Surprise! Surprise!

I was raised by a mother who took mealtime very seriously. Mom believed that dinner was a time to display our best manners, to chat, and enthusiastically enjoy all that she had lovingly prepared. She was a great cook, and dessert was always a highlight.  My brother and I were expected to arrive promptly for dinner and stay until we had polished off all that was served. If we balked too much, dessert was definitely off the table.

There were those painful nights when the most dreaded vegetables were served— like lima beans or asparagus—and Gary and I would eye each other knowingly. This could be a long night.  Mom was wise to our attempts at diffusing the situation: we’d spread food across the plate as if it had disappeared; we’d casually spit disgusting bites into a napkin, or desperately drop the worst to our loyal collie, Duke, who sprawled sympathetically under the table.

Mom finally relented and allowed us both to pick one item that we could pass on, but we couldn’t arbitrarily change it the next week.  For years, lima beans were my biggest contender: they were big, dry, and wretchedly hard to swallow with no redeeming flavor.

Overall, I pride myself on being open to new foods and welcome new taste treats; but still, I’d dismiss lima beans whenever there was a choice.

All that changed recently when I watched Rick Bayless prepare a dish called Banana Pepper, Leek Soup with Lima Beans and Smoked Meat. I was fascinated by the creamy, thick, green soup that was reminiscent of Vichyssoise, the fabulous chilled potato-leek soup. The concept was just enough to open the door and give me a reason to give it a try. I reasoned the bean’s texture might actually work in its favor!

Leek-Lima Bean Soup

The soup is prepared much like its French counterpart, but substitutes lima beans for the potatoes and eliminates the cream.  It begins with a quick sauté of smoked meat, like shredded ham hock (yes, it works!), then removed and saved for the finish.  Sweet root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips are roasted or grilled ahead and held for the finish.

The actual soup is quite simple. Leeks and shredded peppers, such as pasilla, are sweated in the smoke-flavored oil and cooked down until meltingly soft.  All of this is pureed with half of the defrosted frozen baby lima beans and a good chicken stock. I opted to not over puree the soup, which added to its rustic appearance and charm.

The soup is returned to the soup pot and reheated with the other half of the lima beans. The smoked meat and roasted vegetables can be reheated with the soup, too. Since they are colorful and have so much flavor, I preferred to strew them across the soup when serving—visible and not lost in the soup.

That’s it.  Add a sprinkling of cheese, a little fresh herb such as cilantro or parsley and be prepared for a surprise!

Leek-Lima Bean Soup with Root Vegetables and Smoked Meat

Inspired by Rick Bayless’s soup: Crema de Chile Güero y Poros con Carne Ahumada

Ingredients
½ pound root vegetables (2 carrots and 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into thick slivers)
6 ounces smoked meat, like smoked ham hock, smoked turkey leg or smoked jowel
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ pounds (about 6 small) leeks, washed, roots cut off, cut in half lengthwise and each half sliced crosswise into ¼-inch pieces
3/4 to 1 pound (about 4-6) fresh güero or pasilla chiles stem, seed,  slice ¼-inch thick
1 pound bag frozen baby lima beans (defrosted)
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper
Garnish:  handful cilantro or flat leaf parsley
A few tablespoons grated Mexican queso añejo or other such as Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Toss the vegetables lightly with oil, salt and pepper, and roast the vegetables at 450°. Toss one or twice, cooking 20 minutes. Remove and set aside. (Can be grilled 2-3 minutes.)
  2. Using fingers to shred (or a knife to cut), break the ham hock (or one of its stand-ins) into bite-sized pieces. In a large (5- to 6-quart) soup pot, add about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat and add the smoked meat until crisp. With a slotted spoon, scoop the meat onto a paper towel to drain, leaving behind as much fat as possible.
  3. Add the butter, leeks and chiles into the pot, cover and return to medium heat.  Let cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks and chiles are very soft, about 10 minutes.  Uncover and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks and chiles look thoroughly melted and are just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes more.  Scrape the leek mixture into a blender jar, add half of the bag of the lima beans (about 1 ¾ cup) and the broth.  Blend until smooth and return to the pan.
  4. Add the remaining beans and the charred vegetables to the soup and bring to a simmer over medium heat, add more stock or water to thin if very thick. Taste and season with salt, usually a scant teaspoon depending on the saltiness of your broth.  Let simmer for a few more minutes, then ladle into warm soup bowls, sprinkle with the crispy meat and garnish with fresh herbs and cheese. Serves 6-8.

