Monday 17 August 2009

Shopping, Sylvia and Soup

I am not that familiar with fennel. I know it is good in cassoulet but that it is not welcome in salads in our house. So when I saw a recipe for Fennel and Brown Rice Soup with Toasted Sourdough Bread and Ricotta in Karen Martini’s cooking column of the weekend newspaper a week ago, I was curious. It looked really good and I was determined to try it.

A potato bake was on our dinner plates most of last week but by Friday I was able to use the fennel I had bought for the soup. After a downpour of rain dampened my washing the previous day, it was great to have a glorious sunny winter’s day. Zinc, our sun worshipper cat, thought it was marvellous and it was impossible to get her indoors. She sat in the garden watching as we drove off to the shops.

Sylvia and I were off doing more gift shopping because my parents are heading off to Europe tonight and we wanted a few gifts for when they visit my in-laws. We ended up in the poppy shop on Lygon Street. I love visiting the poppy shop which greets us with colourful windmills and has lots of old-fashioned wooden toys, cheerful cuddly toys and quirky gifts as well as lovely soaps, games and greeting cards. It is always full of wonder.

A woman behind the counter asked Sylvia’s name and when I told her she sang ‘Who is Sylvia?’ My mum has sung this song before so I decided to look it up on the web. I am not sure if this is the song but I found a Shakespeare poem which was put to music by Schubert. The spelling might not be the same as ours but I love the sentiment so I thought it was worth sharing.

Who is Silvia?

Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admirèd be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being helped, inhabits there.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.

William Shakespeare

I have a theory that the Sylvia song that people mention gives away their generation. My mum’s generation had ‘Who is Sylvia?’ (which is also the alternate title to an Edward Albee play). Those who are a little older than me have sung ‘Sylvia’s mum’ by Dr Hook. But for me the song that instantly comes to mind is Pulp’s ‘Sylvia’. However, I am yet to hear anyone mention ‘Sylvia’ by Elvis Presley.

But I digress. The poppy shop is just around the corner from Threshermans Bakery. I went there to get some donuts for E and found a loaf of chewy ciabatta for a bargain $2 on the sale table. It was just the thing I needed to serve with my soup.

When cooking the soup I was worried the aniseed taste of the fennel might be too dominant but once it was ready the flavours were gentle and almost meaty. I wanted a bit more protein so I added the tin of lentils, and I also used up some mashed potato left over from the boston bun. I used far less oil than the 130ml in the recipe.

I only had a little ricotta so I added some parmesan cheese, but it was so tasty that I think it would be good without cheese. The ciabatta was wonderful for soaking up the lovely flavours. In fact on the second night I toasted the bread, tore it up and scattered it over the soup like croutons. However, it would make a substantial gluten free dinner without bread.

So good. So tasty. I will look forward to making this again.

Fennel Lentil and Rice Soup
Adapted from Karen Martini, Sunday Life in The Age, 9 August 2009
Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1 brown onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 large fennel bulb, diced
1 tsp fennel seeds, ground
1 cup brown rice
½ cup mashed potato (optional)
1 bay leaf
1.5 litres vegetable stock
400g tin brown lentils, rinsed and drained
½ bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tbsp ricotta
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
good bread to serve (I used ciabatta, Karen used sourdough)

In a large stockpot, heat olive oil. Fry onion, garlic, celery, carrot, fennel and fennel seeds over medium heat for about 15 minutes until vegetables are soft. Add brown rice, stock, mashed potato and bay leaf. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add lentils and simmer an additional 10 minutes or till rice is cooked and the soup has thickened. Stir in parsley, ricotta and parmesan. Remove bay leaf and serve with bread.

Update August 2013 - made this as in recipe but added an extra 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup red lentils, 1/2 a cauliflower and a zucchini.  I didn't have leftover mashed potato so I added a potato instead. Still lovely.

On the stereo:
John Denver’s Greatest Hits


  1. What a lovely poem! There will be lots of songs for dewey-eyed young men to sing to Sylvia when she's grown up :)

    What a tasty sounding soup. I struggle a bit with fennel so it's good to have another recipe to add to my collection. I've been interesting in cooking rice in soup recently as well, and this sounds like a thumbs up on that count too.

  2. So this is the rice you have been talking about! yay to fennel and another must-try recipe!

  3. Sounds delicious. And how wonderful that Sylvia has so many songs devoted to her name!

  4. Thanks Lysy - sylvia is not a common name now but I am amazed how often it is encountered in history and literature - highly recommend the soup as a great way to enjoy fennel

    Thanks Anh - am sure you will enjoy it

    Thanks Ricki - it is surprising how many songs there are for our Sylvia :-)

  5. Well, I'm chuffed you liked the fennel! Something happens to the aniseed flavour when it caramelises in the pan.

    Martini always uses waaaayyyy too much oil. Even for me. Love your additions.

    Dr Hook, eh? I remember that song from the 70's...most amusing!

  6. Thank you very much, Johanna, for your comment.

    I'm glad you like our blog Qué he hecho yo para cocinar esto, in english it would be "What i did to cook this".

    I'm sorry for the languaje. We use some spanish words that are difficult to translate. We'll try to write a mini-english version of the recipes.

    And thank you for your fantastic musical-cooking blog!


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