Soupe de la Semaine: Nässelsoppa, the Stinging Nettle Soup from Sweden

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In a perfect world, I’d have a beautiful serving shot for you, but I froze the soup for a friend, so here’s one I nicked from the Queen of Kammebornia.

I’m continually surprised by the lengths to which our species will go to get food. Olives give us stomach aches straight from the tree? Maybe soak them in lye, then, because a little lye makes everything tasty. Rhubarb leaves are potentially deadly? Okay, let’s just harvest the stalks, and see if they won’t kill us. Nettles sting us when we touch them? Then we’ll boil them, and then perhaps they won’t sting.

I completely apprehend the ancient sensibility of finding local greens, boiling them, and consuming the broth. In every culture, you can find some version of this basic idea. Maritimers all over the globe even harvested seaweed, which makes for a magnificent, if humble, soup.

So far, a credible origin story for the Swedish version of this soup has not emerged, but since there are similar versions of it in Ireland, Scotland, and Native American culture, I’m presuming that the arc of its development was probably not that of something being spread from a single source, but a soup with a parallel evolution wherever Urtica dioica flourished (originally Europe, Asia, and western North Africa, but now pretty much everywhere). The bottom line is that it is ancient, dating back to the Bronze Age, and if something has persisted that long, there’s a reason.

I dug through dozens of recipes to arrive at this one, many of them Google Translated from Swedish. If you go out hunting on your own, don’t be put off by instructions for chopping nostrils, or be dissuaded by “raspberry soup” mistranslations. So long as you handle the raw nettles with care, your nostrils are safe. You will want to use gloves or tongs for the initial cleansing, though. Gotta respect a plant that employs not only miniscule thorns, but also formic acid, to try to keep itself safe from the likes of soup-making us.

This can easily be adapted to a vegan recipe by omitting the eggs, crème fraîche/sour cream, and chicken stock. Be sure to use a really good vegetable stock to get the depth of flavour the soup deserves. Roasting the vegetables before putting them in the stock is a must for this recipe.

Have a care with these before they’re given the hot broth bath.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
500g / 1 lb stinging nettle shoots and leaves
1 liter / 4 cups good quality chicken or vegetable stock
500ml / 2 cups water
5-10g / 1-2 tsp salt
1-2g / 1-2 tsp dried thyme
pinch white pepper
20g / 2 tablespoons potato starch (or corn starch)
4 hard boiled eggs
10-20 chives, chopped
250 ml / 1 cup crème fraîche, optional (sour cream may be substituted)

Ready for the purée.

DIRECTIONS
Rinse nettles thoroughly, picking out grass and any foreign objects, then drain. In a large pan, heat the oil, thyme, salt, and white pepper, and then sauté the onion for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the water and stock. Bring to a boil and then add nettles. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Using immersion blender, purée soup until smooth (or use food processor/VitaMix). Dissolve the potato starch in a little water and stir it into the soup. Bring back to a gentle boil, stirring regularly until it thickens slightly. Check and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot with quartered or halved hard-boiled eggs, chopped chives, and a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche.

Despite what Kermit said, it actually is easy being green.

Turned On by Turon

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Miss World 2013 Megan Young pops by Chaaste Family Market. She looks better in a leather skirt than I do.

In many ways, Angelenos are quintessentially American by being quintessentially provincial. To be sure, Los Angeles is segregated by politics and wealth distribution and ethnicity, but it is also segregated by zones where people Just Won’t Go. Part of this is a logical response to the most mercurial traffic density in the Continental 48: a journey of five miles can range from anywhere between eight and eighty minutes to complete. So people settle into their zone. Some won’t venture east of the 405, some won’t travel south of the 10, or cross the “Orange Curtain” that divides California’s first and third most populous counties. Santa Clarita? Long Beach? You may as well be on Deimos or Phobos, my friends.

It’s only about 19 miles (or 30 kilometers) as the crow flies between the Westwood campus of UCLA and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (where their team plays its home games in men’s football). And — it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much — that’s about the only time (except for New Year’s, obvs) you’ll find a dedicated mass of people from Westwood struggling across town to visit said city.

But thanks to a friend’s medical appointment, I found myself in Pasadena, which is gorgeous even when it’s not hauling rose-festooned floats down its streets. It was also, until 10 days ago, the home of the late Jonathan Gold, the only food critic in American history to have won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. We never met, much to my dismay, even though he was friends with a number of our friends, and I’m sure we could have arranged an intro. And there was the time at the now-shuttered Corazón y Miel — a restaurant his column introduced to us — when the bride and I saw him sit down to a solitary Sunday meal and decided to let him dine in peace. That was also the day that I learned (thanks to his recommendation) deep-fried avocado is spectacular.

But I digress.

With a couple of unscheduled hours before me as I awaited my pal Valerie’s eyes to dilate like a Disney Princess‘ and then return to something like normal, I headed out for some east side exotica. And I wound up at Chaaste Family Market.

Still life with Honda. Those are spare recyclable grocery bags in the back seat, not the World’s Saddest Balloons.

