Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Fennel Soup at McCrady's in Charleston, garnished with shrimp, croutons and olive oil drizzle.
While in Charleston last month, I had dinner at the historic tavern-turned-restaurant, McCrady’s. It was built by Madeira importer Edward McCrady in 1788.  When George Washington toured the Southern States in 1791, he ate at McCrady’s. (And if it was good enough for a president, by George, it’s good enough for me.) 

I was intrigued with the fennel soup that was one of the starter courses,  and wanted to replicate it when I came home. It was cream-colored and smooth, with a mellow licorice flavor.  Chef, Sean Brock, a James Beard Award-winner, had garnished each bowl with two plump fresh-caught shrimp, the feathery fronds and croutons. It reminded me of the garlic bisque I’ve eaten at Emeril’s restaurant, NOLA.  Like garlic bulbs, fennel has a strong flavor that mellows with cooking and cream.  
I couldn’t find a recipe on the restaurant’s Web site or that of chef Brock. So I experimented and came up with my own recipe. It was the first time I’d done much cooking with fresh fennel, which resembles celery or leeks in size and shape.  It has a white bulb at the bottom, green stems and feathery green fronds on the ends. The bulb is the main part that you cook with.
I used the same technique for a lot of other creamy veggie soups: saute and simmer the veggies, then puree them so that they’re smooth and thickened. And, they often use some type of cream. I used fat-free half-and-half. The soup was pleasantly creamy but probably lower in fat the the McCrady’s version.
The recipe took about a half-hour to make, from start to finish. 
3 bulbs of fennel, with stalks and feathery green tops (about 2-3 pounds)
2 tablespoons butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cans (about 4 cups) chicken stock 
1  cup half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat butter in a soup pot over low heat. Remove the green fronds from the fennel stalks and reserve. Coarsely slice the fennel bulbs and stalks. Slice the onion and garlic.

Turn the heat up to medium-high. When butter begins sizzling, add the onions and fennel and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes, until they become slightly softened. Stir to keep them from burning. Add the garlic and chicken stock and increase the heat to high. Bring soup to a gentle boil and cook, covered, until fennel is tender, about 10 minutes.

Puree the soup, in batches, in a blender until very smooth. If a very smooth soup is desired, strain through a strainer into a serving pot or bowl.  Add the half-and-half and season with salt and pepper. Serve with some of the fennel fronds and dots of olive oil as a garnish. Makes about 6 1-cup servings.

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