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A secret to delicious veggie soups
And the reveal that brings it all together.
[…] called the Maggi plant in northern Europe […] its cooked aroma resembles the long-standing Maggi brand of instant seasoning that simulates the aromatic-vegetable base.
– Harold McGee
Coming closer to cooking entirely with vegetables is an ongoing conversation in our kitchen, and the question that keeps us interested is how to develop satisfying flavour. Soup became a personal preoccupation, specifically, how to deliver a deeply savoury baseline in veggie soups without relying on chicken broth. And, last winter, we followed a few stepping-stones to an answer.
It started in an organic community food garden, where some welcome rain encouraged rows of soup celery to flourish. And although it wasn’t on our harvest list, the freshly cut slender stems tied like a bunch of herbs made me think of Downday soup. So, I bought an armful for Mutti (mum) and some for us, and on the way home started trawling my memory for other mentions of it.
Nothing immediately came to mind, so I decided to look it up, and got diverted by margin notes on celery salt and a ‘delicate celery leaf soup’ – which is what became of the soup celery. It called for simmering the leafage in ‘good chicken stock’ for 30 minutes and then straining it out. And having tasted the stock both before and after, it seemed profoundly savoury after.
Naturally half an hour of cooking will concentrate a stock but this unintended home experiment also made a connection. It was a reminder of the article Michael Pollan mentions in Cooked, aptly called ‘Flavour Enhancement of Chicken Broth from Boiled Celery Constituents’. Food scientists found that the compounds in celery called phthalides (pronounced p-THA-lides) are tasteless on their own but heighten the perception of umami when cooked in chicken broth.
Umami is the fifth taste – that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it savoury moreishness. And it was very much present in that impromptu lunch, made complete with offcut shards of homemade pasta and croutes carrying barely melted Havarti cheese. With the broth-tasting moment still on my mind, I sent a message to Mutti: Think you are onto something with this soup celery.
Those tongue-twisting compounds, phthalides, are also mentioned in the same breath as the herb lovage, which is known for having a celery flavour. Lovage is called Maggikraut in German, which means ‘Maggi herb’. And the ‘Maggi’ in that name refers to a condiment resembling Worcestershire sauce that’s dispensed on anything in need of a savoury pick-me-up.
Officially called Maggi Würze, it comes in a cheerful red-and-yellow labelled bottle that is standard on kitchen shelves in the German homes I know and love. It was created by chemist Julius Maggi in 1886, whose brief was to innovate in the plant-based domain. So, he created a cost-effective way to pep up veggie broth: a liquid seasoning of vegetable protein and MSG.
‘In an amusing confusion of original and imitation,’ writes Harold McGee, ‘lovage (Levisticum officinale) is called the Maggi plant in northern Europe because its cooked aroma resembles the long-standing Maggi brand of instant seasoning that simulates the aromatic-vegetable base.’
When it comes to instant seasoning there’s a certain irony that Mutti, the woman who celebrates stock cubes, helped me understand how to develop flavour in the most natural way. Her Downday soup is not strictly vegetarian, but the importance she places on the soup celery showed me its value. The secret was right under my nose all along.
Though it’s not just the leaves and stalks. On learning that celeriac has phthalides too, the answer was as clear as a well-made bouillon: create a celery trifecta that could play off an Allium-strong veggie broth. This was also on the back of reading about German chemists (thanks to Harold McGee) who analysed the source of flavours in a meat stew and found the individual ‘gravy-like’ note to come from the leeks and onions.
A veggie soup followed, layering the flavours of three celery varieties at different points and in different forms. In the broth: saline-savoury, jade-green stalks and slightly stronger forest-green leaves cultivated for soup. As seasoning and soup veggie: the sweeter, more delicate savoury of celeriac. And to give it the best chance of reaching a savoury peak: a crown of caramelised onions.
The soup was soothing and delicate and most definitely satisfying, and Brandon likened it to vegetarian fine dining in both the making and the eating. Tasting this milestone on the journey of building flavour brought us right back to the feedback we received from a book editor a few years ago. After reading our manuscript she wrote in her reply, ‘Now I know what’s been missing from my life: celery.’
For all the take-homes, the story behind the soup’s name, and how to make it, download the pdf below.
This is the culmination of a series of posts about salt, seasoning, and the secret to creating satisfying flavour, brought to you with a pinch of nostalgia and plenty of love for the women who raised us.
To catch up on the other posts, click on the links below.
For Brandon’s essay on what salt to use and how to use it, click here
For Nikki’s essay on salt, water, and seasoning soup, click here
For making celery salt and veggie stock from scratch, click here
The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander (Australia: Penguin, 2004)
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (USA: Penguin Press, 2013)
McGee on Food & Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture by Harold McGee (London: Hoden and Stoughton, 2004)
Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World's Smells by Harold McGee (New York: Penguin Press, 2020)