When I lived briefly in England, more than ten years ago now, I used to love a wonderful Carrot & Coriander soup. It was bright and light and warm, like spring and fall in the same bowl. And it was everywhere: in the pub, at the sandwich shop, in cartons in the grocery store. And everyone made it well. At least, in my memory they did.
I miss it, on and off. I never see it on menus over here. I never see it in recipe books. I don’t know why my carrot soup hasn’t translated, when potato & leek is so common but so much less interesting. Eventually, I decided I’d better make it myself, and I learned why it’s not so common: it’s not as simple a soup as it seems! But if you’ve bought a bunch of carrots so that your child can use ONE as a snowman’s nose or a treat for the Easter Bunny – and either is possible, given the weather we’ve been having – this is what you should do with the rest of the bunch to assure yourself that spring is indeed just around the corner.
As I was buying the carrots for this recipe, not at the farmers’ market because it’s still too cold for that here in central PA, but at the local grocery store, the clerk commented on the beauty of the young carrots with their green leafy tops. “And it seems like everyone’s buying carrots,” she added.
“Oh, it’s the season for them,” I said, somewhat abstracted. “Easter,” I added vaguely, meaning, “Spring.”
She was free-associating. “I love bunnies.”
And because I wasn’t really paying attention, I ALMOST said, “Fricasseed?” It’s the only way I’ve ever been served bunnies.
At its best, Carrot & Coriander soup is a well-balanced vegetable puree: not too sweet, not too spicy, not too earthy, not too acid. Just right. But as I searched out recipes I was reminded (by the Google results) that another popular British carrot soup is Carrot & Orange. And I thought, coriander, orange, hm…
And then Adam told me that he was imagining a carrot soup with cumin and orange peel.
Well, the cumin is all wrong for the soup of my memory, but the orange is all right. So orange is IN. (As in, inauthentic, but in this soup.)
As for preparation, I felt a certain resistance to the British tendency to boil everything until the parts are indistinguishable from the whole. My first impulse was to roast the carrots. And roasting your vegetables is so trendy these days – it was an easy thought. It was on the tip of my tongue. Roasting. But roasting is for earthiness, for sweetness, for concentration of flavor and carmelization of sugars… and those aren’t the characteristics of the soup of my memory. So, no roasting.
Once these questions of technique and seasoning had been dealt with, I made soup. I used three pounds of carrots, because I was going to LOVE this soup.
Or so I thought. There were some warning signs: my homemade vegetable stock was too strong, too mushroom-y. I’d timidly squeezed my oranges instead of zesting them. But I think the real problem was the carrots. See how big those chunks of carrot are? It took a little while to cook all that down to softness, and at the end, my soup tasted… well… very cooked. And hearty, and satisfying, and all that. But hearty wasn’t what I was aiming for. I wanted bright springtime soup, and I got a good heavy autumn one.
“I need to adjust the recipe,” I said to B. “I need to buy more carrots.”
“I think it needs to have a brighter flavor. More coriander. I’m going to try some orange peel.”
“You mean you’re going to make it AGAIN?”
“Well – I want to make it better. I’m writing a blog post about it.”
“Can’t you just say it came out fine?”
There was a pause in the conversation as I struggled with my temper. I won. “The recipe needs to be right. In case someone else wants to make it.”
“They probably won’t,” said my husband, the optimist.
But just in case you do, allow me to assure you that the second batch worked out very well, and I have recorded it faithfully here.
This recipe is very malleable. I mauled several others to get to it, in fact. Begin with some amount of carrots, whatever you have, and adjust the proportions accordingly. I wrote the recipe for 1 pound of carrots, which will make, oh, three bowls or so.
So, per 1 pound of carrots, have on hand…
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1 medium onion
- 1 clove of garlic, smashed
- 1 generous tablespoon of ground coriander
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 small waxy potato
- half of a Granny Smith apple
- 1 orange, zested and juiced
- vegetable broth to cover and a bit more
- salt to taste
A note on the ingredients is called for, and one on the preparation. Firstly, I used up all my homemade vegetable stock making the first batch of soup, and I didn’t have the scraps on hand for more. (Or the time.) But I hadn’t liked that stock in the soup, anyway; I make a mushroomy vegetable stock, and it had too much flavor for this application. So I bought two boxes of stock at the store, and brought them home to taste in true scientific fashion.
Lesson: do not drink them plain. Awful. Once I’d microwaved them for 30 seconds, they were palatable for sipping.
I’d chosen a Culinary Vegetable Stock and an Organic Vegetable Broth, both by Wegmans, and I had no expectations for them. But the organic one was much, much tastier: cleaner, fresher, more vegetal. Clear win. I might even start stocking that broth in my pantry, for emergencies like this one.
Secondly, I think that my technique made a small but meaningful difference to this batch of soup. I had decided that the carrots would cook more quickly, and thus taste fresher, if they were cut in smaller slices. For speed, I used a mandoline. (And once the mandoline was coming out anyway, I just cut everything with it.) See the difference in the pot?
Otherwise, it’s the standard soup-making technique: soften the onions in the butter, toss in the garlic clove, and then add the coriander and give it a good stir to let it bloom. When it smells good – and if it doesn’t smell good enough, if the scent of buttery toasting coriander doesn’t make your eyes roll back into your head with pleasure, add more coriander. Or more butter. When it smells good, start adding the broth, the potato, and the apple. I did peel the potato and the apple, but peeling carrots for soup is just a waste of time. Be sure the broth gives the vegetables a bit of room to move around. Squeeze in the orange juice and add – this is important – about 1/3 of an orange worth of zest, max. I know that’s imprecise, but I’ve always found measuring fresh zest to be imprecise. Err on the side of sparing, because the orange zest will be more assertive than the coriander. Salt again as it suits you.
Simmer gently until the vegetables are soft, 15-20 minutes, and then puree. If it’s too thick, add a bit of water or broth. You can eat it immediately or wait a day for the flavors to ripen, but when you do eat it, it’s lovely with a swirl of crème fraiche or Greek yogurt, a little fresh coriander leaf (cilantro), and a slice of good bread with a bit of sharp cheese. We’ll leave the Sandwich of My Nostalgic Imaginings for another post.