Soupe de la Semaine: Vegan “Sofrito” Soup [Instant Pot® recipe]

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Leaves you “sofrito” experiment.

This is not going to be so much a recipe for a soup (although there will be one) as a roadmap to soup. Please keep all your appendages inside the vehicle while it’s moving.

Like many people, I occasionally find that I have a few vegetables in the fridge that really call for imminent use, lest they turn into science experiments. Today, that happened to be a two-pound package of carrots, some celery, a yellow bell pepper, and the better part of a bunch of cilantro, plus an onion that was in the unrefrigerated veggie basket. Because February is traditionally a vegetarian month for the bride and me, I decided to fold the ingredients into a soup, rather than use them as a sofrito/soffritto, mirepoix, refogado, or Suppengrün for a meat or poultry dish. [The terms in italics are all variants on the same concept, which is that a group of chopped vegetables can serve as a flavour base for stews, gravies, sauces, and the like. Ingredients and proportions vary from country to country (and from kitchen to kitchen), but not so widely that they aren’t all kissin’ culinary cousins.]

Here’s where it gets interesting: with the possible exception of the cilantro, all the vegetables can easily be enhanced to make soups that will fit in a variety of culinary traditions. For example, if I’d added lemongrass, ginger, and soy sauce to the soup (even keeping the cilantro), it would have taken a turn for Southeast Asia. Some garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, and marjoram would have pushed it toward Italy. Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and cumin would lend it an Indian or Sri Lankan vibe. I decided I wanted something else, a kind of mutt — er, hybrid — cuisine with elements of both Spanish and Tex-Mex.

And while this can definitely be made on the stovetop, it would take way longer than it does in a pressure cooker (Instant Pot® to the rescue again!). Basically, you’d follow all the main steps, but I would chop the vegetables into much smaller pieces to soften them more quickly. I’m guessing that 45 minutes to an hour in the stock at a high simmer (just below boiling) would do it. Then purée the vegetables and adjust spices as in the directions below.

WARNING: I like, and am accustomed to, spicy food. I would advise anyone trying out this recipe to cut the pimentón de la Vera and chipotle powder IN HALF to start. You can always make it spicier later in the process, if you wish. [If you cut the spices, you will also need only about half of the carob molasses as a consequence.]

Vegan “Sofrito” Soup
Makes about 10 cups (about 2¼ liters)

Carrots of many colours.

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs. / 1kg carrots, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, roughly chopped
3 stalks celery (need I say roughly chopped?)
1½ cups / 30g chopped fresh cilantro
5 cups / 1.25 liters vegetable stock (I used Better Than Bouillon and water)
1-2 teaspoons / 2-4g hot pimentón de la Vera (or smoked paprika)*
½-1 teaspoon / 1.5-3g chipotle powder (or other chili powder)*
1½-3 tbsp. / 33-66g carob (or regular) molasses*
½ teaspoon / 1g cumin
½ teaspoon / 3g salt
½ tbsp. / 8g apple cider vinegar (or other vinegar, or lemon juice)

Chopped up, mixed up.

DIRECTIONS [Instant Pot®]

Chop vegetables and cilantro and add them all to inner cooking pot. Add vegetable stock, pimentón de la Vera*, and chipotle powder*.

Lock lid (making sure the vent is set to “Sealing”), select “Soup,” set pressure to “High,” and time to 20 minutes. When finished, you may allow pressure to release naturally before unlocking lid, or you can do a “quick release” by turning the vent to “Venting.”

[At this juncture, the soup will look like you left your vegetables in dishwater overnight. Don’t be discouraged!]

Process soup with immersion blender or in batches in a blender/food processor. [If you’re using either of the latter, drape a towel over the input tube or lid to allow the steam to vent.] Add cumin, carob molasses, salt, and cider vinegar. Stir and allow soup to sit for a couple of minutes before tasting and adjusting spices. It’s at this juncture that you would add the remaining half of the pimentón de la Vera, chipotle powder, and carob molasses, should you choose.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a little extra chopped cilantro. I forgot to reserve some and wound up using bread crumbs and chopped parsley for the photo. If you’re not concerned about being vegan, a dollop of sour cream and/or a sprinkle of cotija cheese would go nicely. Cashew cream is a fine vegan alternative.

