I confess that the inspiration for this soup comes not from my own imagination but from Thomasina Miers, whose column in Saturdays Guardian featured a recipe for parsnip soup with the very same fried apple. Scanning down the spices on the ingredients list, I was struck by their similarity to the contents of my packet of achiote with its notes of pepper spice and an earthiness that reminds me of the clay goblets we drank out of in Mexico where I grew up. I would nibble away at their glaze that stopped just short of the rim, slowly wearing it away to the bare fired-clay underneath whose aroma and gritty taste I loved-pica in action I guess.
Also known as annatto and used to give a mellow-golden colour to foodstuffs across the Caribbean and Latin America, achiote is obtained from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana plant and was brought to South East Asia by the Spanish in the 16th century. Used to scent and colour yellow rice and blaff, the seeds have long been ground and mixed with other spices and herbs; salt, peppercorns, cumin, cloves, oregano and coriander-seed to make achiote powder or paste which can be mixed into fresh juice to make a great marinade for meat and fish.
Miers’s soup is spiced with peppercorn, cloves, coriander seeds and nutmeg so it’s not a great leap from the achiote although it lacks that deep annatto melon-gold shade. In my version, the onions have been replaced by a 50:50 mix of shallot and onion to balance the earth of the achiote but do be generous with the spice mix- the soup seems to absorb a lot of flavouring and retains a gentleness of flavour with the sweet grassinesss of the root vegetable shining through. For the apples, I chose Egremont Russets although any Russet will do should the Egremonts (which we grow on our allotment) not be available. The sweet nuttiness of this variety works especially well here, not disintegrating into apple snow after frying. However, I don’t want you to discount making this because the only apples sitting disconsolately in your fruit bowl are standard eaters. They’ll do.
This produces a thick soup that serves 3-4 in medium sized portions although it can be slackened with some more stock should you want a soup with a lighter texture and one which will go a bit further. I would serve it with some rounds of toasted sourdough for an even more filling winter meal.
50g unsalted butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
About 400g parsnips
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
3 tsp achiote powder
grind of nutmeg
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp thick Greek yoghurt or thick double cream plus extra to garnish
For the apples-
1 large or a couple of smaller eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm thick wedges
25 g or so of unsalted butter
1 tsp sugar
grind of nutmeg to finish
Peel the parsnips and chop up into bite size pieces then melt the butter in a heavy based pan. Add the onion, shallot and a decent pinch of salt and cook down slowly and gently over a low heat for 4-5 mins then add in the chopped garlic. Sweat this all down further until it is translucent, soft and smells buttery and rich.
Whilst this is cooking, grate the nutmeg and add it to the achiote powder, ensuring they are blended together then add this to the onion mix, stirring them both together. Continue to cook this, stirring it all the time for 2 more minutes. Now add the chopped parsnips to the spiced onions and turn them over in the spice and onion/shallot mix, coating them well. Once you have done this pour in the stock, bring to a boil then simmer until the parsnips are completely soft and cooked- between 20-30 mins.
Take off the heat, let cool for a few minutes and add the yoghurt or cream. Whizz until smooth with a stick blender or a food processor and season to taste. I prefer it totally smooth but nobody is going to judge you if you leave in a few lumps of parsnip.
To make the apples, you’ll need to melt the butter in a heavy pan over a medium heat and ensure that the whole base is coated in it. When it starts to get hot and sizzle, add the apples in one layer, sprinkle with a little salt, the sugar and fry them, turning them over so both sides colour up to a golden brown but don’t let them burn or the butter burn. When done, drain on kitchen paper whilst you gently reheat the soup to warm- don’t let it get scolding as you won’t get the flavour of it, soup is best served at room temperature.
Plate up the soup, place some apple slices on top, add a grind of nutmeg if you like it and an extra dollop of yoghurt or cream if you like your soup creamier.