Ultimate Kid Food

When it comes to comfort food, tomato soup definitely hits all the right spots. Call it the ultimate kid food, but the mild, sweet taste of tomatoes is inviting and incredibly soothing.

All sorts of memories come to mind with tomato soup.  On rainy or snowy days warming tomato soup will take away any chill.  Of course, the natural accompaniment would have to be a good ole grilled cheese sandwich.  What’s not to love about dipping a gooey toasted American cheese sandwich into a steamy cup of tomato soup?

Recently, I made a big pot of soup for an event that would have to hold for 2 to 3 hours.  Of course the Joy of Cooking has the right idea. Make a tomato base and add a white sauce for serious holding power. It worked like a charm.  It did not break down and stayed thick and creamy for the duration.

So if you are looking for a little comfort food, this one is for you!

P.S.  Coming up: a no-recipe-required grilled cheese sandwich as a bonus for anyone who needs one.

Tomato Soup with Basil Oil

Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, chop
1 carrot, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
½ teaspoon dried basil
28 oz. canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes
3 cups or more chicken, vegetable stock or water, divided
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¾ teaspoon salt, pepper
White Sauce
3 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 cup liquid (1 cup stock, 1/2 cup evaporated milk)
salt, white pepper, nutmeg to taste
Accompaniments:  grated Parmesan cheese, fresh basil or Basil Oil Drizzle,

Instructions
1. Sauté the oil, onion, carrot, garlic and basil until soft.  Add the tomatoes and simmer 20 minutes, thinning as needed with about 1 cup stock or water. Adjust seasoning with lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, make White Sauce:  in sauce pan, melt butter over low heat.  Add flour and blend 3-4 minutes until cooked and smooth.  Slowly whisk in 1 cup stock to eliminate lumps.  Stir and simmer until thick and smooth. Add the condensed milk to the tomatoes and heat well. Season with salt, nutmeg and white pepper.
3. Puree the tomato base in blender or with an immersion blender, thin as needed with more stock or water and return to pot. Strain the white sauce into hot soup and heat well. Simmer on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes to blend flavors. Adjust seasoning.  Serve with grated Parmesan cheese, fresh basil or a drizzle of Basil Oil.   Serves 8.

Basil Oil
1 cup basil leaves
3-4 cups boiling water
cold water bath
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt

Blanch the leaves in boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove to cold water bath with slotted spoon.  Remove and blot, squeeze out water. Blend with olive oil and season with salt to taste, strain if desired.  Store in fridge. Yield: 1/2 cup.

Pasta Fazool: the ultimate vegetable soup

Several years ago I traveled with an Italian family, and this was one of their most requested soups.  They referred to it as Pasta Fazool, but it is also known by its traditional name, Pasta e Fagioli.

This easy, hearty dish is built on a zesty tomato based white bean soup, with plenty of fresh vegetables thrown in. Then, the ever-present pasta is added for the crowning touch.  What’s not to like?Fazool

Pasta Fazool is quite affordable to make, and great for a group. The more the merrier—just add water!  It’s perfectly delicious for vegetarians, too.  Of course, when I made it last, I went the other way. I pulled out a thick slab of ham tucked in the freezer from the holidays—a terrific addition, but not essential for this special soup.  A day ahead I tossed the ham cubes in an oil rub laced with garlic, fennel, red pepper flakes, and rosemary and set it all aside.

To get things started, beans are first simmered until near tender with crushed tomatoes flavored with onion, garlic and sage.  Either dried or canned cannellini or mayocoba beans work nicely.

To pull it all together, I briefly sautéed the seasoned ham (optional) in olive oil, and stirred in a few fresh vegetables. Next, the cooked beans are added and it’s briefly simmered to incorporate the flavors.

Lastly, escarole, kale or other hearty green is added to the pot, followed by a small pasta, such as ditalini.  It’s simmered for another 10 minutes or so, until al dente.Pasta Fazool

Top with a grating of Parmesan Reggiano and pass plenty of warm crusty bread.

