Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



February 2016

Cottage Industry: Rural Studio Comes to Serenbe

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Fifteen years ago, I read an article about Rural Studio and fell in love with the philosophy, the architecture—all of it. Something really struck me about Auburn’s off-campus architecture program where students design and build affordable housing out of recycled materials for residents in the poorest county in Alabama.

Affordable housing is often synonymous with uninspired design, but Rural Studio’s spaces—which include a library, town hall, senior center, playground and more—have a magical quality to them. I think it’s because they understand that beauty matters to everyone, not just those who have money. And as the self-appointed Director of Beauty at Serenbe, this subject is near and dear to my heart.

So I followed their work for years, never for one second imagining it would wind up in my backyard.

Tom Swanston, an artist and former Serenbe resident, followed it, too. And his eyebrows went up when Rural Studio debuted their 20K Home Project, named for, according to their website, “the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain.” These genius alternatives to mobile homes came to be after the mayor of New Orleans called in the wake of Katrina, asking for plans for houses that can be put up quickly. Rural Studio went a step further, making them efficient both in terms of energy use and living.

That’s when Tom started emailing them. He was a big supporter of Serenbe’s Artists in Residence (AIR Serenbe) program and felt passionately about having housing for artists. He sent emails; they ignored him. He sent more emails; they continued to ignore him … along with the thousands of other people asking to collaborate.

And then one day they didn’t ignore him anymore.

Because of Tom, Serenbe and Rural Studio sat at a table together and discussed the future. We needed their cottages for our artists; they needed to put their product somewhere besides Newbern, Alabama. They came to see us and we went to see them. Magic was made.

And it didn’t end there. Serenbe’s Rural Studio cottage, debuted early last month located at The Art Farm at Serenbe—gorgeously designed by Steve McKenzie of Steve McKenzie’s and Kerry Howard of KMH Interiors, two Atlanta based designers who donated their time and talent.

Wonder what they look like inside? Join me next week for part two, where I brag on the designers and show off the homes they created out of houses.



January 2016

Grand Plans: Making A Name For Myself

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Kara has wanted to have babies since she was 10 years old. Unlike Garnie and Quinn, she loved baby dolls and spent hours naming, diapering and giving them bottles. She also loved real babies just as much and babysat as soon as she could. After she graduated college in 2008, she created Camp Serenbe and spends all year creating a special summer experience for kids 3-13.

My little Kara has always been a mama at heart.

So when she said she had a little gift for us when they visited in November, I had an inkling good news was on the way. And sure enough, she and Micah presented Steve and I with a little onesie they’d made that says “Carry Me To Serenbe.”

We were beyond thrilled.

IMG_4265It was our little secret until Christmas, when she made it — as the kids say these days — Facebook Official. Within what felt like seconds, people were coming up and congratulating me and almost everyone wants to know the same thing: What will the baby call you?

This fascinates me. I called my grandmothers Granny and Grandmother — very traditional. Steve was the first-born grandchild on both sides, so he coined the names Pampa for his grandfather and Hun for his grandmother.

For a long time, I thought it would be cute to make Marie into Re-Re, but now there’s a part of me that really wants to embrace Grandmother. And it’s less about the historical aspect and more about moving into the next stage of life. I think there’s something wonderful about honoring the transition from mother to grandmother.



January 2016

True Grits: The One Recipe That’s Not Better With Butter

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Pop quiz time, people: Which of the following dishes is not a classic example of Southern cooking?

A. Fried chicken

B. Shrimp and grits

C. Chicken and dumplings

D. None of the above

Stumped? It’s B. Though everyone below the Mason-Dixon these days has their own recipe and signature twist, shrimp and grits didn’t start swimming onto menus until the late 90s. What began as a fisherman’s breakfast in the Carolina low country has evolved into an entrée often embellished with exotic mushrooms and bacon.

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I had shrimp and grits for the first time in the mid 90s at my dear friend Austin Ford’s house. Austin loves Creole cooking, has stacks of Creole cookbooks and served shrimp and grits for a luncheon. I thought it was utterly delicious and loved it ever since.

In the summer of 1999, Garnie and Kara opened a restaurant at the Inn, which was still a B&B at the time, and needed a few solid recipes for their menu. I asked Austin for his shrimp and grits recipe and it was such a success I featured it on the Farmhouse menu when I took it over in 2009.

