Monday, April 14, 2008

Pale and Elegant: Leek and Flageolet Soup

Signs of autumn are slow to arrive in these parts. The vine covered fence a few doors down has turned a significant shade of deep crimson and here and there along the path lie amber-coloured leaves. The light has changed direction as it passes through the kitchen window, presenting a new set of shadows to work with and outside the sunlight is noticeably weaker, washier, on still-bare arms. After months of dry air and earth, my eyes are craving pale, elegant greenery as the season, grudgingly, shifts. Avocado on toast, steaming pots of peppermint tea and handfuls of parsley in everything.

Capturing green in all its subtle, lush shades was difficult in the harsh summer months. But in autumn the light becomes softer, more malleable. Refreshed by cooler days and a little much-needed rain, the herbs are again flourishing. The French tarragon in particular has gone mad. With a snaking root system of rhizomes, tarragon was thought in the Middle Ages to be a cure for snake bites. Can’t say exactly how effective it is given the nature of deadly snakes found in this part of the world. I doubt a sprig or two would do anything to stop the flow of powerful venom. White Magic, on the other hand, suggests it to be protective and calming, relaxing guests and warmly welcoming them into the home. This I am far more willing to believe. It's a licorice-scented herb, one I surprisingly love. The merest hint of that bitterness is all that’s required in a dish - too much and the spicy punch of bitter, characteristic of the Wormwood Family, will be all pervading. Use it instead with a light, knowing hand.

Eating alone presents its own set of pleasures. Alone, I can nab the big white armchair for myself and spread out the way that the men around here often do. Possess the entire space if I please. Alone, I can cook whatever I like. And alone, more often than not, that means soup. Something herbal and creamy. Flageolet beans and leeks paired with the aniseed touch of fresh tarragon. Something elegant, in a soothing shade of pale.

Leek and flageolet soup with tarragon – feeds 3-4

The smoked paprika croutons are just right here, bringing a playful, spicy balance to all that pale elegance. A spoonful of crème fraiche is good, very good in fact, but really just gilds the lily. Beans can take an age to reach tenderness. This is easily gauged by crushing one against the roof of your mouth. Even the slightest resistance? Back to the heat.

¾ cup of dried flageolet beans, soaked overnight
3 leeks, trimmed, keeping only 5cm (2 inches) of greenery
Olive oil and/or butter
6 cloves of garlic
1 large carrot, halved lengthways
Large handful of parsley, chopped
2 sprigs of tarragon, leaves only, chopped
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
2 bay leaves
Sea salt and pepper
4-5 slices of crusty bread
¼ - ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
1/3 cup of dry white wine
Palmful of tarragon, leaves plucked from the stalks, to serve

Drain beans. Place in a saucepan, cover with fresh water and bring to a rolling boil. Bubble furiously for 10 minutes, skimming off any scum. Drain, rinse, and set aside.

Halve the leeks lengthways, keeping the root end in tact. Fan the leaves out in water to give them a thorough clean. Shake dry and slice thinly. Peel the garlic, halve and flick out the green shoots – the autumnal shoots of garlic are indigestible and nastily bitter.

Warm 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-based pot. Add the most of leeks, holding back a handful for the garnish, then add the garlic, carrot and herbs. Sweat gently, lid on, for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, add the beans and 1½ litres (6 cups) of water. Bring to a boil, pop the lid on and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 1½-2 hours, or until the beans have almost collapsed (see head note). You may need to add a cup of water from time to time - keep checking. Discard the carrot and bay leaves. Remove 2 cups of the soup and puree. Return the puree to the pot, add salt and lots of pepper to taste. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, cut away and discard the crusts from the bread. Dice roughly. Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and when hot, add the bread. Stir for about 5 minutes, until golden all over and then toss in the paprika. Cool on a plate.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the same frying pan, and add the remaining handful of leeks and the wine. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, spoon a small pile of the wine-braised leeks into the centre of each and sprinkle with tarragon. Pass the croutons at the table.

This goes out to Susan, The Well Seasoned Cook, this week’s host of Kalyn’s Weekend Herb Blogging.


Suganya said...

White Magic is something I have to look up. I find tarragon a little strong. But then, I may need some getting used to.

Ricki said...

What an intriguing soup! I love tarragon, but have had it mostly in salads. Lucy, your photos are so gorgeous they make me want to run out and take a photography course! (Oh, and I guess I'd have to buy a new camera, too).

The description of autumn over there sounds wonderful (though I can't imagine daily living among deadly snakes!!).

Kalyn said...