Initially, I was just poking around for ingredients. It’s a hobby of mine to find the most unusual/exotic/counterintuitive ingredient I can, take it home, then read about it and figure out how to use it. That’s how I once wound up with a bag full of this, for instance:

Actually perhaps the least effective marketing campaign on behalf of mushrooms this millennium.

The bride said, “You’re not going to bring home a bunch of stuff that you’re gonna leave on the counter for months, are you?” I swore I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t have placed a two-bit bet on whether I was lying or not. I very nearly returned with a box of “Puto,” which as near as I can tell makes a bao-like dough for steaming and stuffing. Those of you from SoCal or for whom Spanglish is a second language already know that puto has a second, and very different, meaning.

This might be the only photo of puto in a box that my website provider would allow me to host.

But judging from the signage, it seemed that la délicatesse du jour was something called turon. [You can find examples of people making them here, here, and here.] Apparently, the day’s turon output was due to start rolling out to the public at 13:30, about half an hour away. I considered making my exit — “Be back at 1:30!” — with about a 10% chance of actually being back at 1:30. But things were slow, and the very friendly proprietor (whom I would later find out is the owner’s son Chris, pictured at the right of the photo at top), said, “It could be a little earlier than that. Why not hang out for a few minutes, if you’ve got time?”

Funky and functional.

Time I had. And attached to their market is a little restaurant, with room for 20 in a pinch. Maybe. If they were friends. It’s decorated in the way that lots of the best eateries in the world are, which is to say minimally. A mural depicts the founders riding in their horse-drawn wedding coach across a bridge from the Philippines to America. It also features the second generation, in various guises. And Manny Pacquiao, because, well, the Philippines. [I’m not being snotty or superior about this in any way, because the Maritimes from which I come has restaurants that boast of Anne Murray and/or Sidney Crosby; gotta support the locals.]

Not 100% sure of tall he iconography here, but it’a a cool mural.

What little knowledge I had of Pinoy food was mostly hastily acquired when I was recruited by a chef pal to participate in a relief effort for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan; I was part of the crew he organized to throw a benefit fund-raising dinner. My contribution was calamansi chewies. So, ignorant but open, I placed myself in the hands of my host, something I often do; after all, who better to know what’s good?

Rice is nice.

We moved onto some steam table items, and settled on bistek, beef giniling guisado (which Chris told me his Latino friends refer to as “hamburger helper”), pancit bihon (a dish very like a vegetable-laden vermicelli mix, though it can also feature a variety of proteins), and, of course, the rice.

From left, clockwise: bistek, giniling guisado, pancit bihon, rice. Yum.

It was a right tasty meal, especially the bistek, whose broth had the depth of a Borges short story collection. Came to a grand total of $8.10, which has to be one of the best under-$10 meals I’ve had in America. Is it worth hacking one’s way through the ugly maw that is Los Angeles traffic to partake of it on a daily basis? Probably not. Will it be at the top of my list the next time I find myself in the neighbourhood? You bet.

The best of both worlds: Christian halfway between the market and the restaurant.

Ah, but then.

Part of me wants to believe that the omitted apostrophe is entirely intentional, and a nod to the French; after all, Mama’s turon is so good it just flies out the door, so it’s no surprise she would find herself without any. Mama Sans Turon, indeed. It’s like an egg roll and a banana and a churro and some jackfruit went up to heaven and asked if they could borrow some manna and have a baby together.

Magic and happiness, fried in tandem.

Like clockwork, at 13:30, the shop began to fill with turon fans. The first few were warned not to try them right away, as the turons were just slightly cooler than a meteorite hitting the lower atmosphere. And after I watched several happy clusters of customers drift off, I joined them, turon package in tow, in sweet (and fried) bliss. So by all means do make your way over some day, plan it around lunch, and surprise your couch- (or house-) bound friends with a little manna that found its path from heaven via Manila and Pasadena.

Summer Vegan Bean Salad I

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Bless you, Steve Sando.

Summertime, and the livin’ is… damn sticky, for the nonce, in Southern California. And there’s another heat wave coming. The last thing I want to do is to, say, sit over a pot of saffron risotto for an hour. I’d like something cool, and refreshing, and clean, and if I were able to subsist on gin and tonic or Croma Vera Albariño, well, I’d probably do that. My doctor might suggest some other course; I bet she’d be just fine with this one.

The first trick to any bean salad is — duh — great beans. I’ve long extolled the virtues of Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans, and that’s where I started. The bride and I are particularly fond of their Royal Corona beans, which are kin to the Gigandes plaki, often spelled as yigandes, used in the great Greek meze served under an expansive canopy of tomato sauce and often accompanied by Feta cheese and bread. Rancho Gordo founder Sando is something of a bean whisperer, and cultivates heirloom beans all over the world, working with local farmers at fair prices. He is a hero, full stop.

The second trick to a good bean salad is a balance of flavours and textures. No one wants a limp bean any more than they want a wet noodle — and I mean that literally and figuratively. When I knew I would be building off a base of Royal Corona beans, I compiled a culinary dance card of prospective partners, seen below. Since this is a really adaptable bean, I knew I could go off in several directions, but not all at once. So: I decided to make it Vegan. I knew sun-dried tomatoes and marinated red bell peppers would be part of it for colour and taste and texture. Then it was a matter of filling in gaps. Celery for crunch. Capers for salt and tang. Slivered almonds for more crunch. Macerated red onion for a little assertiveness, but not too much, hence the maceration. Scallions and parsley for herbaceousness and colour. Fresh thyme for extra aromatics. There were some herbs and oil in the sun-dried tomatoes, and I decided to use them rather than rinse them off, and finish off the salad dressing as needed.