People think it’s absolutely loaded with butter, which isn’t true at all — it’s the combination of chicken stock and olive oil that gives Austin’s version its creamy, decadent flavor.

Do it buffet-style for a party: the shrimp sauce can be made ahead of time and refrigerated and the grits can also be prepared in advance and warmed in the oven or in a bain-marie on the stove.


Austin Ford’s Garlic Shrimp and Grits

  • 2 pounds wild caught shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 9 garlic cloves , minced
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/8 cup lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3/4 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 recipe creamy stoneground grits

Heat oil in saute pan and cook the garlic for 30 seconds.

Add chicken broth and lemon juice.

Season with salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce

Add shrimp and cook 1 – 2 minutes until pink.

Place hot grits in large serving bowl. Pour shrimp and hot liquid over grits.

Garnish with parsley.



January 2016

Liver and Learn: Bacchanalia’s Anne Q. Heads Back to the ‘Be

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When I think of Anne Quatrano, I think of her foie gras. Sure, I think of our friendship, her dry wit and annual visits to the ‘Be for the Southern Chefs Series, but mostly I think of her foie gras at Bacchanalia. It’s the best in the city.

Anne has a way of making food taste exquisitely delicious and look like art—both are equally important to her. So I had to laugh when I read her recipe for Wood Oven-Roasted Whole Foie Gras in her gorgeous cookbook, Summerland.

She walks readers through the process of marinating the whole lobe of foie gras in dessert wine, then roasting it in a pan lined with fresh figs. In the very last sentence, she writes, “Present immediately to your guests in the roasting pan for them to admire, then transfer to a warm platter … .”

Anne has such a style. And a fun flair for the dramatic.

Join Anne and me January 24 and 25 for another installment of the Southern Chefs Series. So much to learn, cook, eat and, of course, admire.

Space is limited to 10 participants per class. $695 includes preparing and eating dinner on Sunday and lunch on Monday with the chef, plus an overnight stay at the Inn at Serenbe. To register, call the Inn at 770.463.2610.

Wood Oven-Roasted Whole Foie Gras

  • 1 whole lobe (1 ½ pounds) foie gras
  • 1 (375 ml) bottle sweet or dessert wine
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked pepper
  • 1 pound fresh figs (12 to 14), stems removed and halved
  • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme

Place the foie gras in a baking dish and generously douse with the wine. Season with the salt and refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for 12 to 24 hours.

Allow the foie gras to come to room temperature (about 1 hour). Preheat a wood oven or conventional oven to 500 degrees F.

Re-season the foie gras with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Pour off any remaining wine marinade and reserve. Score the lobe on the diagonal, at 1/8-inch intervals, to make a cross-hatch pattern. Line a roasting pan with the fresh figs, rosemary and thyme sprigs, then set the foie gras on top.

Brush the foie gras with the reserved marinade and add about ¼ cup to the bottom of pan. Roast for about 15 minutes. Keep a careful eye on it and rotate and baste it with the marinade and rendered fat from the pan every 2 minutes. If the foie appears to be browning too quickly, loosely tent the top with aluminum foil.

After about 15 minutes, the internal temperature should reach 135 degrees F. Present immediately to your guests in the roasting pan for them to admire, then transfer to a warm platter and garnish with the figs and sprigs of herbs from the pan.



December 2015

Oh Snaps! The Cookie That Saved My Dinner Party

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gingersnap cookie dessert

Steve mentioned about a month ago that he wanted to entertain one of our new neighbors and some mutual friends at the house. I wasn’t feeling all that adventurous, so I went with what I call some of my safe dishes, including a big bag of turnip and ginger soup I had in the freezer.

Now you see, this is exactly why I love soup. There is absolutely nothing wrong with defrosting a big bag of it, warming it through and serving it at a dinner party. No one is going deduct points for lack of effort … or know the damn difference.

I also resurrected my chicken with goat cheese and red pepper jelly recipe, which I hadn’t done in a long time, and sautéed some savoy cabbage from Serenbe Farms on the side.

But dessert stumped me a bit. As you’ve likely read here many times, it’s not my specialty and I’m perfectly fine with store-bought as long as the other courses are homemade. But then I remembered this pretty package of locally made ginger cookies from The Cookie Studio I’d seen at The General Store and decided to do something a little holiday-ish.

I took a James Beard cream pie recipe I love and substituted eggnog for the half-and-half. Then, instead of filling a pie crust, I put a big dollop of the eggnog custard on top of a gingersnap cookie, topped it with another cookie and put fresh whipped cream on top and a little grated nutmeg.

