Rustic spring vegetable soup, Josh Aronie’s way

Just Good Food

by Sydney Bender

Just Good Food

Randi Baird

The Menemsha Cafe is an easy place to enjoy a meal. Dinners are BYOB and BYOP: Bring Your Own Plate (optional).  

“I like it when food is beautiful but it’s not my priority. I’m not a beautiful person, as in every potato doesn’t have to be the same size,” Josh Aronie, owner of the Menemsha Café, says on a sunny spring afternoon. “I respect people who do that, but I don’t adhere to it.” Josh is a self-proclaimed casual cook. “Don’t call me a chef, I’m not trying to make a fancy plate, I’m trying to make good food,” he says, and although he’s not precise about the size of vegetables he chops or the amount of salt he pinches into the pot, he is particular about one thing—the taste.

Today, a day that mimics many a spring Vineyard afternoon with sunlight peeking in through the windows of the small, charming Menemsha Café, Josh stands tall, cooking a vegetable soup. Piles of potatoes, carrots, and spring garlic are mounded on his cutting board, along with fresh herbs and spices, and a bowl of English peas, one of the first vegetables to come out on the Island.

Josh begins his soup by making the base—a vegetable stock with tomatoes, onions, celery, bay leaves, thyme sprigs, parsley stems, ginger, salt, pepper, and soy sauce. After chopping the vegetables, he pulls the thyme off the stalks, smashes the ginger, and then adds the parsley, bay leaves, salt, pepper, soy sauce, and water together in a large pot. He brings it to a boil, then reduces the heat to let simmer for about twenty minutes. Then he turns the heat off and lets the stock rest for 20 minutes before straining out the vegetables. Today in his kitchen, the soup stock will be the only thing resting—Josh is always moving, always cooking, always talking. Cracking eggs and cracking jokes at his café, he greets customers by name and fills the air in the 17-seat café with sweet salty smells of good cooking.

Once the vegetable stock is made, Josh moves right on to making the spring vegetable soup. He gathers one baseball-sized Spanish onion, five California carrots, three bundles of spring garlic, a half dozen small potatoes, and about four cups of English peas (he shelled them while the stock was simmering).

“I cook until I’m at a place where I’m happy or not happy with it.” You won’t find a lot of measuring cups or bowls in Josh’s kitchen. “I just go with it—I’m a cook of opportunity…I don’t always have a plan. I just go where I’m going.”

Hardly any of the vegetable scraps make it to compost. “I like to use the peels and edges.” Josh uses the whole stalk of spring garlic except for the thin roots attached to the bulb (spring garlic is a stalk similar to a scallion). “You lose a lot of flavor when you don’t use the whole thing.”

Easygoing, funny, and quirky, Josh strips sprigs of thyme one by one laughing to himself. “Thyme is time consuming,” he says, in a deep chuckle that is contagious.

Josh pours almost half a bottle of chardonnay into the soup pot over his sauté of veggies and, continues to stir until the alcohol burns off. “My mother just gave me this bottle of wine, so that’s why I used it,” he says, but admits that a dry chardonnay was a smart choice for soup because the sugar level in a chardonnay is high, and a dry wine has more acidity which, in turn, adds a hint more of a refreshing, citrus taste.

There is no specific order to when Josh adds each ingredient, like carrots and red potatoes. “People think you need to put everything in at the same time, but adding things later gives it more, different textures,” says Josh. Adding the same ingredients into the soup at different times allows the soup to have a diverse amount of textures—some carrots are crunchier than others, some potatoes are saltier than others—and that is the essential rustic taste of the soup. Like Josh, this soup has a casual aspect to it.

“I have always loved cooking,” Josh says, gazing outside at the warm Vineyard sun. “I certainly love to eat. I love restaurants. It’s nice to be on this Island and in this business because anywhere you go, people tend to know who you are for that.”

Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., Josh’s parents took him and his brother out to dinner at least once a week. “I think that’s where I really started to love food. And it wasn’t your standard food; we went to a lot of different places, a lot of ethnic food. My mom had an experimental thing with food. My dad sees food as something to eat—appreciates good food but doesn’t seek it out. My mother seeks it out.”

Josh tastes his soup again, scooping out chunks of carrots, overlapping red-skinned potatoes and spring peas, swimming in a thin broth. Looking out the window, he tries it, shakes his head and, just as if he was witnessing a long-anticipated Menemsha sunset, he smiles. “It’s good,” he says, and keeps moving on—cooking, laughing, and eating—doing what he does best.