The weather is beginning to change and I'm increasingly eager to snuggle into fall. After last year's display Greensboro, North Carolina has won me over to the season. Growing up in New Hampshire fall vanished too quickly. Yes, those brief moments were wildly colored, and the fresh apple cider nearly worth the rapid deceleration into subzero temperatures, but that downward transition to winter was too hurried, too blurred for me to really enjoy. Here fall lingers. It teases with days of flickering warmth and glowing sunsets, and excites prickling goosebumps on the back of your neck as an unexpected chill sets in for a few hours, or a few days. And then it is warm again, even summer-like. This push-pull momentum triggers nostalgia for both the sun soaked summer days that have recently ended, and the cozy, pine scented nights ahead. I profoundly appreciate the autumns I've found here in North Carolina.
The shifting temperatures have me craving a warm comforting soup one day, and a fresh summer salad the next. The following tomato soup recipe was inspired by this seasonal limbo. It showcases the bright flavor of those last few fresh tomatoes from my most stubborn, still producing plants, while highlighting some of the earthy flavors of fall, like roasted fennel and fried sage.
I ate this soup for multiple meals a day, until the point that I began Googling whether you could overdose on tomatoes, and any relevant heath concerns I should consider before indulging in bowl #3 of the day. Oh, and answer: I don't think so? Or so Google lead me to believe, but I have absolutely no knowledge of nutrition, so make with caution because you may end up eating the whole batch within a few days like I did.
Roasted Tomato, Red Pepper, and Fennel Soup with Fried Sage and Feta:
(AKA Fancy Tomato Soup)
1 32 oz carton of chicken stock (or make the recipe vegetarian by using vegetable stock instead!)
1/2 cup milk (or heavy cream for a thicker, creamier soup)
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion
7 cloves of garlic
5 stalks of celery
4-5 red tomatoes (or substitute 6-8 Roma tomatoes)
2 cups cherry tomatoes (small yellow tomatoes or other small variety are a nice substitute here)
1 red pepper
1 small fennel bulb (or 1/2 of a large bulb.)
red pepper flakes
fresh sage (2 leaves per serving)
You'll also need:
baking pan/roasting pan
Measuring cups, spoons, and the like. You know, normal cooking things.
(These are very detailed so the recipe may look complicated but it's really very, very simple!)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour stock into a large stock pot.
Wash celery stalks and cut off the leaves. Add the leaves to the stock pot.
Cut off the leafy ends of two fennel stalks and chop the leaves into small pieces (add approximately 2 tbsp of chopped leaves to stock).
Cover the stock with a lid and turn to low heat, stirring occasionally.
Add 2 tbsp butter to a skillet.
Turn skillet to low/medium heat.
Peel and chop the onion, three cloves of garlic, and four celery stalks, add to skillet.
Stir occasionally until the mixture is translucent and beginning to brown. Allowing the onion mixture to brown a little adds a deeper flavor profile to the soup, so don't be afraid to "overcook" the mix.
Season with salt, pepper, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, and a dash of cayenne pepper. Go light on the seasonings here if you're in doubt. You can always add more later when the soup is all mixed together to your personal taste.
Add the cooked mixture to the stock and recover, continuing to cook on low heat.
Line a baking pan with foil.
Drizzle 1 tbsp olive oil in the bottom of the pan.
Wash and core the larger tomatoes (leave smaller tomatoes un-cored, just remove leaves and stems), add to baking pan whole.
Wash and core the red pepper, add to baking pan whole.
Wash and thinly slice the fennel, add to baking pan.
Peel remaining four garlic cloves, add to baking pan whole.
Wash and chop remaining celery stalk, add to baking pan.
Drizzle remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil over vegetables.
Top vegetables with thin slices of the remaining 1 tbsp of butter.
Season lightly with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
Cover the pan with another layer of foil and bake in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes checking frequently.
Depending on the size of your tomatoes 30 minutes may be enough time for all of your vegetables to be beautifully roasted. I used very large tomatoes and needed to bake mine for almost an hour to achieve the desired results. You'll know your vegetables are done with the skin on the tomatoes has split, the juices have released into the bottom of the pan, and the red pepper's skin is beginning to blister and blacken. Carefully monitoring your roasting vegetables is important, so be sure to check every 6-8 minutes after the 30 minute mark to prevent burning.
Carefully remove your pan of roasted vegetables and place on the stovetop or cooling rack. Allow the vegetables to sit for 5 minutes before carefully uncovering (the steam is very hot under the foil).
Use tongs or a serving spoon to transfer the red pepper to a cutting board. Remove the peeled and charred skin with a fork, add to stock.
Carefully transfer the remaining items into the stock including the released juices from the bottom of the pan.
Using a one cup measuring cup to transfer 2 cups of the soup into a blender.
Secure all parts and the lid before turning on. This soup can spurt, so use a pot holder to hold down the lid when blending, which is also why I recommend blending only 2 cups at a time.
Pour blended mixture into a new large container or bowl.
Continue until all soup is blended.
Temper the 1/2 cup of milk with a 1/2 cup of hot soup using a whisk. Add to large soup container and whisk until blended into the soup.
Taste your soup here and adjust any seasonings as needed to your desired taste.
Wash and thinly slice the fresh sage leaves. Pat dry with paper towel.
Add a drizzle of olive oil to the same skillet you used before.
Turn skillet to low/medium and add in the sage leaves.
Flip leaves to brown and fry each side.
Remove from heat and transfer to paper towel.
Portion soup into bowls. Sprinkle feta on top, and garnish with a fried sage leaves.