I felt a little off and like it wasn’t one of my better dinners, but everyone raved about the dessert. I thought they were being overly generous, but it really was delicious — and a fantastic example of what happens when a little homemade and a little store-bought come together.

Happy Holidays, friends.

Eggnog Custard

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 7 tablespoons flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups eggnog, scalded
  • 12 large ginger cookies
  • ½ cup heavy cream, whipped
  • Crystallized ginger pieces
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Mix together the sugar, flour, salt and eggs. Slowly stir in the eggnog. Return the mixture to low heat, and stir constantly until it begins to boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and continue to stir and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Cool to room temperature.

To assemble:

Place large cookie on individual plates. Spoon desired amount of custard on each cookie. Top with another cookie. Put a dollop of whipped cream on cookie and top with ginger and fresh grated nutmeg if desired.



December 2015

Mom and Pop Up: Feeding Fifty in My Backyard

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We just rolled out the line-up for Serenbe’s 2016 culinary experiences and I am amazed at how much Matt Adolfi, our chef-in-residence (and Garnie’s boyfriend), has brought to the table. He’ll do a seasonal cooking class called Right Off the Farm starting in January and Cooking with CSA, an April-October class focused on making the most of your farm share.

But that’s just the half of it. In addition to his behind-the-scenes work at Serenbe concepts and restaurants, Matt has teamed up with Michael Taylor, Garnie’s best friend from Cornell and Serenbe resident, to bring pop-up dinners to our community.

View More: after they had the idea, they approached me and asked, “Mama Marie, how do we make it pretty?” I immediately reached out to Serenbe resident David Widmer, who was the vice president of visual merchandising for Macy’s for two decades. David’s the kind of person who can turn a few votives and a stack of popsicle sticks into a gorgeous tabletop.

Matt and Michael wanted to host the dinner out in the woods. I said, really boys? Where are the bathrooms? How will you set up to cook? This ain’t Mama Marie’s first rodeo, so let’s be practical and have it at my house.

What started as a fun fall dinner turned into a seated meal for 50 people in my backyard—the biggest seated dinner party I’ve ever hosted. David’s décor was wonderfully haunting. It’s amazing what you can do with a few cobwebs, candlesticks and owls.

Matt and Michael put out four courses, starting with foie gras and ending with madeleines View More: Mason jars full of chocolate fondue. It was a riff off the shell-shaped cakes served at the end of every meal at Bacchanalia, his former employer. And this recipe comes straight from Anne Quatrano’s Summerland, Bacchanalia chef/owner’s gorgeous cookbook.


  • Makes 12 little cakes
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and hold it warm over very low heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, granulated sugar, orange and lemon zests, vanilla and salt. Add the flour and baking powder and whisk together. Gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated. Scoop the batter into a pastry piping bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip or a large plastic storage bag with one corner snipped. (The batter can be refrigerated in the piping bag for plastic bag for up to 2 days.)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Coat 12 molds of a madeleine pan with nonstick cooking spray—we use it even with nonstick pans as the madeleines tend to stick.

Pipe the batter into the prepared molds, filling each about halfway. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes; they should be golden brown and a toothpick inserted will come out clean. They should release from the pans easily.

In a perfect world, these would come out of the oven and be served directly to your guests. (We make them all night to ensure they are hot and crisp). But you may bake them in advance and store the cooled cakes in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. Then reheat in a 325 degrees F oven for a couple of minutes. Just before serving, dust with confectioners’ sugar.



December 2015

Steve’s 70th: When Going All Out Means Staying In

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In the Nygren family, our lives revolve around restaurants. I grew up in them, Steve owned a slew of them and now we oversee a few at Serenbe. They’re where we have meetings, catch up with friends and experience local cuisine whenever we travel. So for us, a special meal is a home cooked meal. And when I asked Steve how he wanted to celebrate his 70thbirthday, it came as no surprise that he asked for a family dinner at home.

