I know, I know, I just got back from Paris. The traveling itch should be scratched. But I can't help it. I'm already thinking about the next thing I'd like to do, which is go to Morocco. Morocco! Land of couscous and camels and souks and deserts. I have sand in my shoes, I guess. But it's not my fault. I'm blaming it all on this soup.
This soup! So unassuming. So simple. And yet. With just one spoonful, something steals over you. A strange and piercing Wanderlust, almost impossible to battle with. You close your eyes and as you eat, you feel yourself transported to a cool, tiled courtyard, with a tiny fountain babbling quietly and the scent of rose petals in the air. It was all I could do, once my spoon scraped the bottom of my bowl, to keep myself from booking a flight, right then and there, to Morocco.
I don't know about you, but I find this happens often with Moroccan food. Good Moroccan food, I guess I should say. There's something transporting about it. It's familiar, in a way: the ingredients seem regular enough. But there's always something a little exotic about the combination of spices or flavorings that makes me feel like I'm having the most special meal. I can't really explain it any better than that. Call me bewitched.
The recipe comes from Florence Fabricant's Pairings column (which I'm having success after success with, deliciously) and is as close to fast food as fine home cooking gets. Cheap? Check. Speedy? Check. Delicious? Oh, ho ho ho. Check.
All you have to is whip up a simple soup (fry an onion and cumin in olive oil, add a bunch of peeled, chunked carrots, boil, puree, done). Then you purée that into a smooth soup, and add fresh lemon juice. The lemon juice truly is an Oscar-winning supporting actor here. Without its bright acidity, the soup would meander off into rather boring territory. If you wanted to stop cooking here, you could. All you'd need to do is fold in the chopped cilantro, drizzle over a bit of olive oil and you'd be done. Served hot or cold, the soup is a minimalist triumph.
If you find you need a little something something in your soups in order to be happy, quickly steam some mussels. Strain their fragrant juice into the soup, and mix the shucked mussels - plump and sweet and only $5.99 for 2 whole pounds at Whole Foods right now - with the cilantro and olive oil. A spoonful of these at the bottom of each soup plate, surrounded then by the carrot soup, is quite something.
I can already tell that the carrot soup (without the mussels) is going to be a regular in my kitchen. Which makes me wonder at how far I've come. Just a few years ago this post would have been filled with whinging about how the cilantro was a nightmare and how I simply had to replace it with flat-leaf parsley. Not anymore. Florence is right: you can make this soup without the mussels, but you cannot make it without the cilantro. The alchemy of the sweet carrots, bright lemon juice, cumin and cilantro is truly magical: as you eat, you taste all these things and more: flowers, earth, cross my heart.
Cilantro-haters, don't fear. If I could become a convert, I who used to compare that green stuff to rat poison, so can you. All it took for me was one trip to Mexico. Maybe all you need is a trip to Morocco. If so, can you let me know? I want to come, too.
Moroccan Carrot Soup with Mussels
Serves 6 as a first course
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 bunches carrots, peeled, in 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1 pound mussels, scrubbed
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
1. Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add onion. Cook over low heat until starting to soften. Stir in cumin, cook briefly, stirring. Add carrots and 6 cups water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, until carrots are very tender, about 20 minutes. Cool briefly. Purée in a blender in two batches. Return soup to saucepan, season with salt and pepper and add lemon juice. Set aside until shortly before serving.
2. Place mussels in a shallow 2-quart saucepan or sauté pan. Add 1/2 tablespoon oil, toss over high heat about a minute, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until mussels open, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove mussels, draining well so juices stay in pan. Discard any that do not open. When mussels are cool enough to handle, shuck them into a bowl, discard shells and toss mussels with remaining oil and the cilantro. Strain mussel broth and add to soup.
3. Reheat soup. To serve, place a few mussels in each of 6 warm soup plates. Serve plates to guests. Ladle soup over mussels at the table. If not using mussels, fold cilantro into soup, ladle soup into bowls and drizzle each portion with remaining oil.