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.

Spring Green: Posole

These days I’m channeling spring—seriously.  Soup still remains a favorite, but now I’m looking for light, bright flavors that will dance right out of the pot.

Happily, this easy, green posole does just that.

It still has hominy to deliver its characteristic flavor, but instead of dark stewish elements like pork and guajillo or ancho chiles, this soup gets its power from tomatillos, jalapeno peppers, and chicken or vegetable stock.

The secret comes from giving tart tomatillos and other vegetables a quick roast in the oven. This yields surprising depth and unexpected character, no thin imposter here. It’s all transferred to a soup pot with chicken or vegetable stock and pureed lightly with an immersion blender. I like keeping a bit of texture for a touch of rusticity.

The soup is heated with hominy and a few sprigs of cilantro tied with a bit of string, making a bouquet garni for easy removal. For a more robust soup, add a few handfuls of cooked shredded chicken. If it needs more flavor, give a squeeze of two of fresh lime just prior to serving.  My soup needed absolutely nothing.

No question, this brilliant posole is meant for any time, any occasion. In fact, in a lighthearted Irish moment, it could very well be a breath of fresh air—spring green air, at that.

Easy Posole

Inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Posole in It’s All Good

Ingredients
6 tomatillos, peel, clean and lightly chop
1 large onion, peel and lightly chop
2 jalapenos, seed, lightly chop
1 clove garlic, peel and slice
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
sea salt to taste
3-4 cups stock, chicken or vegetable
15 oz. can hominy, drain and rinse

Garnish: diced avocado, cilantro leaves, 2 thin slice scallions, 2-3 sliced radishes, 1/2 cup Añejo cheese crumbled, 1 lime in wedges

Directions 

  1. Toss the vegetables with olive oil to coat, salt and roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.
  2. Place roasted vegetables in soup pot with 1 cup stock. Puree lightly with immersion blender leaving a bit of texture.  Add remaining stock, hominy, and cilantro stems tied with string.
  3. Bring to a boil simmer 15 minutes to blend flavors.  Adjust seasoning.
  4. Remove cilantro, serve in bowls and pass garnishes.  Serves 4.

 

Slow Cooker Strategies for the Impatient

Slow cookers have had a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the slow food movement and technology.  Once referred to as a crock pot, the new breed can have all manner of shapes from oval, oblong, and round, and a variety of settings from browning to completely programmable.

In my current small space living, I was attracted by its size and the minimal power it demands. My 2-quart cooker uses a maximum of 95 watts—a light bulb can draw more than that!  In this small size, I can plan on 3 to 5 servings, depending on the menu.

Many drop a concoction of odds and ends into their slow cooker, set it on low, and 8 to 10 hours later dinner is served. Give me time, I haven’t reached the dump mode yet.

Admittedly, I’m impatient, and watching the slow cooker perform is up there with watching grass grow.  Nothing seems to be happening—especially if you keep lifting the lid.  Some warn that every time the lid is removed you lose 20 minutes of cooking time. Yes, I have learned that this can set you into a deficit mode where nothing is happening at all.

If I’m home for an afternoon, I love firing up the slow cooker mid-day and let homey aromas waft about as dinner simmers away ‘unattended’. I theorize, I’m up for just about anything that will cook on high in 4 hours or so.  Even tough country pork spare ribs become fork tender in that amount of time!

To make that happen requires a little advance planning. Avoid placing ingredients in the pot that are extremely cold or frozen. Bring them to room temperature in advance.  If working with extremely perishable items like meats, remove from fridge 20-30 minutes ahead.

Begin by preheating the slow cooker while prepping ingredients.  Lead off with items that take the longest to cook and add as they are prepared.  Pre-heat liquids before adding to pot. I keep a microwave-safe measuring container on hand for a quick reheat in the microwave.

One afternoon recently this warming Navy Beans and Kale Soup simmered away on my counter.navy-bean-kale-soupIt is nearly a no-brainer, but not quite in the ready-set-dump genre.  A couple slices of chopped bacon were added to the pot first, just enough flavor to get things going.  Once the bacon softened, the onion, garlic, and fresh dried herbs were ready for the pot. By the time they were aromatic the carrot and green pepper were prepped and dropped in. Then, the rinsed, soaked beans and about 2 cups heated chicken stock were added. This was left to simmer away undisturbed for about 3 hours (except for a quick peek/stir once an hour). Depending on the pot, more hot liquid may be necessary.

