Cook the simple and flavoursome food of the South of France with acclaimed chef Alex Jackson’s Provencal. This unique collection of recipes encapsulates the beauty and simplicity of Provencal French cooking and shows you how to recreate the flavours of the South of France at home.
This might seem an unlikely pairing but the combined flavours here are delicious. The fennel seeds in the soup’s base bridge the gap to tie the two principal ingredients together, a hint of chilli adds a lovely warmth and a swirl of cream completes the picture: there’s something at once exotic and deeply comforting about this soup. This is one of those rare occasions when I am persuaded that a soup should be puréed until smooth.
3 tbsp olive oil
1kg/2lb 4oz mussels, cleaned
1 glass dry white wine
2 medium white onions, finely diced
1⁄2 head celery, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled, halved, green sprout removed and finely sliced lengthways
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 dried Spanish chilli, chopped
2 bay leaves
1kg/2lb 4oz tasty winter squash or pumpkin (‘Delica’ or ‘Violino’ for preference, ideally not butternut squash)
1 ripe tomato or 1 peeled plum tomato from a jar
1 tbsp double (heavy) cream
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black
Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a decent-sized pan with a lid and throw in the mussels, followed by the white wine. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook quickly for a few minutes until the mussels have opened. Take care not to overcook the mussels – as soon as they open, they are ready. Discard any mussels that refuse to open.
Strain the mussels, keeping the winey broth. Leave the mussels and the broth to cool while you make the soup base. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil in a heavy pan. To make a soffrito, add the onion, celery, garlic, fennel seeds, chilli, bay leaves and a pinch of salt. Sweat the whole lot together slowly for at least half an hour, or until the mixture is completely soft and tastes rounded and sweet.
Peel the squash or pumpkin, remove any seeds, and cut into 2-cm/3⁄4-inch chunks. Add the squash to the soffrito and stir to combine. Squish the tomato with your hands into small pieces and throw that in too. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes to start the cooking process, then add the mussel cooking liquor and top up with water. Bring to the boil, then cook the soup over a medium heat for around 40 minutes, or until the squash has softened and tastes great.
While the soup is cooking, shell the mussels and set aside: I think it’s best to refrigerate the cooked shellfish to be on the safe side. Transfer the soup, in batches if necessary, to a blender and purée until very smooth. You can, if you like, pass the soup through a sieve (strainer) for a smoother result, but honestly, life is too short. Taste the soup for seasoning. It’s almost finished. It should taste full, rounded, and with a touch of acidity from the wine and tomato.
Put the soup back into the pan and reheat. Add the cooked mussels along with any juices that have leached out into the container. Simmer slowly for a few minutes to reheat, then pour into bowls. Drizzle over a swirl of double cream, scatter over the parsley, and add a grind or two of black pepper.
Photograph by Matt Russell.