Vegetable soups can be as boldly flavored as any meaty alternative. At Milk Street we take inspiration from around the world to add richness and flavor, and we get wonderfully creamy results without overloading the soups with dairy. Puréed fennel adds an herbal depth to our Italian white bean soup, while toasted barley and dried cranberries bring both flavor and texture to a traditional Persian comfort food, made tangier with just a bit of sour cream. And fresh ginger brightens an Indian red lentil soup that’s naturally thickened by the legume’s starch.
Creamy Fennel and White Bean Soup
Makes 4 servings
Fennel — both the fresh bulbs and the dried seeds — is under-appreciated for the savory-sweet, slightly anise flavor it adds. Paired and puréed with white beans to form the base of this hearty soup, fennel adds a dimension to what otherwise could be flat and boring. For contrast, as well as a smoky-savory counterpoint, we top the soup with crisped bacon. Chopped fresh chives and a squeeze of lemon juice finish it with freshness. Warm, crusty country bread is the perfect accompaniment.
Don’t fill the blender more than a third of the way with the hot soup mixture; hot liquids tend to splash out when the blender is turned on. To help prevent this, remove the cap from the blender lid and cover it tightly with a kitchen towel. Start the blender on low and gradually increase the speed.
8 ounces bacon, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, finely ground
3 15 1/2-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained, divided
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4-inch sprig fresh rosemary
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
Lemon wedges, to serve
In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot.
Add the onions, fennel, garlic, and ground fennel seeds to the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Measure out 1½ cups of the beans and set aside. Add the remaining beans to the pot along with the broth, rosemary, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove and discard the rosemary sprig. Let the soup cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Transfer about 1/3 of the soup to a blender. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and purée until smooth. Transfer it to a large saucepan, then repeat with the remaining soup and oil, working in batches. Add the reserved beans and heat over medium-low, stirring, until the soup is warmed through, about 10 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve drizzled with oil and sprinkled with the bacon and chives, with the lemon wedges on the side.
Persian Barley-Vegetable Soup
Makes 4 servings
Toasting the barley may not be traditional, but we find it’s an easy way to subtly enhance the soup’s flavor and aroma. We use quick-cooking barley, which resembles rolled oats, rather than the more common pearled variety. This allows the dish to be on the table in less than 45 minutes. The dried cranberries may seem like a curious addition, but they add welcome tartness and color and are good stand-ins for the traditional but hard-to-find barberries.
Don’t stir the sour cream directly into the soup; tempering it with the hot liquid ensures it won’t curdle. Also, don’t use reduced-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt in place of regular sour cream. Greek yogurt separates when stirred in and reduced-fat sour cream lacks the proper richness.
Be sure to use the small holes of a box grater to finely shred the carrots.
2/3 cup quick-cooking barley
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 medium carrots, peeled and finely shredded
1 medium leek, dark green top discarded, white and light green parts finely chopped, rinsed and drained
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
5 tablespoons chopped dried cranberries, divided
¼ cup sour cream, plus more to serve
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Chopped fresh dill, flat-leaf parsley, or mint, to serve
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, toast the barley, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes, then transfer it to a small bowl. Set the pan over medium heat and add the oil, carrots, leek, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the turmeric and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the broth and barley. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium-low, cover, and cook, stirring
occasionally and adjusting the heat to maintain a simmer, until the barley is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Off the heat, stir in 3 tablespoons of the cranberries.
In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and 1/3 cup of the soup, then slowly whisk this mixture back into the soup. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir in the lemon juice.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Ladle into bowls and serve, passing sour cream, the chopped herb of your choice, and the remaining cranberries on the side.
Red Lentil Soup With Coconut Milk and Spinach
Makes 6 Servings
Fresh ginger brings a brightness to the soup, and adding a portion of it at the end keeps the flavor vibrant.
If you can’t find ground fennel, grind whole seeds in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
Don’t substitute brown or green lentils for the red lentils. Red lentils break down as they cook, thickening the cooking liquid and providing the ideal texture for the soup.
2 tablespoons coconut oil or peanut oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
3 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger, divided
2 teaspoons yellow or brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground fennel
¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes
14-ounce can coconut milk
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
6 ounces (about 6 cups) baby spinach, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
Unsweetened shredded coconut and chopped tomato, to serve (optional)
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the oil, onion, garlic, and 1½ teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion has softened and is just beginning to color, about 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in 2 teaspoons of the ginger, the mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander, fennel, and red pepper flakes.
Cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 3½ cups water, the coconut milk, and lentils, then bring to a boil. Reduce to low, cover, and simmer, stirring once or twice, until the lentils have broken down, 30 to 40 minutes.
Stir in the spinach and return to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add the remaining 1 teaspoon ginger and the lime juice. Taste and season with salt. Serve, sprinkled with shredded coconut and tomato, if using.
Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to email@example.com.