About 45 to 60 minutes before serving the cut up kale was added. Thirty minutes ahead the sausage or any pre-cooked meat items was stirred in.  Shredded Parmesan makes a terrific topping.

Navy Beans and Kale Soup, Slow Cooked

Ingredients
2 slices bacon, chop
½ small onion, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
½ teaspoon dried herbs each or your choice: rosemary, thyme, savory
1 bay leaf
1 dried hot red chile pepper, seed and crush
1 small carrot, chop
1 small pasilla, poblano or other pepper, seed, chop
1 cup navy beans, soaked overnight, rinse and drain
2 cups simmering chicken stock or chicken bouillon plus water, more as needed
salt and pepper to taste
½ bunch kale, stem and chop
2 pre-cooked andouille franks, cut into chunks
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese, for topping if desired

Directions

  1. Heat slow cooker to high, adding ingredients as they are cut up.
  2. Add the beans, pour in the boiling stock or bouillon and simmer about 3 hours; half way add salt and pepper.
  3. About 45 to 60 minutes before serving stir in the kale. Thirty minutes out add the andouille, simmer and adjust seasoning. Serve with Parmesan cheese if desired. Yield: about 4 servings.

 

Fast and Slurpable: Sweet Potato Vermicelli

Feeling the weight of holiday festivities?  Too many cookies and rich food taking its toll?  This little number worked for me last night.

I have been reading good things about sweet potato noodles lately.  Some accounts put them ahead of mung bean glass noodles, a longtime favorite.   Described as clear, thicker than bean threads, slightly chewy and slippery; all of this caught my attention.  I’m not going out on a limb and advocating them for a paleo diet, that’s not my focus.  I’m looking for light, somewhat filling, a canvas for other foods.

Yesterday I headed to my favorite Asian market and sought out the advice of the owner.  I left loaded with the sweet potato noodles and a few other items to go along with them.  Her point was that you can make a quick, satisfying meal with just a few handy items: your favorite noodle, Memmi—a popular Kikkoman style soup base, perhaps sriracha for additional seasoning, vegetables, and any other protein that inspires you.Sweet Potato noodles fixings (505x640)

While at the vegetable cooler she recommended kai-lan, a baby bok choy looking item with thicker broccoli-like stems.  She suggested slicing the stems up and cooking them first and then adding the tops, which take no time at all. Any of the baby Asian greens will do, but the kai-lan has a sweet, mild quality which works nicely here.

Surimi (480x640) (478x552)I was a little dubious at the frozen case when she pointed out all sorts  of gray meat balls and tiny sausage shaped items. But, in the spirit of the moment I went for gobo maki, a fried sausage seafood on the order of crab surimi that’s made with bream and burdock.  Since it is cooked, simply add it to the noodles at the last minute. She claims all of these choices are mildly flavored to absorb seasonings of the base blend.

When dinnertime rolls around, all it takes to pull this together is a soup pot of boiling water and about 10 minutes.  There’s no stir-fry or fussing around with inventive steps.  It’s probably what Top Ramen is probably supposed to be:Sweet potato noodles (640x480)  A few good noodles, some fresh veggies, and just enough broth to make it all extremely slurpable.

Slurpable Sweet Potato Noodles

2-3 oz. sweet potato vermicelli
2 tbsps or more Memmi noodle base, or Kikkoman soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp sriracha or chili garlic sauce, to taste
½ cup or more hot water
1 small bunch baby kai-lan (baby Chinese kale or broccoli), baby bok choy, or tender broccoli
1 small carrot, shredded
1-2 fried surimi seafood, or 1/3 cup fresh cooked shrimp
1-2 scallions, sliced
Salt and pepper

  1. For the seasoning blend:  In a small bowl combine the noodle base, sesame oil, and sriracha and part of the water to thin.
  2. To prep the vegetables:  Trim the ends of the kai-lan and slice the stems into ¼” thick ovals and slice the greens into 1” wide strips.  Peel the carrot; using peeler continue to slice into long peels.  Slice the green onion at an angle into thin ovals and set aside.
  3. To cook the noodles: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for 5 minutes, stirring to break up.  When they are tender all the way through (don’t overcook) scoop into colander, drain and rinse well. Cut into shorter lengths with scissors.
    Place them in a soup bowl and toss them with the seasoning blend.
  4. To blanch the greens: After the noodles have been removed from the lightly boiling water, add the thicker stems of the kai-lan and cook a minute or two before adding the leaves and carrot.  Cook a minute or two longer until all are tender-crisp.  Remove to drain lightly and add to noodles in bowl along with surimi or shrimp, tossing to combine.
  5. Adjust the preferred amount of broth with additional hot water.   Sprinkle with the green onion and season further with sriracha or salt and pepper to taste.

