A Note on Soup and Recipe: Fennel and Apple Soup

“Flavour. If we can’t make soup, then what can we do? Fuck vegetarians. Do they wear leather shoes?”

That’s the executive chefs answer to my asking why we use chicken stock in our soups which have long been a staple vegetarian starter on nearly all restaurant menus. I can’t answer the question as to whether vegetarians wear leather or not. I guess some do and I guess some don’t. The loophole in us using chicken stock is that the menu doesn’t technically state it is a vegetarian option, so if you are a vegetarian and are thinking of ordering the soup then it may be a good idea to double check with whoever is serving you first. Alternatively, just look out for that distinctive taste of chicken giving depth of flavour to whatever vegetable the kitchen may have a glut of.

This is not to mistake you into believing that soups are low on the list of priorities in a kitchen. They can be delicate and demanding of great skill. Consommé requires the most from a chef in its use of clarified egg whites to remove all impurities from a stock, resulting in a highly flavoured crystal clear liquid. Veloutés were once thickened stocks and one of the five ‘mother sauces’ in classic French cuisine. Nowadays a velouté can describe any thick sauce or soup. The word itself comes from the French velour meaning velvet to describe the texture – just don’t expect anything more than a bowl of a rather thick liquid when ordering it. Chilled soups are coming into fashion, most notably the Spanish gazpacho but this demands only the freshest, height of summer tomato. (And no, a tin of Britain’s favourite tomato soup simply not heated up does not compare) Chilled pea soup is likewise something British summer produce could create with great results but British tastes, dictated by our unpredictable climate, has ensured chilled coups have never really caught on. Soups are hot and that is that. Adding ingredients to a finished soup is always a good way to introduce texture and excitement. In high end restaurants it is currently fashionable to decorate the brim of the bowl in highly elegant ways using nuts, seeds or micro-herbs but in most restaurants croutons, finely chopped herbs and a flavoured oil suffice.

The image above is a study of Francisco Goya’s Two Old Ones Eating Soup from his famous Black Paintings series. (Forgive the drawing for Goya I am not, I suggest looking up the real one online) It shows two old men huddled around a bowl of soup and it also shows historically who eats soup — the poor, the skeletal and the toothless. Soup, or pottage as it was then called, was eaten by nearly everyone — by those who dined at great banquet halls and down to the lowly peasant. Of course for those dining in grander surroundings soup was just a small part to much larger meal. If you were poor it would have acted as your main meal and was a mainstay of a serfs diet throughout the Middle Ages. Soup during this time would have consisted of water thickened with grains or pulses with whatever vegetables and herbs that were available and possibly bones or cheap cuts of meat, all boiled together until a homogeneous texture was achieved. Somewhat less refined than what we have today but the lengthening of expensive meat with cheap grains and vegetables is still the basis of modern soups. This is also definitely something not to be scoffed at by professional kitchens looking for good profit margins or by economically savvy households.

Fennel and Apple Soup with Chorizo

I find it difficult to both write and follow recipes as there are often too many variables in cooking to give an accurate guide or measurements of ingredients. It takes practice, knowledge, a little common sense and confidence to understand how ingredients will react and adjust things accordingly to fit your tastes and the equipment at your disposal.

Fennel is one of my favourite vegetables, especially during summer months when it is at its best and cheaper. It works well thinly sliced for coleslaws or in salads with celery, apple and a simple lemon dressing. Some complain about the strong flavour fennel has and is often compared to liquorice which is never necessarily a good thing. True there are similarities and fennel does taste of anise but it is lighter and more subtle than a liquorice sweet. Sweating the fennel as this recipe calls for also mitigates some of this and allows the sweetness and mellow tone of fennel to come out which is balanced with sharp apple and the smokiness and spice of chorizo. Of course I use chicken stock because I am not a vegetarian and I wear leather shoes but use vegetable stock if you so wish. For an easy chicken stock you can use the leftover carcass from a roast dinner or whole bird in a large pot filled with cold water with roughly chopped carrots, quartered onions, roughly chopped fennel and herbs such as parsley or thyme. We also use white wine but in the catering industry this is specially made to have little alcohol content and is seasoned, feel free to add a splash of white wine when you have finished sweating the vegetables instead though. Bring all this to the boil and then down to a simmer for around three hours, top up with water and skim off any scum as necessary before straining. Alternatively, use a stock cube of your choice.