 Pasta Fazool

Aka, Pasta e Fagioli

 Ingredients
2 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 onion, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
1 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 cup dried and soaked cannellini or mayocoba beans
2 cups water or stock (approximate), divided and used as needed
1-1/2 cups ham cut into ½” chunks (optional), in herbal rub (see below)
1 carrot, diced
1 poblano chile, seed chop
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1”x2” chunk Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon each sea salt and ground pepper
1 small bunch lacinato kale, ribs removed and leaves torn into 2” pieces
1-1/2 cups ditalini pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Sauté onion until soft, then add the garlic and sage, stirring briefly. Add the crushed tomatoes, the beans, and 1 cup water.  Simmer about 1-1/2 hours. Or, using pressure cooker, set on High Pressure for 18 minutes with pressure valve set to Sealing and use Quick Release.
  2. In a fresh pot over medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the seasoned ham for 2- 3 minutes (optional). Add the carrot, green pepper, and ½ teaspoon oregano, cook 4-5 minutes. Stir in the beans, Parmesan chunk, salt and pepper, 1 cup water, and simmer covered for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the kale to the pot and simmer for 3-4 minutes, stir occasionally, until it begins to soften. Stir in the dry pasta and simmer an additional 10 minutes until pasta is al dente. Add more water as necessary, it should be thick yet soupy.  Adjust seasoning.
  4. Serve with Parmesan cheese and plenty of crusty bread.  Serves 4-6.

For the ham rub:  marinade cubed ham 1 day ahead in: 2 cloves garlic crushed, ½ tsp fennel, ½ tsp red pepper flakes, ½ tsp rosemary, 2 tbsp olive oil, pinch sea salt.

What Sounds Good?

We all have our comfort foods.  When nothing else sounds good, we reach for familiar touchstones to soothe us.  They many not mean much to anyone else, but we have our favorites.

Years ago I wrote a heritage cookbook for my family with the odd title, What Sounds Good?  It was just that,  a crazy assortment of cherished recipes that were a regular part of our food repertoire when my daughters were growing up.  At our house, there was always a debate underway about what to eat for the next meal or upcoming food event. The discussion would typically include what sounds good?

Some of the recipes in What Sounds Good? were from my own childhood; some I picked up in my early days of cooking from friends and family. Some were regional, like Santa Maria Style Beans and Boston Clam Chowder. They still hold a place in my heart.

Yesterday was one of those days. It was cold and rainy and I was feeling the aftermath of the long Thanksgiving weekend.  I needed something that reached down and warmed my soul.  Of course, it was no further away than my pantry shelves.  I always have the makings for clam chowder tucked away somewhere.

I pulled out my soup pot and found a familiar rhythm. The smoky scent of bacon always perks me up. There’s nothing fussing here: some onion, potato, a bit of celery, a few herbs… In no time I had hearty soup cups ladled full of thick and creamy clam chowder.

Funny thing.  This morning I pulled out the recipe to take a look at it.  It has been a while since I made it, and without thinking, I made it as written in the cookbook, down to ingredients and quantities.  I guess somethings are too good to change.

Boston Clam Chowder

From What Sounds Good?

Ingredients
4-5 strips bacon, chopped
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
2 medium red potatoes, skin on, diced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 cans chopped clams, 4-5 ounces each, liquid reserved
1 bottle clam juice, about 8 ounces
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup water
2 cups milk, of choice, including diluted condensed milk, if necessary
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Garnish:  chopped parsley, butter, or paprika, serve with oyster or pilot crackers

Instructions

  1. In a soup pot, sauté the bacon over medium heat until it begins to color. Drain off all but 1-2 tablespoon of the fat.
  2. Add the onion, and cook to soften, then add the celery and toss briefly. Add the potato, herbs, white pepper. clam liquids, and enough additional water to barely cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Combine the flour and water into a slurry and slowly stir into the potato base and allow it to thicken.
  4. Stir in the milk and clams and heat well, but do not boil. Adjust seasoning.  Serve with garnish of choice.  Serves 4.

Soup: So Easy, So Elegant

This weekend I had the rare good fortune to receive a beautiful bag of fresh Jerusalem artichokes. Since I was not familiar with them, my mind immediately started whirling as to what to do and how to proceed.

