Smoking Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Roasted Tomatoes in an Electric Smoker

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Sun-dried on the left; roasted and packed in oil on the right.

Over the course of playing with my new electric pellet smoker, I’ve discovered lots of recipes for smoking fresh tomatoes, but none for smoking sun-dried tomatoes. You can certainly buy smoked sun-dried tomatoes, but they’re not cheap. I happened to have both a bag of sun-dried tomato strips and a bottle of roasted tomatoes packed in oil lying around, so I thought I’d give then each a go.

This time, the sun-dried tomatoes are on the right.

I put them in the smoker at 175°F / 80°C for 15 minutes and checked them; no apparent smoky taste. So I turned the smoker to the “Lo Smoke” setting, which (somewhat counterintuitively) produces more smoke. [According to the mfr., Lo Smoke temp runs about 175°F / 80°C, Hi Smoke about 210°F / 100°C, and that on both settings the auger timing is slightly slowed, allowing pellets to smolder more than burn. In case you’re wondering, I used the Traeger Grills Signature Blend pellets, made from hickory, maple, and cherry woods.]

After 15 more minutes, I was sensing a bit of smokiness, but the tomatoes’ concentrated flavour still wasn’t permitting much to come through. By 45 minutes in, the smoke seemed more noticeable, but still not quite where I intended it to be. My concern at this point was not to allow the tomatoes to turn acrid, which over-smoking will do to just about anything if you aren’t careful. So I set the timer for one more 15-minute jaunt.

Roasted on the left, sun-dried on the right, looking pretty much as they did when they started, but tasting noticeably different.

Huzzah! Just the edge I was looking for. I put the roasted tomatoes and their oil back into their original jar, and I popped the sun-dried strips into a Snapware Glasslock storage container with a little Olea Farm rosemary olive oil.

Two takeaways:
1) Next time I will spritz the sun-dried tomatoes with a little olive oil, or even water, because the moisture helps them take the smoke better.
2) If your pellet grill doesn’t have a “Lo Smoke” setting, I’d smoke these at 210°-230°F / 100°-110°C for about 30-45 minutes, tasting at the half-hour mark.

Bacon-Wapped Peaches on the Electric Smoker

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If this isn’t the easiest summertime recipe ever, I don’t know what is. Summer, of course, is stonefruit season, and peaches go together with smoke and bacon just as magnificently as Peaches goes together with Herb. Simply cut as many peaches as you care to, wrap them each in a slice of bacon, stick them with a toothpick, and splash them with a little balsamic vinegar… or not. Half an hour later, they’re done! [I used a pellet mix of hickory, maple, and cherry; lighter woods (say, other than mesquite) are recommended.]

I served them with a little conserva de pulpo (Galician tinned octopus in olive oil), which I put, in the can, on the smoker for the last 15 minutes of cooking.

INGREDIENTS

2-3 firm yellow or white peaches, halved
4-6 strips thick cut bacon (1 per each)
1 tbsp. / 15 ml balsamic vinegar (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat smoker to 325°F / 163°C
Cut peaches in half
Wrap 1 bacon slice per peach half around fruit, secure with toothpick
Drizzle balsamic over peaches and bacon
Place peach halves directly on grill, close lid
Turn peach halves over half way through (15 minutes)
Remove at 30 minutes and let cool slightly

Electric Smoker Meats Its Match With Leg Of Lamb Two Ways

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Sell by? It will have been long gone by.

Headline pun intended.

The Internets have no shortage of opinions when it comes to smoking meats, and one is on a fool’s errand to attempt to secure a definitive answer. PRO TIP: This is NOT a definitive answer.

I’ve been grilling leg of lamb for about half my life now (which is to say over 30 years), and I was excited to try our new pellet smoker to find out how it stacked up against the various other methods (Big Green Egg, gas grill, trad charcoal grill) I’ve employed before.

The short version: Very Well.

You don’t need to follow me down the rabbit hole unless you’re slightly — like me — monomaniacal about research prior to grillage. If you are, I suggest these YouTube vids, one from Malcom Reed’s HowToBBQRight, the other from Darnell McGavock Sr.’s D Grill. Both of them used electric pellet smokers, so they were the most relevant to my immediate project, but I also watched a bunch of others. The reason I frequently turn to YouTube first is to see the actual cooks and their process(es) in motion, as well as to hear comments they might not bother to include in a printed recipe. [I also visited Steven Raichlen’s very informative online home, which I recommend highly.]

Originally, my intention was to make pulled lamb, which in theory comes off the smoke at a higher temp than your standard smoked leg. From what I’ve read (at least in terms of pork), there are two sweet spots for removing meat from the grill/smoker: one is about 145-150°F/63-65.5°C, the other is about 195-203°F/90-95°C. Apparently, the in-between is the “tough zone.” I’ve encountered this phenomenon before when cooking octopus, squid, and shrimp (not always on the grill), so it doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps a quick revisit to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen will yield an answer as to why, but that’s for another post. I opted not to pursue the higher finished temperature, because I read that the leg was not sufficiently possessed of marbling fat to make it tender at that temp; that recipe recommended bone-in lamb shoulder instead.

