There are some recipes that once you have them once, they kind of haunt you. One of the first Indian foods I tried was sarson ka saag- Punjabi mustard greens soup. The Nashville farmers’ market back in the late 90’s was run down and didn’t have much local produce, but it did have a central enclosed building that housed the most amazing collection of tiny international food shops and restaurants- an Indian-owned grocery, a Caribbean place, an Asian grocery that specialized in Japanese food, a gyro stand, a very good barbecue stand, a junky import shop, a real butcher shop, and more, all tucked inside a building the size of a big box retailer. It was just across the river from our neighborhood so I shopped there almost every week. The Indian-owned grocery carried foods from everywhere between Turkey and India, plus some tortillas and beans just to round things out. Back in the dusty shelves was the Indian equivalent of canned soup- canned “homestyle” curries that were vegetarian, had no preservatives, were “native” spicy, and I absolutely loved. The flavor of that canned sarson ka saag is still distinct to this day.
Back in the late fall, when greens were just starting to ramp up for the cool season at the farmers market, I bought a gorgeous bunch of mustard greens on impulse. I didn’t want to make the standard Southern greens recipe because I had also bought collards. I did the usual casual google and Tastespotting searches to browse recipes and came across a sarson ka saag recipe. That’s it! I’ll make that soup! But of course, I didn’t have all the ingredients in the recipe, so I just made some substitutions here and there… left out a few things… and two hours later, I had a giant pot of inedible green goo.
I made variations of sarson ka saag three more times over the winter, trying different recipes but always making substitutions for out-of-season ingredients, and failed miserably each time. Fortunately mustard greens in the winter are cheap, and since the soup has no fat until you add the final temper, each batch fed the compost beast instead of going down the sink.
Finally this past Saturday I spotted the missing ingredient, the one ingredient that almost all of the traditional recipes call for, the one ingredient that had been unavailable all winter- lambs quarters, called quelites in Central America and bathua in India. I grew lambs quarters last year, but lambs quarters are a summer green here… they don’t grow at the same time as mustard greens except, apparently, right now.
It was pretty late in the morning, but I found a farmer with mustard greens left, and then bought the rest of the fresh ingredients to try again. And finally, last night, success. The array of greens in this soup are crucial to the flavor. The hearty but “sweet” lambs quarters and spinach balance out the hot/bitter mustard, supported by the onions, tomato, garlic, and ginger. In India this is considered a winter dish, but if you’re eating seasonally, this soup belongs whenever the ingredients are available together- and here, that’s March.
Sarson Ka Saag- Grain-free Spicy Mustard Greens Soup
1 bunch mustard greens
1 bunch lambs quarters
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 small white sweet potato (orange will probably work too, or a regular potato)
1 large tomato
1 large yellow onion
8 cloves of fresh garlic (don’t skimp!)
1 heaping tsp ground fenugreek seeds (can sub fenugreek greens if you have them)
1 heaping tsp salt
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1/4 tsp fresh black pepper
4 dried red chile peppers, or 1 heaping tsp of ground chile
1/4 c of salted butter
Fill your sink halfway with cold water. Even if your farmer swears he triple-washed his greens, even if you bought them at the grocery store, you should always wash your greens before cooking them. Gritty soup sucks. Cut the thick stems off the bunches of greens and plunge the loose greens in the cold water. Do not try to do this in a colander, it won’t work. Swish them vigorously. Then lift the greens from the water (this leaves the sand, grit, and critters behind in the sink), shake off the water, and chop the greens coarsely. Put them in your large stock pot. Chop the tomato and sweet potato, add to the greens. Cut the onion in half. Set half aside. Peel and chop the other half and add to the greens. Peel and chop the garlic and ginger, add to the greens, along with the fenugreek, salt, asafoetida, black pepper, and dry chiles.
Put the pot on the stove over medium heat and put a tight lid on. Once the greens start steaming, add one cup of water. Steam the greens for 30 minutes, or until the greens are completely wilted and the sweet potato is cooked. Puree the soup in batches in a blender, or use a sturdy stick blender. I like this soup completely smooth. Put the pureed soup back in the pot and taste for salt and spice. I added at least another tsp of salt at this point and another 2 chiles, but your taste may vary. This soup should be spicy. Then bring back to a simmer, cover, and simmer for at least another hour. Long cooking mellows the mustard greens, but since we’re not draining any water off, the vitamins and minerals stay in the soup.
Take the remaining half onion and slice thinly. Heat the butter until foaming, add the onions, and cook until crispy and lightly browned. Serve the soup in big bowls topped with generous spoons of crispy onions and melted butter. Let the hot soup drive out the spring chill and damp, and walk away afterwards feeling supercharged. Eat your greens!