NOT “5 Livered Almonds.” The pen was malfunctioning.

This is truly a salad that can be assembled by an elementary schooler, as soon as she can be trusted with a knife (and has the upper body strength to open vacuum-packed bottles, or can inveigle someone to do it for her).

Macerating the onion in this case consists of dicing it and dropping it in a bowl with enough water to cover it, dumping in a glug — that’s a technical term — of some sort of vinegar, and about .5 cup / 170 g of sugar, then stirring it up and setting it into the fridge for an hour or so, to blunt the onion’s sharpness. It’s not quite a quick pickle, but it does temper its aggressiveness.

As for the beans, I made them in my Instant Pot®. Rinsed them, covered them with water, and set the pressure on high for 25 minutes with a natural release. You can soak them overnight if you wish, and cook them in a trad soup pot (I do this in winter, just for the atmosphere), but I was shooting for fast results. I drained the cooked beans and rinsed them with cold tap water, then dumped them in with the already macerating onion to cool them down some more. Kilotonnes of options here, feel free to follow your path.

Give it a bit to mingle flavours, and you may or may not want to top it with a vinaigrette. As it turned out for me, just a few drops of great old Balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of black sea salt flakes (the flakes were black due to charcoal; they weren’t from the Black Sea) finished it off nicely, even on the second day.

Summer Vegan Bean Salad I
Serves 6-8 as a main course, with extras

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. / 454 g dried Rancho Gordo Royal Corona Beans, hydrated and cooked
24 oz. / 680 g (2 bottles, 12 oz./340 g each) marinated red peppers, drained
25-30 capers
3 large stalks celery, diced
1 red onion, diced and macerated (see note above)
1 bunch scallions (10-12), sliced
1 cup / 60 g chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp / 2.4 g fresh thyme, finely minced
16 oz. / 454 g julienned sun-dried tomatoes in oil (using the oil)
.75 cup / 85 g slivered almonds

Next go, we may find room for some of those other ingredients on the dance card, plus cucumber, jicama, nopalito, or something else!

Incidentally, if you’re not wedded to the Vegan thing, bacon & bleu cheese, prosciutto & Parmesan, or even chicken & chevre could be welcome additions.

One final and sad note: As I was writing this, I learned that the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold died. He was as much a part of this city’s cultural life as Jim Murray or Jack Smith; he was the culinary literary equivalent for this city of the likes of Mike Royko or Studs Terkel or Herb Caen. He is simply irreplaceable, and his passing at 57 is too soon by decades. I cannot begin to imagine how much our lives will be impoverished by his absence.

http://www.latimes.com/food/jonathan-gold/

At $9 A Liter, Aneto Chicken Broth Is A Steal.

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Worth its weight in chicken.

I know, I know. For that amount of money you could buy THREE liters of chicken broth. You’d probably be better off mixing this with two liters of water, actually, if price is your sole criterion.

Full disclosure: Due to an upcoming medical procedure during which they insert a video camera up into the shadiest area of my body (i.e., “where the sun don’t shine”), I am currently on a liquid diet. Chicken broth is permitted. I decided to use this opportunity to test drive a suggestion I came across while writing the article on fideuà inauténtico. My research for that piece led me to an excellent food blog called The Daring Gourmet, which features not only recipes, but also product reviews, travel and health tips, restaurant reviews, and more. [You should visit it after you’re done reading this.]

They wrote an article about their visit to the Aneto factory in Artes, Spain, that I found completely captivating. Enough so that I was willing to plunk down $27 to pick up three liters of the broth as part of my hydration regime, knowing I would be renting it for not much longer than it will take you to finish watching the final episode of The Americans this evening.

I had considered myself a fairly savvy shopper, and the chicken broth in the pantry was Kroeger’s Simple Truth Organic Free Range Chicken Broth Fat Free, which I bought at the local Ralphs for about $1.99 or so. But compare the ingredient list between Aneto (at left) and Kroeger (at right).

The boxes are the same size, but that’s where the similarities end.

As Kimberly of The Daring Gourmet pointed out in her article,

    To be called “broth” the USDA only requires a Moisture-Protein Ratio (MPR) of 1:135. That’s 1 part chicken to 135 parts water. That translates as 1 ounce of chicken per gallon of water. As unbelievable as that sounds, we’re understandably left asking, “So where’s the chicken in the chicken broth?”

Indeed.

On the left, the Aneto broth. On the right, the Kroeger. Which one do you suppose has more chicken (and, for that matter, flavour)?

I don’t want to come across as picking on Kroeger; it’s one of the best of the conventional chicken broths. The problem is that we in the United States just don’t set the bar very high (another issue addressed at The Daring Gourmet). And most of us aren’t drinking our chicken broth straight. But I gotta say, from the bottom of my taste buds, that Aneto is to conventional chicken broth what a Maybach or a McLaren is to a Vauxhall Viva.