Lose some, but not all, the fat.

PREP
No matter how thoroughly your butcher trims the fat off your lamb leg, it’s not enough. You don’t want to take all the fat away, but an excess will give it that “gamy” taste that causes people to think they don’t like lamb. You can see in the lower right of the photo above how much fat I excised. I cut the leg about 60/40%, because I was feeling a bit experimentative, both in terms of marinating and cooking.

Pan-Asian Marinade Ingredients.

Marinade #1 (Asian Style) (for the 60% piece)
INGREDIENTS
2 tbsp. / 30 ml sesame oil
2 tbsp. / 5-6 cloves minced garlic
3 tsp. / 16 g ginger paste
6 star anise pods, ground
3 tsp. / 5 g five-spice powder
1 tsp. / 2.5 g white pepper

It’s Turkish-ish, kinda.

Marinade #2 (Turkish-ish) (for the 40% piece)
INGREDIENTS
¼ cup / 60 ml olive oil (I used Olea Farm, which I love)
¼ cup / 60 ml pomegranate molasses
3 tbsp. / 55 g Darrell & Nil’s Turkish Blend Spice*
5 large slices preserved lemon
2 tbsp. salt (preferably kosher or flaked; I used Læsø Salt from Denmark, because I had some and it’s a good story)

*Yeah, you’re gonna have a tough time finding that. It’s made from paprika, black pepper, cumin, coriander, allspice, cassia, sumac, oregano, Maras chile, clove, cardamom, and nutmeg. Maybe I can get them to cough up the actual recipe, but if not, make sure you include the sumac and Maras chile, which really push the blend toward Istanbul.

Rub rub rub it in; get your fingers into it; don’t be shy.

MARINATION DIRECTIONS

Rub it in to all the cracks and crevasses, and allow the lamb to chill overnight in the fridge. Due to a scheduling conflict, I left it in for two nights. Not a problem.

A WORD ON PELLET SMOKING

Ask 15 pitmasters what the best type of wood for smoking lamb might be, and you’ll get 67¾ answers. After way too much agita, I succumbed to crowdsourcing and went with Amazon’s Choice, Traeger’s Signature Blend (their hickory pellets were the #1 Best Seller). I am sure that at some point in the future, I will have a hankering to try a specific type of wood with a specific recipe, but this wasn’t it. Think Ford, not Ferrari.

A little over an hour in the smoker. Some colour, but no “bark.”

ON THE SMOKER

I checked the pellet level and fired up the smoker, letting the machine come up to temp (250°F/121°C) while I took the lamb out of the chill chest and tied it up with butcher’s twine to help ensure an even roast. 20 minutes later, I placed the pieces fat side up on the grill and left them alone, apart from one quick peek about halfway through to see if they needed to be swaddled in aluminum foil to keep from drying out (they didn’t). After 3.5 hours on the electric pellet smoker at 250°F/121°C, the one on the left came off at an internal temp of 148°F/64.4°C, the one on the right came off at an internal temp of 166°F/74.4°C (which is regarded as the high end of acceptable for lamb). Obviously, the marinades made some difference in the appearance of the two pieces, and I can say that the 166°F/74.4°C piece was not quite as tender as the other one, though both were highly acceptable, texture-wise, and both were absolutely delicious.

After the meat rested, I popped it back in the fridge for a few hours, but it re-emerged at dinnertime for “lambwiches” (lamb sandwich with rocket and mayo on a Kaiser roll). Still moist and tender, full of flavour. And hands down, the most effortless process for leg of lamb I’ve found yet. Just like I would be happy with my Instant Pot even if I used it for nothing other than beans, I’m thrilled with the Camp Chef SmokePro DLX even if it only ever gets used for lamb… which it surely won’t.

Soupe de la Semaine: Cajun White Bean, Andouille, and Collard Green Soup

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It turns out, thanks to the bride’s penchant for genealogical spelunking, I have recently discovered Acadian blood in my veins. It’s not an enormous surprise; on Prince Edward Island, the tiny Canadian province from which I hail, the populace is drawn largely from Scots, French, and Irish stock. In practise, PEI Scots didn’t tend to intermarry much back in the day, not just due to the language differences (Scots held onto their Gaelic before yielding to English), but also thanks to Catholic-Protestant interfaith snipery. It is, however, an island, so exceptions were occasionally made. Hence the occasional Arsenault or Paquet or Daigle or Cheverie among the Campbells and MacLeods and MacMillians and MacKays. And conversely.

Acadia, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, was originally a French colony that included the provinces of Canada generally known as the Maritimes, and a little of what is now Maine. [Fun fact: Prince Edward Island was originally known to its European settlers as Île Saint-Jean.] Over the years, wars and treaties with England whittled away at the territorial boundaries, and the people referred to as Acadians tended to be identified more by their language (French) than by their place of birth.

