Then, a couple of weeks back, I made plans to meet a new friend for our first language exchange, a two-hour sit-down spent conversing in each other’s native tongues. We correct each other’s prepositions, syntax, and verb tenses; steer each other away from unintended sexual innuendo (it’s more common than you’d think); and practice speaking in that casual, off-the-cuff way that is always the last frontier for non-native speakers. He suggested that we meet at Café Crema, a bakery around the corner from my usual spot. I didn’t resist, and not only because Hi-Rise would be closed by that time of night. Sometimes, I am just that laid back, people. That willing to embrace the unknown. There’s a little thing called spontaneity that I keep tucked away in my back pocket. Soon, I’ll be flying by the seat of my pants all over the place, proclaiming crazy things, like, You say you happen to be in the neighborhood and want to meet for a drink? Well, count me in. I would like nothing more than to drop whatever I’m doing and brave the bitter cold. What? It could happen.
So there we were, at this new-to-me bakery. We swapped languages. I drank mint tea. We sat on the balcony, near a railing wrapped with twinkly white lights. I liked it. And because, as I said, I typically want what I like, I returned to Café Crema a whopping five times in the span of fourteen days: once, the following week, again to swap languages, sip mint tea, and sit by the twinkly lights; once for breakfast; and another three times for lunch. At the first of these lunches, I tasted a roasted carrot and fennel soup so pleasing that I ordered it at every one of my remaining visits. So much for my budding sense of adventure.
With temperatures threatening to dip into the single digits over the weekend, it hit me that the only thing better than walking seven minutes in the cheek-numbing cold for a bowl of roasted carrot and fennel soup is sipping that soup without the prefatory freeze. And so, on Sunday afternoon, I scribbled down an estimated recipe, stepped boldly into my kitchen, and did my best to recreate the soup that had such a hold over my taste buds. I don’t know if it was the pairing with arugula and toasted pine nuts, the warm, crusty bread spread with Vermont cultured butter and sea salt, or the familiar glow of candlelight on our old kitchen table (I do love that table), but at home, this soup popped for me like it had never popped before. With all due respect to the original and its makers, I enjoyed my homemade version even more than the soup that inspired it. I’m guessing that it had a lot to do with that marvelous perk of home cooking: the option to tweak things exactly to your liking.
At first glance, this soup looks the same as the next in that too-long line of wintry, orange purees that flirt clumsily with dessert, and sit so heavily on the tongue. But this roasted carrot fennel soup is different. It bucks every last expectation. It contains no cream; no cinnamon, nutmeg, or pie spice of any kind; no maple syrup, and no sugar, brown or otherwise. It relies instead on the flavors and textures of its starring ingredients. Roasting the carrots and the fennel unveils their subtle, earthy sweetness. It’s the kind of sweet you have to reach for, an understated sweet that leaves dessert to dessert, as it should be. The flavor starts off mellow and deep, and then, just as you’re about to load up your spoon with another bite, a bright kick of fennel delivers a clean, crisp finish.
I ate it for lunch yesterday and today, and I’ll likely have it again tomorrow. And the next day, too, if there’s any left to be had.
Roasted Carrot and Fennel Soup
Inspired by the soup at Café Crema
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from making pureed soups, it’s that all blending techniques are not equal. An immersion blender will leave this soup lightly textured with the tiniest bits of carrot, fennel, and onion. I like it this way. Plus, you just can’t beat the ease and convenience of an immersion blender. If you prefer a smoother soup, carefully puree in batches in a stand blender.
UPDATE: I've changed my mind. I'm allowed to do that, right? I've now made this soup several times using my stand blender, and I've decided that I prefer the smoother, light-as-a-feather texture for this soup. (Sorry, immersion blender! I still love you.) You can't go wrong, either way, but for now, that's where I stand.
1 medium yellow onion
1 ½ pound carrots
1 fennel bulb; discard the stalks, but reserve the fronds
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 T. tomato paste
4-5 c. vegetable broth
1 t. fennel seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Trim the fennel bulb (discard the stalks, but reserve and set aside the fronds), cut in half lengthwise, and then into ½-inch-thick wedges. Peel and slice the carrots into ¼-inch rounds. Toss the carrots and fennel with 1 T. olive oil, and several grinds of sea salt and black pepper. Spread the carrots and fennel evenly on a lined or lightly-oiled baking sheet, and slide into the oven for approximately 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned and tender.
While the carrots and fennel are roasting: Toast the fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until the aroma rises and they turn lightly brown. Grind them to bits with a mortar and pestle. Coarsely chop the onion. In a large heavy pot, heat the remaining 1 T. of oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and the ground fennel seeds, and cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Turn the heat to low, add the tomato paste, and stir to incorporate.
Add the roasted carrots and fennel to the pot, add 4 c. of vegetable broth, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat, and use a standing blender or an immersion blender to purée the soup. Add the additional 1 c. of broth, in part or in full, until you have achieved the thickness that you desire. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish each bowl with a pinch or two of chopped fennel fronds.
Yield: Serves 6-8.