Of course, you could make your own stock. That gives you the option to tweak the taste, and it’s possible to make a stock that’s even better than what Aneto sells. But it takes time to buy and prepare the ingredients, and if you want to get some economy of scale, it also requires a significant amount of freezer space, so those costs deserve to be considered. I come from a family where it was considered to be something of a crime to let potential soup bones go to waste, so I do make my own stock from time to time, but it’s usually with veggies that are a mere few days away from becoming a science project, plus a fresh onion (I always have those). I rarely — read “never” — set out to make a big batch of stock from scratch with purpose-bought vegetables. Plus, Aneto makes really good stock, and it’s always handy to have some room-temp broth in the pantry even if your freezer is (ahem) well-stocked.

Appended to their 2016 article, The Daring Gourmet thoughtfully provided a list of stores across the USA where Aneto is sold (the company also make a ton of broths that are not sold in the US, such as their Caldo Natural de Jamón). I got mine at the local Sur La Table; I could have saved a couple bucks a unit had I bought a six-pack through Amazon, but I failed to plan ahead that far. Idiot me. Over the next few hours, I’m sure I will have ample time to sit and contemplate the error of my ways.

Meanwhile, go read the Aneto story!

Fidella? Paedeuà? Maybe We Should Just Call It Fideuà Inauténtico.

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A little bit of Valencia, a little bit of Catalunya, a little bit of Inglewood.

If you’ve ever been to Spain — and even if you haven’t — there’s a fair likelihood that you have at some point encountered paella, that rice-based Valencian marvel redolent of saffron and pimentón de la Vera. Believe it or not, the paella you treasure in your taste buds’ memory is likely, in a word, inauténtico. Paella, like pizza and pretzels, rallies a passionate coterie of prescriptivists to its bosom, each claiming that a single path alone leads to the culinary ecstasy prized by gourmands. Yeah, bunk.

The earliest precursor to paella I could find dates to about 1520, when the notes of the master chef to Ferdinand I, Rupert de Nola (who, despite his name, was not from New Orleans), were codified into Libre del Coch (later Libro de Guisados), said to be the first printed cookbook in Catalan (and, some further allege, in Spain). It seems to have been compiled originally in 1477, which indicates that book publishers back then maintained the same sort of leisurely release schedule they do today.

What? A book without pictures? Depends on your edition.

But I digress. According to Saveur magazine, the original Valencian paella was likely cobbled together from local ingredients. Rice was a Moorish legacy dating back to the overthrow of the Visigoths in 711, and Arab traders brought saffron to the region a couple hundred years later. Then, all they had to do was add some veggies and protein, and presto! It’s said that snails (which sound much tastier in Spanish, as caracoles) and rabbits were often featured, as were local beans. [Beans and rice? How is it that there’s no paella burrito food truck in Los Angeles? Maybe this.] In any event, the natives are passionate about what is and is not authentic (even when they disagree on specifics), but what else would you expect from citizens of a town that sports its own rice museum?

In the early 20th century, one Valencian had gone completely heretical, not only adding seafood to paella, but substituting noodles for rice! There are competing legends surrounding the origin of fideuá, one of which portrays it as an accident by a chef who had run out of rice, another concerning a chef who attempted to dissuade a gluttonous sea captain by ostensibly making his paella less palatable with noodles. Whatever the truth, the dish became a hit, though it migrated up the coast into Catalunya for its most elegant expression.

While I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of Spanish cuisine, I’m not above a cultural mashup (I am going to pull together a paella burrito one of these days!), so I assembled a dish I proudly call Fideuà Inauténtico. [I once worked with a multiple Grammy-nominated art director who occasionally said, “Go ugly early.” I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but it seems to apply here.] I will note that, as with many of the recipes found on this blog, this is more of a suggestion than an absolutist set of instructions.

Developing the socarrat.

Fideuà Inauténtico
Serves approximately 4 to 6, with a little left over

NOTE: This was made in a 16″ Staub pan designed for cooking paella. Technically, the pan is also called a paella, so saying “paella pan” is as redundant as saying “La Brea Tar Pits.” Mine is rather heavy and thick, while the traditional Spanish version of the pan is thin. The size and weight of your pan will affect cooking time, so have a care. The ultimate goal is for the pasta to absorb the liquid, and to develop a bit of a crust (or socarrat). While the dish as pictured was made on top of my ancient O’Keefe and Merritt stovetop, I often use my outdoor gas grill for this dish, because it produces a superior socarrat, thanks to the larger burners and higher BTU output.

INGREDIENTS
2 packages fideo pasta* (7 oz. / 400 g each)
½ cup / 120 ml extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
1 pound / ½ kg boneless chicken thighs, cooked and chopped
1 – 2 teaspoons / 2½ – 5 g pimentón de la Vera (sweet/dulce if you have it, but bittersweet/agridulce or hot/picante work fine)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds / 1 kg tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or two 14-oz / 400 g cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
20-24 large shrimp, tail on, uncooked
8 oz. / 225 g link of Spanish chorizo** cut into 20 or so slices
3½ – 4 cups / 820 – 940 ml of stock (I used chicken stock, but fish or veggie or beef would work fine also), heated
⅛ – ¼ teaspoon / .09 – .17 g saffron (not really very much, because it’s super expensive, but you can add more if you want)
¼ cup / 60 ml dry Spanish white wine such as Albariño (optional)
Salt to taste

*Angel hair pasta and vermicelli also work well, so long as they are in broken into short pieces and you adjust the cooking time and amount of liquid so they don’t get overcooked. Spaghetti, on the other hand, is too thick.
**Spanish chorizo, unlike Mexican chorizo, is cured and has the texture of a hard sausage.