Unfortunately, things really went sideways between the Canadian Anglophones and Francophones in 1755. As a consequence of their participation in the French and Indian War, the Acadians were given the choice of swearing allegiance to the British king, or clearing the premises. You can imagine how that went. What happened next became known as the Great Upheaval, the Great Expulsion, the Great Deportation, or Le Grand Dérangement. Many Francophones, including some of my direct kin, were forcibly repatriated to France (which, incidentally, didn’t really want them). Other Acadians fled south to Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns.

While there’s a lot of intermingling between Cajun and Creole cultures, the reason this soup is more properly identified as Cajun rather than Creole is largely due to the absence of tomatoes, which is one simple signifier separating the two storied cooking traditions. By some measures, Creole cuisine tends to be “city food,” and Cajun cuisine tends to be “country food,” with simpler ingredients and less reliance on sauces. Please do note that these are generalisations, so please don’t flood my inbox with picayune (or Picayune) commentary to the contrary.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record (or, for our younger readers, digital audio stutter), but it never hurts to splurge on some of the key ingredients. I purchased fresh, uncooked andouille sausage (hotter than the quite tasty Aidells’ pre-cooked commercial version I used in an earlier iteration). The white beans in this recipe were Cassoulet heirlooms from Rancho Gordo. Because I had no homemade stock, I substituted Aneto, which is excellent, if pricey. I deglazed the pot with Croma Vera 2017 Rosé, because it was delicious, handy, and fit the bill. And while I seasoned the soup with fleur de sel from Ibiza, that was merely a pointless extravagance that gladdened me and enhanced the back story. We writers care about that stuff.

Best broth you can buy.

This soup can be made entirely on the stove top. I chose not to, partly due to convenience and partly due to shoddy time management. My Instant Pot® allowed me to bypass the overnight pre-soak for the dried beans, and it also condensed the time necessary to tenderise the celery and the collard greens’ stems. You may, of course, use canned beans and/or canned collard greens… if you must.

How much is enough? Maybe 6 cups or so, chopped. Be as green-dependent as you like.

While I favoured traditional Cajun ingredients for this recipe (although I omitted bell pepper, one-third of the Cajun “holy trinity”), my pal Inmaculada Sánchez Leira (no slouch in the cooking department herself) noted that, save for the comparative lack of root vegetables, it’s not particularly far removed from Caldo Gallego, the classic Galician soup. It’s also fairly close to many recipes involving Black Eyed Peas, traditionally served in the South for good luck on New Year’s Day. In fact, you could easily sub black eyed peas into this recipe… and yes, you can get them from Rancho Gordo (if they’re not sold out).

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. / 1/2 kg dried white beans (or four 15 oz. cans cooked beans, drained and rinsed)
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
2 lbs. / 1 kg Andouille sausage links
1/2 cup / 120 ml white or rosé wine (or water or stock) for deglazing
1 large onion, finely chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 large carrots, chopped or sliced into coins
2 large bunches fresh collard greens
4-6 large stalks celery, finely minced
1 medium sprig fresh thyme
3 liters / 12 cups good quality chicken and/or vegetable stock (I used Aneto chicken stock)
1 liter / 4 cups water
5-10g / 1-2 tsp salt
1/3 cup / 80 ml apple cider vinegar
chopped fresh parsley for garnish, optional

DIRECTIONS
Rinse beans thoroughly, then drain (whether you’re using canned or dried beans). [This is where you would add the dried beans and two liters of stock to the Instant Pot®, if you are going that route. Add the 1/2 kilo / 1 lb. of dried beans and about 2 liters / 8 cups liquid (I used all stock). Cook according to instructions. For more recommendations on cooking times, check here and here.] My unsoaked Cassoulet beans took 48 minutes on high pressure in the Instant Pot®, with a natural release (I’m told this helps to keep the bean skins from splitting). Should you choose, you can use the stovetop method to cook beans pre-soaked overnight (or dried beans straight from the packet should you choose). When beans are soft, set cooked beans and stock aside.

Here is where the two paths diverged in the wood. First, I will lay out the stovetop version. Then, I’ll include the Instant Pot® shortcut, for those of you who care to use it.

STOVETOP VERSION
Dice onion; mince garlic and celery. Cut carrots into coin-size slices (if the “coins” get to be larger than a quarter or a 2€ coin, cut them in half). Strip collard green leaves from their tougher stems, slice (or tear) the leaves and dice the stems (skip this last bit if using canned collard greens).

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Then season the Andouille links with a little salt, leaving them whole, and brown them for about 10-12 minutes, or until cooked through and browned on all sides. Remove links from pot and let them cool.

Deglaze the browned bits with a little water, stock, or wine. Make sure to give pot a good scrape.

The liquid and browned bits will add depth to your stock base. Plus, you’ll have pre-cleaned the toughest stain in the pot.

[NOTE: If using Instant Pot® shortcut, skip to shortcut below, then come back here.]