If you haven’t seen sunchokes up close, they are a root that looks very much like ginger root. But, straight out of the garden it is a very different story.  They can be a real tangled mess of hairy shoots, extraneous knobs, and matted soil. Thanks to my friend Kathy, she would have none of that.  She is so meticulous she probably vacuums her garden. My artichokes were so gorgeous, Kathy must have vacuumed them too!

Jerusalem Artichokes

Turns out Jerusalem artichokes are first peeled, and then they can be eaten either raw or cooked. They have a clean, slightly nutty flavor, with a texture between a potato and a radish.

This particular weekend was dedicated to testing pressure cooker recipes, so it was the obvious tool for me to use. Regular followers may recall that lately I have become so smitten with cauliflower that it keeps popping up on the blog, in one form or another.

My choice was pre-destined.  A creamy hot soup would feature a lovely combination of cauliflower (of course) and Jerusalem artichokes, reminiscent of French vichyssoise. The cauliflower adds plenty of thickening power and blends well with the artichokes. Turns out, it is a very simple soup, thanks to an assist from my latest pressure cooker, a Fagor Multi-cooker.

It begins with a quick sauté of leeks and garlic in melted butter, then cauliflower and Jerusalem artichokes are added, seasoned, and all briefly stirred together.  Chicken stock is poured in to barely cover and the unit is set to pressure mode for a mere 6 minutes.

To finish the soup, an immersion blender purees it all while it is thinned with a bit coconut milk. The flavors are subtle yet intriguing – only requiring an adjustment of salt, white pepper, and dash of nutmeg.

This is a beautiful soup, both in taste and appearance. I served it piping hot, topped with a float of sautéed mushrooms and green onions. So easy, so elegant.

Cauliflower and Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Mushroom Salad Float

Prepared in pressure cooker, but not required. If not using, proceed as directed, but simmer the soup about 30 minutes instead of 6 minutes in pressure cooker

Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
2 leeks, white only – about 1-1/2 cups
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups riced cauliflower or florets cut up
1 cup Jerusalem artichokes peeled and sliced (5 oz.)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup lite coconut milk
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Garnish:  Sliced mushrooms and onions sautéed with rosemary; and/or sliced green onion.

Instructions

  1. In pressure cooker set to SAUTE, cook leeks and garlic in butter over medium heat to soften.
  2. Stir in the cauliflower and Jerusalem artichokes, season with salt and white pepper and toss well. Pour in chicken stock to cover.
  3. Cover with lid, set to PRESSURE mode and cook for 6 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile prepare Mushroom Salad for garnish. In olive oil, sauté mushrooms, onion, rosemary, salt and pepper in olive oil to release liquid. Set aside. Slice green onion for garnish.
  5. When complete, use quick release method, then remove lid.
  6. Using immersion blender, puree until smooth thinning with coconut milk. Add nutmeg and adjust seasoning with salt or white pepper to taste.
  7. Ladle hot soup into bowls, top with Mushroom Salad and sprinkle with green onion.

 

Light of my Life

It’s always a party when I pull out my kitchen torch.

Today’s occasion:  French onion soup.  Earlier at the farmers’ market, pearly white sweet onions—still kissed with morning dew—looked almost too gorgeous to touch.

A sudden vision of the well-picked-over roast chicken carcass in the fridge at home was a wake-up nudge that a tasty chicken stock was  waiting in the wings.

A hearty beef stock really makes onion soup sing, but a chicken stock simmered in the remains of a flavorful roast is a beautiful thing, too.  In my slow cooker, stock is an effortless commodity.  For the onion soup stock, I’d add onion cuttings, a carrot for a touch of sweetness, and fresh herbs, then cover it all with boiling water and check back later in the day.

My go to Onion Soup follows, but I tend to change it up it depending on what I have on hand.  Sweet onions with a high sugar content are key; sauté them over moderately low heat until they begin to turn color and caramelize. If necessary, add a teaspoon of sugar while sautéing the onions to encourage the full caramelization process. Once the stock is added, the soup is ready within a half hour—or it can be set aside and reheated when ready.

BonJour Torch

 

To finish it all, I carved and toasted thick slices of a multi-grained artisan bread and sprinkled them with a combination of shaved Parmesan and Havarti cheese. No need to crank up the broiler on this warm summer day.

My trusty torch was on hand for the artful transformation of simple ingredients into a glorious soup crowned with essential rafts of toasted cheesy goodness.