DIRECTIONS

Cook chicken thighs in advance, using whatever method you prefer. I braised mine in wine, intending to finish them off with a little browning on the gas grill, but I skipped that step for time’s sake, and it worked out fine. In fact, I made the thighs the previous night, and just chopped them up the following evening. I saved the cooking juices to combine with the stock.

Heat the stock in a saucepan to simmer; you will be adding it in a bit at a time later in the recipe.

In large paella pan (sic), combine olive oil and fideo over high heat; brown fideo to golden colour, stirring frequently (don’t worry if some gets a little too dark, just don’t burn it). Add pimentón de la Vera and onion and cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking about one minute. If it looks like the fideo is getting too dark, splash in a little stock or wine and allow it to evaporate.

Add tomatoes, cooked chicken, chorizo, shrimp, and saffron, arranging them in the pan evenly. Begin pouring stock in a bit at a time (about 40% the first time, then 20% or so with each subsequent pour), allowing it to reduce a bit before adding more. DO NOT STIR, because this will mess with the formation of the socarrat. [You can sample the pasta along the way, checking to see if it has gone from crunchy to al dente. Typically, fideo requires only 4-5 minutes in boiling water.] A couple of minutes after the first stock addition, flip over the shrimp. When they are cooked, they’ll turn from grey to pink and white. You may need to turn them over a couple of times to get them there. Should you run out of stock, you can add a bit of dry wine, such as Albariño, or even a dry rosé. It’s also possible that you may not need to use all your stock. Let your tastebuds be your guide. If the pasta’s done and the shrimp are pink, you’re good to go. Allow the liquid to evaporate, take the pan off flame, and let it sit for a 3-5 minutes to help build the socarrat.

Lift portions out of pan with spatula, making sure to scrape off the socarrat in the process. It is traditionally served with allioli, a kind of garlic mayo that can be made in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Possibly due to the number of margaritas I had consumed, I skipped this step. It tasted fine without the condiment.

Just about fork-ready.

The Power of Food / LA Times Food Bowl Event

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Food — not parking — included.

To close out May Day 2018, the bride and I attended an LA Times Food Bowl function at The Wiltern that commingled elements of Iron Chef, a cable news roundtable, and a spiritual revival. The topic was “The Power of Food,” and featured guests including internationally recognized chef and humanitarian José Andrés, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, actress and food activist Zooey Deschanel, guerilla urban gardening advocate Ron Finley, restaurateur and author Susan Feniger, Scratch Food Truck chef/owner Tim Kilcoyne, restaurateur and Top Chef contestant Nyesha Arrington, and L.A. Kitchen founder & CEO Robert Egger.

Zooey Deschanel and Ron Finley.

In the words of co-host Andrés, “Food is powerful because it has a history that no other profession has behind it. The Boston Tea Party was a great revolution ignited by food. The salt march led by Gandhi created the freedom of an entire nation. Food can and does change the world, and that’s what gives it such unbelievable power.

And now more than ever, it is critical to recognize that food — how we grow it, sell it, cook it, and eat it — is as important as any other issue we are facing, one that is vitally connected to our lives. From culture and energy, to art, science, the economy, national security, the environment, and health, everything is connected through food, and we need to start giving it the attention it deserves.”

L-R: L.A. Kitchen’s Robert Egger, World Central Kitchen’s José Andrés.

Chef Andrés went beyond the mere sustainability and distribution of of agricultural products to address one very large and unruly elephant in the room: immigration. If you ate this evening in America, whether you cooked your own meal or had someone prepare it for you, it’s a virtual certainty that an undocumented immigrant worker was instrumental in some portion of the chain that stretched from the farm to your table. This is a moral issue, a political issue, a social issue, an economic issue, and a human rights issue that will take contributions from all sides of the debate and all points along the political spectrum to resolve, because our present system is, in a word, untenable.

But the spirit in the room was enthusiastic, upbeat, and hopeful. As the great philosopher John Lennon once observed, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” All you need is love. Well, maybe not all you need, but it’s a good place to start.

Soupe de la Semaine: Duck Egg Drop Soup

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Soup is good food.

Let me say this right up front: working with lemongrass is a pain in the ass. When I discover pieces of it in tom kha gai, it’s always like tasty little bits of indigestible wood, and I never have a graceful way of disposing of them. In theory, you can pound it into paste, but since I don’t have a four-ton press hanging about, I haven’t done that. I may try chopping it up and popping it in the Vita-Mixer with a little liquid to see if I can get something useful, and when that happens, I will share the consequences, even it it results in having to replace the Vita-Mixer. That said, lemongrass tastes so good, it’s worth the effort.