The secret to a special birthday celebration is to shower the guest of honor with love. Sounds simple, but so many get sidetracked by tablescapes, cakes and whether or not the bathroom sink is clean. What’s important is that everyone is together and Steve was thrilled that all three girls (and their respective men) were around the table.

steve 70th brithday dinner whole group

Technically, Matt was in the kitchen with me making profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce, Caesar salad, roasted Brussels sprouts, pomme frites, béarnaise and roasted beef tenderloin. Here’s another secret: a great tenderloin starts with ground porcini powder. Get a good, grass-fed piece of meat that’s been cleaned well by a butcher, rub it with olive oil and generous amounts of porcini powder, kosher salt and pepper.

steve and marie at steve 70th birthday dinnerMatt also made a pate de foie gras that paired nicely with the Champagne we used to toast Steve. I started by talking about my love and admiration of him then the chain of toasts spontaneously went around the room to the small group of friends and family.

We each said what was in our heart and Karen Fitzgerald, who Steve and I consider our adopted sister, gave him three metaphorical gifts in the theme of him being a man of vision: binoculars for his ability to see long-range; a lamp because he shows others the way and a small painting of the third eye, for his internal sight.

We all bring gifts to the table. Some bring food, others bring gifts or words. That night, we all brought ourselves—our full, present selves—and the older you get, the more you realize that’s enough.

Roasted Filet or Tenderloin of Beef – High Temperature Method

Adapted from Joy of Cooking

10 to 12 servings

If roasted less than a whole tenderloin, buy a piece from the butt, or thicker, end. The roasting time will be about the same as for a whole tenderloin. Be sure to use a shallow roasting pan just big enough for the filet.

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. lightly oil a roasting pan.

Pat dry:

  • 1 filet of beef (about 5 pounds) well trimmed and tied

Mix together and rub entire surface with:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or softened butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground porcini powder

Place the tenderloin in the roasting pan and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part reads 120 degrees F for rare, 125 to 130 degrees F for medium-rare, or 125 to 140 degrees F for medium — 25-45 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees out of the oven. Cover the roast loosely with aluminum foil and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the strings and cut the tenderloin into 1/2-inch slices.



December 2015

Tales from Thanksgiving: Carving Out Time with Lucas in the Kitchen

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marie and lucas thanksgiving turkey 2015For most, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with friends and family in a delicious haze of good food and gratitude. For the Nygren family, Thanksgiving has historically been a time to travel (when the girls were off school for the holiday) or work (serving countless plates stuffed with stuffing at The Inn).

But this year, for the first time ever, Steve and I hosted Thanksgiving in our home.  

Garnie was with Matt’s family and Kara was with Micah’s, so we celebrated with Quinn, her boyfriend Lucas and his parents, who recently moved from upstate New York to Tennessee in search of kinder, gentler winters.

Lucas is the newest addition to our lives—the third in a wonderful group of young men our daughters have brought home. He’s Matt’s childhood best friend and former roommate, having moved in with Matt when his company brought him to Atlanta. When Matt moved to Serenbe, Lucas sought out his own spot in the community, which is only 20 minutes away from his job. Lucas is a regional sales manager for a concrete company and an instinctual, self-taught cook who made a mighty fine companion in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Steve and Quinn piled up in the Gator with Lucas’ parents for a tour of Serenbe while Lucasturkey 2015 and I tag teamed the sweet potato soufflé, loaded smashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts with prosciutto and organic, free-range turkey, which I got from the General Store at Serenbe, only to find out it was from Plainville, New York—just a few miles from Lucas’ hometown.

Lucas brined it overnight with onions, garlic and herbes de Provence and we stuffed it the next day with shallots, garlic and apples then roasted it with butter and more herbes. We also did a gluten-free cornbread dressing for his father, and I was surprised how well it turned out with rice flour.

In honor of our guests, I wanted to have something inherently Southern on the table, so I did collard greens in a sauce with lemon, onion and butter. It’s Quinn’s favorite and a thirty-five-minute take on the traditional five-hour process.

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Collards with Lemon Onion Butter Sauce

  • Serves 4
  •  2 quarts collard greens, stemmed and chopped
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 1 cup yellow onions finely chopped
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt

In a large pot with a lid, melt the butter add onions, stir and cook for 30 minutes. Add lemon juice and salt then stir in collards and add water. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to low and cover for 5 minutes.

Remove cover, stir collards and cook for another 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt.



November 2015

Pros and Pecans: The Secret to a Stellar Bread Pudding

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There’s a lot more going on at Serenbe than meets the eye. In addition to our arts and culture scene, resident life, vacationers and visitors to the Inn and hundreds of weddings, Serenbe also draws meetings and conventions from all over the country.