 Onion Soup

Ingredients
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoon brandy
6 cups rich beef or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
½ teaspoon each fresh savory and rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup white wine or dry sherry
Accompaniments:  6 croutons (1/2” thick slices toasted baguette)
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. In a soup pot, sauté onions with butter and olive oil over medium heat until aromatic. Reduce heat and stir occasionally, cook until onions are deep golden and caramelized, 30 minutes or longer.
  2. Deglaze pan by carefully pouring in brandy and stir well. Add stock, seasonings, wine, and simmer partially covered for 30 minutes.
  3. In individual bowls, place a crouton in center and sprinkle with cheese, pour a generous amount of onion soup over each. If using oven proof bowls, broil 3” from heat source, watching carefully until tops bubble and brown. Serve with more cheese.   Serves 4 – 6.

Anise Chicken: Ready for Summer Heatwaves

When summer arrives and the heat sets in, my eating habits change. I shift to lighter, easier meals—foods that perk up an often peckish appetite.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Chinese method of poaching chicken.  It results in a beautiful clear broth, utterly pristine flavors, and meat that is succulent and tender. Here’s an outstanding riff on that approach which requires very little actual cooking time—much relies on the broth’s residual heat to do the work. It’s an ideal technique for summertime heatwaves.

The idea comes from Wendy Kiang-Spray’s lovely cookbook The Chinese Kitchen Garden. A whole chicken (here I’ve used the equivalent, 2 Cornish game hens) is dry rubbed with salt, stuffed with whole star anise, and refrigerated for 1- 3 days. When ready to launch, it’s brought to room temperature before lowering into to a pot of simmering water and cooked uncovered for a mere 10 minutes. Then, it’s covered and allowed to steep in the hot broth’s residual heat for 45 minutes. The chicken is fast cooled in an ice water bath for 15 minutes and patted dry.

The resulting broth is bewitchingly addictive: the star anise flavor is present, but not overtly so.  It’s a lovely liquid for cooking rice, grains, vegetables, etc.  For a soup stock, I opted to keep it light and not overwhelm it with too many heavy flavors.

A few slices of ginger, some garlic, and a dash of soy sauce hit the right balance for a soba noodle soup with chicken and a few fresh vegetables.

The anise chicken has happily starred in a variety of applications. When pressed, I have whipped up a simple Asian dipping sauce, but Wendy also suggests a Ginger-Onion Garlic Oil, also included because it is such a nice touch.

Of my favorite uses, I remain a big fan of an easy Asian Chicken Salad served with plenty of sesame crepes (yum—coming soon!) along with spoonfuls of hoisin sauce for stuffing/rolling purposes. Welcome to summer 2017, rolling out with record 101° heat.

Anise Poached Chicken

Inspired by The Chinese Kitchen Garden by Wendy Kiang-Spray

Ingredients
3 pound whole chicken
2 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt
20 pieces whole star anise
Ginger-Onion/Garlic Oil (optional)
2” section ginger, peel and slice
3-4 garlic whistles or 3 “bunching onions” (a leek-like variety), cut in 2” lengths
¼ cup oil

Directions

  1. Rinse and pat dry chicken. Rub inside and out with 2 tablespoons coarse salt. Place the star anise in the cavity. Place in zip lock and refrigerate 1-3 days.
  2. Remove chicken and bring to room temperature (about 1 hour ahead).
  3. Fill pot with enough water to cover chicken and bring to a boil.  Lower anise-filled chicken into pot.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer chicken uncovered 10 minutes. Skim residue off top of water. Turn off heat and cover with tight fitting lid.  Allow to steep undisturbed for another 45 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.  Meanwhile make Ginger and Onion Oil. Crush ginger and onions with mortar and pestle or pulse in food processor. Place the paste in heatproof bowl and add 1 tsp salt.  Heat the oil until hot. Carefully pour the hot oil over the ginger and onion mixture.
  4. When chicken is cooked through, remove from pot, reserving pot liquid for another purpose:  cooking rice or other grain, etc.  Lower chicken into an ice water bath to quickly stop the cooking process. In about 15 minutes when cooled, remove and pat dry.
  5. Chop into pieces and serve with a drizzle of ginger-onion oil. Nice over steamed white rice or other. Serves 4-6.