Every summer, it’s the same thing with our tomato plants. Nothing, nothing, nothing and then wham – tomatoes by the boatload. This summer, the timing coincided with having a leftover fennel bulb from last week’s caramelized fennel cooking adventures that wasn’t getting any younger.
Tomato Fennel Soup seemed like the obvious answer – except just about every version we found involved canned tomatoes; and most of them involved puréeing. I wanted something quick and easy, something a little on the rustic side. And I wanted to see the ingredients I was eating. So I improvised.
Not that I’m totally against puréed soups. More than a few have been featured on these pages, from Julia’s Potage Parmentier to Marion’s Cold Cucumber Avocado Soup with Radish Garnish and Strawberry Gazpacho and two different vichyssoises, one with watercress, the other with green garlic. But as I said, I wanted to see what I was eating this time.
And this was how the soup I saw in my head would come together: I would sauté the fennel bulb, an onion, some cherry tomatoes and garlic together, add some thyme, broth and water and a little salt and pepper, then throw in some broken spaghetti noodles. When it was done cooking and ladled out into bowls, I would top it with snipped fennel fronds.
As with many kitchen improvisations – at least mine – it sounded delicious on paper. It smelled aromatic and promising at first, as the fennel and onion cooked together. But as the soup progressed, I wasn’t sure if it was going to “be” anything, other than an acceptable lunch. As it simmered, I was already trying to think of something else to cook as a back-up post.
As it turned out, though, it was something, a delicate but flavorful soup, with everything in balance. During the sautéing and simmering, the tomatoes burst, releasing their juices into the broth and giving it a tomatoey tang without taking over. The tomatoes themselves were wonderful summery bites. The fennel bulb had a nice cooked celery crunch, and the fronds added a hint of anise. Even the broken spaghetti contributed, its starch slightly thickening the broth.
You can make this soup as is and you’ll be happy with it, I think. But I encourage you to improvise with your own leftovers and sudden bounty. Some roast chicken torn up and added might be nice. That zucchini threatening to go bad in the produce bin would be good. Even swapping the broth for some miso to make it vegetarian could be delicious. If you come up with something good, let us know.
Tomato Fennel Soup
Serves 2 to 3
1 whole fennel bulb (about 1 pound before trimming)
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes – see Kitchen Notes)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 generous teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 cups unsalted or reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
4 ounces dry uncooked spaghetti
Using a sharp knife, slice off the root end of the bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise.
Heat olive oil over medium flame in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add fennel and onion, season lightly with salt, generously with pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. If using whole cherry or grape tomatoes, add to pot and sauté, stirring frequently, until they begin to split open, about 3 minutes (if using chopped large tomatoes, don’t add them yet). Add garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds.
Add broth and water. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. If using large chopped tomatoes, add now, along with their juices. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook for about 5 minutes. Break spaghetti noodles into fourths and add to pot. Cook until pasta is cooked through, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings. Ladle into individual soup bowls and using scissors, snip some of the reserved fennel fronds over each bowl. Serve.
You say tomato, I say use what you have on hand. After years of doing battle with squirrels over our tomatoes, Marion has learned that they don’t seem to recognize small, yellowish Sun Gold Hybrid Cherry Tomatoes as something to eat. And fortunately for us, these little tomatoes are quite delicious. But use whatever tomatoes you can get – from your garden, from your farmers market, even the supermarket. Small ones are great because you can cook them whole, but big tomatoes chopped up and added to the simmering broth will work, too.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Cold Cucumber Avocado Soup