Finding My Repertoire: Carrot and Fennel Soup
In an attempt to create some meaningful patterns and routines in what might otherwise be characterized as a chaotic existence, I maintain rigidly to a few, basic rules: 1. no work on Sunday; 2. buy most of my produce from the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, and 3. read for fun before I fall asleep at night and on Sundays when I’m not working. I know, I’m quite the rebel. But when one’s job is to read, for class, for the dissertation, for a conference paper, to reclaim the act of reading for pleasure feels strangely exhilarating. Sometimes, I only make it a few pages in before I’m out cold, but other times, I find myself buried into my pillow until very late, captivated and fighting off sleep to keep reading.
I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, but contrary to what most people assume about a person getting her Ph.D. in English, I’ve never been one to love the “right” books. I couldn’t get into many of the assigned novels in high school–besides the ones for Mrs. Reynolds, the best English teacher ever–and I’ve always been drawn to a genre that finds little acclaim in the world of high literary theory: the life story, either told as a biography, by someone else, or as a memoir, by the person herself. I think it might have started with Pete Maravich, that famous basketball player whose biography I found on my dad’s bookshelf and who inspired me to spend the better part of a summer trying to learn to dribble everywhere I went (I was spectacularly unsuccessful and took up tennis instead).
However it started, a genre I’ve enjoyed recently has been the food memoir, people who retell part of their life according to what they ate or cooked. Over the holidays, I read Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, a lovely (and often self-deprecatingly funny) collection of stories about her relationship with a man first known to the reader as Mr. Latte, and later as Tad. In it, one of the things Hesser learns about herself (and she’s a food writer by trade, so this comes as no shock to the reader) is that she tends to cook new things often, but that she lacks what she refers to as a “repertoire,” a passel of recipes that she cooks really well and is known for. Here, according to Hesser, are the qualifications for a repertoire: “I wanted it to contain recipes that represent who I am, what I find pleasurable, how I live. It should express my true sensibilities as a cook, not my ambition. And all of the dishes should be simple enough that I could make them at a moment’s notice” (190-91).
I’ve never thought of myself as a particular kind of cook before, but after reading that description, I decided that I am one who tends to cook the same dishes again and again until I’ve perfected them, out of habit, yes, but also because I find that I am more intuitive than rule-following in the kitchen, and so the more I make pound cake by feel and by memory, the better the pound cake tastes. It’s one of the reasons I started this site, in fact, to record and share the recipes I know and do best. Not all of the recipes posted here are time-tested, many are records of experiments, but a good many of them are things you might find on our dinner table on any random weeknight.
Because I tend to cook seasonally, with whatever I find the farmers at my market have grown, my repertoire tends to change as one season gives way to the next. A hallmark of any season, however, is soup: in summer, I love to make eggplant and basil bisque; in fall, sweet potato soup often shows up on our weekly menus, and in the winter, there are many, but my favorite is this Italian White Bean Soup. Spring, I’ve realized, is missing a staple soup, and thankfully, Amanda Hesser not only revealed to me what kind of cook I am, she also provided that missing link: carrot and fennel soup.
Both carrots and fennel tend to appear at the beginning of spring in my part of the world, while the oranges are still lingering from winter, so the ingredient list makes this recipe nearly a perfect fit for this time of year. It is also, as luck would have it, a perfect soup for my marriage: David cannot abide the texture of completely pureed soups, but I’m not a fan of overly brothy ones. Pulsing this soup just a few times at the end of cooking gives it a chunky texture we both liked. The flavors are perfectly balanced too. I’ve made it twice in the last two weeks, so I’d say it’s a keeper, especially if these two vegetables keep showing up at the same farmer’s table in the weeks to come. Happy spring, friends!
Carrot and Fennel Soup
–adapted from Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser
The making of stock from the fennel stalks and carrot tops is my addition to the recipe, but I found it added an extra layer of flavor that heightened the carrot-fennel flavor combination. Plus, it’s always handy to have a good vegetable stock in the freezer, and this recipe makes twice as much as you’ll need for the soup. But if you need the soup today, water, or other vegetable stock will work fine too. I wouldn’t use chicken stock, though; the flavor will overwhelm the vegetables.
1 medium, or 2-3 small fennel bulbs with stalks and fronds (should give you about 1 1/2 cups sliced bulb)
1 1/2 pounds carrots, with tops (about 4 cups carrot slices)
Trimmings from: onion, garlic, and/or celery
2-3 quarts water
1 T. coarse salt
cracked pepper, to taste
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced thinkly
Juice from one orange (about 1/3 cup)
1/4 cup sour cream, plus more for garnish
Salt and cracked pepper, to taste
First, prep your vegetables and make stock (I do this at least a day before I’m planning to make the soup): Trim the carrots, and peel if necessary (if I buy mine fresh from the farmer, I just scrub them really well), cutting off the green tops and removing the tough ends. Trim the fennel, cutting of the stalks, and removing the feathery fronds. Set fronds aside, and add all other trimmings to a big soup pot. Cover with water, and sprinkle in 1 T. salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a rolling boil, and let it bubble for 10 minutes or so. Turn the heat down so that the pot is simmering, and let it stew for several hours (I start mine in the morning and turn it off when I start dinner; by the time we’re cleaning up the kitchen at the end of the day, the stock is cool enough to put away). Let it cool, reserving about 4 cups for the soup, and freezing the rest. This should yield about 2 quarts stock.
To make the soup, heat the oil and butter in a big pot. Thinly slice the fennel bulb, and cook over medium heat until very soft and golden. Meanwhile, thinly slice the carrots and garlic. When fennel is changing color and soft, add the carrots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots begin to soften. Sprinkle with salt. Cover with 4 cups the stock and simmer until the carrots are very soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange juice, sour cream, and all but a handful of the fennel fronds (for garnish). Using an immersion blender or a food processor, pulse the soup a few times, leaving some large chunks and an uneven texture. If soup has lost its heat, return to the stove until warm. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fennel fronds. We’ve found that a soft nutty whole-grain bread toasted and smeared with goat cheese makes this a delicious and filling dinner.