This Chickpea Fennel Soup with Pesto is one of my family’s favorite soups, a cross between a pistou and a ribolatta, deeply flavorful, nourishing, and satisfying. It’s inspired by a soup in Ottolenghi’s Plenty Cookbook, the first of his books our family owned. The soup is enriched with a generous amount of white wine and fennel which both add complexity. At the table you garnish your bowl with pesto and homemade torn croutons, both easy to make. I’m happy making this soup on a regular rotation. During the recent blizzard in Southern California, a big batch of this soup made the evenings cozier.
You can buy pesto or make it at home. I generally make pesto without a recipe. I add basil, garlic, parm, nuts, olive oil, and a pinch of salt to a food process. After blending, I taste for flavor, and add more of something for balance. This time I used almonds because that’s what I had on hand. The classic pesto has basil and pine nuts, but pesto is essentially a sauce made from an herb or green leaf plus nuts, so you can experiment.
Note that in the original Ottolenghi recipe, he soaks the torn croutons in the soup pot for several minutes before serving so the bread thickens the soup. However, my family always serves the torn croutons at the table as a garnish for a little more texture.
chickpea fennel soup with pesto
2 large onions
2 fennel bulbs
2-3 large carrots
6 celery stalks
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups white wine
28-oz canned tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs
4 bay leaves
4 teaspoons sugar
6-8 cups light vegetable broth
salt and pepper
sourdough bread or a baguette
basil pesto, homemade or store-bought (1-2 cups basil leaves, 3-4 garlic cloves, parm or vegan parm, toasted pine nuts or almonds, few pinches of salt, few tablespoons of olive oil)
Quarter and thinly slice the onion and fennel. Add 6 tablespoons of olive oil to a large soup pot and heat on medium heat. Add the sliced onions and fennel and sauté for about 4-5 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare the carrots and celery. Peel the carrots. Cut them in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise. Slice the celery. Add the carrots and celery to the soup pot and cook another 4-5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and wine. Let simmer another minute or two.
Pour the canned tomatoes in a mixing bowl and blitz with a hand blender. Add the canned tomatoes to the soup pot, along with the chopped herbs, bay leaves, sugar, stock, and a little salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then let simmer about 30 minutes.
While you wait, make the torn bread croutons and pesto (if making homemade pesto). Break the bread into rough chunks with your hands. Toss them with a few tablespoons of olive oil and some salt. Scatter on a baking sheet and bake about 10 minutes at 350, either in the oven or toaster oven. Set aside.
If making pesto, combine pesto ingredients in a food processor. Taste and adjust for balance. I tend to add more nuts and less oil for a chunkier texture.
About 10 minutes before you want to serve the soup, drain and rinse the canned chickpeas. Place them in a big mixing bowl. Use a potato masher or wooden spoon to crush them somewhat. You’ll want some mashed and some whole. Add the crushed chickpeas to the soup pot. Leave to simmer about 5 more minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.
Ladle the hot soup into bowls. For each bowl, add several croutons and a few spoonfuls of pesto.
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