Wow, so many of my favorite flavors here, especially tarragon, garlic, leeks and parsley! Sounds fabulous.

Wendy said...

I'm at the other end of the year but am also looking forward to greenery.
Don't do tarragon but love a leek soup. :)

Lisa said...

Smoked paprika croutons? Oh yes. Perfectly sublime.

kathryn said...

Oh such a lovely, lovely recipe Lucy. And paprika croutons - inspired. I so rarely use tarragon - in my mind it's inextricably linked to a chicken dish I used to cook. In the pre-vegetarian days. I should revise that thought.

I have a huge, huge vat of soup cooking slowly on the stovetop. All the leftover vegetables from the week, red lentils, fresh chilli, barley and a good whack of dried oregano. The house is smelling gorgeous. Meals for the next couple of days, plus plenty of fuel for the freezer.

It almost makes me glad autumn is here.

KayKat said...

Mmm ... delicious. Flageolet beans are such a hit. I really like the tarragon touch :)

Susan said...

Tarragon, love her delicately long curved fingers. This soup bridges the seasons so beautifully - that pop of paprika and heaven-lit leeks...Thanks for this elegant and sublime recipe for WHB. (We'll have to stir the pot again for St. Pat's Day; see what it can really do about those snakes. : D)

Mansi Desai said...

wow, that looks beautiful! I have yet to cook with leek:)

Simona said...

I am on my second try with tarragon: will see what happens. I have never had flageolet beans and would like to try. I love leeks, so I am sure I will make this recipe: thanks!

Anonymous said...

This sounds so wonderful, and so Autumn. It is still warm'ish here on most days - 24C tomorrow - so I am resisting surrendering summer and moving into Autumn still. Yet the weekend saw me bringing out the soup cookbooks.

When I do adopt Autumn finally, this soup will definitely be one of the first to be made.

winedeb said...

With a bit of a chill here today, which I can hardly believe this time of year, your soup would be perfect! Tarragon has such a pungent aromoa! Love it with chicken also, but sounds marvelous in your soup. What a way to give it some personality!

Laurie Constantino said...

Elegant indeed, and looks to be just loaded with flavor. I especially like the paprika croutons - their color and flavor add a lot.

Carson said...

How interesting about tarragon!
I love a good leek, that soup is going on the list :)

Johanna said...

I love that you manage to get in beautiful photos of both green and gloomy! Soup looks lovely - I love eating soup when eating solo too - it is something that can be relaxingly unimpressive and comforting - but you manage to do impressive and comforting!

Lucy said...

Ah, Suganya, White Magic is just good old fashioned Western healing really. Tarragon is strong, quite overpowering if used in large amounts, but a little is a very good thing.

Ricki, I'm just lucky with a) the light and b) the hemispehere in which I live! You know, my dad used to find Red Belly Black Snakes under out house growing up and while they are poisonous, they're not the most lethal by a long shot...

It's light and very green, Kalyn. Glad to have found another tarragon fan.

Yes, Wendy, well you will be desperate to see signs of greenery by this stage, no doubt!

Lisa, they're rather good here. Can't get enough smoked paprika myself.

Kathryn, tarragon's a bit like rosemary in veg cooking, isn't it? A distinctive, strong flavour that can be overpowering. I associate it with roasted chooks, too. Personally I'm thrilled by autumn's arrival. Love me a bit of winter cooking.

Thanks Kaykat - my Flageolet's were very, very old. I think the French keep the best ones for their own pots, thus the long simmering time here!

Susan, she's a pretty shade of cool green, tarragon. Having been warned incessantly by herb books to avoid the "Russian" varieties, I nursed this little plant home in my bag on the plane coming back from Sydney once. I love it - it's so hardy. Thanks for hosting this week - look forward to your usual eloquent work!

Mansi, get cooking, I say - you'll find lots of uses for them, I'm sure.

Simona, tarragon does take a little getting used to, but set against soft and creamy, it's a good and very fresh-tasting addition.

Vegeyum, it's just not quite there yet, is it? I'm loving the cooler nights, though I'm sad to see those summer fruits gone.

Deb, I remember making a lovely tarragon butter to put under the skin of a ready-to-roast chook once and the fragrance as it cooked was just divine. Perfect for one another!

Croutons, Laurie, I love 'em.

Carson, love me some leek soup, too. Imagine getting bitten by a Brown Snake and grabbing the herbs!! Must have been nice little snakes in Medieval Europe is all I can say...

Johanna, the boys around here just don't consider soup to be a 'real meal'. I do and love the stuff!