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Garnished garlic soup with paprika oil.

Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

My craving for this vegetarian, dairy-free, comparatively lean soup is not tied to any après-holiday dietary restriction. First, I do not subscribe to guilt associated with days of revelry. Second, and more importantly, this soup is undeniably delicious, full stop.

I grant that it is the antithesis to the cooking and eating of the past few weeks. It is arguably austere in terms of ingredients, indulgence and effort. There is little chopping, and most of the cooking is unattended on the stove. The flavors are straightforward and bold, but unchallenging. There’s olive oil, but not much of it. And the whole thing is based on kitchen staples, collected in a bowl of pale, beige comfort. It seems almost humble.

That said, let me remind you, this soup is delicious.

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It is a soup with pedigree. While not exactly sopa de ajo, this recipe did begin there. I adore that classic of Spanish cooking, which, exactly as advertised, is a soup made of garlic and little else – only water, stale bread and paprika at its most basic.

Many recipes add eggs; in some, the eggs ribbon the broth in wisps, egg-drop style. In another version, eggs are beaten and then tempered with steaming stock, so that they blend seamlessly into the soup and transform into a velvety emulsion. Other interpretations bake an egg directly in the bowl.

My garlic soup picks and chooses from that heritage. I start with garlic and a robust broth. Into that, bread. Croutons made from a past-its-prime loaf, with the softest interior crumb into the soup as a thickener, and the rest put aside to add at the end. I’ve added cabbage, cooked only enough that the leaves go lax and noodle-y, slurpable and tender. The beans bring their creamy bulk, and an egg, poached directly in the broth, feels almost luxurious. Leggy broccolini, shredded kale or Brussels sprouts, would be welcome as well.

The paprika oil is a last nod to the tradition of sopa de ajo, as the rusty-hued spice provides foundational depth. I love how it punctuates the visual plainness of the broth, how it collects in the crags of the croutons, clings to the curves of the beans and mingles with the lazy ooze of egg’s yolk. I call for only sweet paprika in the recipe, but feel free to sneak in some smoked for that extra layer of character.

I make the oil first, as it’s best once it has had the chance to settle. Ideally, get it together the day before you’re having the soup, then pop in the fridge overnight. The recipe is for a generous batch, and is useful to have around. Employ it as a condiment for roasted veg, as a dressing to slick steaming grains or as a dip for bread. As you might imagine, it’s aces on other soups and stews as well. It, like this bowl of wintry warmth, is a January essential, as far as I’m concerned.

Garnished garlic soup with paprika oil

Serves 4

For the paprika oil
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 or 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets or 2 teaspoons tomato paste or white miso for vegetarians
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons mixed hardy herbs (leaves from thyme, oregano, rosemary)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • Medium-grained kosher salt, as needed
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
For the soup
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra, divided
  • 8 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
  • 8 cups good quality vegetable broth or chicken stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 ounces crusty bread, cut into 1/2-inch dice, about 6 cups, divided
  • Medium-grained kosher salt, as needed
  • 1 smallish cabbage, cored and sliced into 1/2-inch ribbons
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked cannellini beans
  • 4 eggs

Start with the paprika oil. In a small saucepan or skillet, gently warm the olive oil. While it heats, mash the anchovy in a mortar and pestle. Scrape anchovy into the oil, and stir to dissolve the fillets. Set aside.

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Without cleaning the mortar, pound the garlic, herbs and chili flakes together with a generous pinch or two of salt. Spoon the paprika into the oil, followed by the herb paste and vinegar. Let cool, then cover until needed. (If making in advance, refrigerate and bring to room temperature before using. Can be kept for up to 1 week.)

Make the soup. In a large pot, warm 2 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the garlic over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, until the garlic is tender and golden, 8 minutes or so. Pour in the stock and bay leaf, and bring to a simmer. Tumble in couple of handfuls of the cubed bread, the interior pieces preferred, about 1 1/2 cups. Stir well, and continue to simmer while you make the croutons.

In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Tip in the remaining bread, along with a few pinches of salt. Cook, turning regularly, until the bread is golden and crisp all over, 10 minutes. Pull off the heat.

Pluck the bay leaf from the stock. For the smoothest soup, use an immersion blender to purée or, alternatively, whisk vigorously for a rustic finish.

Sprinkle the cabbage and beans into the soup. Once the cabbage is tender and the beans hot, 7 to 10 minutes, use a slotted spoon to divide vegetables between serving bowls. Tuck some croutons into each.

Set the heat beneath the pot to maintain the barest simmer. Check for seasoning, then poach the eggs directly into the soup. Gently baste the yolks with the liquid, until set to your liking, 3 to 5 minutes. Using the slotted spoon again, carefully transfer the eggs to each of their bowls, then ladle the hot soup over. Serve immediately, with the paprika oil and croutons alongside.

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