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Cookbook Trouble : A Soup Is Born

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How do you create a recipe from the first spark of an idea? It’s a combination of the mystical and the downright practical.

Recipes should not exist in a vacuum. Yes, it’s exciting to taste new combinations of flavors and master techniques. But for me, the deeper goal is in making some kind of contribution beyond these momentary sensations. Though flavor brings joy to eating, there must be meaning beyond that. Does the recipe just involve measurements and flavors or does it speak to larger issues?

To begin writing, you must understand the mechanics of a recipe. When I was about to start work on my first book, I met with a cookbook editor. During my college years, I had cooked my way through all the cookbooks in the Berkeley Public Library and had a budding cookbook collection of my own, but I didn’t know some of the most obvious things about how to write a recipe. She explained, for example, that you must list the ingredients in the order in which they appear in the method, the step-by-step part of the recipe. I remember thinking that couldn’t possibly be the way they’re listed. It must be in order of importance or quantity. At home, I looked in a cookbook and sure enough, she was right.

The writing that appears before the list of ingredients and method is called a headnote. But what goes into a headnote?

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Should it simply describe the dish? The headnote is a very important part of the whole. It lures you into the recipe. You can explain why you find the idea so intriguing, point out an unusual technique, point out a slightly tricky part, make menu suggestions, or write about a specific ingredient, such as what to look for when buying Swiss chard, or the importance of buying organic lemons when using the rind. A headnote can also evoke a time and place or a mood.

To illustrate what goes into selecting an idea and writing a recipe, here is a look at the steps I took in writing a recipe for my upcoming book.

Because my family is from Sicily, where wild fennel grows abundantly, fennel holds a special place in my heart. When I was growing up in a Southern California suburb, my grandmother grew wild fennel in the back yard, probably purely for sentimental and ornamental reasons, since I can’t remember tasting it as a child. Now, Florentine fennel, the fresh fennel variety sold in markets, has a tasty bulb, but its feathery tops do not possess much flavor. Wild fennel does grow along the California coast, but its availability is pretty restricted, meaning it would be unrealistic to call for it in a recipe.

I’d been intrigued for some time by a rustic bread soup from the Italian island of Sardinia that features wild fennel and sun-dried tomato. I thought that using the bulb of Florentine fennel and a sprinkling of fennel seeds might impart a flavor similar to the taste of wild fennel. Further, I thought I would finely chop the fennel tops of the Florentine fennel and add them to the soup for color. I would add the fibrous stalks to the broth for flavor, but remove them after the initial cooking of the soup.

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The use of sun-dried tomatoes in this dish could be instructive, illustrating their traditional use as a cold-weather substitute for fresh tomatoes, as opposed to their more arbitrary--and often inappropriate--use as just another trendy ingredient. I’m interested in simple vegetable broths, and I thought the combination of fennel and sun-dried tomato would create a wonderfully full-flavored and richly colored broth.

Also interesting is the second cooking of the soup, where it is layered with country bread and fresh cheeses and baked in the oven, creating a satisfying one-dish meal. The recipe also illustrates the importance of the quality of bread needed for a soup such as this one. And I could point out how this sort of soup was a way of extending the life of stale bread and increasing the nutritional value of a dish. Dried bread could be used, since the broth would soften its texture.

I began testing the recipe by gathering the ingredients. I first checked to make sure the fennel seeds I had were fresh and strongly perfumed. I bought two fragrant, pearly white fennel bulbs with fresh feathery tops. I bought a high-quality brand of sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil (any other oil would spoil the taste of the soup). I bought a crusty loaf of bread from one of the many bread bakeries in my area.

I wanted the soup to have some of its original green color, so I bought bunches of Italian parsley and basil. Since the original dish has parsley and basil as part of the aromi --or background flavors--increasing their amounts keeps the spirit of the dish still intact, as long as the fennel flavor dominates. I purchased a dripping fresh mozzarella cheese. The original zuppa uses a combination of cheeses, some mild, some strong. I decided to start with a mild cheese so the flavor would not compete with the fennel.

