Market fresh soups
Fresh ingredients for a soup are a chef’s dream, and the best place to find them is at your local farmers market — fresh fennel, squash, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes of all shapes as well as root vegetables.
Our first experience with open-air markets was on a trip to Italy in the early ’60s. We walked excitedly through the marketplace looking at the fresh fruit and vegetables, then when we discovered that every village had its own market day during the week, we tried to visit all of them. The melons were sweet, the figs perfect, and the tomatoes, while ripe, still had a little green on them, but they were delicious.
When farmers markets began popping up in Southern California in the early ’80s, we were eager to see what each vendor had to offer. Today we often drive up the coast on a sunny Saturday morning to visit my favorite, in downtown Santa Barbara, which features the most amazing selection of fresh produce and handcrafted objects.
During a recent trip to the Old Town Calabasas Farmers Market, I was surprised by the amazing variety of mushrooms at Dirk Hermann’s LA FungHi stand, including crimini and shitake, which are just right for a Tuscan Mushroom Soup. Bread is the ideal accompaniment to serve with soup, and a few yards away, the Old Town Baking Co. offers an assortment of hearty breads to chose from — squaw, olive, nine-grain, sourdough, Italian, shepherd’s, rye and country harvest, to name a few.
I have a passion for creating and collecting recipes for vegetable soups, and one of my most recent discoveries, Fennel Soup, comes from a dear friend, Bettina Rogosky, who has a vineyard in Tuscany. During our last visit, she served us this delicious simple soup whose only ingredients are fennel, olive oil, water or vegetable broth and Ricard Pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur. Although it has a creamy consistency, it does not contain an ounce of dairy. Bettina served it with tiny croutons and chopped fennel tops.
At home, when friends come over for a casual supper, I love serving Minestrone Soup. A tossed green salad, warm crusty bread and a glass of red wine complete the menu.
Fresh herbs are an easy way to enhance the flavor of dishes. If you don’t have herbs in your garden, you can always find them at the farmers market. The addition of herbs, such as oregano, marjoram or sage, is an easy way to add an intense flavor to soups. Basil, mint, tarragon, cilantro, chives and parsley are often used raw, sprinkled on top of a dish just before serving. Try experimenting to find the flavors you like best.
TUSCAN MUSHROOM SOUP
1/2 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1 medium stalk celery, diced
1/4 cup minced parsley
12 ounces assorted mushrooms (crimini and shitake), cleaned and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup dry white wine
4 small ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and sliced (about 1 cup)
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth or water
Parmesan cheese for garnish
In a large pot, heat olive oil; add onion, celery and parsley, and sauté until onion is lightly browned. Add the mushrooms and sauté for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the wine and allow it to evaporate completely.
Add the tomatoes and the broth, bring to a boil, and cook over medium heat, covered, for 20 minutes.
Ladle into a blender or food processor, and blend to a puree. Return to pot and heat.
To serve, ladle into soup bowls and drizzle with additional olive oil, and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
BETTINA’S FENNEL SOUP WITH CROUTONS
3 large fennel bulbs (about 5 cups)
1/4 cup olive oil
4 to 5 cups vegetable stock or water
4 to 5 tablespoons Ricard Pastis or Sambuca
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup croutons (recipe follows)
Cut tops off fennel bulbs and reserve. Cut bulbs in half, remove core and discard. Cut bulbs into thin slices. Mince the reserved fennel tops, spoon into a small bowl, and set aside until ready to serve the soup.
In a large, nonstick skillet or pot, heat olive oil and sauté fennel until tender (do not brown). Add the stock and simmer until very soft. Add additional stock if needed.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl or measuring cup. Ladle 1/3 or 1/2 of the mixture, with liquid, into a blender or food processor and blend to a fine puree. Pour into the large pot and repeat with the remaining mixture.
Simmer over medium heat, add Ricard Pastis and salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, ladle into heated serving bowls. Garnish with the croutons and minced fennel tops. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.