How much do you know about your TRPV-1 receptors? Here, I will bring you up to speed if you are as much in the dark about them as I was. They are the fancy technology in your mouth that alerts your brain when hot food is very hot (as in, thanks to not realizing how hot this coffee was, my tongue will be as functional as a dried sponge for the next 17 hours) or very hot (as in, that must have been the cayenne and not the paprika that I reached for on these eggs.) Your brain, when it receives the news flash about the weather patterns between your jawbones, gets your sweat glands on the line and flips the 'on' switch. Hence, why it is not crazy to write about hot soup when it's hotter than a match head outdoors, which it presently is here in my zip code. Hot food makes you sweat, and sweating cools you down, see? NPR explained it to me. It's probably why fiery cuisines and hot weather go together, they said.
I only just realized that I am already sweating because of it being hot, which kind of bungs a hole in that theory for me.
But this soup was really, really good, which you might not gather from its awful portrait up there. It comes from Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison's Kitchen, which I took out of the library. This is my new strategy with cookbooks: kind of like dating before you buy the cow or words to that effect (it's really hot here). If I become worried the pages are too splotchy to return to the circulation desk in person (hello, nighttime book drop!!), then I know that I have come a really good distance from the library-book phobia I had from the age of 6 (when I lost a book from the Brooklyn Friends lower-school library and had to confess it to the librarian) to the age of however old I was when I got over that, which was a good while after. Ask me about ice cream cones sometime! Lost a scoop off of one outside Baskin-Robbins on Montague street as a youngster and I'll leave you to imagine how I handled the "cup or cone?" question until college.
I also know, getting back around to cookbooks, that I am ready to buy the book, now that I have paid half its value in overdue fees. It's a major cost-cutting trick, this library-dating-of-cookbooks strategy of mine. I commend it to you.
A couple of the steps here sound weird, but are ultimately stupendously successful. Love that. Also it is a tidy little ecosystem of its own, this soup--the trimmings and tailings of the main ingredients are what you use to make the broth. And it came together quickly, despite there being three sections to the recipe, and everyone liked it. I will attempt to resist the urge to just cook my way through the book and tell you about it, because I think that has been done before, but there are legions of winners in these pages, let me tell you.
For this one, I have given you all of Ms. Madison's careful measurements of quantity and so forth, but rest assured this was pretty forgiving--I had no leek, no one in my house but me likes peas (I substituted--you guessed it--ZUCCHINI), my parsley levels were unequal to the recipe, and lacking the willingness to blanch almonds, I subbed almond meal which I had a-plenty. Still tasty. I think it is the saffron, which I can never resist.
fennel soup with saffron & ricotta dumplings
adapted from Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison's Kitchen
the stalks of your fennel bulbs (see below)--about 2 cups
roots and upper sections of a leek or some scallions--about a cup
1 c celery tips and leaves
1 bay leaf
handful of parsley stems
sea salt and fresh pepper
1 pound ricotta cheese
a fat pinch of fennel seeds
1 large or two small fennel bulbs (about a pound)
2-3 tablespoons butter, or a mix of butter and olive oil that appeals to you
2 leeks, white parts only, about a quarter pound, quartered, rinsed, chopped, or equivalent spring onions or scallions
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
2 T chopped parsley
1/3 c almond meal, or 1/2 c blanched almonds, finely ground
2 pinches of saffron threads
about a cup of shelled fresh or thawed frozen peas, or similarly-sized bits of tender young zucchini
finely minced fennel greens or fresh thyme to garnish
Preheat the oven to 350.
Put the vegetable trimmings into a pot with 7 cups of water, the bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes.
Press the ricotta into a 6-cup baking dish that has been brushed with olive oil, and sprinkle the fennel seeds over the top. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool and firm. Make the soup while it is baking.
Chop the fennel into pieces that will fit into a soupspoon. Melt the butter or butter + oil in a soup pot and add the vegetables and parsley. Season with a teaspoon of salt, toss everything to coat, and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the saffron and almonds and stir well to combine, and then cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Strain the stock--you should have about 6 cups--and admire its color. Surely J. Crew has a name for this hue. Add the hot stock to the vegetables, and simmer the combination for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are as tender as you would like them to be. Add the peas during the last couple of minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.
Cut the ricotta into adorable triangles. Add a few of them to each bowl and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Squeeze of lemon wouldn't hurt, but it helps everything.