1.12.2010

My regular seat

Call me a creature of habit, but the way I see it, I just happen to know what I like, and to want what I like on a fairly regular basis. I take my NPR immediately post-shower; my afternoon tea with my feet perched on the radiator by the window; and the vast majority of my photographs for this site on the red wooden table that Eli and I bought on a whim, down the road from where we were married. (You’re not sick of it yet, are you?) In the winter, I tend to stay in, sometimes to the tune of two whole days without leaving the apartment. At which point, a voice in my head shouts Out, lady, OUT, I gather my laptop, papers, and books, and walk the two blocks to my favorite neighborhood bakery, Hi-Rise. Depending on the time of day, I order one of three things: oatmeal with cherries and pecans, hold the maple syrup (morning), a crusty pecan raisin roll (midday), or an almond macaroon (late afternoon). Then, I climb the stairs, find my regular seat on the wooden bench near the well-placed outlet, and settle in for an hour or two of Work Outside the Home. It’s nice, for a change, to write and study and simply be in a place where Real Live Humans can be spotted feeding, recreating, and talking amongst themselves. Even when I am far less desperate for human company, Hi-Rise is my destination of choice. If we’ve scheduled a business breakfast, a writing session, or a paper-grading date, we’ll likely be meeting here, and at my favorite corner table, if I have anything to do with it. And so it has gone or, rather, I have gone, since moving to Cambridge over four years ago.

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.

31 comments:

Maggie said...

Love this post. How lovely to find a new cafe and a new addition to beloved routines. (Also, I'm a big fan of the immersion blender. And not just because my kitchen has negative counter space...)

Rosiecat said...

Uh-oh, a new Sweet Amandine soup! Is this one going to compete with the tomato soup for my affections? Do I have room in my heart for both? Oh, the bittersweetness of it all!

Okay, I'm being melodramatic. I do love fennel and orange vegetables together, so this soup may get a whirl in my blender soon enough. I love the idea of roasting the vegetables--it sounds so delicious and warming! Though here in Texas this week, we're bordering on downright balmy weather...and I am not complaining!

Lo said...

Oh, how wonderful. And that means both this post and the soup. I've never really warmed up to carrot soup myself... but the more you urge me on, the more likely I am to try it out!

Amy said...

This sounds (and looks) amazing. I've been thinking about getting an immersion blender for awhile now, and you've given me the perfect excuse to get one. I'll be making this soup very soon!

Char said...

oh...it looks good and i want to try it but am i a horrid person if i say i don't like fennel? your description makes me want it like i love the roasted garlic soup from the bistro that i love.

Mia said...

I'm at work right now, absolutely starving, and this soup looks like exactly what I want for dinner! And it's OK to eat the same thing many days in a row - every week I like to make a big batch of soup and then eat it every day for lunch!

maybelle's mom said...

its a civilized life you lead. lovely dish.

megan said...

Yayyy! I was hoping for a savory one! Now I need to figure out who has a blender I can use...

Laughing out loud, a girl after my own heart and my own sense of adventure...language exchange sounds great - maybe I can try it with different artistic media? Or maybe that's what I'm doing every day already? Too bad we don't have a Hi-Rise or Cafe Crema around here...

xx
megan

hayleygolightly said...

Jess,

I just wanted to stop by and tell you I love your writing and I think your writing is inspiring and lovely. I just printed off your carrot cake muffins with maple icing recipe and am going to make them with my mom sometime next week. We're looking forward to it! Cheers!

-Hayley-

Rogue Unicorn said...

Jess,
You really are a woman after my own study habits. I have not left the house in, oh, about 40 hours. Thank goodness there are groceries to be bought and new Indian places to check out, otherwise I'd never leave.
This soup definitely goes on my "must make" list. "Orange soups" are ubiquitous around here and I'm longing for one that isn't thickly cloying and reminiscent of curried baby-food. Your carrot soup sounds like just the remedy. What made you add tomato paste? I would think that it would cloud the roasted fennel flavor. Guess I'll have to try it for myself.
Best.

Anonymous said...

Carrot and fennel are two of my favorite things and this is one of my favorite blogs.

Now I want afternoon tea and a red kitchen table too. Just out of curiosity, where did you find it again, if you don't mind sharing?

Thanks!

Jess said...