The National Pecan Shellers Association recently chose Serenbe as their spot to bring together top chefs in the field of large-scale production—corporate chefs, caterers, etc.—to discuss pecans and come up with new dishes.

And lucky me: I got to judge their cooking contest. Each of the three teams had a mystery bag full of ingredients that they had to use to create an appetizer, main dish, side and dessert.

I was blown away with the level of creativity that went into things like chai soba noodles with chopped lettuce and pecans, pecanwood-smoked tenderloin and an absolutely amazing pecan burger. Atlanta’s own Carolyn O’Neil, a registered dietitian and food writer, made a pecan mojito with fresh ginger ale, lime LaCroix water and mint and Kami Rose of Kami Rose Baking Company made this bread pudding studded with pecans and dried fruits.

Instead of cow’s milk, she moistened the day-old bread with milk that had been steeped with pecans overnight. You can skip that step, but it’s worth the extra time for the subtle nuttiness throughout. This dish makes a wonderful addition to the brunch table or an exquisite Thanksgiving dessert for those who aren’t partial to pumpkin pie.

Seared Sweet Pecan Bread Pudding

  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 4 whole eggs
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 2 cups milk or pecan milk (recipe follows)
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 ½ cups small pecan pieces
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • Day-old bread, torn (1 ½ baguette; 10-15 small dinner rolls; or 8-10 large croissants)

1.     Whisk heavy cream, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, kosher salt, cinnamon and milk in a medium-sized bowl.

2.     Add torn bread, nuts and dried fruits to the mixture. Using your hands, begin work and mash the bread mixture together to ensure the liquid is thoroughly soaking through each bread piece.

3.     Cover bowl with cling wrap and store in cooler overnight.

4.     Unwrap and, using a wooden spoon, turn mixture to re-incorporate any loose liquids. Pour into a greased large casserole baking dish.

5.     Bake at 325 degrees F for 40-50 minutes or until center is no longer jiggly and top of pudding is golden brown.

6.     Pull from oven and let cool 1 hour. Serve immediately with maple syrup for a brunch item or with ice cream and caramel sauce as a dessert.

Pecan milk: 

  • 2 cups medium pecan pieces
  • 2 ½ cups water

1.     Combine pecan pieces and water in a bowl and store overnight in a refrigerator.

2.     Remove and put into a food processor. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher.

3.     Discard what is left in the strainer, or use in other recipes, like muffins, pancakes or oatmeal.



November 2015

Smooth Talker: New Ideas Take Root at the Atlanta Botanical Garden

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12052466_10153370430948409_213810574262237371_oWhen most chefs do cooking demonstrations, they make dishes they know well to ensure everything goes smoothly. But I love experimenting on people, being in the moment and fixing mistakes on the fly if need be. So when I cooked for a sold-out crowd recently at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the only thing I cared about being smooth was the turnip and ginger soup.

And was it ever. One of the participants said it was the smoothest soup he’d ever tasted. What makes this soup special is that it sits well, freezes beautifully and tastes better after a few days in the fridge. It’s a serious contender for the Dinner Party Hall of Fame.

It all starts with sautéing scallions in butter.  I am not a green onion snob, separating 10619996_10152593820458409_4694439096343488767_othe green parts from the white—they’re all perfectly good. They cook down until brown and flavor the chopped turnips and fresh ginger root that get added to the pot. Serenbe Farms manager Ashley Rodgers’ ginger has a wonderful pungency and skin so thin you can almost peel it off with your fingernail.

While the green onions, turnips and ginger cook in vegetable stock until tender, I blanched the turnip greens quickly in a cup of stock in a separate bowl, then drained off the stock and chopped them up. The soup got a solid spin in the Vitamix and returned to the pot, where I added the chopped greens for texture and color.

It was perfect, as things that start with 8 tablespoons of butter often are.

Turnip and Ginger Soup

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 6 cups turnips, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped
  • 6 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cups turnip greens, julienned
  • Hot sauce
  • Kosher salt

Melt the butter and add green onion. Saute over medium heat until wilted. Add turnips, ginger and five cups of stock. Bring to a boil then reduce to a low simmer. Cook turnips and ginger until fork tender. Add the soup to a blender and puree. Return to the pot and add hot sauce. Taste to season with salt.

In a separate pan, bring the remaining cup of stock to a boil, reduce the heat then blanch the greens briefly. Drain off liquid, chop blanched greens, add to the soup and serve.