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I was pleased with the ingredients; they formed a beautiful still life. As I began the cooking process I had to make a hundred little decisions and faithfully record every measurement and every step. When I removed the steaming, aromatic soup from the oven and saw the beautiful broth, deeply colored and flavored, I was pleased, but not entirely satisfied with the results. A zuppa traditionally is a soup that features bread; it is thick, and not too brothy. The soup fit the description--the bread had absorbed the juices and softened, but enough broth remained to keep the soup moist. There was a nice, light licorice flavor. The cheese was melted and, although the mozzarella clumped up a little, it enriched the soup.

Still, I’m not sure this is the finished version. The next time I make this soup I’ll drive along the coast to collect wild fennel. I will experiment with different cheeses that might provide more flavor and melt more effectively. Pecorino Sardo, a grating cheese, is becoming more available here and would provide more of the tangy flavor of the original cheeses. Also, I might shred the mozzarella instead of slicing it thinly to make it melt better.

Another time I might try slicing rather than dicing the Florentine fennel for a different texture and to see if it brings out more fennel flavor. I might soak the bread in a little milk to moisten it and to enrich the soup. Next time I’ll let the bread dry naturally, instead of toasting it, and use it in its more authentic form. As you can see, all kinds of subtle changes can make a difference.

The final step is to write it all down. At my word processor, as soon as possible after actually testing the recipe, I write, revise and refine the recipe. How will I describe the size of the chopped fennel pieces--small chunks or medium dice? How much sun-dried tomatoes? Are they best measured by the piece or by the cup? Should I give the exact size of the cooking vessel or just an approximation?

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For certain recipes, most notably in baking, exactitude is everything and no leaps of faith are admissible. But I know that with my style of cooking, a little leeway is desirable. I try to give as much information as needed while allowing the reader to make some personal choices. I think this helps promote real learning, since my goal is to teach someone how to cook, not just how to follow recipes. Some cookbook authors follow a paint-by-numbers method, detailing everything. I prefer a connect-the-dots approach where a few little leaps are allowed, and there is some room to breath. The balancing act is to supply all the crucial information and measurements necessary, yet give the recipe a living, breathing quality.

As the project takes shape, I might decide this recipe doesn’t fit, or that it conflicts with the overall feeling. But the process of experimenting with this idea was a learning experience and the finished book will be better for it, whether the recipe is actually included or not.

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The size of the baking dish is important, since it controls the degree of evaporation of the stock. In the method I also wanted to make sure the steps were efficient. For example, while the onion sautes, the fennel is trimmed, and while the soup simmers, the cheese is sliced and the bread toasted.

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FENNEL AND SUN-DRIED TOMATO SOUP 1 onion, cut into small dice 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley 8 basil leaves, chopped 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for garnish 1 1/2 pounds fennel, about 2 medium bulbs 1/4 cup drained chopped sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil Finely ground sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper 5 cups water 1/2 pound drained mozzarella in water 15 (1/2-inch thick) slices sturdy Italian bread, or enough bread to make (3 1/2-inch thick) layers that fit baking dish

In medium soup pot, saute onion, parsley, basil and fennel seeds in olive oil over low heat for about 12 minutes, or until onion is tender and lightly golden.

Meanwhile, trim fennel, reserving feathery tops and stalks. Remove tough strings and bruised areas on surface of fennel bulbs. Chop fennel bulbs into small chunks. Finely chop feathery tops.

Add chopped fennel bulb and tops, and sun-dried tomatoes to pot. Saute over medium heat for 5 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.

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Add 5 cups water and fennel stalks and bring to boil. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Thinly slice mozzarella.

Arrange bread slices on cookie sheet and toast at 400 degrees until bread is crisp and light gold. about 5 minutes on each side.

Remove fennel stalks from soup. Ladle 1/4 of soup into oven-proof pot or baking dish about 8 inches in diameter and 5 1/2 inches deep. Arrange 5 slices of bread in 1 layer over top, and 1/3 of cheese slices. Season with salt and pepper. Continue layering, ending with soup.

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Bake soup uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Only small amount of broth will remain since bread will absorb most of it.

Ladle soup into individual soup bowls, distributing broth evenly. Pour thin thread of olive oil over each. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

470 calories; 805 mg sodium; 46 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.32 gram fiber.

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