Maggie - Yes, the immersion blender is indeed a blessing for those of us with tiny kitchens. And I love how it turns soups like this one into one-pot wonders.

You're adorable, dear Rosiecat. The suspense is killing me! I guess you'll just have to give this one a try, too, and report back. Enjoy your Texas sun!

Lo - Thank you. It doesn't surprise me that you have had less-than-spectacular carrot soup experiences. Carrots can be so variable in their flavor. I've had (and made!) carrot soups that were everything from bitter, to just plain blah, to terrific. This soup was delicious with organic supermarket carrots, but I bet that with the fresh, young carrots that will come in my farm share later this year, it will be out of this world. If you do give the recipe a try, I would love to hear how it turns out.

Amy - I am a big fan of the immersion blender. Blending hot liquids in a stand blender strikes fear in my heart. (Which is not to say that I never do it.) Happy to furnish an "excuse" to join the immersion blender club!

My dear Char, you are far from horrid. But about that fennel aversion: This recipe may just work for you. Eli is not a fan of fennel, and was wary of the soup, but in the end, he loved it. I think he had only ever eaten raw fennel, which has a much stronger flavor. The roasting mellows it out a lot. You don't really experience a mouthful of fennel at first bite. Rather, a delicate fennel flavor kind of sneaks up on you at the very end. (There. I've made my case.) Also, roasted garlic soup? Yes, please.

Mia - Hello! I have a feeling that this soup is, indeed, right up your alley. Maybe you'll allow me to make it for you one of these days?

Maybelle's Mom - Ah, but there are plenty of uncivilized moments around here, too. I promise.

Megan - You are going to love this soup. I know it. Yes, I guess language and idea exchanges are really what we graduate students do all day. (Cool day job, eh?) Maybe the difference is just doing it in an informal setting. Over food and drink. Don't tell me that you can't find a single worthy cafe over there! What are you doing there? Come back!

hayleygolightly - It's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your lovely note. Your kind words mean a lot. Truly. And I'm thrilled that you'll be trying the carrot cake cupcakes! I could use one of those right now. If you think of it, I'd love to hear how they turn out.

Rogue Unicorn - I wonder if we come by this tendency naturally, or if it's the years of graduate school that have turned us into sometime recluses! (In my case, I think it's a little bit of both.) It's nice to hear that I'm not the only one who's fed up (ha!) with too-sweet orange soups. "Curried baby-food" - you totally nailed it! That made me laugh out loud. About the tomato paste: I added it because I was worried about my carrots. (See my response to Lo, above.) They seemed a little weak on flavor, and so I thought that tomato paste would add some not-necessarily-tomato-specific depth. (As opposed to in my tomato soup recipe, in which the tomato paste is there to boost the tomato flavor.) It's a small enough amount in this recipe that you don't actually taste anything tomato-y. Instead, you just get a nice, subtle layer of "something else" in there, together with the carrots and the fennel. (Of course, I would have to try the recipe without the tomato paste and compare to verify all of this...)

Jess said...

Anonymous - Whoops, hi! I missed you, somehow. Such a nice thing to say about Sweet Amandine. Thank you. I would gladly share the name of the shop, if only I could remember it. I just called Eli at work, and we tried to piece together at least the name of the road, but no such luck. I can tell you that we were married up on the North Shore - in an old house near Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA - and that we found our table at a shop by the side of the road somewhere around there. Not very helpful, I know. But there's so much great antiquing to be done up there. I'd suggest just driving around, and you're bound to find something.

Lady Gouda said...

Jess, I cannot believe I JUST stumbled upon your blog. I love it. Seriously- your posts, recipes and your photography are a real inspiration. Oh, and I am a big fan of both Hi-Rise and Cafe Crema. Cambridge puts Boston to shame with their fantastic coffee shops and cafes. Looking forward to tucking in and reading more!

Jess said...

Hi, Lady Gouda, and welcome. It's always a pleasure to meet a fellow Boston-area blogger. And wow - thank you for your very kind words about this site. I've only been around for about a year, so you're hardly late to the party. So glad you stumbled this way.

Anonymous said...

Jess,
Thanks so much for checking! An afternoon antiquing trip (plus soup) sounds perfect.
Lizzie (anonymous because I don't have accounts set up! Will get one some day :)

Jess said...

My pleasure, Lizzie. That does sound perfect.

