It was the weekend before I was to make my final profession as a Benedictine Oblate. I wanted to honor St. Benedict in a personal way and created this soup as a briw. In Old English the briw was the evening meal of soup or broth—a lighter fare, with the heavier meal consumed in the middle of the day.
The Benedictines had attached to their hermitages small plots called le jardin potager in which they grew an assortment of herbaceous plants. These gardens served a purpose beyond that of production. It was through its installation and maintenance that the monks or nuns were able to fulfill the manual labor component of their religious way of life—Ora et Labora, pray and work.
These small gardens had many of the same elements. There were vegetables and fruits, medicinal and utilitarian plants, herbs for cooking, possibly a fruit tree, and flowers for the altar. The potagers were often beautifully laid out with flowers and edibles grown together in a visually appealing manner conducive to prayer.
The foods eaten during 6th century Europe, when St. Benedict lived, were limited. The monks would have had cows to provide for cheese and butter—though rarely did they drink the milk—and possibly chickens and a fish pond. Commonly found in their potagers were pulses, being beans and peas, cereal grains such as barley, wheat, rye, and oats as well as many root vegetables like turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnips. Leeks and plants in the onion family were prevalent, and a portion of their diet included foraged mushrooms and native wild plants.
With this in mind, I created a soup that included mushrooms, leeks, dairy, and parsley in place of the often used carrots tops. Today’s carrot cultivars are bred for their flavorful roots, not their leaves.
I like to think that St. Benedict would have enjoyed this soup for briw and offered to bring bread for our meal.
St. Benedict Soup
2-3 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups thinly sliced leeks, white and only a small portion of the green (about 4-6 leeks depending on size)
4 cups chicken stock (for Lent, replace with vegetable broth)
1 medium russet potato, cooked and mashed, or ½ cup instant potatoes
16-24 oz. sliced portobello mushrooms, or finely diced
¼ cup fresh parsley leaves, diced
½ cup cream or half-and-half
¼-½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
In soup kettle melt butter, add leeks and sauté until tender but not browned (about 5-8 minutes). Add stock, potato, mushrooms, and parsley. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and let simmer for 20 minutes. Add cream and pepper, heat through and serve.
The precooked potato is used as a thickening. Leftover mashed potatoes can be substituted. In the 6th century, old bread would be used. The potato can be cooked in the soup; dice it into small pieces so it will cook quickly. Try using peeled, roasted, mashed parsnips instead of the potato for a distinctly different taste—though the soup will be thinner overall.
As for the cream, sour cream works well but you will need to temper it slowly with warm soup broth before adding it to the pot—otherwise it may curdle when added to the soup.
UPDATE: I mentioned bread…how about a loaf of soda bread? The delightful Elizabeth Scalia shares her recipe.
(Image by Vincent Ma/Creative Commons)