It’s a coincidence that I made soup meagre during Lent, but my timing was good, since in the 18th century this meatless soup was traditionally made in the latter part of Lent, when springtime greens were just becoming available.
Soup meagre is a very simple dish, thus the name. I assumed “meagre” was a French word, but it’s the British spelling of “meager,” from the Old French maigre. In the oldest recipe I could find (in the Ashfield Recipe Book, 1723*), sorrel, parsley, cabbage, and onions were boiled in water, after which dried bread, cloves, salt, and pepper were added. Then, because this is colonial cooking, half a pound of butter was added. The soup was then boiled for two hours. When the soup was made late enough in spring, peas were included as well.
I first tasted soup meagre last summer at a wonderful open-hearth cooking class taught by Sarah Lohman of the blog Four Pounds Flour. (To see the soup meagre we made there, click here.) Sarah modernized the Ashfield recipe, cutting back on the amount of butter and leaving out the bread. She also altered the technique a bit, sautéeing the onions in butter to start (this method was used later in the 18th century by Hannah Glasse).
It was a very nice soup, but I wanted to try making the dish following an 18th-century recipe more closely. I decided to use Hannah Glasse’s recipe, from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1774):
Take a half a pound of butter, put it into a deep stew pan, shake it about, and let it stand till it is done making a noise; then have ready six middling onions peeled and cut small, throw them in and shake them about; take a bunch of celery clean washed and picked, cut it into pieces half as long as your finger, a large handful of spinach clean washed and picked, good lettuce clean washed, if you have it, and cut small, a little bundle of parsley chopped fine; shake all this together well in the pan for a quarter of an hour, then shake in a little flour, stir altogether, and pour into the stew pan two quarts of boiling water; take a handful of hard dry crust, throw in a teaspoonful of beaten pepper, three blades of mace beat fine, stir altogether, and let it boil softly for half an hour; then take it off the fire, and beat up the yolks of two eggs and stir in, and one spoonful of vinegar; pour it into the soup dish and send it to table. If you have any green peas, boil half a pint in the soup for change.
I made this pretty much as Glasse wrote it, down to the celery pieces “half as long as your finger.” Unfortunately, it was inedible — to my 21st century palate, at least.
So I tried again, making most of the changes Sarah Lohman had, wise woman that she is. I cut the amount of butter in half and left out most of the flour and all of the bread. And I skipped the egg yolks. I also used some chicken broth in addition to water, although I think you could use just water or vegetable broth if you want to keep this soup meatless.
This new version tasted much better. The texture was less gruel-like, and the flavor of the greens came through. Still, I didn’t even attempt to get my nine-year-old to try it (too many vegetables). But if you like escarole soup, you might enjoy this. And if you wish, you can experiment with all kinds of greens, from lettuces to asparagus.
Adapted from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, cut into 1- to 2-inch lengths (“half as long as your finger”)
6-8 ounces mixed greens, such as spinach and lettuce (e.g., arugula or mesclun), chopped if large
3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
6 cups boiling water
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground mace (or nutmeg)
1. Melt the butter in a large kettle or Dutch oven over medium heat. When the bubbling has subsided, add the onions and cook for about five minutes, until transparent.
2. Add the celery, greens, and parsley, stir, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the flour over the greens and stir to blend. Add the chicken broth, water, salt, pepper, and mace, and stir well. Simmer the soup over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes.
4. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Serve warm. (Note: This soup tastes best the day it is made.)
*The Ashfield Recipe Book, kept by the Ashfield family of New York City and New Jersey from the 1720s until the Revolutionary era, is included in Pleasures of Colonial Cooking, published by the New Jersey Historical Society (1982).
I’ll definitely try this recipe and I like your changes of less butter and no flour.
Well I used a tiny bit of flour, but you could probably leave it out. BTW, I visited your blog and like the flower photos, especially the lilacs. I can’t wait for lilac season! And I saw in an earlier post that you were going to make the Martha Washington cake. Hope it turned out well, and thanks for mentioning my blog. 🙂
Thank you for the visit to my blog. I did make the Martha Washington cake and everyone loved it. It isn’t a super sweet cake and rather dense like a pound cake. I used dried cheeries, slivered almonds, fresh Bosc pears and sliced apples. It was very good with coffee. Thanks for the recipe.
Oh and I haven’t been blogging very long. I usually post it to my Facebook page so my friends can read there. I hope they find your blog. We took a two week trip to D.C. and Virginia last spring and like you, we became inspired to come home and cook some historical recipes. I especially enjoy making the peanut soup served at Mount Vernon’s restaurant. It has been on of my family favorites.
Looks delicious. I love how the recipe reads. “Shake it about.” And “half as long as your finger.” Cooking like that would make me crazy. I’m grateful recipes have gotten more precise.
Me, too. Which is why one of these days I’ll have to switch to a later era, as sometimes these recipes drive me batty. But Hannah Glasse’s are really fun to read, if not always to cook.
Excellent recipe and a nice slice of history. I was intrigued by meagre as well and wondered if it simply meant “vegetarian”. I have an 1894 cookbook I downloaded from Internet Archive called “Maigre Cooking” by Henrietta Louisa Lear, which is generally considered to be an early vegetarian cookbook.
That’s interesting. Merriam-Webster says soup-meagre is archaic for “a broth made chiefly from vegetables or fish,” and has a French derivation. It seems like the fish dropped out over time and maigre eventually meant vegetarian. I’m not sure if that’s true in France — any French readers out there who can weigh in?
My dictionary app says that maigre (from the French) is an adjective that means “containing neither flesh nor its juices, as food permissible on days of religious abstinence”. Surprisingly, both the Larousse Gastronomique and Alan Davidson’s Oxford Dictionary of Food are silent on the subject. Just to confuse matters, Davidson indicates that meagre is a large type of Mediterranean fish akin to kingfish. None of the sources mention soup-meagre.
I like their means of transmitting measurements…half as long as one’s finger. Well, it works. I will try this some day possibly with the addition (or leaving in) of egg yolks.
Hi Aneela. If you every try it with egg yolks, I’d love to know how it turned out. I used bread and yolks the first time, but never tried yolks but not bread. Thanks!
I love bread in soup! But a broth thickened with butter and flour AND stale bread? AND egg yolks? That’s a bit thick even for me.
But yes – silky strands of bread floating in a light broth is absolutely delicious. They key is the ratio – too much stale bread and you’re halfway to panade. Too little and it doesn’t make sense – you’ll get only an occasional mouthful or none at all. But with just the right amount of bread, it’s transcendent.
I confess I had to look up panade — so I learned something this morning. Thanks! And now I’m also very hungry thinking about silky strands of bread floating in broth. Mmm…
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