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.
09/10/2009 Carrot-hazelnut soup with North African spices (Soupe de carottes aux noisettes et épices du Maghreb) Clay pot
3/4 c. shelled hazelnuts 1 T. butter 2 large shallots, finely chopped 1.5 lbs. fresh garden carrots (mature are fine) sliced+ 2 medium carrots cut in 1/4" dice 6-8 cups homemade chicken, rabbit or veal stock 3/4-1 tsp. ras el hanout* 1/8-1/4 tsp. ground saffron or large pinch of saffron stamens Salt and freshly ground white pepper 2 T. crème fraîche or heavy cream (not sour cream) Optional garnishes: 3 T. snipped chervil and 2 T. hazelnut oil
Preheat the oven to 350, Toast the hazelnuts for 10-15 minutes until they smell and taste fragrant. Rub them in a kitchen towel to remove as much of their skins as possible. Grind 1/2 cup of them in a food processor as finely as possible. Reserve the rest.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a clay pot if possible. Cook the shallots with a big pinch of salt until they ae soft. Add the carrots and the smaller amount of the spices (you can add more later to taste) and cook, covered, for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the ground hazelnuts and enough broth (heat first, if using clay pot) to cover the carrots by about half an inch. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are perfectly tender but not beyond.
Whir the soup in a food processor until smooth. Be careful not to overfill the processor bowl, especially with hot soup. Work in batches if necessary. Put the soup through a fine mesh strainer, pressing down hard and patiently on the solids. If you have a chinois (a cone-shaped very fine-meshed strainer with a matching cone-shaped pestle) now is the time to use it. Press until only a thick dry paste remains.
Return the strained soup to the cleaned pot and reheat it gently. Stir in the cream. The soup should taste ambrosial; if it is missing something, tinker with the spices, salt and white pepper until it is just right.
Roughly chop the reserved hazelnuts. Cook the diced carrots in boiling salted water for 1 minute, drain and refresh under cold water.
Divide the carrot dice, the chopped hazels, and the chervil if using among 4 heated bowls and bring them to the table. Let your guests admire the tantalizing mosaic of these ingredients while you return to the kitchen to retrieve the soup pot. With a flourish, ladle the hot soup into the bowls. Add a fillip of hazelnut oil if you like and voilà!
Note: This soup tranfers that most humble of vegetables, the carrot, into something ethereal and exotic. Vegans can omit the cream and use a robust vegetable stock instead of chicken stock.
*Ras el hanout is a mixture of 20 or more spices available in Middle Eastern or Moroccan groceries. It can be highly variable in content, so sniff before using. It should smell more of sweet spices like nutmeg than sharp ones like cumin to be optimal for this soup.