- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I’ve spent as much time in my laundry room as I have in my kitchen this past week. Four of the last seven days we’ve had overnight company. That’s not usual for us, but, by coincidence, two sets of close friends each asked if they might come for a brief stay at about the same time.

After looking at the calendar, I realized I had only one day in between these two visits.

When guests come for a day or more, you are responsible for multiple meals. And unless you plan carefully, you can end up spending more time in front of the stove than enjoying company.

I have a few golden rules that prevent me from wearing myself out when entertaining overnight visitors. I cook simple dishes with seasonal ingredients. I make as much as possible ahead.

I don’t hesitate to buy a few prepared foods from reputable food shops to combine with my homemade dishes. I might purchase an apple pie from a local bakery, pick up a jar of freshly made pesto from a gourmet deli or choose some scrumptious cookies and cupcakes from a stand at our local farmers market.

I put this philosophy to use last week. We dined on roasted fish with fresh herbs one night (five minutes to assemble and 10 minutes to bake), and we grilled lamb chops and topped them with blue cheese another (15 minutes total prep and cooking time).

I made two soups, each a day in advance, and also whipped up a pasta salad ahead. Dessert consisted of seasonal fruits offered with ginger biscotti one day and with chocolate almond squares (both from the farmers market) another.

The two soups were both winners, but one in particular stood out. It was a tomato and fennel creation topped with dollops of Pernod-scented creme fraiche.

I sauteed chopped fennel bulbs, onion and carrots until lightly browned, then simmered them in chicken broth along with diced tomatoes, fresh tarragon and a touch of hot red pepper flakes. After pureeing this mixture, I whisked in a little creme fraiche.

I served the soup icy cold one night and warm another. Both times I garnished the potage with creme fraiche scented with the anise-flavored liqueur Pernod. (If you don’t have Pernod on hand, the soup will still be delicious adorned simply with creme fraiche.)

I served this soup with a pasta salad for a light supper and offered it again alone at midday accompanied by crusty peasant bread.

It could also be used as an opener for a fall dinner party.

When our friends left last week, I wasn’t tired at all (well, maybe a bit). The meals had been so easy to assemble that the visits had been more play than work. Of course, there was still the laundry.

Tomato fennel soup with Pernod cream

1/4 cup olive oil

3 cups chopped fennel (about 11/4 pounds fennel)

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup diced carrots

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, plus 6 sprigs for garnish

1½ teaspoons salt, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained well

4 cups chicken broth, preferably reduced-sodium

2/3 cup creme fraiche, divided (see note)

3/4 teaspoon Pernod, optional

Heat oil in a large deep-sided pot over medium high heat until hot. Add fennel, onion and carrots, and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened and starting to brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in chopped tarragon, salt and hot red pepper flakes.

Then add the tomatoes and chicken broth, and continue to cook at a gentle simmer (lowering heat slightly, if necessary) until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in a food processor or blender, being careful because the soup will be hot. Return it to the pot in which it was cooked. Ladle a little of the warm soup into a small bowl and whisk in 1/3 cup of the creme fraiche. Then whisk this mixture into soup.

Taste and season soup with more salt, as needed. (Soup can be prepared a day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate. If serving warm, reheat over medium heat, stirring.) Serve the soup chilled or warm. Ladle one cup of soup into each of 6 bowls.

If using Pernod, whisk with remaining creme fraiche in a small bowl. Garnish center of each bowl of soup with a dollop of creme fraiche (with or without the Pernod addition) and a sprig of tarragon.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Creme fraiche, a thickened cream with a slightly tangy flavor, is available in some supermarkets. If you can’t find it, the following recipe works well.

CREME FRAICHE

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup sour cream

Whisk cream and sour cream together in a medium nonreactive bowl. Let stand at warm room temperature 8 hours or longer until thickened. Cover and refrigerate. (Creme fraiche can be stored up to 1 week, covered, in the refrigerator.)

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