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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.”

Soupe de la Semaine: Sopa de Fideo… sin fideo [Gluten-Free & Vegan] [Instant Pot® recipe]

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¿Dónde está el fideo?

Because I’m not Mexican, I hesitate to call sopa de fideo the ultimate Mexican comfort food soup — probably sopa de tortilla or caldo Mexicano de albóndigas gets the nod there — but it’s certainly in the running for the propreantepenultimate Mexican comfort food soup. For those of you unfamiliar with fideo noodles, they’re like a thin vermicelli (itself the Kate Moss of the spaghetti world), and usually cut in short pieces (generally somewhere between an inch and 4 cm).

Given that the bride is currently on a carb-cutting crusade, I thought spaghetti squash might suitably supplant the original fideo. Nestled in broth, it doesn’t need to bear the weight of being the dish’s focal point, which it does when being substituted, rather unsatisfactorily, for actual spaghetti under a blanket of Bolognese. The Instant Pot® pulls double duty here, both cooking the squash and making the soup. All you need to do between steps is to remove the steamer insert and squash, then dump out the remaining water. No need for cleaning along the way, since the squash that just came out is going right back in.

[This recipe, of course, can be made on the stovetop as well; the spaghetti squash can either be roasted or microwaved beforehand (fire up the Internet Machine and ask the Google for advice on that). Once that’s done, you can pretty much follow the general directions under the “For the soup” section; allow about 30 minutes for simmering after all ingredients are added.]

As with many classic soups, recipes for this vary widely. While mine hews fairly closely to the down-the-middle basic version, I did add one exotic ingredient as a nod to the soup’s probable Spanish heritage: pimentón de la Vera, the Spanish smoked paprika whose mere scent sends me off dreaming Gallego dreams. If you want to keep it more anchored to the New World, you could sub chipotle chile powder, regular chile powder, or even a diced jalapeño or two. Look, some people put cayenne, cinnamon, and allspice(!) in this soup, so feel free to follow your tastebuds.

Sin fideo, incidentally, means “without fideo.”

Sopa de Fideo… sin fideo
(makes about 3.5 liters / 15 cups)

Spring onion, sometimes known as Mexican onion.

INGREDIENTS

1 spaghetti squash (approx. 3 lb. / 1½ kg.)
2 spring onions (or 5-6 scallions), sliced thin
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. / 30 ml olive oil
½ teaspoon / 1.5 g cumin
1 teaspoon / 1 g oregano (preferably Mexican oregano)
½ tbsp. / 4 g pimentón de la Vera (or smoked paprika)
½ tbsp. / 9 g salt
1 can (28 oz. / 794 g) diced tomatoes
6 cups / 1½ liters vegetable broth
chopped cilantro leaves for garnish
slice of lime for garnish (optional)
thinly sliced radish for garnish (optional)
slice (or chunk) of avocado for garnish (optional)
salt to taste
pepper to taste

The Instant Pot® fits like a glove… if your hand is cylindrical and about seven inches deep. Or a spaghetti squash.

DIRECTIONS

For the spaghetti squash:

Take off store sticker, rinse squash and pat dry. Insert steamer trivet into Instant Pot® inner pot. Add 1 cup / 250 ml water. Place squash in Instant Pot®. Close and lock lid, making sure that release vent is set to “Sealing.” Press button for Bean/Chili (set pressure to “high”) and adjust timer to 18 minutes. When squash is finished, you can allow natural pressure release or use quick release; either works fine. Remove squash from pot, remove steamer insert, and discard steaming water when sufficiently cool. Cut squash in half, remove seeds and stringy debris. Scrape out “spaghetti” with fork, chop strands into short, fideo-like length (between an inch and 4 cm) and set aside in bowl.

All star alliums: garlic and spring onions prepare for what chef José Andrés calls “a dance” with olive oil.

For the soup:

Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté.” Add olive oil to inner pot insert and allow to warm, then add garlic and spring onions. Sweat the onions and garlic until soft, stirring occasionally, for maybe 4-5 minutes. [No big deal if they begin to brown, but don’t let them burn or stick to the pot.] Add spaghetti squash and spices, stir to mix. Add tomatoes (with juice) and vegetable broth (you can use the tomato can for measuring the broth if you wish; add two cans). Secure lid, making sure vent is set to “sealing.” Press the “Keep Warm/Cancel” button once to stop the sauté function. The press the “Soup” button, adjust pressure to “high” (if necessary) and time to 10 minutes. When soup is finished, either natural pressure release or quick release work fine. Adjust seasonings and ladle into bowls. Garnish with cilantro leaves and the optional avocado, radish, and lime.