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

Now that we are heading into cooler weather, soup is beginning to look good again.  Here’s a tasty and fun soup that inspired my imagination because it immediately reminded me of my old favorite, Won Ton Soup—without all the work that goes into it.

I must be getting lazy. I’ve always enjoyed won ton making and have viewed the process of filling and folding and pressing each little won ton as relaxing and meditative.  I was intrigued; the further I studied the recipe, the more it resembled Won Ton Soup with its similar components, but lacked the cute little dumplings.  Perhaps this deconstructed version would yield a similar outcome without the fuss… I was all over it!

Credit for this soup goes to Jessie Price’s recipe Brothy Chinese Noodles in The Simple Art of EatingWell, where it is described as being inspired by Chinese Dan noodles.  Upon further investigation I learned that Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles are known for being spicy hot and frequently are served with very little broth.  For more background on Dan Dan Noodles, see Appetite for China.

With soup on my brain, I certainly wasn’t disappointed with EatingWell’s variation; it was beyond everything I had imagined. The soup broth has more flavor than my usual Won Ton Soup because it begins with ground turkey (beef or pork) broken into large chunks, browned in sesame oil along with ginger, garlic, and scallions, and then it is all removed.  The stock is built on the lovely brown bits left in the bottom of the pot and further enhanced by soy sauce and rice vinegar.  With the Chinese penchant for perfectly clear stock, this might appear a bad idea, but since the soup is already filled with chunks of ground meat, it really doesn’t matter.

Steamy soup pot

Steamy soup pot

I added bok choy,  hot peppers and other vegetables that would cook quickly along with the noodles. I opted for my current favorite, somen noodles, which gave the soup an even deeper, heartier flavor.

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

I finished the meal-in-a-bowl off with cayenne dusted cucumber strips and green onions.  In the blink of an eye the soup was done, with nary a flick of the wrist…

Inside-Out Won Ton Soup

A zesty soup that calls for slurping; inspired by Brothy Chinese Noodles in The Simple Art of EatingWell by Jessie Price.    

Ingredients
1 Tbsp hot sesame oil
1 lb ground turkey
1 cup scallions, sliced, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 cup baby portabella mushrooms, sliced
Red pepper flakes to taste
6 cups chicken broth
3 cups thinly sliced bok choy
½ cup red hot or mild pepper strips or small rings
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
8 oz somen noodles, or dried Chinese noodles
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 small cucumber, sliced into matchsticks

Directions 

  1. In a large saucepan, heat sesame oil over medium heat.  Add turkey, ½ cup scallions, garlic and ginger, stirring gently to break up turkey, but keep some clumps. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until no liquid remains.  Remove to a bowl.
  2. Deglaze the pan with a little broth, scraping to loosen bits of meat adhering to bottom of pan.  Over medium heat, add all the broth and the vegetables as they are cut up.  When it comes to a boil, add the noodles and the turkey mixture, reduce heat slightly and stir occasionally until the noodles are tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. Adjust seasoning and serve topped with scallions and cucumber.  Serves 6.

Cherishing Chorizo

Recently I had the very good fortune of once again enjoying some of the amazing Spanish chorizo made in Boise, Idaho where there is a very active Basque community.  It had been way too long since my last bonanza, and this was just as good as I remembered!

Try throwing a few of these incredible sausages on the grill, and you will know what I am talking about.  We gorged ourselves silly and could eat no more, yet I still managed to stash a few in the freezer for another day.

cherished chorizo

Cherished Chorizo

Yes, this lean sausage is the stuff that dreams are made of: cured pork predominantly laced with garlic and pimentón―a Spanish paprika that ranges from sweet to hot, and is often smoked. If you enjoy the nuances of smoked flavoring, this luxe seasoning is definitely worth seeking out.  It has endless applications beyond beans, sauces, marinades, salad dressings…it’s even tasty on buttered popcorn.

This past weekend I knew I had another winner on my hands when I decided to whip up a quick soup with kale and garbanzo beans.

Garbanzo, Kale, and Spanish Chorizo Soup

Garbanzo, Kale, and Spanish Chorizo Soup

How lucky was I to have just enough Spanish chorizo in the freezer to elevate this to a world class soup?   All it needed was a dash of pimentón for added depth and a splash of sherry vinegar for brightness.  So simple, so stylish… so good!

