October 27, 2022

Soup Season: Lady and the Pea inspired by Chez Fon Fon

7.9 min read

{Cherchez la femme}

Cherchez la femme is an expression I first heard repeated in a law school class. Coined by French novelist and gourmand, Alexander Dumas in his novel “The Mohicans of Paris”, the phrase literally translates as “look for the woman”. For our next recipe in the Soup Season Series, we go in search of the lady, or demoiselle if you’re French. We hope you will make this elegant soup during the cold months of winter and it brings this romantic word to mind, and a warm flavor to your palate. The result is a smooth, subtly assertive and beautiful soup, marrying the smart French technique you’ll find at an iconic French bistro with a favorite Alabama crop: the lady pea.

Alabama has been blessed with an abundance of peas, many of which find their way into our winter freezers. The state is also fortunate to call one of the most lauded chefs in modern history its own. Chef Frank Stitt, a student of legendary chef Richard Olney, was born and raised in Cullman, Alabama. Stitt’s signature style can be described as classic French technique with an Alabama accent. His restaurant, Chez Fon Fon, serves as inspiration for our latest Soup Season Series recipe. In the recipe that follows, you will learn the technique behind one of the French mother sauces: velouté. Velouté is a versatile tool for your cooking arsenal that can be used in many applications once mastered. It is the basis for our recipe, Le Potage Pois Demoiselle.

{A sure, sure bet}

Warm, velvet, elegant. These are the words I want to use when describing a soup I’m enjoying. If the bowl is served at Birmingham’s Chez Fon Fon restaurant, you can be sure those words will apply. Chez Fon Fon is one of several restaurants and cafes located in Birmingham, Alabama owned and operated by Chef Frank Stitt and Pardis Stitt. Chef Stitt is known for his use of French cooking technique and reverence for Alabama’s abundant produce. Chez Fon Fon is the embodiment of this ethos. The French bistro style menu consistently offers diners a perfect blend of classics like steak frites and the Hamburger Fon Fon, alongside a revolving slate of seasonal specials. The food at Fon Fon is a thoughtful balance of flavor and texture, and the quality of dishes is only rivaled by the level of service. Stepping through the door of Fon Fon is like falling into the arms of a lover you’d never dream of leaving. To dine at “Fon Fon” is to feel like a lady, to be at ease and to feel cared for. There are plenty of gentlemen who grace the tables at Fon Fon too, but that is a story for another day.

(Christy Williams/Contributed)

{Love and Peas}

The recipe below begins with what is in my opinion, an ideal southern crop: the lady pea. The milky jade hue of this legume mirrors its mild but complex flavor. When simmered slowly with aromatics and delicate seasonings, the inner parts of the tiny green pearls yield to the heat, transforming into silky orbs of earthy flavor. The broth formed in the cooking process is equally lovely, and perfect for use in soup making. Lady peas are in truth a type of legume, a member of the cow pea family. They are grown in Alabama, but are sometimes difficult to find, making them a bit precious as the name suggests. I often find lady peas in the back freezer at Burris Farm Market. Located in Loxley, Alabama, Burris Farm Market carries a large selection of produce from across lower Alabama. When I travel to the beach, I always stop on the way home to load up on these peas. I have found them in North Alabama as well, in the freezer at Rick’s Produce in Muscle Shoals. If you do not have any lady peas in your freezer during the winter, you can likely find a close substitution at the grocery store in the form of frozen cream peas. I have never seen lady peas available in dried form. As a last resort, you may use canned cream peas or if you’re feeling adventurous, some baby lima beans would be an interesting modification. The garnish for this soup is made from another unsung Alabama superstar: watercress. Grown abundantly in North Alabama’s Hunstville area, watercress is a unique leafy green with vibrant color and a sharp herbal flavor. The classic vintage cookbook, Huntsville Heritage Cookbook by The Junior League of Huntsville contains and excellent history of watercress as a crop in the area. The garnish adds a beautiful, bright contrast in color and flavor to the soup. So, practice your French accent, acquire some lady peas post haste, and stir up a pot of soup worthy of your most elegant holiday gathering. Be sure to share your soup creation with us on social media #soulgrownsoupszn.