*Please read the warning in red in the fifth paragraph; it’s there for your own good.

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P.S. I’m perfectly happy if you want to replicate this recipe step by step, but it would bring me (and you!) greater joy if you use it as a “serving suggestion” instead, playing around with spices and quantities so that you can truly make it your own. Plus, you can clean out your fridge a bit in the process.

Back to the Present — A Birthday Carrot Cake

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A million years ago, when I was in high school, I used to make carrot cakes and zucchini bread all the time. It was the Seventies, and one simple way to gain hippie cred as a baker (not to mention impress the opposite sex) was to reproduce these down-to-earth desserts whose defining ingredients are, somewhat counterintuitively, vegetables. Most of the carrot cakes I’ve ever consumed have been pretty decent, so I’ve long inferred that it’s not exactly rocket surgery to make one. It seems, though, that the cake can veer off a fairly forgiving path at one of two main forks: 1) it can be too dry; and 2) the frosting can be too sweet.

Overcoming the dry part is easy. Make sure you have enough liquid, and don’t overbake the cake. Duh. The frosting is a bit trickier, but not much, really. Have a care when adding sugar, and taste it along the way. A little lemon juice can ameliorate a heavy hand with the sweetener, but it’s better to get it right on the first go.

This past weekend, one of my high school pals was celebrating her 60th birthday, and I volunteered to make her a pair of birthday desserts. One was the internationally famous Tarta de Santiago (although I chose not to adorn it with the St. James cross stencil). The other was the old standby carrot cake, the likes of which I had pumped out with some regularity when I was far more hirsute and far less corpulent. Back in the Internets-free day, I relied upon a recipe from Joy of Cooking, or maybe the Betty Crocker cookbook that my mom gave me when I moved out. While Betty Crocker’s tome has long since disappeared, some edition of Joy of Cooking is usually close to hand, and I suppose I could have gone back to that, but I wondered if, in the last 40-ish years, there might have been another, more captivating recipe turned loose on the public.

Dorie Greenspan is a brilliant writer, an excellent cook, and a lovely person, so when I saw her recipe, I knew I had a foundation from which I could work. To be sure, the muscle memory of having made dozens and dozens of carrot cakes had not been entirely lost, but I wanted a starting point. The roadmap I ultimately followed deviated from hers but slightly; I used gluten-free flour because one of the dinner guests expressed a preference. To my delight, the flour didn’t diminish the cake’s moist finish. And while Dorie’s recipe (and, in fact, many other recipes) called for 1.5 cups of oil, I used a combination of olive oil and buttermilk to give the finished product a bit more tang. Olea Farm’s Lemon Blush olive oil is a house favourite; it’s a blend of EVOO and oil from lemon zest. [You should check out all their infused oils.]

Also, Dorie’s cake is a multi-tiered affair, but I opted for the simpler single-layer cake of my youth. You have to cook it a fair amount longer, but it’s pretty forgiving. Don’t stress.

Because my friend is a big fan of peacock feathers, I topped the cake with a sheet of printed icing in addition to the cream cheese frosting. It seemed to be a hit, and it didn’t detract from the flavour of the cream cheese frosting, so rock on. It’s a bit on the pricey side, so you can feel free to omit this step, but it looked really cool.

