February is my least favorite month. Snow’s melting, but only halfway, leaving slush. Skies are still gray, winds are still bitter, but there’s not much greenery below to make up for the dullness above. Worse yet, markets and produce sections are dismal – the last of the winter vegetables are still lolling around, looking almost forlorn. (I think the most depressed of all vegetables would have to be a past-its-prime cabbage.) So what have you got from your local greengrocer? A lot of potatoes, a few onions, sometimes a jetlagged, mealy tomato. Around this time of year, I turn to my pantry and try desperately to avoid thinking about asparagus.

This weekend a friend came to visit and I always like to cook something new for her. Feeling uninspired for hours and finally frustrated with indecision, I said, “Well… chickpeas are good.” So I asked her to stop in Sofia on her way over to pick up some spinach from the megamart, and we had a lovely soup, one so perky it almost made me forget it’s February.

Soup is easily the world’s most forgiving meal, especially when it’s the kind I like to call a fridge dump. Pull out the produce drawer, chop it up, throw it in the pot, add water. There are a few things to know, but that’s basically it. In this case I pulled out some chickpeas, potatoes, a carrot, garlic, the spinach, and… Turkish Chili Paste.

Turkish Chili Paste is the ace in my sleeve during these cold, dull Balkan winters. I bought it in Istanbul about a year ago, from a guy outside the spice bazaar in Sultanahmet, whose stall was full of barrels and barrels of just tomato and chili pastes – every shade of red you could imagine. I keep my dwindling supply in an old rose-jam jar, smoky and pungent.  The heat doesn’t hit right away, but when it does, it spreads happily over the back of your mouth and, yes, makes your nose run. If you can’t find it, though, you’ll survive – throw in a chipotle.


Spicy Chickpea Soup
serves 4-6

2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small carrot, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2″ pieces
2 cups presoaked chickpeas
2 fist-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
6 cups vegetable broth or water
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons Turkish chili paste or 1 minced chipotle
4 cups well-rinsed, chopped spinach leaves or 1 cup thawed frozen spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and garlic, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes or until soft. Uncover and add chickpeas, potatoes, vegetable broth or water (if 6 cups doesn’t cover the veggies, add more liquid to cover), tomatoes, and chili paste or chipotle. Bring to a boil then drop the heat down to low and simmer, covered, 30 minutes, or until potatoes are soft and your kitchen smells fantastic. Add the spinach and cook 2-3 minutes, just until it wilts. Taste, add salt and pepper as desired, and serve. This is, as all soups are, better the next day.