Sauté the onion, celery, carrots, collard greens, thyme sprig, and garlic for about 7 minutes, until soft without colouring (the celery and the collard stems will take longer, so don’t wig out if they’re still a little al dente). While the vegges are in sauté mode, slice or crumble the cooled Andouille sausage. Add the beans and stock you set aside earlier, the extra liter of stock (if you’re not using the Instant Pot® shortcut), Andouille, vinegar, and water, along with a little salt. Bring to a low boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for about an hour or more, or until celery and collard green stems have softened to desired degree. Adjust salt and vinegar, if necessary; discard thyme sprig. Ladle into bowls and add optional shredded parsley leaves for garnish.

The Instant Pot® softens up those tough veggies real quick.

INSTANT POT® SHORTCUT
Instead of adding celery and collard green stems and thyme sprig to the main soup pot on the stove, put them into your Instant Pot® with a liter of the stock, set to high pressure for 7 minutes on the Bean/Chili setting, making sure vent is set to Sealing. When done, you can use either natural or instant release. [If you choose the latter, take care to avoid escaping steam.] Discard thyme sprig and add remaining contents to main soup pot. Continue with recipe as above

When Life Hands You Lemons, Preserve Them

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The chopstick jig proves invaluable to the preservation process.

In the words of the late Richard Armour, expanding on a poetic observation by the also late Ogden Nash, “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle / None’ll come, and then a lot’ll.” [Nash’s original, entitled “The Catsup Bottle,” is said to have read “First a little / Then a lottle.”] And while I am writing about a different condiment here, the purpose of the verse is to reiterate what every amateur crop-grower knows: your fruit tree, your tomato plant, your herb garden has a tendency to belch forth its bounty from zero to a degree where you’re practically begging neighbours to take the extra off your hands in about the time it took to write this sentence.

Thanks to a 10th century Egyptian Jew who was chief physician at Saladin‘s court, we have a way of managing the “very pretty” lemon tree‘s excess. And all it takes (apart from the lemons, of course) is a bunch of salt and a little patience.

Abū al-Makārim Hibat Allāh ibn Zayn al-Dīn Ibn Jumay‘ (a/k/a Abu-‘l-Makārim Hibatallāh Ibn-Gumaiʻ, but usually truncated to Ibn Jumay’, sometimes without the trailing apostrophe) apparently was a fairly prolific author, penning no fewer than eight medical tomes. His enduring masterpiece, though, seems to have been the lemon-plus-salt recipe that has gone largely unamended since the 12th century, and which was included in his treatise On Lemon, its Drinking and Use. The “drinking” part yielded the first known recipes for lemonade, and the “use” part gave us the preservation technique employed herein. Sadly, no original manuscript seems to have survived. As Toby Sonneman notes in his excellent book Lemon: A Global History, though, another physician [Ḍiyāʾ Al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdllāh Ibn Aḥmad al-Mālaqī (better known as Ibn al-Bayṭār)], born in Spain the year before Ibn Jumay’ died, lifted pretty much the entire On Lemon… text and incorporated it into his Al-Kitab ‘l-jami’ fi ‘l-aghdiya wa-‘l-adwiyah al-mufradah, also known as The Comprehensive Book of Foods and Simple Remedies. It went through dozens of editions in Latin, and was translated into French by Lucien Leclerc in 1842. To the best of our knowledge, Netflix has not as yet optioned it for a mini-series.

The uses for the umami-laden preserved lemon are legion. Just ask any friend from North Africa. Marinades. Drinks. With fish. With chicken. In salads. In risotto. Once you taste it, don’t be surprised if our imagination kicks into overdrive.

One note of caution: the preserved lemon(s) should be rinsed before using, as they are saltier than a sailor on leave. And, somewhat counterintuitively, the part you use is the rind. Go fig. But if you make these guys once, you’ll be a convert for life.

Lots and lots of lemons.

INGREDIENTS
NOTE: Amounts will vary depending on the number of lemons and size of container

lemons
kosher salt, or other large-crystal NaCl
Lemon juice, if necessary
cookie sheet, to keep the salt from going everywhere
Jar with lid (size depends on number of lemons)
Patience
Nothing else!
Ignore other recipes that call for cinnamon or bay leaves or whatever.
Totally unnecessary.

DIRECTIONS
Wash and dry preserved lemon container. [Some recipes have you go the full boiling-it-sterile route, which seems excessive to me. After all, the salinity and the acid content do a magnificent job of creating a hostile environment for wee beasties. Just make sure your lemons are covered with salt and/or juice during their stay in the jar. ]

Wash lemons.

Cut lemons nearly into quarters, taking care not to sever them entirely (see picture at top of post, in which chopsticks are employed as a device to keep the knife from cutting all the way through the lemons). Rub salt generously over all the interior surfaces, then pack salt inbetween the cuts. Place salted lemon in jar, and cover with salt. Repeat until jar is full, then top off the jar with salt and a little lemon juice, if it’s available and convenient. Basically, the salt will leach out the juice from the lemons, and you’ll have a sort of brine in which the lemons will morph into a really delicious condiment.

Wait about 30 days, turning the jar occasionally to mix it up and get the saline/lemon solution into all the nooks.

Use lemons. Refrigerate after opening.

Cacio e Pepe, Heretic Style (with Feta!)

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Solo pepe macinato fresco, per favore.

