People who know me would tell you that it's hard to tell which I like more: gardening or cooking. I'd say it depends on which I'm doing at the moment. Anyway, French cooking and French gardening go hand in hand. For me, cooking is an on-going adventure. Join me here on my culinary explorations, where I share with you both my old favorites as well as new inspirations. It's my fondest wish that these recipes serve as a springboard for your own new creations.
12/12/2006 Chestnut-fennel soup (Soupe aux châtaignes et au fenouil)
2 T. extra virgin olive oil 2 large shallots, finely diced 2 heads of fresh fennel 1 lb. vacuum-packed chestnuts 1/2 t. fennel seed Several sprigs of wild fennel, if available, tied in bouquet garni (optional) 6-8 c. homemade chicken broth 1 t sugar 1/2 c. crème fraîche Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
For garnish options, any or all of the following:
4 1/4"-thick slices of pancetta or ventreche, diced, sauteed in dry skillet until semi-crisp 2 whole chestnuts, reserved from 1 lb. above, per bowl, sliced Tiny cubes of fresh sheep's milk cheese or hard sheep's milk cheese such as Ossau Iraty or Manchego 2 T extra virgin olive oil + 2 t. fennel seed Snippets of wild fennel greens
Slice one of the fennel bulbs in half, then in half again, and thinly slice. Warm one tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan and saute the shallots without coloring until soft. Crush the 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed in a mortar and add along with the sliced fennel and fennel sprigs if using, and cook 5 minutes more, stirring often. Add 4 cups of broth, heat to a boil, reduce heat and cook until the fennel is tender (about 10 minutes). Add the chestnuts, reserving some as noted under 'garnish options', and simmer 10 more minutes. Puree in food processor (removing fennel sprigs) until smooth. At this point, if you want a perfectly silky soup, pass the puree through a fine strainer or chinois.
Meanwhile, cut the remaining fennel bulb into 1/2" dice. Blanch in boiling salted water for 2 minutes counting from the moment you add the fennel to the boiling water. Drain. Heat remaining tablespoon olive oil gently, add the sugar and stir. Add the fennel dice and cook slowly over low heat until glazed and starting to color. Reserve.
Stir in the crème fraîche. Adjust the thickness of the soup to your liking with more broth. Correct the seasoning.
Prepare the garnishes. Slice the reserved whole chestnuts. For the fennel oil, crush the fennel seed in a mortar. Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil over extremely low heat with the fennel seed for 5 minutes. Allow to steep for at least 10 minutes. Make sure the cheese cubes are at room temperature.
To serve, divide the glazed diced fennel among 4-6 bowls. Divide likewise the sliced chestnuts, and the pancetta and cheese if using. Ladle the hot soup over the garnished bowls at the table. Optionally, garnish each bowl with a swirl of fennel oil and/or snippets of fennel greens.
Note: Fennel performs wondrous alchemy with chestnuts, enhancing their flavor and sweetness. With all the garnishes, each bite of this soup offers little surprise packages of contrasting flavors and textures which are all complementary to the whole. Without the garnishes, it is still a royal soup which will be remembered by all who partake.