Serve this Hearty Soup as a Starter or a Main Course
You’ve probably seen fennel in the produce department at your local supermarket. It’s a bulbous plant with stalks maybe a foot long, and topped with feathery green foliage. Here in the US, not many cooks use it. Too bad, because fennel has a great, distinctive flavor that combines well with other ingredients.
If fennel is new to you — or you haven’t used it for a while — why not try some in this terrific soup? January is the time of the year when many of us determine to eat healthier, and there’s nothing healthier than eating your veggies. And the more veggies you know how to use, the more likely you are to eat them.
That’s logic, isn’t it?
Recipe: Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans
Although fennel is a supermarket staple year round, in the US it’s most prevalent during the cooler months — beginning in fall, and continuing through winter. So now is a good time to buy it.
Sometimes fennel is sold with the green tops removed — although given a choice, I always like to buy it with the tops intact. Those hair-like green fronds make a great garnish, and offer good flavor. When buying fennel, look for bright green tops. The bulbs should not have brown spots and should be firm when pressed with your thumb. Avoid plants that look dried out or seem mushy when pressed.
Although many fennel soup recipes feature potatoes, we’re using beans in ours. Because fennel combines well with seafood, we’re also adding shrimp. If you prefer, you could substitute chunks of a firm fleshed fish, or leave out the seafood component altogether. This recipe is adapted from one I found in James Peterson’s Splendid Soups; the original didn’t call for shrimp.
This recipe serves 6 to 8 as a first course, 3 or 4 as a main course. If serving this as a main, you’ll probably want to augment the meal with bread and perhaps a salad. Preparation time is about 10 minutes, cooking time another 30 minutes.
- 1 large or 2 medium fennel bulbs, plus green tops (you want about a pound — or close to 2 cups — of cleaned and diced fennel bulb; discard the stalk, or use it for soup stock)
- 1 medium onion cut into fine dice (about ¾ cup; don’t stress over exact quantities)
- 4 - 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced or minced
- 2 - 3 teaspoons of pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth (you can substitute water, although the flavor won’t be quite as good)
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme or dill, or a tablespoon if fresh (or use another green herb of your choice)
- 1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained
- 1 15-ounce can cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained (or substitute about 2 cups of dried beans that you’ve previously prepared using your favorite recipe)
- ¾ to 1 pound deveined shrimp, preferably 26 - 30 to the pound (fresh or frozen; you can substitute another size if you prefer – see Notes)
- 1 or 2 tablespoons of Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur (very optional, but tasty)
- Rinse off the fennel and remove the stalk and green tops. Roughly chop the green fuzzy fronds, and reserve them for garnish. Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, slice off the root end of the bulb. Cut or peel off the outer part of the bulb if it’s tough. Dice the fennel bulb by cutting it in half through the poles (lengthwise). Then cut into dice of ½ inch or a bit less (I dice each half as I would an onion).
- Peel the onion and cut into dice of about ¼ inch.
- Peel the garlic cloves and slice or mince.
- Heat a frying pan, preferably nonstick, on medium-high. When hot, add the oil, then the chopped fennel bulb, onion, and garlic. Turn heat down to medium, add salt and pepper to taste, and sauté until the onion just begins to turn translucent (about 5 minutes).
- Meanwhile, put the broth into a pot with a capacity of 4 quarts or so, and bring to a simmer.
- When the fennel and onion mixture is ready, add to the broth. Add the dried thyme (or other herb), and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes (until the veggies soften).
- Meanwhile, if using shrimp that need to be deveined, do so now. If using shell-on shrimp, you can either shell now, or let your guests shell them at table — your choice. I often use frozen shrimp for this recipe (see Notes), and generally buy the headless ones that have been partially shelled (the tail section still has its shell).
- Add the beans, tomatoes, and shrimp and simmer for 10 minutes more (see Notes regarding the shrimp; you may want to wait a few minutes before adding them).