Cacio e pepe* couldn’t be simpler, right? It literally translates to “cheese and pepper.” But this is much like saying fútbol (or football or soccer, depending on your home) is simple; you just kick a ball into a net. People actually come to blows over whether to use Pecorino Romano, or Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano, or a blend of two or three of them, or one or more of them with a smidgen of Asiago. Not that I want to tar them all with the same brush, but if Italians didn’t invent arguing, they certainly perfected it.

Ultimately, you want a salty cheese that can (with a little of the pasta water) melt into the warm noodles to coat them in a creamy sauce, much the way the Day-Glo orange powder, along with some milk and butter, lovingly hugs Kraft Dinner. And, as it happened, I had such a cheese: Meredith Dairy Sheep and Goat Cheese, a Feta-like concoction from Australia. No idea where I got it; it sells for a positively jaw-dropping price on Amazon, and I won’t even link there because no sensible person would pay $14.99 USD + $12.99 shipping for an 11 oz. / 320 g jar, good though it is. [And you’re hearing this from someone who regularly uses chicken stock that sells for $7 USD per liter.] It’s possible that you might find something similar if you have a Greek market in your area, but it seems to be ridiculously expensive everywhere I’ve looked online. Fortunately, it is also stupidly easy to make, and I expect it will forthwith become a fridge staple, much like preserved lemons. Incidentally, some recipes will tell you to use your marinated cheese within two weeks. No need, especially if it is refrigerated. One blogger claims to have consumed some that was over four years old, and found it delicious. [Full disclosure: I just checked my jar, and the recommended “use by” date was December 2016. I promise to have my survivors update the page, should it kill me.] Not only does the marination process mellow out the Feta, but when you’re done with the cheese, the leftover oil can be used in a salad dressing. [What’s the analogue of “nose-to-tail” here? “Lid-to-base?”]

Bucatini is the ideal pasta for this dish, thanks to its toothiness. As with the other ingredients in this recipe, because there are so few, you ought to use the best you can reasonably afford. I even used filtered water for making the pasta, rather than just taking it directly from the tap.

INGREDIENTS
16 oz. / 454 g pasta (such as bucatini, egg tagliolini, or spaghetti)
11 oz. / 320 g marinated Feta (I used store-bought, but it’s easy to make at home)
1 tbsp. / 7 g freshly cracked black pepper, plus some for finishing (one recipe recommends 30 turns of the pepper mill at the coarsest setting)
1 cup / 250 ml pasta water, reserved
salt, if needed (between the salted pasta water and the saltiness of the Feta, I didn’t add any other salt)

DIRECTIONS
Make marinated Feta at least a day before.

Cook the pasta and drain, reserving 1 cup / 250 ml of the pasta water for later. Return drained pasta to the still-warm pot; crumble in bits of cheese, adding reserved pasta water a bit at a time to aid in the cheese melting. Combine by tossing with tongs. Add 1/3 or so of the pepper. Repeat process until cheese is melted and pepper is distributed. [NOTE: You may not need all the reserved pasta water; the sauce is intended to coat the noodles and cling to them. When you’re done serving, there should be virtually no trace of the sauce left behind, unlike with a marinara sauce.] Transfer pasta to bowl or plate; finish with a bit more ground pepper.

Serves 4 generously.

*[Why it’s not “formaggio e pepe” is a mystery to me. Perhaps someone fluent in Italian can lend a hand here.]

Soupe de la Semaine: Chicken Noodle Soup with Basil and Spinach

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The Warhol print was probably tastier.

I realize that I tool on Campbell’s soups a lot — probably more than they deserve, especially since I am descended from Campbells on my Mom’s side (not particularly unusual for someone of Scots heritage). And while Clan Campbell were a prolific lot, it’s likely far more Campbell has passed through my alimentary canal than was ever in my bloodline.

In my youth, their ubiquitous cans were a staple in our pantry. I was especially keen on Scotch Broth, Vegetable Beef, and Beef with Vegetables and Barley. I NEVER liked their Chicken Noodle, since it always got served to me when I was sick. The association has stuck for decades. But in a strange twist of fate, I find myself making soups for an ill friend, so I decided to revisit my childhood chicken soup trauma.

There’s nothing wrong with chicken in soup; Tom Kha Gai is an all-time favourite. And Mexican chicken soups aplenty with tomato and chili and cilantro show up happily, and not infrequently, at table. But my challenge was to attempt to concoct something that was at once chicken noodle soup and not chicken noodle soup. A Zen kōan of a soup, so to speak. In order to achieve this aim, I needed to isolate those elements of trad North American chicken noodle soup that failed to delight me, and simply Marie Kondo them away.

ISSUE #1: The Broth
Typical canned chicken noodle soup features a briny broth with no more point of view than a real estate agent trying to sell you a house. I wanted a stock that would echo our more trad notions wthout being shackled to them.

ISSUE #2: Carrots
Love me carrots, I really do. But not here. There’s a reason Billy Connolly developed a routine based around how, when you regurgitate, there’s always “diced bloody carrots in it.”

