Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creamy (or not) Carrot Fennel Soup

At various times in my office-bound life, I have been part of lunch collectives. I got the idea several years ago, when I was working at NYU and watched some of the grad students in a neighboring lab try to save their meager grad student wages by having lunch together every week. Each day, one student took a turn bringing in food for the group, and then the five of them would cycle through again the next week. Cooking for five twenty-something mouths is definitely a big undertaking. But when you average it over the week, you ultimately end up cooking less, saving money, and eating better.

In years since, I've brought this practice to bear in a couple of my workplaces. Usually it's been limited to once or twice a week, to accommodate varying schedules and available leftovers. But it's still a win-win proposition: after establishing the initial ground rules (various food allergies, restrictions, and common definitions of healthy food (we end up being fond of both fruits, vegetables and butterfat)), you sit down with your coworkers to enjoy a delicious glimpse into someone else's kitchen. Even if the meal is nothing more than a homemade soup and salad, it's still miles better than the greasy takeout options in walking distance. But for me, really, it comes down to something else: an excuse to indulge in some dairy.

Living with a someone who's lactose intolerant, I'm probably much healthier than I would be if left to my own devices. But I'm also left with a powerful craving for cream. Last week I made this soup for lunch club, which fulfills both dietary preferences at once: on its own, it is vegetal and lovely, with sweetly soft-cooked fennel and carrots touched with a bit of fresh orange juice. But for others (like myself and my lunch club), stirring in just the tiniest bit of sour cream gives it a lovely, complex, barely-there tang, giving its lightness a bit of balancing heft. I felt compelled to round out my lunch club contribution with a batch of broccoli-cheese knishes and some cookies (we're still in the impress-the-co-workers first round), but it would be lovely on its own, with just a bit of crusty bread and a salad if you want.

And I must belatedly amend last week's post: I talked about a dramatic chocolate dessert, and lamented that, barring this confection, my life tends to be free of sitcom-worthy drama. But while away at the beach this weekend, I was reminded of a jaunt to a friend's parent's beachfront cottage last year, wherein one of the guests used hand dishwashing soap instead of the meant-for-machines version in the dishwasher. Acres of suds spilled across the floor. To be fair, the machine didn't walk itself across the kitchen, nor did this occur as we were frantically trying to clean up after throwing an ill-fated party while our parents were out of town. But still: drama!

Creamy (or not) Carrot Fennel Soup

tweaked from Amanda Hesser in The New York Times
yields 2 quarts

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs, washed and thinly-sliced
3 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced into fat coins
2 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
~ 6 cups water or stock (or half of each) - honestly I forgot to measure this ingredient, and details on freestyling are below
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
dash maple syrup
1/4 cup sour cream
salt and white pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over a medium flame. Add the fennel, carrots and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and just start to color (~10-20 minutes, depending on how large your pot is). Add the water/stock until it just covers the vegetables. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer uncovered until the carrots are meltingly tender, ~45 minutes. Longer doesn't hurt.

Let the soup cool slightly, and puree in batches (I prefer it just shy of smooth). Place it back in the pot, and add additional broth/water as needed to get a nice consistency. Add the orange juice, maple syrup, sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.


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