I have been trying out a new routine, searching for new footing for the first time in a few years. It’s not because of a New Year’s resolution, but because my gym shut down and with it, all the the classes in which I’ve made my home for years. When I discovered the gym on my own terms about four years ago, it led me toward an entirely different lifestyle. I don’t mean my forays into running here and there, but the total desire to work out, to understand that I have a body and not just a mind, to push myself as far as I physically can and then discover new depths. I had no idea that this was within my power. Since then, I’ve transformed myself, mind and body. I take joy in pavement pounding, lung burning, workout routines set to club music, 80s music and Justin Bieber. Bob Dylan, country ballads, fados and French love songs have their place, but not when I’m killin it. Working out is a release for my anxiety, fear, a way to connect with my strength and build up the fibers that stitch their way throughout my physical frame. It’s the one time during the day that is just for me. Any break in concentration on the task at hand will leave me out of step so I focus and remain present.
I’ve always been acutely aware that our time and place on this earth is tenuous and that kind of haunting sensitivity is anxiety-inducing. Pushing back and exerting myself allows me a tiny glimpse of invincibility. Relief, strength, poise, and mindfulness. Imagine making a routine of that. And from there discovering markets like Fairway and Whole Foods, specialty shops and smaller farmers markets on your way to and from this place. And from there discovering how to eat, how to cook, how to create. And so maybe I ascribe a little too much of my current life to the day I decided not to give up on the gym and to instead get up every week and do it like my job. Though the gym is closed, I now have the knowledge and drive to find a new routine. I’ve been taking new routes home, trying to find new markets, new classes, new times and a new routine. Whereas routine is a grounding force, breaking it is refreshing and freeing, even if jarring.
On my way home from one of these experiments I happened upon a Whole Foods I didn’t know was there and in it I found these gorgeous fennel bulbs. I knew just what I had to do. The heft in this soup comes from cannellini beans in a base of fennel and onions. The brightness comes from lemon juice and lemon zest. If you’re making this soup, you must make the pesto because therein lies its strength and flavor. The pesto is not just a supporting cast in this soup, it’s the star, the main bill, the thing that makes this work. Almonds, a hint of pecorino, refreshing mint, a little olive oil and more zest add a baseline of citrus, a subtle texture and almost all the flavor.
This soup is versatile. Slowly but surely turning the volume up on this or that to enhance a certain tone is key here. If you’re looking for a stronger flavor, you could add a dash of smoked paprika, but for the pure lightness, a little salt, pepper and lots of lemon is all it needs. Don’t like mint? Use cilantro or dill. When you reach perfect pitch, you’ll know. Because you’ll keep coming back. This is the backbones to cooking really. Taste and tune. Balance. Letting your tastes be the guide. And the subtle realization over time that this is nourishing you.
FENNEL & CANNELLINI BEAN SOUP W/ ALMOND, LEMON & MINT PESTO
For the Soup:
- 5 teaspoons olive oil, divided
- 3 cups sliced fennel bulb
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 2 1/2 cups water
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
- 1 (15 ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup pepitas, toasted (optional for topping)
For the Pesto:
- 1/2 cup almonds, toasted
- 3 tablespoons small fresh mint leaves
- zest 1 lemon, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons pecorino romano cheese, finely shredded
For The Soup:
Heat a dutch oven over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil; swirl to coat. Add fennel, onion, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook 10 minutes or until crisp-tender (do not brown), stirring occasionally.
Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 1/2 cups water, vinegar, lemon juice and beans. At this point you may want to add about 6 0r 7 turns of the pepper mill. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. At this point you can use a hand blender to blend it into a smooth soup you can use a regular blender. Do this by placing half of mixture in a blender. Remove center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape); secure blender lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in the lid (to avoid splatters). Blend until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Repeat procedure with the balance of the mixture.
For the Pesto:
Combine almonds, mint, zest, juice and cheese in a food processor and blend until crumbly.
Divide soup among 4 bowls; top with almond mixture and drizzle with remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Garnish with fennel fronds and mint. Add toasted pepitas if desired.