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Cookbook Trouble : A Soup Is Born

August 04, 1994|VIANA LA PLACE | Viana La Place's newest book is "Panini, Bruschetta, Crostini" (William Morrow: 1994). and

How do you create a recipe from the first spark of an idea? It's a combination of the mystical and the downright practical.

Recipes should not exist in a vacuum. Yes, it's exciting to taste new combinations of flavors and master techniques. But for me, the deeper goal is in making some kind of contribution beyond these momentary sensations. Though flavor brings joy to eating, there must be meaning beyond that. Does the recipe just involve measurements and flavors or does it speak to larger issues?

To begin writing, you must understand the mechanics of a recipe. When I was about to start work on my first book, I met with a cookbook editor. During my college years, I had cooked my way through all the cookbooks in the Berkeley Public Library and had a budding cookbook collection of my own, but I didn't know some of the most obvious things about how to write a recipe. She explained, for example, that you must list the ingredients in the order in which they appear in the method, the step-by-step part of the recipe. I remember thinking that couldn't possibly be the way they're listed. It must be in order of importance or quantity. At home, I looked in a cookbook and sure enough, she was right.

The writing that appears before the list of ingredients and method is called a headnote. But what goes into a headnote?

Should it simply describe the dish? The headnote is a very important part of the whole. It lures you into the recipe. You can explain why you find the idea so intriguing, point out an unusual technique, point out a slightly tricky part, make menu suggestions, or write about a specific ingredient, such as what to look for when buying Swiss chard, or the importance of buying organic lemons when using the rind. A headnote can also evoke a time and place or a mood.

To illustrate what goes into selecting an idea and writing a recipe, here is a look at the steps I took in writing a recipe for my upcoming book.

Because my family is from Sicily, where wild fennel grows abundantly, fennel holds a special place in my heart. When I was growing up in a Southern California suburb, my grandmother grew wild fennel in the back yard, probably purely for sentimental and ornamental reasons, since I can't remember tasting it as a child. Now, Florentine fennel, the fresh fennel variety sold in markets, has a tasty bulb, but its feathery tops do not possess much flavor. Wild fennel does grow along the California coast, but its availability is pretty restricted, meaning it would be unrealistic to call for it in a recipe.

I'd been intrigued for some time by a rustic bread soup from the Italian island of Sardinia that features wild fennel and sun-dried tomato. I thought that using the bulb of Florentine fennel and a sprinkling of fennel seeds might impart a flavor similar to the taste of wild fennel. Further, I thought I would finely chop the fennel tops of the Florentine fennel and add them to the soup for color. I would add the fibrous stalks to the broth for flavor, but remove them after the initial cooking of the soup.

The use of sun-dried tomatoes in this dish could be instructive, illustrating their traditional use as a cold-weather substitute for fresh tomatoes, as opposed to their more arbitrary--and often inappropriate--use as just another trendy ingredient. I'm interested in simple vegetable broths, and I thought the combination of fennel and sun-dried tomato would create a wonderfully full-flavored and richly colored broth.

Also interesting is the second cooking of the soup, where it is layered with country bread and fresh cheeses and baked in the oven, creating a satisfying one-dish meal. The recipe also illustrates the importance of the quality of bread needed for a soup such as this one. And I could point out how this sort of soup was a way of extending the life of stale bread and increasing the nutritional value of a dish. Dried bread could be used, since the broth would soften its texture.

I began testing the recipe by gathering the ingredients. I first checked to make sure the fennel seeds I had were fresh and strongly perfumed. I bought two fragrant, pearly white fennel bulbs with fresh feathery tops. I bought a high-quality brand of sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil (any other oil would spoil the taste of the soup). I bought a crusty loaf of bread from one of the many bread bakeries in my area.

I wanted the soup to have some of its original green color, so I bought bunches of Italian parsley and basil. Since the original dish has parsley and basil as part of the aromi --or background flavors--increasing their amounts keeps the spirit of the dish still intact, as long as the fennel flavor dominates. I purchased a dripping fresh mozzarella cheese. The original zuppa uses a combination of cheeses, some mild, some strong. I decided to start with a mild cheese so the flavor would not compete with the fennel.

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