INGREDIENTS

Cake:
2 cups/240g Bob’s Gluten-Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour
2 teaspoons/10g baking powder
2 teaspoons/14g baking soda
2 teaspoons/12g ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon/4.25g salt
3 cups/150g grated carrots (you can grate the carrots with a box grater, in a food processor fitted with a shredding blade, or just be lazy and buy them pre-shredded, as I did this time)
1 cup/125g coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
½ cup/75g moist, plump golden raisins (or dark)
12 oz./340g/1.5 cups sugar (I used turbinado)
1 cup/250ml Olea Farm Lemon Blush olive oil
½ cup/125ml buttermilk
4 large eggs

Frosting:
8 oz./225g cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick/8 tablespoons/113g unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ pound/350g (2¾ cups) confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon/15ml lemon juice
1½ tablespoon/25ml vanilla extract
1 or 2 peacock feather frosting sheets, optional

PREPARATION

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease a 10-inch by 14-inch by 2-inch cake pan; flour the insides and tap out the excess if you plan on serving the cake on a platter rather than from the pan.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, and raisins.

In a third bowl, combine and beat the sugar and oil until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. If you are working with a mixer, reduce the speed to low; if you’re working by hand, switch to a large rubber spatula, and gently stir in the flour mixture — mix only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Then gently mix in the carrots, chopped nuts, and raisins.

Slide the pan into the oven. Bake the cake for 60 to 75 minutes, rotating the pan front to back at the midway point. The cake is ready when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean; the cake should just have started to pull away from the edges of the pan. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack, cool for 10-15 minutes. If serving on a platter, turn out onto rack to cool to room temperature. (At this point, the cake can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; thaw before frosting.)

For the frosting: Working with an electric hand mixer, beat the room-temperature cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the lemon juice and vanilla extract. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth.

Frost the cake. Should you decide to use the peacock frosting sheets, follow the instructions in their packaging. [Basically, you lift the printed frosting sheet(s) off a non-stick page and place it/them on the cake.] Pop it all into the refrigerator for 20 minutes or so to give the icing a chance to set.

Serve to your delighted guests. Or hog it all to yourself, no matter to me. But be aware: due to the oil, buttermilk, cream cheese, butter, sugar, et al, it’s got a fairly robust caloric count, so this should be an occasional treat, not a standby for the weekly dinner menu.

You can call me Al. Albóndigas.

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Believe it or not, the red colour comes mostly from the chorizo, not the tomatoes.

Believe it or not, the red colour comes mostly from the chorizo, not the tomatoes.

One inevitable responsibility after Thanksgiving dinner is the disposal of the turkey carcass. Picked clean for sandwiches and goodness knows what all else — tamales? sliders? pot pie? — there’s still a significant heap of bones and attached bits that deserve a better resting place than the rubbish bin.

Around our house, we generally made turkey and vegetable soup, but it just seemed too… turkey-ish. By the time we’d gotten down to the carcass, believe me, most of the members of our household were all done with turkey. This year, I decided to make some simple turkey stock (something on the order of four liters, as it turned out, because I wasn’t patient enough to let it condense into what Julia Child called a “semi-demi-glace”). But not for turkey soup. No. I figured it would make an excellent base for one of my favourite Mexican dishes, sopa de albóndigas (meatball soup).

While this soup is decidedly Mexican, its roots go back to the times that Arabs ruled Spain. The word “albóndigas” is derived from the Arabic word for hazelnut, “al-bunduq,” because the meatballs of the era were about the size and shape of said nuts. Their preparation was described in one of the great cookbooks of its day (its day being the 13th century), Kitab al- tabikh fi Maghrib wa al-Andalus (An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook). Not too surprisingly, the meatballs emigrated to the New World with the conquistadores (along with smallpox and syphilis, albeit with a happier outcome for the locals). The use of mint in this recipe is almost certainly a descendant from a Middle Eastern predecessor, given the region’s historic proclivity for employing the herb as a seasoning for meats.

Far as I’ve been able to discover, there are two general schools of thought on sopa de albóndigas. One holds that it’s primarily a tomato-based soup, and the broth ought to be more or less jam-packed with tomato-y goodness and coloured fire engine red (PMS 199); the other is that tomatoes play a role, but not the lead. I opted for the latter. After all, I’d gone to some trouble to make the turkey stock, and I didn’t want it completely buried in the mix. The soup ultimately turned out a rich red colour, but that was thanks to the chorizo, not the tomatoes (as you can see in the picture below, when it was just the veggies and stock).

