After a very indulgent holiday season filled with our favorite foods and sweets, we are ready to welcome 2014 with renewed intentions for clean living and eating. At least until Valentine's Day, when the lushness of aphrodisiac food and drink lures us into decadence once again.
But, for now, we are embracing a simpler palate by seeking out foods that are rich in flavor, of the season, and somewhat on the lighter side. It doesn't hurt if they can also be warm and comforting; Tony's recipe for Roasted Fennel Soup hits all of these notes.
Fennel, or finocchio in Italian, is a winter vegetable rich in potassium and fiber content, and is also a good source for a multitude of vitamins and nutrients. It is high in an essential oil called anethole, which provides potent antimicrobial activity to benefit smooth digestion. In fact, fennel was a staple in Tony's family when he was growing up, and would often be served in raw slices after a meal to relax the stomach. I just love how the Italians are so intentional with their food and diet - every ingredient seems to serve a purpose.
When served raw, fennel has a crunchy texture similar to celery but a little smoother. In flavor it is cool and refreshing, with notes of the soothing, liquorice sweetness of anise. Fennel pairs wonderfully with citrus, and is a featured ingredient in our blood orange Sicilian Winter Salad (featured Dec. 26, 2012). When cut into slices, this winter vegetable is also a great addition to a crudité platter, and is the perfect dipping item for our Sicilian Bagna Caoda recipe (featured Oct. 2, 2012).
But when roasted, fennel transforms into a savory, mellow vegetable, full of warmth and flavor. Roasted fennel is perfect for this soup recipe, but is also delicious on its own as a side dish for meat, poultry and seafood.
To roast, begin by removing the stock and fronds, leaving only the bulb. Cut the bulb into six wedges, and toss these lightly in olive oil, sea or kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer the fennel to a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil and roast at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, until golden brown and fork tender.
For this recipe, we roast the fennel with yellow onion, a sprig of fresh rosemary and a couple garlic cloves to enhance the aromatics of the soup. Once roasted, we remove the rosemary and transfer the ingredients to a stock pot. Add the chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes.
Use an immersion blender (if you don't have one yet, get one!), food processor or liquid blender to puree the soup until smooth. Because fennel is high in fiber, we recommend you pour the pureed soup through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any fibrous grains and achieve a smooth consistency. Return soup to the stock pot, add heavy cream (optional), and cook over medium heat for another five minutes. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper according to your taste.
This simple soup is surprisingly savory, rich, elegant and comforting, and very pretty when garnished with dried cranberries and toasted hazelnuts. We have also enjoyed it with homemade croutons, crumbled sausage, and a dollop or drizzle of crème fraiche or sour cream. Serve and enjoy!
Roasted Fennel Soup
Serves: 4 to 6
4 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into six wedges each
1 large yellow onion, trimmed and cut into wedges
1 large sprig rosemary
2 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt or sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
about 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock (may substitute vegetable stock)
½ cup heavy cream (optional)
¼ cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
¼ cup lightly toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped (walnuts are good, too)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
This recipe begins by roasting the vegetables. Place the fennel, onions, rosemary, garlic and olive oil in a large mixing bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables well to ensure an even coating. Transfer the mixture to a baking sheet (you may wish to cover the sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper) and roast vegetables for about 40 minutes until golden brown and fork tender. If the fennel seems to be browning too much before it is ready, cover it with aluminum foil and continue to cook until fork tender.
Remove the rosemary and transfer mixture to a stock pot. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for 30 minutes.
Reduce heat to lowest setting and use an immersion blender to puree the mixture, making sure to keep the blade immersed in the liquid the entire time. Once a completely smooth consistency has been achieved, pour the soup through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot or bowl.
Return the pot to burner, add heavy cream (optional) and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, garnish with dried cranberries and toasted hazelnuts and drizzle with a touch of olive oil.
To store: Pour into an airtight container and refrigerate for up to one week, or freeze for up to two months.
• Do not skip the straining step when making this soup - it is critical to developing the right consistency and texture.
• Other ideas for garnish include homemade croutons, crumbled sausage, or a dollop or drizzle of crème fraiche or sour cream.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.