This soup has been patiently waiting in posting queue, and now its time has come.
I developed it early last winter to make use of a powerful fermented flavoring accent called Salted Herbs. But it never got airtime because my attention was soon drawn to other ingredients and their stories: first to black walnuts, which kept me busy for several weeks, musing about their strange beguiling flavor, and then to the mustard greens and cabbage that, after laying quietly, like dead things, in my garden plot over the winter, had, by mid-March, quickly sprung to life. The lion of winter had morphed into a lamb two weeks ahead of schedule, dragging me, and I suppose all other area gardeners, out of winter reverie. (The lion of winter would return later in the spring, simultaneously obliterating fragile fruit blossoms and the hopes of farmers for a bountiful harvest.) Then came the perennially new foods of spring and, following those happy distractions, the temperature of summer in Richmond, Virginia, which is incompatible with soup.
Salted herbs taste like summer in a jar with an added depth of flavor that only fermentation can bring, and they are what make this vegetarian soup both incredibly flavorful and deceptively simple. When you balance the complexity and subtlety of flavor this soup offers up against the number of ingredients used in its making, this recipe seems like a slight of hand. And it is in a way because it derives its magic from the Salted Herbs. Once you’ve done the work of making the Salted Herbs, this soup almost makes itself. Only you need know how you pulled the rabbit out of the hat.
I toyed with the idea, momentarily, of holding back this recipe for yet a few more months, to a time when the experience of summer in a jar is even more enticing then it is now. But that’s no good. Before you can make this magical soup, you have to make the Salted Herbs, and that you’ve got to do soon, before this fall’s first frost snatches them away from you.
For the Roasted Fennel Bulb:
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into quarters
Generous pinch of sea salt
For the Soup:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chopped celery (reserve leaves for garnish)
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 small onion, chopped
¼ cup Salted Herbs (click here for recipe)
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 large potato (14 to 16 ounces), peeled and diced
3½ cups water
3½ cups whole milk, divided
Roasted Fennel Bulb (from above)
Chopped fresh celery leaves (reserved from celery) or chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Toss the fennel quarters in enough olive oil to evenly coat them; massage the quarters well with the oil and sprinkle them with salt. Place the fennel on a sheet pan and roast until the fennel is tender and burnt in places, about 45 minutes. While the fennel is roasting make the soup.
- In a stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the celery, carrot, and onion and sweat until the vegetables become translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add the Salted Herbs and white pepper and cook for another minute. Add the potato and water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil and cook, covered with a lid ajar, until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
- Blend the soup in batches in a blender until smooth, then return to the pot.
- Pour about half of the milk into the blender and give it a whirr (to help remove soup clinging to blender jar), and pour into the stockpot. Add the rest of the milk to the stockpot and heat gently until warm. Season to taste with salt.
- Ladle into serving bowls and garnish with pieces of roasted fennel bulb and chopped celery or parsley leaves. Serves 4 to 6