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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Cooking with David Tanis

By Bonnie S. Benwick

Fennel Soup With a Green Swirl. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; tableware from Crate and Barrel)

No tattoos. Doesn’t seem too picky about equipment, doesn’t have a Web site. Lightning-fast chopping, not so much. Likes to shop.

David Tanis doesn’t fit the profile of a famous chef, but he’s a natural star in the kitchen. That became clear during the few hours I spent with him at The Post last week, as he prepared today’s Dinner in Minutes pork dish and the Fennel Soup With a Green Swirl, pictured above.

Recipe Included

Tanis is head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., for about half the year, and spends the rest in Paris, in good company. “It’s the rainy season, but there are oysters and cassoulet,” he says. Food writers envy his arrangement and wrangle invitations to his occasional underground supper club. I hope the rigorous book tour he’s on for "Heart of the Artichoke" (Artisan) helps Tanis become more of a household name, because his kind of cooking is such a good fit for home cooks: simple, clean, traditional and executed well.

“It’s nicer to eat at home,” he said as he began prepping fennel bulbs for the soup. (Another thing your above-average restaurant chef might not be so quick to publicize.) Tanis would love to see Americans use the vegetable more often: “It’s sweet when it’s fresh. So delicious.”

Chef David Tanis. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Working at a relaxed but efficient pace, he removed the stems and saved the fennel fronds for the green swirl part of the recipe. Soon, fennel, onion and garlic were sautéing in olive oil, increasing their natural sweetness as they collapsed into each other. He seasoned the mixture and added the rice, as a thickener, and broth. While the soup components simmered in the pot, he sampled them several times. “You have to taste all the time,” he says. “A lot of home cooks don’t.” The chef pureed the fennel fronds, parsley, basil and scallions with enough olive oil to make the green swirl glossy and smooth.

He pureed the soup next, in batches in the blender. He does not like the texture produced by an immersion (stick) blender; in general, he’s not a gadget guy. In his kitchen at home, he eschews the food processor and dishwasher, although he’s decided a powered spice grinder would be good to have on hand.

This rendition of his recipe did not have the pale, almost green color of the recipe’s accompanying photo in "Artichoke," shot in natural winter light by Christopher Hirsheimer. We used a store-bought chicken broth; Tanis read the label and figured the culprit was the amount of mushroom essence it contained. A vegetable broth or clearer homemade chicken stock would make the soup prettier, but he didn’t mind its beige color.

Because fennel can be fibrous, he always strains this soup back into the pot for seasoning and reheating. With a portion ladled into a bowl, he spooned in the green swirl, pleased with the way it would look for the photo. Its grassy, herby aroma goes so nicely with the savory sweetness of the soup. It took just under 30 minutes -- chit-chat included.

I'm looking forward to cooking my way through this book and the next to come, chef.

By Bonnie S. Benwick  | December 8, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chefs, Recipes  | Tags:  Bonnie S. Benwick, chefs, recipes  
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