Fennel, root removed and chopped
Onion, roughly chopped
Garlic, sliced
Apple (I used Granny Smith) peeled and chopped
Chicken stock
Floury potato, such as Maris Piper, peeled and diced
Chorizo (what did we do before chorizo became so widely available)
Salt to taste

In a little oil and butter sweat off the fennel, onion and garlic on a low heat. Add apple and potato then cover with enough chicken stock, bring to the boil then simmer till the potato is tender. Blitz and reheat when needed. In a dry frying pan add diced chorizo to render out the oils and fats, when this is done pour your soup into serving bowls put the chorizo on top and drizzle some of the chorizo oil from the frying pan over the soup. You could also garnish with some fennel fronds or some finely sliced apple for added crunch and sharpness.

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Kitchen’s Open – Who is the Reluctant Chef?

I never wanted or planned to become a chef. Hell, I didn’t get a Masters degree in Fine Art to spend my time cleaning stovetops and getting burnt and calloused fingers. Suffice to say there aren’t many jobs in kitchens that require a higher education and not many that require an education at all. But life happens, art doesn’t pay, and upon completion of my undergraduate degree I found myself as a kitchen porter of a local gastropub.

I spent an equal amount of time prepping endless amounts of vegetables as I did scrubbing pans and unclogging drains. What I didn’t realise during this time was that I were getting another education; on how to handle a knife properly, to work cleanly and to develop a work ethic that doesn’t prohibit the usual workplace breaks employees are legally entitled to. During the height of summer, over Christmas and up to Easter I worked in a tiny pot-wash room. Imagine a room too small for an industrial washing machine with two sinks and mould growing on the walls and you’ll get the picture. It wasn’t so much a pot-wash room but a portal to ill physical and mental health.

Through hard graft and sheer desperation to get out of kitchen porter hell (I’m not exaggerating – to have “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” inscribed above the doorway would not have been ironic) I eventually worked my way up to the title of trainee. It was here that I started to learn a trade I never wanted and also when I started to learn some of the necessary basics of a culinary career:

I. Chefs are temperamental. I’m not talking about the shouting and screaming that makes good television and good television careers, I’m talking about arguments, walking out during service (something I’m guilty of) and disappearing without trace.
II. The owner is invariably (but not always) and arsehole who doesn’t understand (read: care) about the hardships of your labour.
III. A profitable restaurant is the bottom line and that simply is the bottom line. Restaurant overheads are ridiculous, food costs are constantly inflating, and as already stated, staff are both inconsistent and temperamental which all helps in the understanding of point two.

I continued to work as a chef of sorts to fund my ambitions to become an academic artist type. This was all in the hope that being labelled a master in something, anything, would spell the end of prepping vegetables and cleaning walk-in refrigerators. But you get good at what you are good at and that’s what you end up doing. I always envisaged that working in kitchens would be a means to an end – that I would get good at something else and would work with academics, attend symposia and debate topics that matter in the visual arts. Eventually things started to change as the scorching heat of the stove, the finely diced vegetables, the roasting of bones, the uninhibited use of bad language and the constant feeling of having your back up against the wall started to take over the education I had worked for. Something felt more gratifying about physically feeding people rather than the intellectualism I was fed and hoped to one day become fluent in. I feel Anthony Bourdain sums it up best when he compares good cooking to performing oral sex. You simply give pleasure and when you do it well, you can give a hell of a lot of pleasure and there’s a lot to enjoy in doing that.

Since realising my position and deciding to chase the real opportunities presented to me rather than my academic ambitions, I have worked my way up even further. Now I, a self-taught glorified kitchen porter who accidentally fell into the trade, work in a fine dining restaurant where we cook expensive food for people with expensive cars, who dine with expensive looking partners. The education remains though, always has and, thank goodness, always will. I simply changed subjects.