Saturday, June 17, 2006

Potato Fennel Soup with Apples (inspired by my Dad)

My first encounter with innovative cuisine happened at the ripe age of 7. If you were picturing a little girl tasting asparagus mousse with black caviar in a 3 star restaurant, you’ll have to scrap that image and replace it with that of a little girl with sandy feet, and a man with a dark beard and kind brown eyes sitting at a picnic table under an apricot tree with two bowls of soup in front of them. The little girl was me. The man with a beard was my Dad. The soup was supposed to be a cream of vegetables, but looked suspiciously like a cream of something brown and icky. The place was Novopetrovka, a small village on the coast of Azov Sea in Ukraine. Not only were there no restaurants in Novopetrovka, there were no cafes, cafeterias, or even fast food joints. American fathers don’t know how easy they have it. If they are stuck with a hungry 7 year old, they can always count on McDonald’s to save their ass, while Russian fathers can only count on their ingenuity.

The reason my Dad and I had to learn to feed ourselves was that my Mom just gave birth to my brother in January and he was too little to come to Novopetrovka where my family rented a cottage for the summer. Rather than letting me spend the whole summer in the city smog, my brave parents decided that my Mom will stay with my brother in Moscow and my Dad will take me to Novopetrovka for a month. I still think that this whole set up was my Mom’s way to ensure that we appreciate every one of her wonderful meals for as long as we both shall live. But at the time my Dad and I were oblivious to the hardships that awaited us and cheerfully packed a huge bag of cans and packets as our provisions for the month, and took the train to Azov Sea.

I must say, it was not all bad. The garlicky potato pancakes made from a mix were our pièce de résistance, and we survived on them until the supplies ran out. When our landlady cooked, we were in for a treat of a steaming bowl of borsh, or freshly made vareniki (Ukranian pierogies). Ah, those were the good days. But there were also the bad days when adding water to the mystery packet turned its contents wet, but not really edible, like the soup we were faced with that day.

Even our advanced culinary techniques of adding more water and stirring very hard didn’t help. “This soup surely needs something,” said my Dad. We wistfully looked at the door to our landlady’s house hoping that she’d come out any moment now with a big bowl of freshly cooked soup and rescue us. But this time we were on our own. It was us vs. the soup and we were not about to let the soup win. That’s when my Dad, in all his engineering wisdom, had a great idea. “How about an apple!” he suggested. In case you are wondering if soup with apples is a common Russian dish, I assure you it’s not. This was a true innovation on the part of my Dad. We chopped up an apple, sprinkled it on our soup and gave it another try – hmm, not bad. The crunch of the apple was a nice counterpoint to the brown blandness of the soup and I found it so interesting that I ate the whole bowl.

Dear Daddy, all I ever needed to know about culinary creativity I learned that day from you in Novopetrovka. In honor of Father’s Day this year, I recreated our soup with apples. Here is the “new and improved” version.

Potato and Fennel Soup with Apples

Since the spirit of this soup is experimentation, feel free to try the apple topping on the root vegetable soup of your choice, like Parsnip Soup, Turnip Soup, or Potato Fennel Soup given in this recipe. The apple topping can be made “salsa” style if you cut your apples into small dice or like a salad if you cut your apples into very thin ribbons using a mandolin.

Serve 4

For the soup:
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored, and thinly sliced (reserve fronds for garnish)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/3 Lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4” dice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups water
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
  1. Set a large heavy pot over high heat. Add the oil. When oil is hot, add fennel and cook stirring occasionally until nicely browned, about 7 minutes. Don’t stir too much so that fennel has a chance to brown and develop flavor.
  2. Turn down the heat to medium. Add garlic and potatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook stirring occasionally until garlic is aromatic and tender, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add wine, water, and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a boil. Taste and correct seasoning. Liquid should be well salted since potatoes will absorb a lot of salt. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered until potatoes are very tender, 40-50 minutes.
  4. Stir in cream, cool slightly (about 5 minutes), and puree the soup in a blender. If soup is too thick to your liking, add a little water.
  5. Pour into into bowls, put a few spoons of apple topping in the middle of each bowl and serve.
For apple topping:
1 tart apple, like granny smith
1/4 medium red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped mint, cilantro, or fennel fronds reserved from the soup
2 tsp fresh lime juice
2 tsp olive oil
1 Tbsp grainy mustard
Salt and pepper
  1. Core the apple and cut it into 1/4 inch dice or slice it 1/16” thick with a mandolin.
  2. Cut the onion the same way as the apple (if you diced the apple, dice the onion; if you sliced the apple, slice the onion).
  3. In a small bowl, combine the apple, onion, herbs, lime juice, olive oil, and mustard. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.


Anonymous said...

what a beautiful story to share... love your blog.. been daily reading it for a few months now.. beautiful photos..

Anonymous said...

Helen, that is the most beautiful father's day story I've ever read. It so how I feel everyone should be introduced to cooking. It's not to be fear but played with.
Thank you so much for sharing such a fantastic story.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely story... also been reading daily for several months, and find your passion for food inspiring and your writing always engaging. Thanks for this, and all your writing! :)