- Taste the soup, and adjust seasonings. If you want more anise flavor, add the optional Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur.
- Serve with a sprinkle of the chopped green fennel tops.
- You can use cooked or uncooked shrimp for this recipe, either fresh or frozen. In many parts of the country, “fresh” shrimp actually arrive at the market in a frozen state — so I usually just buy frozen. It’s often higher quality anyway if it’s IQF (individually quick frozen). IQF shrimp is “blast frozen” soon after it’s been harvested, so most of its flavor remains intact.
- If using fresh shrimp, you’ll probably want to devein it (that dark line that runs across the top of the shrimp is its intestinal tract, or “vein”). If you’re buying fresh shrimp, I assume you know how to deal with them, but I’ll briefly recap the procedure: I always buy fresh shrimp in the shell, with the heads attached. So first pull off the head and legs. Then starting at the end where the head was, pull off the outer shell (I usually leave the bit at the tail end attached). Then to devein, I use a small knife and cut a slit down the shrimp’s back, maybe ¼ inch deep or so. You’ll see a black line (the vein). I use the knife to remove it.
- Fresh, uncooked shrimp will take about 5 minutes to cook. If you put them in the pot with 10 minutes to go (as suggested in Step 8) they’ll be slightly overcooked, but I find it doesn’t matter that much in this recipe.
- If using frozen uncooked shrimp (that have been deveined), throw them in at the 10-minutes-before-done mark, as directed in Step 8.
- If you’re using frozen cooked shrimp (the kind you’ll often buy for shrimp cocktails), they’ll thaw out in 3 to 4 minutes, so I usually throw them in near the end of the cooking time (they’re already cooked, so you just want to dethaw and warm them). Again, if you put them in at the 10-minutes-to-go mark, they’ll be somewhat overdone, but not so much that it matters a great deal in this recipe.
- BTW, I often use frozen cooked shrimp. The flavor is not as good as the uncooked, but if you’re using it in a dish with a sauce (or in a soup like this), I don’t notice much difference.
- If at all possible, buy shrimp that were harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. They have the best flavor IMO.
- If you use shrimp that have been peeled but still have the shell attached to the tail (and are a fairly large size) it’s probably easiest to just pick them up with your fingers to eat them. Too messy? Use smaller shrimp, or cut larger shrimp into pieces before cooking.
- Fennel, like coriander, is both a herb and a vegetable.
- You may have seen fennel seed in the spice aisle of the supermarket. It looks something like anise seed (although smaller), and has a similar licorice-like flavor. Fennel seed is often used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, and provides the distinctive flavor in some Italian sausages.
- In addition to combining extremely well with shrimp and seafood, fresh fennel is also good with chicken, and terrific with pork.
- Fennel is said to cleanse the palate and aid digestion. For this reason, some Indian restaurants serve fennel seeds at the end of the meal. Sometimes Italians (particularly Sicilians) serve raw fennel (the bulb, cut into wedges) for a similar purpose.
- Socrates reportedly advised consuming a stalk of fennel and glass of water as a cure for a night of overeating.
- Fennel is called finocchio in Italian, fenouil in French, Fenchel in German, and hinojo in Spanish. But in any language, it’s good stuff.
Food of the Gods
Fennel played a notable role in the culture of ancient Greece. According to Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus used a giant fennel stalk to steal fire from the gods for the benefit of humans (seriously annoying Zeus in the process). Dionysus, the god of wine (and frenzied madness), was often portrayed holding a stalk of fennel. Fennel stalks also formed the shaft of the thyrsus, a sacred implement used in religious ceremonies, symbolizing fertility and prosperity.
In ancient Greek, fennel was called marathos. The town of Marathon was located in a field of fennel, and took its name from the plant. It was at Marathon that a small army of Athenians, though greatly outnumbered, fought off a large invading Persian force in 490 BCE.
They must have been eating their veggies.
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