with olive oil.