Ramy Romany, a friend and cinematographer based in Los Angeles, swore that his Egyptian mother, Mary Habib, made the best green soup ever. I had no clue what green soup was, but his enthusiasm was enough to convince me to drive from Santa Monica to Woodland Hills on a Saturday afternoon.
When I arrived, Mary had just finished getting dressed up to go to the supermarket with me -- she wore a patterned silk blouse, elegant black pants, and sandals. I love anyone who gets dressed up to go shopping for food.
We headed to Super King in search of the ingredients we'd need, notably kolkas, a starchy tuberous root that is called taro in other parts of the world. Kolkas is a real beast of a plant and, for this recipe, requires some serious prep if bought raw. Its thick, hairy skin, which looks a lot like tree bark, must be peeled away and, after you've managed that task, the flesh below must be soaked, drained, and soaked again in a rather elaborate process. Mary chose a frozen package of cubed kolkas. It was the sensible thing to do.
Back at the house, she lifted her grandson, Leo, onto her lap and showed him how to pluck cilantro leaves off the stem. His little hands quickly got the hang of things. A huge pile of these and other greens went into a hot skillet. She browned a few chicken drumsticks, added water to cover, and in no time threw together a delicious soup that tasted like it had simmered for hours.
As the whole family -- Mary, Ramy, his wife Sharra, their two sweet kids, and Mary's husband Romany -- sat down for dinner, I thanked Mary for cooking kolkas with me. Ramy joked and corrected my pronunciation, Sharra generously offered to take photographs, and Mary motioned to everyone around the table. "Thank you," she said.
Mary Habib's Kolkas Soup
Mary served this green soup with steamed rice, but it's also delicious with pita bread. Ramy says kolkas soup is always best on the second day, as leftovers for lunch.
3 bunches cilantro
2 bunches dill
1 bunch green chard
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
4 chicken drumsticks
2 dried bay leaves
1 large yellow onion
1 (14-ounce) package frozen cubed kolkas
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove and discard the stems from the cilantro, dill, and chard. (Enlist the help of family members, especially grandchildren). Roughly chop the leaves and place them in a large bowl.
Set a large skillet over medium heat. Add big handfuls of leaves to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until they wilt and create room for more leaves to fit in the skillet. Continue adding handfuls of leaves until you've added them all and they have wilted, about 5 - 7 minutes total. Press the cooked leaves with the back of a wooden spoon and drain off any water that has accumulated. Transfer greens to a food processor, pour in 1 cup water, and blend until smooth.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot set over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the chicken, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and several grinds of pepper. Brown the chicken, flipping it every so often, for several minutes, until all sides are golden. Cover with water and bring to a boil.
Trim the onion's root end and peel away any papery layers. Set the onion on its flat root end and slice vertically into quarters but don't cut all the way through the root end, so that the onion remains in one piece. Add it to the soup, then stir in the kolkas and a pinch of salt. Simmer until kolkas are tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet set over medium heat. Add the garlic and puréed greens. Cook, stirring often, for a few minutes or until the garlic smells very fragrant. Pour half of this mixture into the soup. Taste for seasoning, adding another pinch of salt or a bit more of the greens mixture, if you like. (Freeze any remaining greens mixture in an ice cube tray and reserve for another time.)
To serve, pull the chicken drumsticks out of the soup, and brown them in a small skillet over high heat until the skin is crisp. Serve the chicken alongside the soup.
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