Soupe de la Semaine: Bowl of Sunshine — Vegan Yellow Squash & Corn Soup [Instant Pot® recipe]

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Last night, I re-watched most of High Fidelity for millionth time. It’s one of those movies that resonates with my inner record geek and reminds me what, but for the grace of my bride, I might easily have become. In this scene, Jack Black starts his shift at Championship Vinyl by subjecting the rest of the store to the almost oppressively upbeat ’80s hit “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves. It got me to thinking: could I build a bowl of sunshine?

Short answer: yes.

A few days ago, I visited the “we’re selling this produce cheap” bin at the market and picked up half a dozen yellow squash — a kilo and a half — for 99¢. Coulda wound up in lasagna. Coulda wound up in cornbread. But I’ve been on a bit of a soup kick lately.

Yellow squash by themselves are not particularly assertive, taste-wise, so I knew they’d need a little help. A little spice. A little sweetness. And nothing that would detract from the yellow. The spice comes from white pepper and a jalapeño pepper (which is green, but tiny in volume compared to the rest of the soup). Coconut milk and corn provide the sweetness. And because my vegetable stock base is the colour of Vegemite™, the main bulk of liquid in the soup is water. For a moment, I considered making it a curry-based soup (the Flavor the Moments blog has an excellent vegan take on that here), but ultimately this recipe from the Love & Olive Oil blog resonated with me most.

Like many Instant Pot® recipes, this adapts easily to the stovetop; just add enough time to soften the squash. And boy freakin’ howdy, is this easy. The entire soup is made in the Instant Pot®, so no other pots and pans to clean up. [It’s even done in a single pot on the stovetop.] Prep is not at all demanding, because everything’s getting blitzed at the end (even the cook, should you so choose).

Unsquashed squash.

Vegan Bowl of Sunshine
(makes about 3.5 liters / 15 cups)

INGREDIENTS

6 yellow squash, roughly chopped (approx. 3 lb./ 1½ kg.)
1 sweet onion, roughly chopped
10 oz. / 300 g frozen, fresh, or canned corn kernels (drained if using latter)
1 jalapeño pepper, minced (optional, but recommended)
2 teaspoons / 12 g sea salt
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups / 750 ml vegetable broth or water
1 can (13½ oz. / 400 ml) coconut milk (preferably the “fat” kind)
2 tbsp. / 30 ml olive (or neutral) oil for sweating veggies
1 teaspoon / 2½ g white pepper
2 tbsp. / 30 ml olive oil to finish (optional)
zest of one lemon (optional)
salt to taste
pepper to taste

Sweating the small stuff.

DIRECTIONS

Chop onion and jalapeño and add them to the Instant Pot®’s inner cooking pot; set to “Sauté” function. Sweat the onions and pepper until somewhat softened, then add the chopped squash and continue to sauté for another three or four minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing adheres to the pot. Add salt, water (or stock), coconut milk, thyme sprigs, corn, and white pepper; stir together. Hit the red “Keep Warm/Cancel” button on the control panel.

Ready for pressure.

Cover pot and lock lid (making sure the vent is set to “Sealing”), select “Soup,” set pressure to “High,” and time to 15 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.” [Be careful not to steam your hand.]

Make me smooth, chef.

Remove thyme sprigs, add lemon zest if desired, then process soup with immersion blender or in batches with 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.] Stir and allow soup to sit for a couple of minutes before tasting and adjusting spices. [NOTE: The immersion blender won’t make the soup silky smooth, so if that is your aim, use a Vita-Mixer and strain through a china cap.

Ladle soup into bowls, drizzle in a teaspoon (5 ml) or so of olive oil if desired, then garnish with a few grains of black pepper and bit of chopped parsley, basil, chives, or green onion.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegan Potato Pickle Pot [Instant Pot® recipe]

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Not the prettiest soup, but it has a great personality.

One happy consequence of my current sixty-day Facebook cleanse is that I am spending more time researching (and cooking) recipes of all sorts.