Today, I decided to throw about a dozen stalks and three liters of filtered water into the Instant Pot® and make, in essence, lemongrass broth. It was almost like a tea; fairly aromatic, but somewhat insubstantial, so I threw in some Better Than Bouillon stock paste for good measure. A couple of recent impulse purchases meant that I had a dozen duck eggs and a gigantic bag of Chinese leeks laying about, so I went improv in a big way. I’ve always liked egg drop soup, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. Simple simple simple.

The first chore was to clean the lemongrass, which had a fair amount of residual dirt, and then chop off the bits that weren’t going to be useful. The New York Times food section website has an excellent video on just how to do that. I did not bruise the lemongrass first, figuring that there was no need to leave any of those aromatic oils on my butcher block; the Instant Pot®’s pressure cooking function was adequate to force them into the broth. 30 minutes of high pressure with a natural release was just fine, as I was in the midst of doing other stuff at the time. Yay for multitasking, especially when a machine takes on half the tasks.

After the lemongrass broth was complete, I added the Better Than Bouillon stock paste to give the broth some heft, and added a little potato starch for thickening. The Chinese leeks are actually more similar to garlic chives than traditional leeks in taste and texture, and a quick clean and chop rendered them soup-ready. For the finale, a couple of duck eggs (or chicken eggs, if that’s what you have) pulled it all together. I could easily have gone more complex with spices or seasonings, but the stock paste brought sufficient salt into the equation, and I wanted to let the rest of the ingredients speak for themselves. A tablespoon or two of fish sauce would have been a welcome addition on some other day, and you’re welcome to play with your own mix. I can even imagine a place for some five spice powder or star anise as potential components, but on this day in this place, I opted for simplicity and it tasted fresh and good.

The technique for “dropping the egg” is pretty straightforward. whisk a couple of eggs in a Pyrex® measuring cup, then whisk a couple of ladles of the hot broth into the eggs. At that point, you can drizzle the egg-broth mixture into the hot soup a bit at a time as you stir the soup. Voila: egg threads. Done and done. I served it in bowls because it was hot and needed the surface area to cool a bit, but mugs are fine serving vessels as well.

Duck Egg Drop Soup
serves 8-12 as a starter

Tiny for leeks, aren’t they?

INGREDIENTS
3.5 liters / 15 cups water
12 stalks lemongrass, cleaned and halved (see above for technique)
3 tablespoons / 60 g Better Than Bouillon stock base
2 cups / 200 g Chinese leeks, chopped (green onions or garlic chives or leeks can be substituted)
2 duck or chicken eggs
2 tablespoons / 20 g potato starch (or corn starch)

DIRECTIONS
Clean and chop lemongrass (see video for technique). Add to Instant Pot® with 3.5 liters / 15 cups water. Turn lever on lid to “Sealing” (rather than “Venting”) and press the “Soup” button, adjusting the time to 30 minutes if necessary. When cycle is done, allow to depressurize naturally or turn lever to “Venting,” depending on your time constraints. Remove lemongrass stalks and add stock base and chopped Chinese leeks. Turn Instant Pot® off, then press the “Saute” button to heat the soup base. Whisk together potato starch and a small amount of stock (approximately 125 ml / ½ cup) to form a slurry; gradually add another 125 ml / ½ cup of stock while whisking, then add the thickened stock to the Instant Pot® container.

Crack two eggs into a Pyrex® measuring cup or other bowl, then whisk in about 250 ml / 1 cup of hot broth, stirring constantly. Drizzle that mixture into the Instant Pot® container, stirring constantly, so the egg becomes threadlike. Turn Instant Pot® off (or set to warming mode), and serve.

Curried Chickpea Smash [Vegan]

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It takes all my will to keep from eating it directly from the bowl.

Total dishes dirtied in the course of making this recipe: 1. [Plus five utensils: the can opener, potato masher, knife, fork, and measuring spoon. Oh, and I had to clean off the cutting board that lives on top of the right-hand sink.] That in itself gives this recipe a warm place in my heart.

Big ups to Jessica Prescott, from whose book Vegan Goodness: Delicious Plant-Based Recipes That Can Be Enjoyed Everyday this recipe was adapted. Further thanks to Deb Lindsey and Joe Yonan of the Washington Post, the former for making it look appetizing enough to try, and the latter for testing the recipe so I could goof with it in my own kitchen.

This takes literally about 10 minutes to pull together, even if your knife skills are as poor as mine, and it packs a wallop, taste-wise. Also, if you prefer to make this with garbanzo beans rather than chickpeas, they are an acceptable substitute.*

Curried Chickpea Smash
makes four sandwiches

INGREDIENTS

    1½ cups (one 15-ounce / 425 g can) chickpeas, drained (save the aquafaba!) and rinsed
    Flesh of 1 large ripe avocado, mashed
    2 tsp. / 10 ml extra-virgin olive oil
    2 tablespoons / 30 ml fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
    ¼-½ cup / 40-75 g finely minced red onion
    4 baby dill pickles, finely chopped (about ½ cup / 71.5 g)
    ¼-½ cup / 15-25 g finely chopped fresh cilantro/coriander (or fresh parsley)
    2 tablespoons / 13 g curry powder
    ½ tsp. / 3 g kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
    ½ tsp. / 1 g finely ground black pepper, or more to taste
    About ½ cup / 115 g lightly packed baby spinach leaves
    4 hamburger-bun-size rolls (or 8 slices of bread), toasted; or several slices of pita bread, cut into wedges for dipping

