Creamy Fennel and Leek Soup

Creamy Fennel and Leek Soup

Before living in Sicily, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a fennel bulb looks like, much less known what to do with it.  I knew of fennel seed, but had been turned off by its strong licorice flavor after encountering too many links of over-fennelized Italian sausage over the years.  Luckily, four years of eating delicious, well-seasoned salsicce in Sicily cured me of my fear of fennel seed.  But not only that, I was finally introduced to what has now become one of my favorite vegetables: fresh fennel.

Unlike the stronger-flavored fennel seed, the fennel bulb has just a hint of licorice.  In it’s raw form, it’s mild, crunchy, and just slightly sweet. And like other vegetables, the sweetness can be intensified through roasting.  Fennel has become much more common in American kitchens over the last several years, but if you’ve been hesitant about giving it a try, I heartily suggest you try some soon!  Fennel is in season and at its best from autumn through early spring, but you should still be able to find it now.

If you’ve never purchased or eaten fresh fennel, it might be a little intimidating.  Looking at it for the first time, I had no idea which part was supposed to be consumed.  Are you supposed to eat it raw?  If not, how do you cook it?  Well, that’s the great thing about fennel.  The whole thing is edible, from the white bulb to the feathery green fronds.  The bulb is delicious raw, especially in salads, but can also be sauteed, roasted, and even braised.  The green stalks can be chopped and added to stocks, soups and stews.  And the delicate fronds can be chopped and sprinkled over finished dishes, much like you would use any fresh herb.

While my favorite way to eat fennel is raw and thinly sliced in a salad, I recently decided to try using it in a soup.  One of my favorite soups in the world is my mom’s Potato Leek Soup, but with the onset of spring I’ve really been craving something lighter.  I knew I wanted to try a combination of fennel and leeks, but instead of adding potatoes as a thickener, I decided to make use of the head of cauliflower I found hiding in the bottom of my vegetable drawer.

It turned out to be a brilliant decision!  The cauliflower gave the soup some body, but didn’t overpower the delicate flavors of the fennel and leeks.  And since the soup is finished with whole milk rather than heavy cream, the soup has creamy flavor and texture, but still feels light.  It is a simple, delicious, and healthy soup that I think will appeal to kids and adults alike.

Creamy Fennel and Leek Soup

1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs (stalks removed), chopped
3 medium leeks (white parts only), sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium head cauliflower, chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock (or broth)
1-2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
kosher salt, to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste

1. In a large saucepan, melt butter in olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add onions, celery, leeks, and fennel and cook, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes, or until vegetables are softened and just starting to take on a bit of color.

2. Add the chopped cauliflower, the quart of stock, and enough water so that the vegetables are just barely covered with liquid (I added about a cup of water).  Turn up the heat, and bring the soup up to a simmer.  Cover, turn heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Remove pot from heat, and puree soup in the pot with an immersion blender. Alternately, you could puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor (make sure to let it cool first!) and then return the soup to the pot.

4. Add the milk, and season to taste with salt and white pepper.  Return to low heat and cook until the soup is warmed through, but don’t let it boil.  Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings

Recipe notes: You can reserve and chop the fennel fronds and use them to garnish the bowls of soup.  This is a very light soup as is, but you can make it even lighter by using milk with a lower fat percentage.  I personally feel that the soup will taste best using whole milk, but feel free to make it according to your own preference.  Alternately, if you want a creamier soup, you can substitute part or all of the milk with half and half or even heavy cream.  I used chicken stock in my soup, but it can easily be made vegetarian by substituting vegetable stock.

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37 Comments
  1. Kelly

    Yikes! That looks delish! I love leek soups. The flavor is mild and would match so well with fennel!

    11:10 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  2. Nick

    Looks excellent. I wonder if it would be any good chilled?? Might be kind of refreshing on a hot summer day.

    11:11 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  3. Amber

    Wow. That is a gorgeous photo, and it sounds delicious!!

    11:18 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  4. Nicole

    Kelly: Yes, the flavors are perfect together!
    Nick: I totally forgot to mention that the soup is really good chilled! I ate it cold the second day :-)
    Amber: Thanks!

    11:25 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  5. Gabi

    Nicole!

    Lovely recipe! Needs to try it!

    The thing is that every time I chop or slice fennel, it mysteriously disappears before I get to use it up!
    I blame my wife kids and… me!

    It is absolutely fabulous raw!

    Gabi.

    11:29 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  6. Ruby

    Looks so creamy and yummy, might have to try it!

    11:37 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  7. amanda

    i was lucky enough to get to eat this for myself and let me just say it was soooo good!

    11:43 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  8. Jeff

    Nice adaptation. Cauliflower like fennel is such a poor misunderstood vegetable but full of so many possibilities. Fennel just sliced for snacking is one of my favorite ways.

    Also, the picture looks amazing. How did you get the heart?

    11:59 am  Apr 24th, 2009
  9. leena!

    You know, I’ve always been afraid of using fresh fennel because I hate the black licorice taste it can sometimes get, but this recipe looks awesome. I love cauliflower in a soup–I will definitely be trying this one out!

    12:33 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  10. Jackie-amateurinthekitchen

    Will prepare this recipe this weekend for my husband. He will love it.