ISSUE #3: Celery
Celery in commercial canned soups frequently develops a revolting, slightly slimy texture, and it played an outsize role in the sense-memory flavour of my canned nemesis. I could have opted for celery seed, but I really didn’t want the texture or the taste.

ISSUE #4: The Noodle
Nobody wants a limp noodle. Typically, they look like tiny tapeworms, they have zero toothiness, they shame the marriage of water, flour, and egg. My noodle was going to be strong and proud.

ISSUE #5: The Chicken
This will sound like the proverbial deli diner’s complaint that the food wasn’t good and the portions were too small. But the industrially processed 6mm chicken bit cubes were virtually flavourless, and distributed very sparingly. Hey, I get it — chicken is the soup’s most expensive ingredient, and more chicken = less profit. I responded by loading the pot up with about three pounds (1.5 kilos) of hand shredded boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

But enough of what I didn’t want. Here’s what I did want: simple, healthy (after all, I’m feeding a cancer slayer here), and tasty. I don’t know how you go about planning your recipes (other than having the good fortune to land here, for which I am grateful), but I typically overthink. I read books, I go online, I consult my bride, I mentally review every version of the dish I’ve ever ingested, I engage in an internal Socratic dialogue, I ask friends about their preferences, I fuss.

While in the store buying chicken, I came across a special on fresh basil. The die was cast: green stock. I also had some spinach powder in my pantry, which I suspected would complement the basil, as well as providing an excellent source of beta-carotene and iron. Besides, spinach made Popeye strong, and the Big C is more formidable a foe than Brutus (or, if I might betray my age, Bluto), so bring it on. [You can use regular spinach if you want; I just wanted to play with my new toy. This spinach powder is nothing more than dehydrated fresh spinach ground into green dust. No additives.]

One caveat: the fewer the ingredients, the better each one has to be. Because I had no homemade chicken stock, I used the best commercial stock money can buy. Free range chicken. Wine and olive oil I would proudly serve at table, not hide in the kitchen. Durum semolina pasta from Italy (even if I will use a different shape next time). Of course you can economise (if you have the time and the freezer space, you can save plenty on the stock by making your own), but even in my extravagance this is still cheaper per serving than what you’d probably pay for a bowl at a restaurant.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil (I used Olea Farm Garlic Blush)
3 lbs. / 1.5 kg boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 10)
sea salt and pepper for seasoning chicken
2/3 cup / 150 ml dry white or rosé wine for deglazing (water or chicken stock work also)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 oz. / 115 g fresh basil, shredded or chopped (reserve about 10-15 leaves for garnish)
3 liters / 12 cups good quality chicken stock (I used Aneto Low-Sodium Chicken Stock)
1/4 cup / 60 g spinach powder (or 4 oz. / 115 g fresh spinach, shredded or chopped)
16 oz. / 454 g dried pasta, cooked separately (I used casarecci, but next time it will be gemelli, ciocchetti, or gigli)
2 tbsp. /35 ml / juice of one fresh-squeezed lemon (I plucked a fresh Meyer from our tree)
OPTIONAL: Shaved or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish.

DIRECTIONS
Cook the pasta and set aside. [You can even undercook it a bit, in fact, given that it will swim in the broth later. Dealer’s choice.] One piece of advice that has served me well is that the pasta water should be as salty as the sea. This, and seasoning the chicken well, meant the recipe required no additional salt.

♫ Brown the chicken in the pot, doo-dah, doo-dah. ♫

Season your chicken liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. In your soup pot, drizzle in about 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 ml) of olive oil, and cook the chicken. Depending on the thickness of the thighs, and the heat of your range top, this should take about 15 minutes. You’re looking for a little browning on the outside, but this is not intended to be fried chicken soup. When the chicken is done (I had to do mine in two batches), remove it to a plate.

What’s left after the chicken cooks is called the fond, and not just because I’m fond of it. When you deglaze the pot, the browned bits will transform into a very tasty sauce.

While the chicken is frying, dice the onion and chop the basil (and spinach, if not using powder), reserving a few basil leaves for later garnish. Afer removing chicken from soup pot, deglaze the pot with some wine or other liquid, then sweat the onion until it turns translucent. Add chopped basil, chicken stock, spinach powder (or chopped spinach), and reserved chicken thighs (including the juices that accumulated on the plate they sat on). Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour to 45 minutes or so (plenty of room for error here without any harm).

After the first simmer, remove chicken (again! It keeps jumping in and out, doesn’t it?) and set aside. Allow chicken to cool sufficiently so it can be hand shredded (or chopped, if you must).

OPTIONAL STEP: Remove most of the solids (basil and onion) with a slotted spoon and process in a blender or food processor with a little of the cooking liquid. Alternatively, you could use an immersion blender. This will thicken the liquid slightly.

Return shredded chicken to soup and add cooked noodles. Simmer long enough to warm the noodles, at least 15 minutes. Add lemon juice a few minutes before serving, to brighten and balance the flavour. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.

Soup. Mmmm-mmmm-good.

Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chiffonaded basil leaves.

Instant Pot® Vegan Risotto with Mushrooms, Preserved Lemons, and Basil

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Canadian man makes Italian food.

As the news swirls with epic chills in the Midwest due to a polar vortex that has been altered by climate change, and when rain threatens my California home, it seems like the rib-sticking comfort of risotto is a reasonable response. Unlike my previous recipe for Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine, this version was concocted in a cool bit of technology that had barely penetrated the public consciousness back then, and it’s vegan (although for my second helping, I grated a bit of Pecorino-Romano on top, and found it excellent).

Full disclosure: Although the idea for combining mushrooms and preserved lemons in a risotto originated with a yearning created in my tastebuds, several blog posts guided my thinking as I developed the recipe. You can find them at the Simple Vegan Blog, Vegan Heaven, Vegan Richa, Vegan Huggs, Chew Out Loud, and the ubiquitous Epicurious.

As is often the case, the recipe was developed around existing ingredients; I had some fresh basil in the fridge, it seemed like it would fit in with the other ingredients, and KAPOW, in it went. [One of my #squadgoals for 2019 is to undertake fewer unintentional fridge-based science experiments, a/k/a using ingredients before they stink up the joint.] Same deal with the dried mushrooms; they had been intended for a soup I was going to make for a friend who I later found out doesn’t like mushrooms.

The dried mushrooms I used were porcini (Boletus edulis), and an interesting variety known variously as slippery jack, pink boletus, and sticky bun. Although the package referred to them as Boletus luteus, which is their original 1753-era moniker gifted by the legendary botanist, physician, zoologist, and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, they are now known to be of a different genus and are more properly called Suillus luteus. You are of course welcome to use fresh mushrooms in addition to or instead of the dried.

Two other ingredients might be slightly unfamiliar to those with a limited pantry. Nutritional yeast is sold as flakes, granules, or powder, and is often employed in vegan dishes to add a cheesy or nutty flavour. You’ll find it in my recipe for Vegan Potatoes au Gratin, in fact. If your local supermercado carries it, you’ll likely find it next to the spices or in the health food/gluten-free/dairy-free ghetto. If not, well, your local GNC or Amazon.

The other possibly unfamiliar ingredient is preserved lemons. Common in South Asian and North African cuisine, preserved lemon is basically a brined or pickled lemon, generally salted heavily and marinated/pickled/brined for a month or so in salt and either lemon juice or water, if liquid is employed. Sometimes spices are added to the mix, but not generally. If you have neither the time, patience, or lemons for this process, they can be found in jars at many Indian, Middle Eastern, or North African markets, should you have such in your area. And yeah, Amazon. But seriously, they are super easy to make and they last a long time, so even if you have to buy a jar to get started, you should make your own, too. Surprisingly, the part you mainly want to use is the peel, not the flesh. Weird, huh?

The Instant Pot® doesn’t let you off the hook entirely when it comes to stirring stirring stirring your risotto; it bypasses only about 85-ish percent, which is not insubstantial. And while this method in all honesty may not yield that Michelin-star-worthy risotto of your Tuscan dreams, it gets close enough that I’ll take it on a weekday when I don’t have the Zen-like attitude or schedule that the former requires.

INGREDIENTS
100 g / 3.5 oz dried mushrooms (to be rehydrated) (or 16 oz. / .5 kg fresh mushrooms, preferably crimini)
2 tbsp. / 30 ml extra virgin olive oil (or other preferred oil)
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups / 600 g uncooked Arborio rice
1/3 cup / 75 g preserved lemon, minced
8 cups / 2 liters Aneto vegetable broth, or other low sodium veggie broth
1 loosely packed cup (1.5 oz. / 45 g) fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup / 10 g nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon / 1 g white pepper
salt to taste

“Mushrooms and lemons,” ring the bells of St. Clements.

DIRECTIONS
Rinse dried mushrooms thoroughly to cleanse them of grit, then drain. Then cover them in a liter (or quart / 4 cups) of warm veg broth. I used the stupidly expensive and stupidly great Aneto vegetable broth, available at a case discount at Amazon. If you have your own veggie stock, great. Otherwise I would recommend a mix of water and one of Better Than Bouillon‘s stock bases, such as the No Chicken Base. The mushrooms should hydrate in about 1/2 hour. Remove them from the liquid, then strain the liquid to remove any remaining possible grit and reserve the liquid. [The mushrooms soak up about 100-150 ml of the original liquid, which you can replace with more stock, water, or dry white wine.]

Dice onion, mince garlic, mince preserved lemons.

You can chop the mushrooms if you want; I didn’t.

Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and add olive oil to the stainless steel inner container. Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the garlic (and fresh mushrooms, if you are using them) and sauté for another two minutes or so, stirring regularly. Don’t worry if there’s some browning on the bottom of the stainless steel container. Add minced preserved lemons and sauté for another minute or so. Add rice, and stir, to coat all the rice with a little oil. [Add another few ml or a tbsp. of oil if you feel like you need to.] Deglaze the bottom of the container with a little of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Add the rest of the liquid and the mushrooms, close the lid, then set Instant Pot® to high pressure (I used the “Bean/Chili” setting) for six minutes, making sure to set the vent on the lid to “Sealing.”