{Further Reading}

Chef Frank Stitt has written two cookbooks over the years. Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill is a solid place to begin if you want to learn more about Alabama produce and French cooking technique. You may visit Chez Fon Fon at 2007 11th Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama.

Other suggested reading:

Simple French Food by Richard Olney

Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking by Paul Bocuse

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vols. 1 & 2 by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck

The Cooking of Southwest France: Recipes from France’s Magnificent Rustic Cuisine by Paula Wolfert

(Christy Williams/Contributed)

Le Potage Pois Demoiselle: “Lady Pea Soup”

Cooking Time: less than an hour

Serves four

Ingredients

3 cups cooked lady peas, preferably slow simmered in aromatics, with cooking broth reserved

2 to 3 cups hot chicken stock

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons all purpose flour

¼ cup whole cream, room temperature

1 egg yolk, room temperature

Salt

2 cups fresh watercress, leaves only, tightly packed

A few sprigs of unblemished, whole watercress

Salt

½ cup fine extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp lemon peel

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp lemon juice

{Pea Puree}

Under ideal circumstances, you will have 4 cups of frozen lady peas in the winter. Take the frozen lady peas and simmer with a bay leaf or bouquet garni until tender. Season and reserved the cooking broth.

Pass the peas through a sieve and discard the solids. If circumstances are less than ideal, you may use canned cream peas, rinsed to pass through the sieve. This will leave a puree in the bowl. Set it aside while you make the velouté.

{Velouté}

In a shallow, heavy bottomed sauce pan, heat the butter until foamy, but not browned.  Using a wooden spoon, slowly stir in the flour, maintaining medium heat. Cook the flour in the butter until smooth and blond in color. The mixture should smell nutty, but take on no brown color. This process will take five to ten minutes, until blond in color.

Use a wire whisk to incorporate the hot chicken stock, beginning with one cup all at once. Whisk until a loose paste forms, then slowly whisk in all but ½ cup of remaining stock.

Once the stock is incorporated into the flour mixture, simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally for approximately twenty minutes until the velouté coats a spoon. Dip a spoon in the mixture and drag your finger across the back of the spoon. If the sauce remains separated on the spoon, you have reached the right consistency. Use the reserved ½ cups of stock or the reserved pea broth if you have it, to adjust the consistency. Keep warm.

Combine the whole cream and the egg yolk in a small bowl. Add a bit of the velouté to the egg yolk mixture and whisk gently. Slowly stream the egg yolk mixture into the velouté over low heat while whisking until smooth. Turn off the heat.

Once the velouté is ready, whisk in the pea puree a little at a time until fully incorporated. Adjust seasoning. For an extra fine texture, pass the soup through a sieve and return to the saucepan and keep warm.

{Watercress Garnish}

Rinse watercress leaves thoroughly and dry.

Place the watercress in a blender with a pinch of salt and one half of the olive oil. Process until smooth. With the blender running on medium speed, slowly incorporate the remaining olive oil. Stop the blender.

Add the lemon peel and mustard and blend until smooth, scraping down sides of blender as necessary. Adjust seasoning. Use water to adjust consistency if too thick. This should not be as thick as a paste, but should hold together somewhat.

Place into a small Ziploc bag.

{Assembly}

Warm soup through and ladle into bowls, preferably ones made from vintage china with a cute pattern. Snip a corner from the Ziploc bag and pipe small circles of the watercress garnish around the soup. Take a toothpick and drag it through the garnish to create pleasing shapes. Sprinkle a few drops of fresh lemon juice around the soup and garnish. Place one stem of whole watercress in the center. Serve piping hot.

Christy Williams is a food writer, mother of boys + southern lawyer from Wren, Alabama. Find her on Instagram at @grilfromwren for more celebrations of the people and places (and biscuits) she loves.

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