Anonymous said...

Jess -- I enjoy your blog as well. You convinced me to make this soup. My grocery was out of fennel so will try again next week! Stay warm...

kathryn said...

I eat carrots, I know they're good for me, but it's never something I'd get excited about. Out of all the soups that could possibly be made, I would never naturally opt for one based on carrots. And yet I find myself thinking, this sounds really, really good. Maybe it's the fennel, both vegetable and seeds, which I love. Or the idea of roasting the carrots first. Whatever it is, this soup looks and sounds absolutely glorious.

We are in the middle of summer, but I shall bookmark this for when the weather cools down.

LyB said...

My gosh, I do love your photos! And that soup, wow, the way you describe it, I just want to run out and buy all the ingredients and make it right now! :)

giao said...

there was a roasted carrot soup at our local island bakery a few days ago as well...and i opted not to go for it. shame on me!! you've conviced me to try your version now. thank u!

Jess said...

LyB - Well my gosh, thank you! And about the soup: I will not stop you from doing just as you suggest.

giao - Happy to help. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have. If you do give the recipe a try, I would love to hear how it turns out.

Enjoy the weekend, all.

Amy said...

I just made the soup....it's fantastic!!!!!

Jess said...

I'm so happy to hear it. Thanks for reporting back!

Oliag said...

Will be telling my daughter about CafeCrema!...

Shira said...

Thanks for the recipe. I've been making carrot and fennel soup for years now--it's about as close as I come to autopilot cooking. One thing I tend to add is a splash of dry vermouth or white wine. I find it brings out the aromatic side of the fennel. As for Hi-Rise, I haven't been to Boston in the better part of a decade, though I've been craving their vanilla pound cake ever since I read about it in one of Amanda Hesser's books.

Yelena said...

Once I found your site via the rugelach recipe, I was glad to stumble upon this soup recipe, cause I had some CSA-sourced carrots and fennel sitting in my fridge that I needed ideas for. This soup turned out great! I ended up omitting the tomato paste & I blended only 1/2, leaving rest intact, to feel like I had something to bite into. I think the toasted & ground fennel seeds were my favorite part (to make and to eat). Or, maybe the roasted carrots + fennel :) Thanks again for the ideas! Got anything for savoy cabbage? (figured it wouldn't hurt to ask ;)

Jess said...

Oliag - Yes, you must!

Shira - Oooh, white wine. That sounds wonderful. I love the vanilla pound cake at Hi-Rise! It's one of three things that I always suggest to friends who are eating there for the first time. (The almond macaroons and the crusty pecan rolls - not too sweet! - are the other two.)

p.s. - I'm not sure how I missed these two comments, Oliag and Shira. I apologize for the delay in responding!

Yelena - Then we're two for two, right? Thank you for taking the time to report back on both the rugelach and this soup. I know what you mean about toasting the fennel seeds. I love how the aroma rises as they brown ever so slightly. I do have one cabbage recipe on this site, right here. Aside from that, I mostly just like to stick it in a pot and braise it.

Kate said...

I cannot believe I am just reading your post about this soup. I absolutely love and sincerely appreciate that your recipe contains no sugar or pie spices! I am a purist and firmly believe in letting fresh vegetables with natural sugars shine on their own in soups. I work with Eli and had the pleasure of meeting you last year at your lovely Hannukah party and still tell people about your latkes (I was actually telling a recent new employee at MS about them last week). Anyway, I got a large bag of carrots from Wilson Farm this weekend and have been researching Carrot-Fennel soup because I was intrigued by a recipe from their farm and wanted to compare it to others before taking a stab at it. I am so happy to see your recipe and thoughtful notes about your creation. I am going to try a version this weekend and hope to be as pleased with my results as you were about yours. I am not exactly a fennel fan either, but like Eli, I learned that it is one of those things you have to try when cooked properly and paired with the right foods to balance its flavor. So, while this is an old post of yours, I am happy to have stumbled upon it and may bring some of my final product in to the office for Eli to bring home and share! Reading this just reminded me that I should check in more regularly to see what notes you may have on similar recipes and ingredients I am trying.

jas - the gluten free scallywag said...

yum - carrots in suop are so delicious that subtle sweetness.... mmm hmmmm...

Anonymous said...

I made this yesterday and I loved it!!! thanks so much - really delicious