As is often the case when people discover that I have a food blog, subsequent conversations tend to turn towards food, eating, etc. "So what did you make this weekend?" people ask. Occasionally I get asked for advice. The other week when I got to work I was met with the LA Times food section folded neatly on my desk prominently featuring a Russ Parson's article about soups. I perused the article and was struck by one recipe for a soup that utilized fennel three different ways - "silky sweet from the stewed bulbs, aromatic and herbaceous from the chopped fronds, and nutty and caramelized from the quickly fried wedges that are added as a garnish." I'm having a love affair with fennel right now. I know I made soup the previous week AND I vowed that the only recipes I'd be making for the time being were ones from cookbooks I already owned, but come on people. Caramelized fennel and soup. Together. I had to give it a try.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 carrots, diced
2 medium fennel bulbs (I used 3 small fennel bulbs)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound dry Great Northern or cannellini beans
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons best quality olive oil, divided, for garnish
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Trim the branches and fronds from both bulbs of fennel; chop at least one-third cup of the fronds, wrap tightly and refrigerate. Quarter one bulb lengthwise, cut out the solid core, and then dice. Reserve the other bulb for later.
Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrots, and diced fennel and cover and cook until they soften, about 20 minutes.
Dice and add to the soup pot. Set the other bulb aside until later. When the vegetables in the soup pot are softened and aromatic, stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the beans, bay leaf and 8 cups of water. Cover and place in the oven to cook for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, remove the pot from the oven and stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Return to the oven to finish cooking until the beans are quite tender, another 45 minutes to 1 hour, 15 minutes. Cooking time can vary quite a bit depending on the condition of the beans, so begin checking after 30 minutes. When the beans are tender, remove the pot from the oven. If the soup loses too much moisture in the oven, add water as needed to maintain a loose, soup-like consistency.
In a small skillet, heat one-fourth cup of olive oil over medium heat. Quarter the remaining fennel bulb lengthwise, but do not trim the core, so the fennel bulb will stay together. Fry the bulb until well browned on all three sides, about 3 minutes per side. Cover tightly in between turns to avoid splattering. Remove the pan from the heat momentarily to carefully add the wine, replace the cover, and cook until the fennel is tender, about 10 minutes.
When the fennel is tender, remove it from the pan, sprinkle with salt and thinly slice each quarter lengthwise. Add these to the soup, reserving some for garnish. The dish can be prepared up to this point a day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered.
When ready to serve, warm the soup over medium heat in a covered pot. Just before serving, stir in most of the reserved chopped fennel fronds. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste and more salt if necessary. Ladle the soup into warm, wide soup plates and finish each with a small mound of the reserved caramelized fennel, a drizzle of the best-quality olive oil, and a scattering of the fronds. Serve immediately.
So this soup is really quite good. The process seems a bit time consuming and yet the results are more than worth it, although I can't help but wonder if canned beans and store bought stock would be just as good. Probably not. I have to say, there is something really satisfying by using really pure ingredients - dried beans, plain water, fresh vegetables. The stock has a really nice thickness and the beans get creamy and soft. Because of the long cooking time, the onion and fennel cooks down and dissolves into the stock so the whole step of sauteeing/braising the extra fennel is really smart. You get the texture and it gives the soup an added depth of flavor. So nice. Then the fennel fronds finish it all off with a welcome freshness. As much as I enjoyed it, I still wonder if it might be better with perhaps chunks of chicken sausage or maybe bacon. Consider this a work in progress.