Thursday, June 15, 2006

Celery Soup

Mostly when people talk about a really memorable dish it comes from the mists of the past, often wrapped in childhood pleasures. Or else the choice will be something eaten whilst travelling, something foreign and indescribably marvellous. There's a lot to be said for those kind of favourites but often their defining characteristic is that they are now unrepeatable due to lacking the 'secret' knowlegde of the exact construction. And then sometimes you try a new dish now, in the present, and it so far surpasses expectations that it is a revelation, the very definition of delight. Such is this celery soup.

Celery is a hugely versatile vegetable in salads and casseroles, adding unique flavour and texture. Usually there in a support role adding depth and complexity, celery is seldom the star of the show - which is a shame. Right now there are bright green mounds piled high on the vegetable stalls of Borough Market, stiff ribs pointing north/south, traces of rich fenland soil clinging to the base. It's a perfect time to make this soup, its subtle delicacy just right at the end of a warm day, the rice making it substantial enough to be a main course with a little bread and cheese to follow. It comes from The Classic Food of Northern Italy, the marvellous book by Anna del Conte.

It is easiest to make the base one day and finish it the next. Then it will seem effortless.

Rice and Celery Soup

450g/1lb celery, preferably green as it has a stronger flavour than white
125g/4oz floury potato
2.2l/4pt stock - vegetable or chicken
4 tbspn olive oil
30g/1oz butter - unsalted if you have it
2 tbspn finely chopped onion
125g/4oz Italian rice, preferably Vialone Nano
freshly grated Parmesan

Remove the inside leaves from the celery. Wash, dry and chop them. Set them aside for the final touch. Remove the strings from the outer celery stalks with a potato peeler. Wash the stalks and cut half of them into pieces. Peel the potato and cut into similar pieces. Put both chopped vegetables into a heavy pot with half the stock and half the oil. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the vegetables are cooked. Whizz till smooth with a blender or food processor. This much can be done a day in advance.

Put the remaining oil, butter and onion into a clean pan and sauté for about 10 minutes. Cut the remaining celery into thin sticks, about 2.5cm/1in long and throw into the pan. Stir it around to insaporire (pick up the flavour) for 5 minutes. Add the celery and potato purée to the pot. Mix well and then pour in the remaining stock gradually, while stirring with the other hand to incorporate the purée into the stock. Bring to the boil.

Add the rice, give a good stir and let it cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Be careful here - it may need more stirring to prevent it sticking/burning.

Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with the reserved celery leaves and serve with grated Parmesan. Anna del Conte suggests 'Some people will love to add it' - I'm one of them.

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