Saturday, 8 March 2008

Fennel soup (Σούπα μαραθόριζα)

With the advent of mass tourism and new immigrants to Crete, there has been an advent in exotic tastes available in the supermarket. Once scarcely heard of in Hania, everybody now seems to know what to do with star fruit, lychees and mangos. Vegetables are trickier; ginger is seen as a spicy addition to stews, while celeriac and Chinese lettuce are viewed with suspicion, because they are mainly purchased by tourists and foreign (ie British or German) residents who have bought homes in Crete for their retirement.

Fennel bulb grows with a tuft of fine green leaves on the top, flaring out like an Indian soldier's hat. Fennel bulbs are not what gives us the commonly found Greek fennel bush. They are a different variety. Fennel bulbs are a cultivated crop, not commonly grown in Crete, although they are used in minor ways in the Cretan diet. My uncles grow them on their farm. Sometimes, they eat them in the same way that they eat Greek salad: sliced small with a sprinkling of salt. They discard the fennel leaves, which are not as aromatic as the Greek fennel found growing wild on the roadside; I've been told they aren't used in the same way as wild Greek fennel, even though they look very similar to it. Another way we also like to cook fennel bulb is with cuttlefish, stewed with tomato. This is especially popular during fasting periods.

It's not always easy to persuade people into trying out new food, so I thought I'd treat myself to something different, even if it won't be enjoyed by many in the house. (It's International Women's Day today, so I am entitled to treat myself, even if it means cooking my own meal!) The internet popped out this tasty recipe from timesonline: fennel bulb soup with spicy sausage. It lists six fennel bulbs in the ingredients to make a soup that serves ten people. The sausage had to be omitted because it wasn't a meat-eating day in our house. It also mentioned tinned cannelini beans; tinned beans in a Cretan household which still practices the Mediterranean diet are completely out of the question. I added a cubed potato to give the soup a lighter flavour. It would also cream well in the blender. In any case, bean soup is on the menu for Monday, Clean Monday, kite-flying day in Greece.

You need:
1/4 cup olive oil (although the recipe states 4 tablespoons for 10 servings, olive oil is never used so miserly in a Mediterranean kitchen)
2 fennel bulbs, chopped small
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
2 celery sticks, chopped finely (I used Greek celery, which is more pungent; the leaves are used as well as the stalks. It enhanced the soup's flavour in a positive way)
1 litre of chicken stock (stock cubes do well; if you use vegetable stock, the soup becomes lenten fare)
2 bay leaves
2 potatoes, cut into small cubes
a handful of parsley, stalks and leaves separated
1 teaspoon of freshly ground coriander seeds
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a pot and add the garlic, celery and fennel. Let them stew for about five minutes; your kitchen will start to smell of the sensuous aroma of the fennel bulb permeating through it. Now, add the coriander, potato, parsley (both stalks and leaves) bay leaves, salt and pepper. Mix all the ingredients till they are coated in oil, then add the stock. Let everything cook away until the potato and fennel is soft. Discard the bay leaves and parsley stalks, then whizz the soup in a blender till smooth. Return it to the pan and gently heat it through before serving.This soup has a pleasant aroma, and a very piquant flavour, without the addition of extra spices. It is especially nice eaten with high quality bread and cheese.

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