One of the joys and challenges about writing about food and wine is that we frequently eat too much and often too rich. This might sound like a problem most people would want to have, but take my word for it: You eventually reach a point where something like a small green salad sounds just right for dinner - or, another of our favorite options when it's time to throttle back a bit, a loaf of fresh-baked bread and a bowl of simple, warming soup.
I sent around a good rustic bread recipe recently, and based on some experimenting I've been doing this winter will probably return to that topic again soon. This week, though, let's head for the kitchen and whip up a pot of soup, one of the many variations on a basic theme to which I often return when I want something simple but good.
This recipe's underlying principle is to use potatoes, optionally bolstered with other vegetables, to make a basic soup that ends up blended into a thick, silken puree that coats the palate with a seductive impression of creamy richness, a fool-the-mouth approach that's actually achieved with little or no cream, butter or any fat at all, although you can just as easily put down the accelerator and make it even more luxurious by adding a little ... or a lot ... of these good things to suit your tastes.
The basic soup can be made with nothing but potatoes, but with optional extras to build complexity and flavor interest. I've made it with potatoes and onions, and potatoes and leeks. It treats celery well, adds a sun-burnished color and sweetness with carrots, and takes on an elusive earthy quality with celeriac. You can make it with mere water, or add flavor with vegetable broth or white wine; if you don't care whether it's meatless, chicken or beef broth will enrich it. Spices? Herbs? Only your imagination marks the limit, and the same goes for your personal decision whether to leave it low-calorie or blend in skim milk, whole milk, butter, cream or creme fraiche.
This version uses a fennel bulb to confer an exotic anise flavor, and a few threads of saffron to impart a rich golden color so luxurious that it makes it hard to believe there's very little fat in the dish. (And if you choose to drop the relatively small amount of creme fraiche or butter and substitute water for the chicken broth in the procedure below, you'll end up with a dish that only seems sinful but is in fact almost as abstemious as a monk's dinner.)
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 medium baking potato
1. Peel the potato and cut it into cubes. Put them in a saucepan or soup pot with the broth. (NOTE: You may substitute vegetable broth or even plain water if you prefer a vegetarian dish.)
2. Trim the leeks and wash them well, using only the white and pale green portion, and slice thin (or peel the onion and chop it coarsely). Trim the fennel bulb and chop it coarsely. Put all the vegetables and the bay leaf in the soup pot with the potatoes, adding a little water if there's not enough liquid to cover the veggies. Season to taste with salt and white pepper, but taste-test before salting if the broth is already salty. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
3. Remove the bay leaf and blend the soup into a thick puree. Put the saffron threads in a little warm water and add to the soup. Stir in the creme fraiche (or optional butter) and serve, garnished if you like with a sprig or two of the lacy fennel leaves.
WINE MATCH: This will work with just about any dry white wine. I like it with a rich, slightly oxidative white from the Rhone or Provence or Southern Italy, although on occasion when we're serving this as a light, simple dinner, we may skip wine entirely, saving the calories for a taste of dessert wine afterward.
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Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
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