    12:38 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  11. Angela

    like you, I didn’t discover the wonders of fresh fennel until living in Sicilia. I will definitely have to try this soup! My favorite fennel use at the moment is a fennel and asparagus omelet that I learned to make at a cooking class at a Sicilian farm. If you want to give it a try saute up some onion, fennel and asparagus. In another bowl whisk eggs, grated parmigiano, and a bit of bread crumbs. Pour egg mixture over vegies, stir to mix and then let cook. Flip it after a few minutes so it cooks evenly on both sides. I have also made a version of this as a frittata. Delicious! Enjoy!

    3:11 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  12. Karina

    Nicole, this sounds scrumptious. Ive been making a vegan potato and leek soup this spring- but now I’d love to try adding fennel. Brilliant.

    3:14 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  13. GrilledShane

    Thanks for the great fennel lesson! I have heard of it, but as of you said, had no idea what to do with it. Fennel soup seems like a great idea!

    7:27 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  14. Sherrie

    Thanks for the recipe I will give this one a try. I’ve eaten fennel in lots of different ways but never in a soup.

    11:07 pm  Apr 24th, 2009
  15. teresa

    Hi! You have such a great website, thanks for all the delicious recipes!
    teresa

    9:33 am  Apr 25th, 2009
  16. Nicole

    Gabi: I know, I had to watch myself when chopping it up, pieces kept ending up in my mouth instead of the soup pot!
    Ruby: You should make it, would be a good way to trick the kids into eating veggies :-)
    Amanda: And you even tasted it cold, didn’t you?
    Jeff: To make the design on top of the soup, you can add a few drops of heavy cream, or in this case, yogurt thinned with a bit of milk. Just add a few drops (I used a squeeze bottle) on top of the soup and then quickly drag a toothpick through the centers of the white dots. That’s it!
    Leena: The licorice flavor wasn’t really present in the soup at all, but the fennel added a bit of sweetness and I could still detect it’s presence. I think you’ll like it :-)
    Jackie: Let me know what your husband thinks! :-)
    Angela: That omelet sounds wonderful and I have some beautiful asparagus in the fridge right now. I might have to run up to the corner market and buy another bulb of fennel this afternoon!
    Karina: I bet your potato leek soups are wonderful!
    Shane: Before you start cooking with it, you should buy a bulb, slice it, and try it raw as a snack or in a salad. It’s delicious! :-)
    Sherrie: I had never tried fennel in a soup either, but it was perfect in this one.
    Teresa: Thank you! I’m looking forward to putting up lots of new recipes over the summer!

    10:50 am  Apr 25th, 2009
  17. A&N

    did you plan on making those cream droplets heart shaped or was it a coincidence…looks lovely wither way!

    1:08 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  18. Elizabeth

    Nicole- that soup looks sublime. I love the hearts.

    9:48 am  Apr 27th, 2009
  19. Allen

    Your hearts on the top are to be admired … I’ve tried and failed so many times. Mine turn out looking like a mutant paisley design :-) The combo of leek and fennel sounds perfect — I like that you’ve lightened it up as well. It makes me a little sad since my dinner tonight is nothing nearly this good!

    I didn’t explore fresh fennel until I started using a local CSA who included it in nearly every weekly delivery. I used most of it raw but once included it in the filling for a shepherd’s pie — my life has never been the same. I love the subtle flavor the fennel gives and how much I enjoyed it with a creamy base.

    4:37 pm  Apr 27th, 2009
  20. ATigerintheKitchen

    I LOVE fennel — thanks for posting this! I just discovered your blog — spent 10 days in Sicily last year and just had a magical time. I wish I’d known about your blog before I left. I’ll be a regular reader from now…

    9:49 am  Apr 28th, 2009
  21. Charles Thompson

    That looks really delicious. Can’t wait to try it. Hope to meet you at the IFBC next month.

    8:32 pm  Apr 28th, 2009
  22. Giff

    love fennel, and so not surprisingly love the sound of this. And I also like the drops of yogurt for your presentation. beautiful!

    6:13 pm  Apr 30th, 2009
  23. Grace F

    This sounds so good! I’m not sure I can find fennel bulbs where I live, any substitutes?

    11:41 am  May 12th, 2009
  24. we are never full

    this really looks fabulous. i love, love, love fennel and can’t imagine my kitchen w/o it. this soup looks like the perfect spring lunch.

    6:56 pm  Jun 18th, 2009
  25. joe joe

    Where’s the celery go?

    6:44 pm  Sep 4th, 2009
  26. Nicole

    joe joe: Oooops! The celery gets cooked with the onions, leeks and fennel at the beginning. I’ll go back and edit the recipe now. Thanks for pointing out the mistake!

    6:47 pm  Sep 4th, 2009
  27. Denise

    I love fennel too so it sounded refreshing in this recipe. I made the soup, yum, but want to freeze some. Do you recommend doing this before I add the milk?

    10:32 am  Oct 2nd, 2009
  28. Misty

    Excellent, this is so yummy. Thanks for sharing your recipe! I used Romanesco instead of cauliflower and it was great. I think I might add garlic next time too.

    2:03 pm  Oct 28th, 2009
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