ALBÓNDIGAS SOUP

Carrots, planed on the mini-mandoline. I then cut the "coins" in half.

Carrots, planed on the mini-mandoline. I then cut the “coins” in half.


Ingredients
Broth
12 cups/3 liters turkey stock (or chicken, or vegetable, or beef)
2 carrots, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
1 (14 ounce/411 g) can diced tomatoes (these were fire roasted)
1 (7 ounce/198 g) can diced green chiles, drained
1 cup/150 g cooked rice
2 teaspoons/2 g dried oregano
2 teaspoons/2 g ground cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
1 to 3 tablespoons/15-45 ml sauce from a can of Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, to taste
1 seeded Chipotle chile in adobo sauce, optional
Sea salt and pepper to taste (smoked salt works well in this)

Here’s a trick for the rice; just cook 1 cup/180 g of dried rice (I used Brown Jasmine), put 2/3 of it in the soup and reserve 1/3 for the meatballs.

[A NOTE ABOUT CHILES: If you’re seeding Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, wear gloves. Even the sauce is pretty hot, and if you touch your face… well, you won’t do it a second time. For the uninitiated, add the adobo sauce a tablespoon at a time, stir the broth, taste, and decide if you want to add more. If you dump it all in at once, good on you, you brave soul, but remember that this is a bell that can’t be unrung. Also, if you don’t have Chipotles in adobo sauce handy, you can get Chipotle pepper powder; use 1-3 teaspoons/1-3 g, tasting as you go.]

Broth and veggies. Mmmm.

Broth and veggies. Mmmm.

Making the broth is super easy; basically, you just dump it all into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and then back it off to a simmer. I let mine simmer for a couple of hours, because I started making it one evening after dinner. [In fact, I put the broth in the refrigerator overnight and finished the soup the following day.] If, however, you are doing a same-day soup, allow it to simmer for about an hour, so you can soften up the celery and onions and carrots, and give the flavours a chance to blend.

Meatballs (makes about 50 small meatballs)
1 lb/.5 kg lean ground beef
1 lb/.5 kg chorizo sausage, casing removed (not the fully cooked kind)
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup/70 g cooked rice
2 garlic cloves, minced
5-10 mint leaves, chopped
1/2 cup/25 g cilantro leaf, chopped
1/2 teaspoon/3 g salt
1/4 teaspoon/.5 g freshly ground black pepper

Full disclosure: I had about 100 g of turkey bits that I ran through a food processor and added to the meatballs. It’s not part of the “official” recipe, but it did taste good.

Mint and garlic get all muddled up.

Mint and garlic get all muddled up.

Some people say to make the meatballs first, but there’s really no need; getting the broth together and letting it simmer will afford you more than enough time to make them. The only trick to assembling the meatballs is that you should mash the garlic and the chopped mint into a sort of paste; otherwise, it’s just a matter of mixing it all up and rolling little meatballs (albóndigas) to about 1″/2.5 cm each. Heat up the broth to a low boil and lower the albóndigas — gently — into the broth. Let the meatballs cook at that temp for 5 minutes, then back the heat off, and simmer a further 20 minutes. Remember, at this point, your chief aim is to cook the meatballs through. That’s why smaller is better.

Tiny little soldiers of meat, preparing to parachute into -- quite literally -- the soup.

Tiny little soldiers of meat, preparing to parachute into — quite literally — the soup.

You can serve it straight, or if you want to get extra fancy, you can make corn tortilla ribbons for garnish. Just quarter small corn tortillas, stack the quarters, then slice the edges into ribbons. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan, dump the ribbons inthe pan and stir until slightly browned. Remove them to a paper towel to drain and crisp up. Sprinkle over soup.

With the fried corn tortilla strips; these were spinach corn tortillas, for colour primarily.

With the fried corn tortilla strips; these were spinach corn tortillas, for colour primarily.