[NOTE: The amount of onion and/or coriander can vary widely according to taste. I like mine with a little more kick, which is why I go to the high end of the recommendation. Also, I use twice as much curry powder as was in the original recipe, I think partly due to my palate and the fact that my jar of curry powder has a little age on it and may have mellowed. To me, the main bar to clear is finding the right bread-to-filling ratio. If the bun is too big relative to its surface area (like a slider bun), you’ll have too much bread. On the other hand, if you toast regular sandwich bread, you need to go a little light on the filling for structure’s sake. Believe me, it’s a fun problem to have to work out.]

Next time, homemade bread.

DIRECTIONS

Combine the chickpeas, oil, and lemon juice in a medium bowl or flat bottomed storage container such as the one pictured at top. Smash with a potato masher or fork until fairly chunky (try to leave no chickpea whole). Stir in the avocado, minced onion, pickles, cilantro/coriander, curry powder, salt, and pepper. [If you are using this as a dip for pita, chop the spinach and mix it in; otherwise, reserve it for the sandwich building, directions to follow.] Taste, and adjust spices as needed (I often add more lemon juice and/or olive oil to keep it from being too dry, especially if I’m using it as a dip rather than a sandwich filling).

If you’re not using this as a dip for pita bread, place a few baby spinach leaves on the bottom halves of the toasted rolls (or bread) and top with the chickpea salad. Top with the remaining halves of the rolls/bread, and slice in half if the resulting sandwich seems unwieldy.

*Chickpeas and garbanzo beans are the same thing. That was a joke.

Soupe de la Semaine: Green Posole Soup [Vegan] [Instant Pot® recipe]

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This could actually be seriously vintage posole.

It is possible that I made soup the other evening with posole that’s older than Ariana Grande. As you can tell from the packaging, marks from the inner lining’s adhesive have bled through the external paper bag, and the very top (which had not been exposed to light) is a great deal lighter than the rest of the bag. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to Santa Fe only a couple of times in the last 30 years: once in 1990, on my honeymoon; and once in 2015, to see the Santa Fe Opera’s excellent production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. I’m sure I didn’t buy this bag of posole on the latter trip. When the bride said that it was probably from 1990, I was gobsmacked. That would have meant it survived two cross-country moves, both of which took place in the previous millennium. Oy.

That said, it was really tasty soup. Full marks to The Chile Shop in Santa Fe (which is still in business) for the quality and durability of their products.

The word “posole” (or “pozole”) originates in the Nahuatl language, and is possibly derived either from “posolli” (or “pozolli”) which is alleged to mean “frothy” or “foamy.” Or it could come from the Nahuatl word “potzonti,” meaning “to boil or bubble.” It apparently used to be called “tlacatlaolli,” which is said to mean “threshed men corn.” But hey, I don’t speak Nahuatl, so I’m sort of agnostic on the issue. It is further alleged that human flesh was a key ingredient in the original recipe (although some have been less eager to embrace the description in Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s twelve-volume 16th century masterpiece, Historia general de las cosas de nueva España, also known as The Florentine Codex). I expect that very few modern butcher shops cater to the cannibal crowd, so as long as we’re going inauthentic, why not jump to a vegan version?

The central ingredient, of course, is cacahuazintle, or hominy corn. [Q:”Hominy corn?” A:”About a pound’s worth.” FX:rimshot.] Much like the Mexican flag, the soup comes in three colours: red, white, and green. I chose green, basically a riff off the version found on the 10th Kitchen website, based upon ingredients at hand and my culinary aesthetic (which included trying to make it fairly quickly).

Green Posole Soup
Makes approximately 14 cups / 3½ liters

INGREDIENTS
1 pound / 500 g dried white hominy (or two large cans pre-soaked) [25 oz. / 708 g per can]
1 large white onion, sliced thin lengthwise into strips
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tsp. / 1 g dried Mexican oregano
1 bottle (23 oz. / 652 g) crushed tomatillos OR 1½ pounds / 700 g tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed
1 can (7 oz. / 198 g) diced green chiles (or 1-3 diced serrano chiles)
1 big bunch fresh cilantro/coriander, finely minced
2 tablespoons / 30 ml olive oil (or other vegetable oil)
½ cup / 65 g pepitas (optional)
8 cups / 64 oz. / 2 liters water or vegetable stock (Better Than Bouillon enhanced my stock)
Salt to taste

Soaking the dried hominy. When you pour the water into the center of the pot after you’ve added the corn, it looks like this. Cool.

DIRECTIONS

If you are using dried hominy, it’s best to rinse it off and soak it overnight. [That in itself makes a good case for buying canned hominy, which must be drained and rinsed before being added to the mix.] In either case, drain the soaked hominy and leave it in the strainer.

In the Instant Pot® interior container, add onion, olive oil, Mexican oregano, and a generous pinch of salt. Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” function, and sweat onions, stirring occasionally, until softened; it’s okay if they get a little brown. Add chopped garlic and sauté for another minute or two, then press the “Keep Warm/Cancel” button.