Chop the basil and set aside.

How much basil? This much basil.

When the timer goes off, carefully turn the vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” [You may want to do this wearing oven mittens; be mindful to avoid the rapid jet of steam that will be emitted.] Turn power to “Off.” When the steam has vented, carefully open lid and set aside. The risotto will look a little soupy at this point, but it will thicken as you stir in the remaining ingredients. Stir in the chopped basil, nutritional yeast, and white pepper a bit at a time, making sure they are well distributed, until remaining liquid is absorbed. Add salt (if necessary), ladle into bowls, and serve.

Just like mamma mia didn’t used to make.

Soupe de la Semaine: Bean and Ham Hock Soup

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♪♫ Do you or I or anybody know / Where the peas, beans, oats, and the barley grow? ♫♪

I used to sing this song as a kid, believing it to be a post-agrarian commentary on the disconnect between the urban bourgeoisie and proletariat farmers, the latter of whom were mocked by the former for their lack of culture and inexplicable fetishism of an idealized past. [The city-dwellers were, in turn, mocked by rurals for having no clue where to procure said foodstuffs outside of Selfridges, Harrods, or Fortnum & Mason. Or later, Tesco.]

How wrong I was!

It turns out to be a bit of that, of course, but it seems also to have been intended as a subtle indoctrination into the social bondage of cisgen heteronormative relationships designed to propagate the patriarchy while giving a transparently dismissive nod to egalitarian alliances based upon actual economic, sexual, intellectual, and political agency for both partners (or more, if a poly or communal unit were established).

Whew. That’s a lot of philosophical weight for a poor little legume to withstand. Let’s retreat from the library into the kitchen, thence to make soup.

This particular little bowl full of goodness lives right across the hall from its more famous neighbour,

…with serving suggestions!

There’s even a similar version that appears to be the only constant on the menu for the US Senate, dating back to the early 20th century.

Long story short, wherever tasty salty pig parts find themselves near a kettle and some legumes and veggies, sooner or later some form of this will emerge. It’s super simple to make, nearly impossible to bollix up, and tastes even better then next day.

The reason I made this mostly on the stovetop is that I intended to cook up a double batch, which exceeded my Instant Pot’s capacity. Also, I find the aroma of a soup bubbling lazily away on a winter afternoon to be one of life’s simple pleasures.

Best broth you can buy.

A couple of quick notes: You are welcome to use water as the main liquid for this soup, and it will turn out just fine. I used Aneto stock, about which I have ranted before. Expensive. Worth it. You are welcome to use any beans as the main legume for this soup, and they will be fine. I used Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans (Snowcap and Cranberry, specifically), about which I have ranted before. Expensive. Worth it. Seriously, at an extra $4 per pound for the beans and an extra $4 per liter for the stock, I spent an extra $16 on the soup. That’s like four lattes at Charbucks. I don’t mean to sound cavalier here; $16 is serious folding dough. But the payoff is seriously huge. And while I pressure-cooked the unsoaked dry beans in an Instant Pot (which is frequently on sale, so look around before you buy), this totally works with pre-soaked beans and/or over the stove, the old fashioned way.

Two great beans that taste great together.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
1-2g / 1-2 tsp dried thyme
pinch white pepper
4-6 garlic cloves, minced
2.5 – 3 lbs. / 1 – 1.5 kg smoked ham hocks
1 lb. / .5 kg diced ham (optional)
2 medium-large onions, finely chopped
4-6 large stalks celery, finely minced
2-3 large carrots, chopped or sliced into coins
2 liter / 8 cups good quality chicken and/or vegetable stock (I used some of each)
500ml / 2 cups water
2 lbs. / 1 kg dried beans (or eight 15 oz. cans cooked beans, drained and rinsed)
5-10g / 1-2 tsp salt
lemon zest (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Rinse beans thoroughly, then drain (whether you’re using canned or dried beans). [This is where you would add the dried beans and stock to the Instant Pot, if you are going that route. Add the kilo / 2 lbs. of dried beans and about 2.5 liters / 10 cups liquid (I used the stock and water). Cook according to instructions. For more recommendations on cooking times, check here and here.]

Dice onion; mince garlic and celery. Cut carrots into coin-size slices (if the “coins” get to be larger than a quarter or a 2€ coin, cut them in half.) Dice the additional ham, if using, and set aside.

Sweat the veg.

In a large pan, heat the oil, thyme, bay leaves, and white pepper, and then sauté the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the water, stock, beans, ham hocks, and diced ham (if using). Bring to a low boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for about an hour, or until meat begins to fall off hocks. Remove hocks, strip and dice or shred meat, and discard bones. Check and adjust the seasoning (be careful with the salt, as the ham will provide more than you imagine, as will store-bought stock, if it’s not Aneto). Remove bay leaves. Serve hot with crusty bread or rolls.

Sticks to your ribs on a winter’s night.

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.