I have always loved black licorice. Other kids would spit out the anisette sweet while I would sit, happily chewing as large a piece as I could find. I blame the Italian part of my ancestry; my 98 year-old grandmother still takes a swig of an anise and herb digestive when her stomach bothers her. This time of year licorice’s subtler, earthier older sister starts to fill the supermarket shelves and line the stands at the farmers’ markets–fennel. I love the vegetable, and I swear this soup will convert even the most avowed licorice haters.
Now, I do have a confession, one that the same grandma would most likely bury me at the bottom of a lake for (ok, not really, the only way that woman would ever kill anybody is by over-feeding them): I used to hate eggplant. I know, I know the phrase is sacrilege to my people–but it’s true. I only very recently came around to the vegetable, thanks to a fantastic baba ganoush that my mom developed, which made me reconsider my lifelong aversion to the purple egg. This recipe uses Japanese eggplant, which is smaller, has less seeds and thinner skin than the classic eggplant, making it easier to prepare–you can just slice the whole thing in half and cook it in a skillet instead of chopping it up or roasting it.
This soup balances the tart flavor of meyer lemons and the bitterness of the fennel with the earthy sweetness of glazed eggplant for a perfectly balanced bowl. If you have access to a farmers’ market that sells them, I highly recommend trying to get your hands on some fresh fennel seeds to garnish this dish–the springy quality of the pod provides a nice added texture to the soup (don’t substitute dried fennel seeds here, they will be too hard and make for a really unpleasant eating experience).
A final note: I have created a glaze for the eggplant using nerigoma–an ingredient that also appeared in my recipe for Vegan Tonkotsu with Watermelon Radish and Cranberry Beans. Nerigoma is a sesame seed paste found in most Asian supermarkets and is similar to tahini–it differs in that it is made from unhulled sesame seeds while its Mediterranean cousin is made from the hulled ones. In a pinch, you can substitute tahini for the nerigoma, although it will taste slightly different from the original recipe.
Caramelized Fennel Lemon Soup with Japanese Eggplant
2 tbsps. olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, chopped
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
pepper, to taste
1/4 cup white wine
juice from 1 Meyer lemon
3 cups vegetable broth
1 (15 oz) can cannellini beans, rinsed and dried
3 tsps fresh fennel seeds
1 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsps. white wine
1 tsp. nerigoma (this may be called “sesame sauce” at your local Asian market)
4 tbsps. vegetable oil
8 Japanese eggplants, cleaned and split in half
For the Soup: Heat the olive oil in a medium pot. Add the fennel and onion and cook over medium high heat until the vegetables start to brown, approximately 10 minutes. Add the sugar, salt and pepper and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture achieves a deep caramel hue, which should take an additional 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook for 5 minutes, until most of the liquid in the pot has evaporated. Add the cannellini beans, Meyer lemon juice and vegetable broth, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a slow simmer.
For the Eggplant: Whisk together the sugar, white wine and nerigoma and set aside. Brush the cut side of each eggplant with the vegetable oil until all of the oil has been absorbed by the eggplant. Heat a skillet over medium heat and place the eggplant cut side down. Cook about 3-4 minutes until the eggplant starts to brown. Flip the eggplant over and cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until done (you can test for doneness by squeezing the sides of the eggplant gently with tongs or your fingers, it should feel soft). While the eggplant is cooking spoon the wine and nerigoma mixture over the cut side of the eggplant. Once done, flip the eggplant over and cook for 30 seconds to one minute, to caramelize the glaze.
To Serve: Divide the soup among three bowls. Top with the eggplant and 1 tsp. fresh fennel seeds. Makes 3 servings.