Note:  Spanish chorizo should not be confused with the popular Mexican varieties which tend to be softer due to a higher fat content, and flavored with cumin, chilies, and other traditional Mexican spices. Both chorizos are delicious, but they are absolutely nothing alike.

Garbanzo, Kale and Chorizo Soup

Inspired by Cooking Light magazine, September 2010

Ingredients
1 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 oz Spanish chorizo, diced
1 carrot, peeled, diced (optional)
½ tsp oregano
½ tsp smoked paprika
1 medium Roma tomato, seeded, chopped
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
14 oz. canned garbanzo beans, drained
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water, approximate
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
5-6 cups kale or escarole, chopped

Directions 

  1. Over medium, heat the olive oil in a soup pot; add the onion and  garlic and sauté until aromatic, 3-4 minutes. Add the chorizo, carrot, oregano and smoked paprika and cook 5 minutes.
  2. Stir in the tomato, salt and pepper, the garbanzo beans, chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Add additional water as needed for a stew-like consistency.
  3. Just before serving, add the sherry vinegar and the kale or escarole and simmer briefly until wilted.
  4. Adjust seasoning and serve. Yield 4 servings.

Small Space Cuisine: Gumbo

I’m fascinated by small spaces―especially tiny kitchens.  Nothing is more challenging than creating great food under peculiar conditions.

Maybe that’s why I loved my time cooking on the water and making the best of whatever came my way:  on sailboats, dive boats, mega yachts―even private tropical islands, where crucial resources such as power and water are often limited.

Smaller spaces tend to make for greater efficiency since everything is within arm’s reach.  However, planning ahead is key since success depends radically on optimizing all that is readily available.

In a limited setting one-pot cuisine is a natural solution for enticing,well-balanced meals.  It might be necessary to make a few concessions along the way, but it will still be amazing.  For example, depending on equipment and space constraints, you might want to re-consider when and where to include a starch.  Perhaps it will make more sense to add it directly to the pot rather than cooking it separately.

Nothing beats gumbo when it comes to meal-time flexibility. Gumbo

By its very nature, gumbo lends itself to tons of variation, too.  Here, nutritional value is easily bumped up by the addition of hearty greens, and full-flavored black-eyed peas, precooked or canned, become a handy, satisfying support component.

For an authentic gumbo flavor, be sure to include the roux process.  Although it is time consuming, this is not a step to skip, and can be done well ahead.  Begin by slowly browning the oil and flour; when you’ve developed a rich, deep mahogany color add the vegetables to the roux.  Include protein such as ham, sausage, or chicken plus some handy dried herbs like thyme and bay; you can even add rice for toasting at this point.   Dilute it all with a good chicken stock, throw in your greens if desired, and let it all simmer 20-30 minutes, until the greens are tender.

If serving rice separately, consider one of the easy microwaveable pouches of basmati― ready in less than two minutes.  Here’s a basic recipe which allows for plenty of adaptation.

Gumbo with Black-eyed Peas and Ham

Ingredients
2-3 Tbsp. oil
¼ cup flour
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
2 cups smoked ham, cubed
2 cups sausage, andouille, polish, or garlic sausage of choice, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 -2 jalapeno peppers, seeded minced
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tomato, seeded and chopped, or 8 oz can diced tomatoes
1 qt chicken stock, or more
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp red pepper flakes or cayenne, to taste
14 oz can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1-2 lbs tender greens, kale, collard or spinach cleaned, stemmed, cup up
2 tsp file powder, optional
Add-ons:
2 cups cooked basmati rice, 1/2 cup chopped green onions, hot sauce

Directions

  1. In a soup pot over medium, heat the oil; add the flour and stir occasionally for 20-30 minutes until it reaches a deep mahogany color.
  2. Add the onion and garlic to the roux, stirring until aromatic and the onion has softened.  Add the jalapeno pepper, the dried herbs, the ham and sausage, and cook briefly to combine.
  3. Add the tomato and slowly stir in the stock, season with salt, pepper and cayenne; add the black-eyed peas and the greens if using, and cook until they are tender 20-30 minutes.  Stir in spinach just before serving.
  4. To thicken gumbo further file powder can be added just before serving, allow it to briefly simmer until it thickens.  Adjust seasoning and serve hot topped with hot rice, green onions and hot sauce.  Serves 4 or more.