If ever there were a happier marriage between a vegetable and an herb than potato with dill, I don’t think I’ve found it. And while I’m sure some of you might respond reflexively with “Yeah, what about tomato and basil, smart guy,” I’ll meet your snark with the pedantic retort that the tomato is technically a fruit and move on. The Potato Pickle Pot moniker is a nod to the Afro-Caribbean soup/stew known as Pepper Pot, although this particular soup’s roots seem to be Polish, where it, like its African cousin, is often made with cheap cuts of meat and is known as Zupa Ogórkowa. [My rebranding it as Polish Peasant Potato Pickle Pot seemed to be dipping an already gilded lily into Belgian chocolate fondue, so I dialed it back.] Both soups historically depended on available ingredients (peasants, y’know, can’t be choosers), so you’re welcome to think of this more as a template than a recipe. I’m sure no gendarmes from the local potagerie will be dispatched if you sneak in a turnip, some carrots, a rutabaga, or even some cabbage.

Many non-vegan iterations contain butter, milk, and even sour cream, but I was committed to a vegan version, and much like Magda at the I Deliciate.com blog, I considered — and then rejected — adding cashew cream. The puréed taters bring a rustic silkiness to the broth on their own. As with yesterday’s “Sofrito” Soup recipe, I opted to employ my Instant Pot® as a time-saving device to soften the potatoes, but the recipe is easily transferable to the stovetop. Just follow the directions for sautéing the onion, garlic, and potato, then add the broth/almond milk combo and simmer it until the potatoes are fork-tender (as if ready to be mashed). I expect that would take about 40-ish minutes, depending on how small your potato chunks were cut.

Of all the versions of this soup I researched, the one to which I owe the greatest debt came from a fellow Canadian, the woman who ran the One Vivacious Vegan blog out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s little wonder she wanted a sturdy soup back in the fall of 2012; winters up there are doggone cold, and surprisingly long.

VEGAN POTATO PICKLE POT
Makes about 10 cups (about 2¼ liters)

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp / 30ml olive oil
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds / 1.5 kg potatoes, scrubbed and diced, but not peeled
3 cups / 700ml vegetable stock
3 cups / 700ml unflavoured and unsweetened almond milk (soy milk or rice milk should also be fine)
⅔ cup / 7g chopped fresh dill (or 3-4 tbsp. / 9-12g dried), plus a few extra sprigs for a garnish
½ cup / 120ml pickle brine (straight from the jar)
½ cup / 30g nutritional yeast
1 cup / 170g chopped dill pickles
salt and pepper to taste (remember, the brine is salty, so add it AFTER, if necessary)

Halfway through, it’s really not a pretty sight.

DIRECTIONS [Instant Pot®]

Chop onion, garlic, and potatoes and put them in separate bowls. Add oil to inner cooking pot, and set the Instant Pot® to its “Sauté” function. Sweat the onions until somewhat softened, then add the garlic and continue to sauté for another two minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing adheres to the pot. Add chopped potatoes and continue to sauté for 3-5 more minutes, just to warm the potatoes a bit and get them interacting with the onion and garlic. Add stock, almond milk, and chopped dill; stir together. Hit the red “Keep Warm/Cancel” button on the control panel.

Cover pot and 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.”

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.] You can pureé all of the soup at this point, but I like to leave a few of the chunks of potato intact. Add nutritional yeast, pickle brine, and chopped pickles. Stir and allow soup to sit for a couple of minutes before tasting and adjusting spices. Depending on your taste, you might want to add a little more pickle brine or dill to the mix, along with salt and pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a sprig of chopped dill. A baguette would be nice with this, although prudence would mitigate; you’ll have had a full day’s worth of carbs in the soup.

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.

***********************************************************************

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.

Soupe de la Semaine: Coconut Tomato [Vegan]

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The turmeric makes it yellow.

The bride and I just got back from Paris, where we dined somewhat indiscriminately. Maybe that’s not the precise word, because we were pretty careful (bordering on obsessive) about choosing our restaurants. We certainly dined well, if perhaps excessively. But since the scale ticked a little higher upon our return, we decided to dial it back a bit.

February is normally one of our two vegetarian months per year (and not because it’s the shortest, since our other is October), but we’re kickstarting it off a few days early as part of our “Going Clean in ’18” campaign. I saw a version of this soup in Urvashi Pitre’s Indian Instant Pot® Cookbook, and it’s very close to this one, but I adjusted some of the portions because I love cilantro and ginger, and I’m not afraid of a little pepper. While she prepares it in an Instant Pot®, it works just fine as a stovetop recipe. It’s easy and delicious both ways.

