Leek, Fennel and Coconut Soup with Pistachio Pesto

The recipe for this autumnal soup is based on something that I ate in a restaurant around 20 years ago, but it reminded me of a time long ago and of the music of Leonard Cohen.

Early in the 1970s, there lived in South London a man who saw it as his mission in life to cook food for the waifs, strays, bad poets, questionable musicians and general hangers-on of the area. I'll call him Henry because, after all this time, I have to slightly misquote Dylan and admit that the only thing I can remember for sure about Henry is that his name wasn't Henry. The meals he made were often soups and always vegetarian. I'm fairly sure that they were made from the dodgy-looking veg they couldn't sell to normal people in Balham market. The meals were invariably accompanied by the sound of one of the first two Leonard Cohen albums. I assume he had some other records, but I don't remember him ever playing them.

Although I've eaten a vast number of vegetarian dishes since then, including more than a few cooked by Michelin-starred chefs, I hope that I'm not being overly sentimental and nostalgic when I say that none of them have tasted quite as unbelievably awful as Henry's . This soup isn't one of those long-lost meals, I'm pleased to say. I'll never know what became of Henry but I'll always be grateful to him and hope that the long time sun still shines upon him and all love surrounds him.

Leek, Fennel and Coconut Soup

This should serve 4, but I suppose you could stretch it to an extra, thinner bowl if an unconvincing writer, dubious painter or unspecified waif passes by.


2 leeks, white part only, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 carrots, peeled and roughly sliced (if the carrot is very large, one will be enough)
1 parsnip, peeled and roughly sliced, discarding any woody bits
1 potato (medium-sized), peeled and roughly chopped 
1 fennel bulb, any tough outer or base pieces removed and roughly chopped
200 ml vegetable stock
2 sprigs of thyme (or ½ tsp dried thyme)
400ml tin of coconut milk, lower fat will do as long as the flavour is still good

For the pesto: 

Small handful shelled pistachios
Small handful of mixed basil and mint leaves
Small (or very small) piece of garlic
A glug or three of extra virgin olive oil

Add a little olive oil to a large pan (one that has a lid) and place on a low heat. Add the leek slices to the pan, ideally in one layer. Allow the leeks to start to soften slowly for 5 minutes or so, then stir in the garlic. Cover the pan, keeping the heat low and continue cooking the leeks and garlic for another 5 minutes. Don't let the leeks burn, but don't worry about a little colour on them.

Add the prepared carrot, parsnip, potato and fennel to the pan, season with a little salt and a fairly generous grinding of black pepper. Continue frying gently without the lid for another 5 minutes. 

Pour in the stock and stir in the leaves from the thyme sprigs (or the dried thyme). Bring to a simmer, cover the pan and let the mixture cook gently for around half an hour. Check every now and then to make sure that the mixture isn't drying out or sticking to the pan. 

At the end of this time, the vegetables should be thoroughly soft and the mixture should resemble a chunky, vegetable mush - but in a good way. Take the pan off the heat and liquidise the contents until smooth. A hand blender will probably be the easiest option.

If you want a truly smooth and restaurant-style finish for the soup, then pass the mixture through a fine sieve at this stage. This isn't really necessary, though, as long as it's as smooth as you'd like it to be. Stir in the coconut milk without returning the mixture to the heat. The soup may be a little too thick at this stage and, if so, add enough water to get the thickness you want.

If you're only making a small amount of the pesto for this soup, then a pestle and mortar will be easiest but a small blender will be quicker if you're making enough to keep for later. Either way, bash up the pistachios, the mint and basil leaves and the small amount of garlic. Add enough olive oil to loosen the mixture until you like the look of it. I don't think the cheese that's part of classic pesto is needed when used with this soup, but you might disagree. 

Reheat the soup when ready to serve. Be gentle when reheating because some coconut milks can get upset and decide to split if they're heated too aggressively or boiled. Add a dollop of the pesto to each bowl just before serving. I also add a few drops of sour cherry molasses which I think adds a little lift to this kind of soup. (In fact, I think it adds a certain something to many root veg dishes).

South London Soup in the 1970s

We used to dream of tea and oranges that came all the way from China, but they didn't arrive.


  1. Just the right thing to eat in November. Sounds delicious.

    1. I think this is a satisfying and warming soup for the autumn and it reminds me that one consolation for the end of summer is how good root veg can taste. By next February, I might be less excited by the thought of yet more root veg, but I'll probably still enjoy this soup.

  2. Soup weather is most definitely upon us and this sounds like a real treat.

    1. It's predictable, I know, but root veg soups do feel like a treat to me at this time of year. The advantage of this soup, I think, is that there are enough flavours in it to keep me interested until at least February, after several months of eating root veg.


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