If you are using whole tomatillos and chiles, you should pop them in a food processor with a little bit of water and the cilantro; chop until fairly smooth and add to the Instant Pot® container. Otherwise, just mince the cilantro and dump it in the Instant Pot® container with the crushed tomatillos and diced canned chiles. Add the hominy and stock (and pepitas, if you are using them). Close the Instant Pot®, and set the vent on the lid to “Sealing.” Then press the “Soup” button, making sure that the pressure is set to high.

Here is where paths diverge in the woods. IF you are using the canned hominy, set the time for 12 minutes, and allow pressure to release naturally when done, unless you’re in a huge hurry. IF you are using the dried and soaked hominy, set the time for 35 minutes, and allow pressure to release naturally when done, unless you’re in a huge hurry (in which case you should have used the canned hominy in the first place). [NOTE: Because my hominy apparently dated to the Mesozoic, it was still a little more al dente than I would have liked at the 35 minute mark. I replaced the lid and added another 15 minutes of cooking time. Still not quite there. So I replaced the lid again and added another 15 minutes of cooking time. Perfect. The lesson here is not to use hominy that was dried before the first web browser was invented.]

Yummy goodness that tastes better than it looks, I promise. I’m a way better cook than food stylist.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetable & Rice Soup [Instant Pot® recipe] [Vegan optional]

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Please, anything but this.

This soup was borne out of a need to use up a bunch of celery before it went south. [Seems like I make a lot of “necessity” soups.] Being an enterprising lad, I Googled “celery soup,” and got about 1.83 bazillion recipes for Cream of Celery Soup. I don’t want to demean the good folks whose soup provided Andy Warhol such a rich vein to mine for his art, but the cream of celery soup of my youth was possibly the worst-period-soup-period-ever. It was always the last can in the cupboard, and was only ever served out of dire necessity. To be fair, I think the only reason my mom kept any in the first place was so that it could be used as a sauce for some sort of ’60s casserole that has mercifully and permanently gone out of fashion. Fortunately, my Google Fu skills are strong, and I eventually landed on what appeared to be a terrific recipe by Martha Rose Shulman of the NY Times. It was modified to fit my ingredients, but it’s fairly faithful to the original.

Stop me if I’m sounding like a broken record here, but if there are two things I could ever want you to take away from this blog, they are these:

    1) You can do this. Goodness knows, I’m no chef. But I can make a tasty meal; that’s all anyone ever asks from an amateur.
    2) A recipe is a roadmap. There’s always more than one route to your destination. And, failing that, there are always other destinations.

Perhaps the two most delightful aspects to this recipe are 1) you don’t have to pre-cook the rice (a few minutes at pressure in the Instant Pot® does the job); and 2) you can make it vegan simply by removing the Parmesan cheese. If you can operate a knife, a spoon, a can opener, and a measuring cup, you can make this. You don’t even really need an Instant Pot®. It just will take longer on the stove (probably about 45 minutes to an hour of simmering, depending on how quickly your rice cooks up).

Doesn’t that look like a bowl full of healthy goodness? And we haven’t even added the tomatoes or the stock yet.

Vegetable & Rice Soup
Makes approximately 16 cups / 4 liters

INGREDIENTS
6 celery stalks / 400 g, diced
1/2 red cabbage / 400 g, shredded
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, diced
1 bell pepper, de-seeded and diced (I used 6 mini peppers instead)
6 garlic cloves, minced
Salt (preferably kosher) and pepper (preferably ground white) to taste
1 cup / 180 g uncooked rice (I used brown basmati)
3 tbsp. / 45 ml extra virgin olive oil (spring for some good oil!)
1 28-ounce / 794 g can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 1/2 quarts / 1.5 liters water or vegetable stock (Better Than Bouillon enhanced my stock)
2 tbsp. / 50 g tomato paste
1 teaspoon / 4 g dried thyme
2 tbsp. / 3 g dried parsley flakes (or 1 tbsp. / 4 g fresh parsley)
A small (50 g / 1.75 oz.) Parmesan rind
Celery leaves for garnish (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Chop up celery, cabbage, onion, carrot, bell pepper, and garlic cloves; place in Instant Pot® container. Sprinkle salt and pepper over vegetables and stir. Add olive oil and uncooked rice to container. Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and sweat vegetables, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes, until they soften a bit. Add chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock, tomato paste, thyme, parsley, and Parmesan rind (if desired — omit for vegan version). Mix briefly with spoon or spatula. Turn Instant Pot® to “Keep Warm / Cancel,” which will end the sauté function.

Place lid on Instant Pot®, making sure vent is turned toward “Sealing” rather than “Venting.” Press “Soup” button, making sure pressure is on “High.” Set timer for 16 minutes. Go answer some email or vacuum your front room.

When timer goes off, allow Instant Pot® to decompress naturally, or at least for 10 minutes, before carefully switching vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” Remove lid, and adjust spices as necessary (soup will be hot). Ladle directly into bowls or mugs and garnish with celery leaves and/or grated Parmesan (omit latter for vegan version).

To borrow a phrase, “Mmmm-mmmm good.”