Don’t waste time feeling anything like pity for those of us who live in Southern California and “endure” its  winters. While the rest of the country is digging out of snow over the next few months, we shiver when the temps drop into the low 60s. But it does at least mean we can all agree on one thing: the magical qualities of a steaming bowl of soup. Warming, comforting soup that’s also deliciously healthy with winter veggies.

I’m working on a story for the San Diego Union-Tribune on healthy winter soups and have my recipe line up ready. Somewhat similar to one of these recipes is one I came up with a few years ago when I was gifted with a huge bag of baby spinach, already cleaned and prepped and looking for a purpose. I had just made spanakopita so that was out. There’s only so much spinach salad one person can eat, so that wasn’t going to do it. And back then San Diego was about to get hit with another storm so a cold salad didn’t appeal to me anyway.

I already had the remains (meaning the breast meat) of a rotisserie chicken I had bought at Costco. (Existential question: Does anyone really enjoy a market rotisserie chicken beyond the convenience factor?) I had feta cheese and a just wrinkling jalapeño pepper I needed to use, a huge head of garlic, a quart of vegetable stock and an onion, fresh herbs and Meyer lemons in my garden, and purple prairie barley in the pantry. As I scoured my kitchen and garden I figured, okay, I had the makings of a big pot of soup.

Now you can, of course, add other vegetables to this. Mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, or winter squash would all be nice. You could leave out the chicken for a vegetarian soup or add sausage or other proteins to make it even more hearty. Couscous or rice would work instead of barley. Basically, add whatever your clients will love most. But what you really want to keep in–besides the spinach, of course–is the lemon juice. It’s the magical ingredient that makes this soup special. It turns a very nice conventional soup into something bright and interesting. And makes it the perfect go-to for a chilly cloudy weekend. And it freezes beautifully for clients to store.

Lemony Spinach Soup with Chicken and Barley
Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1 pound baby spinach, thoroughly washed, dried, and chopped
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
Juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces shredded chicken or other protein (optional)
6 ounces barley
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
crumbled feta for garnish

Directions

1. Heat a large Dutch oven and add olive oil. Add the garlic and onion. Sauté until golden. Add the pepper and sauté another 30 seconds.

2. Add the spinach in batches, stirring until it cooks down.

3. Add the stock and water, stirring to mix. Then add the chicken and barley. Bring to a boil, then reduced to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 40 minutes or until the barley is tender.

4. Add the herbs and lemon juice. Stir. Let cook another 5 to 10 minutes.

5. Serve with feta.

What winter soups are you preparing for clients–or your own family? What are your favorite riffs on ingredients?

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