My parents bought me the "Top Chef" Quickfire cookbook for my birthday this year, and then got me a stockpot for Christmas, and I've been waiting to have a quiet day with no other plans so that I could use them.
Today was that day:
I decided that I was going to make Season 5 Cheftestant Jeff's Fennel-Apple Soup. Jeff made it for the quickfire challenge of "Reimagine a Recipe from the Top Chef Cookbook" (which my parents bought me for Christmas last year) that turned into the "Oh, Wait, Now Make That Recipe Into A Soup" challenge after Padma's buzz wore off or something. Everyone on the show seemed to like it, and they liked the fennel-apple salad that it started out as, so I assumed it would taste pretty good. I could get most of the ingredients at Kroger, except for the fennel.
Also, I had no idea what fennel looked like.
Whenever they show it on "Top Chef" or Food Network, somebody's already chopping up the fennel. They never show raw, unchopped up fennel, and it never occured to me to just google it. I knew that it was kind of like a big onion, and people talk about it having stalks and fronds like celery, so I had a vague idea. I know there's nothing like that at Kroger, so I figured I needed to go to one of the fancy grocery stores in town. Earthfare didn't have it, but the Fresh Market did, and I managed to get through both stores without being seduced by their ample and well stocked cheese cases. Take that, temptation!
Fennel in hand, I headed home to being cooking, or, more accurately, prepping for cooking. First I needed to peel and dice three apples, which gave me a perfect excuse to use my apple wedger.
All you do is push down.
I love that thing. All that was left was the peeling.
Once the apples were taken care of, I had this to contend with:
That's a bulb of fennel. It's like bringing home a houseplant and then hacking it to pieces. The cookbook assumes that I know all about fennel already, and tells me to just dice a cup of it, but wasn't really specific about which part to use. As I said above, the pieces that people are chopping up on television are always white, so I immediately chopped off all of the green pieces and then diced what was left.
After that I peeled and diced the shallots, which are like tiny, expensive onions:
Then it was time to mix the apples, shallots, fennel, and garlic together, and sweat them over low heat. Wait, what?
"Sweat the vegetables? What the hell does that mean?"
"Maybe you run on the treadmill for a couple minutes and then rub them all over you?"
"That can't possibly be right."
"Are you sure? Jeff had his shirt off every episode of Season 5. Maybe it was so he could rub vegetables on himself. All over his abs, and his torso, and then..."
"That cannot possibly be correct. If Jeff spent the season smearing himself with food, not only would I remember, I would have that season on DVD so that I could watch it over and over."
The cookbook was more helpful than my inner dialogue, and explained that "sweating" vegetables means cooking them on low heat in minimal fat in a covered pot so that their own liquid sweats out and they poach in it. It's a recommended technique for foods with a lot of water, like apples and fennel, and allows them to slowly cook without carmelizing. The cookbook didn't give any examples of minimal fat, so I sprayed the bottom of the stockpot with olive oil, dumped in the vegetables, and hoped for the best:
It worked really well. I stirred it a few times to make sure everything was cooking evenly and nothing was sticking to the bottom of the pot, and when everything was tender I added the wine:
(after I tasted it to make sure it hadn't gone bad; I've had that bottle for a while) and then later added the chicken stock:
When half the liquid had cooked off I lowered the heat, added the cream and the herbs, let it simmer until the top had bubbles, and then pureed the whole thing with my immersion blender. I didn't make the little blue cheese toasts to float in it like the recipe called for, but I think it turned out pretty well:
It tastes pretty good. When you first take a spoonfull it's sweet, but then there's an undertaste that cuts that which I guess is from the fennel, so when it finishes as you swallow it's actually kind of savory. It would pair up really well with the toasts I didn't make because the sharpness of the cheese would bring out that savory taste more and downplay the sweetness of the apples.
I'm just surprised it took so long. The recipe said it would only take an hour, and on the show quickfires are really short, but this took me almost two hours. Probably because I'm not a professional chef. And also because I spent too much of my cooking time fantasizing about Jeff smearing himself with food.