Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Basking in the Glow
What’s cooking? Creamy Lima Bean Soup

The Kitchen Goddess lost her mind recently and invited 40-some-odd people for gumbo last week. Now, I use the phrase “some-odd” here in the idiomatic sense – in fact, none of the people were odd. Okay, a few odd ones, but odd and lovable.

I revel in the planning phase of a party. What to serve, how to decorate the tables,... I can see the event unfold in my mind. But the mind is a funny place, and mine is festooned with light-hearted fantasies that include warp-speed movement in the kitchen, time-travel (as in “Beam me up, Scotty”) from one store to another, and a need to cook for about 20% more guests than will actually be there. Usually, about a week before the date, I start realizing what I’ve let myself in for, and then I also have to make time for a chiropractic appointment or two. My hubby calls this phenomenon “cumulative reality.”

I swear each time that the next one will be different. Less complicated. Ready earlier. But after all these years, I’m not sure I’m physically or mentally suited to that state people call either “simple” or “early.” In the end, I rely on my friends and relatives to forgive me my sins, and to have another hors d’oeuvre while I get the dinner on the table.

One of the really wonderful by-products to entertaining is that, for at least a couple of days after a party, you have all this good food to nosh on, and you don’t have to work to get it. So any energy you have left after the giant clean-up effort can be devoted to binge-watching last season’s episodes of NCIS, or whatever your particular brain candy. Moreover, the Kitchen Goddess is something of a whirlwind through the course of the party, and rarely gets much of anything at all to eat. And after a two-week marathon of cooking, the last thing I want to do is cook some more.

Even after the leftovers are gone, it still often takes me a couple of days to get energized for real cooking. What do I want in the meantime? Comfort food, which for me means one thing: soup.

For a soup that wraps a soft, warm blanket around your heart and stomach, you will not believe how easy this one is, and how little time it takes. Creamy without cream, hearty but not heavy, and gluten-free to boot. It’s one I increasingly rely on when the weather turns chilly. Eliminate the bacon and/or ham to make it vegetarian, and feel free to tweak the herbs for whatever flavor profile you prefer.

I ordered my fennel pollen online, from My Spice Sage
A Kitchen Goddess Note about Fennel Pollen

Fennel pollen appears to be a minor ingredient in this recipe. But appearances can be deceptive. True, you can make this soup without it, and the soup will not suffer, in the same way that the sky without a rainbow will not suffer. But the presence of the rainbow changes everything. And so it is with fennel pollen.

The fennel plant, which is native to Tuscany but also grows wild in much of California and other areas of the West Coast, produces a pollen that is sold as a spice in culinary specialty shops around the world. It has long been used in Italian cuisine, where it’s added to pastas, pestos, and white meat dishes such as pork, veal, and chicken. Although the primary flavor of the fennel bulb is licorice, the pollen carries a much more nuanced mix of flavors that convey a sweet, musty richness that reminds me more of curry. As little as a pinch of the stuff can add a mysteriously rich, savory flavor to anything from soups to roasts.

Fennel pollen has been gaining popularity in the U.S. since Mario Batali began to cook with it in the 1990s, and it’s now available in specialty spice stores, some high-end groceries, or online.  In an article for Saveur magazine, the award-winning food writer Peggy Knickerbocker wrote, “If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.” You’re welcome.

Creamy Lima Bean Soup

Inspired by a recipe in Gourmet magazine, September 1991

Serves 4-6.

4 thick-cut slices of lean bacon
4-5 ounces ham (in a single slab), diced
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 large rib celery, diced (about ¾ cup)
4 cups chicken broth
3 10-ounce packages frozen baby lima beans
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, or ½ teaspoon fennel seeds plus ½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup plain yogurt (2% or whole-fat) or cream (light or heavy)
½ cup dry white wine
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
Additional yogurt as optional garnish

In a large, heavy pot, on medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon to paper towels to drain. Add the ham to the bacon fat, and sauté briefly (for color). Remove the ham and reserve. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat, and reduce the heat to medium/medium-low.

Add in the onions and celery. Sauté 4-5 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the chicken broth, the lima beans, the fennel seeds (and pollen, if using), and the thyme. Simmer 10-15 minutes, until the beans are tender.

In a blender, purée half of the beans with about ½ cup of the broth. Return the purée to the pot and stir it into the rest of the soup, along with the yogurt or cream, the white wine, and the reserved ham. Heat just to a simmer and turn off the heat. Add salt and white pepper, adjusting seasoning to taste.

Serve immediately with a dollop of yogurt and crumbled bacon as garnish.

Kitchen Goddess note on reheating: This soup was wonderful the night I made it, but even better the next day, when the beans had soaked up even more of the broth, intensifying the creaminess. If it gets too thick, thin it out with extra chicken broth.


  1. I adore lima beans, and will have to make this soup. I'm hoping to convert my non-lima bean husband to a lima-lover!

    1. This should do it, Kay! And look around for some fennel pollen -- I bought mine online, but also saw some at Central Market.