Three quick notes: Should you be using fresh tomatoes, the immersion blender (or food processor) might not decimate all the seeds to your satisfaction. If you’re fussy about that, you could strain the soup (I didn’t). Second, this could easily be adapted for omnivores; some shrimp or cooked chicken (especially thighs) would make an excellent complement. Finally, this is pretty great served cold as well, just in case you want to make it in summer.

Coconut Tomato Soup
Makes about 8 cups (about 2 liters)

INGREDIENTS
3 lbs. / 1.5 kilos tomatoes, roughly chopped
(you can use canned if they are unseasoned)
1 red onion, diced
3 cloves minced garlic
1 chunk minced ginger (approx. 1 inch / 2.5cm) (approx 2.5g)
¾ cup / 15g chopped fresh cilantro
1 can coconut milk (13.5 oz. / 400ml) (I prefer the “fat”/”whole” variety)
1-2 teaspoons / 6-12g salt
¾ teaspoon / 1.5g ground white pepper (or cayenne pepper or Piment d’Espelette)
1 teaspoon / 3g ground turmeric
1 tablespoon / 22g agave syrup or honey (the latter is not vegan)

DIRECTIONS [Stovetop]

Chop tomatoes (unless using canned), dice onion. mince garlic, peel and grate ginger, wash and chop cilantro and add them all to soup pot. Add coconut milk, remaining spices, and agave syrup or honey.

Heat over medium heat until just about boiling, then back the heat off and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.

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, or you will Jackson Pollock your kitchen walls — and yourself — with hot soup.]

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a little extra chopped cilantro.

Before the magic of the immersion blender.

DIRECTIONS [Instant Pot®]

Chop tomatoes (unless using canned), dice onion. mince garlic, peel and grate ginger, wash and chop cilantro and add them all to inner cooking pot. Add coconut milk, remaining spices, and agave syrup or honey.

Lock lid (making sure the vent is set to “Sealing”), select “Manual,” set pressure to “High,” and time to 5 minutes. When finished, allow pressure to release naturally before unlocking lid.

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, or you will Jackson Pollock your kitchen walls — and yourself — with hot soup.]

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a little extra chopped cilantro.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegan Hot and Sour Soup

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M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

It all started with a bag marked Dried Black Fungus (Whole).

p1050184

Okay, I’m a geek. I admit it. Some people go to the beach, others go to art museums. I go to ethnic and foreign grocery stores. I’m happy to wax poetic about my experience at Carrefour in Galicia, but this one was much closer to home. It’s a market called LAX-C, and while it’s nowhere near LAX (a/k/a Los Angeles International Airport), it (like the airport) encompasses several of Los Angeles’ communities quite vibrantly. While strolling the aisles, I saw this bag of dried black fungus and just had to have it. Somebody out there clearly used this stuff, so it wouldn’t kill me, I figured. Into the shopping cart it went. I could figure out later what it really was and how it might be used.

When I got home, I discovered that it was nothing more exotic than dried wood ear mushrooms. I felt like kind of a naïf, but as luck would have it, I knew exactly how they might be deployed in a recipe.

I’ve been eating hot and sour soup for as long as I’ve been dining at Chinese restaurants, which is more than half a century. And yet, I never tried to make it myself until last night. Idiot me. Wow, this is simple. If you can operate a spoon, a knife, a pot, and a flame, you can do this. And if you have a cold, as I did when I made it, this soup beats the living tar out of chicken soup in terms of restorative powers.

NOTE: It’s easy to convert this soup to the trad non-vegan version, too. First, substitute chicken stock for vegetable stock. Then, add some shredded cooked chicken (or shredded cooked pork) at the same time you add the mushrooms, and right at the very end, beat a couple of eggs in a small bowl, and drizzle them into the soup as you stir it (that keeps them from lumping up).

If you want to keep this gluten-free, use tamari sauce rather than soy, and have a care if you are buying commercial vegetable broth that it doesn’t contain any grains that have gluten. Chances are, if it’s gluten-free, it will say so somewhere on the package.

INGREDIENTS

    2.5 oz. / 70 g package dried Chinese fungi, such as wood ears or cloud ears
    6 oz. / 170 g sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms
    8 oz. / 225 g canned bamboo shoots, sliced
    1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
    1 tablespoon / 20 g red chile paste, such as sambal oelek
    1/4 cup / 60 ml soy sauce (or tamari sauce if you want to keep it gluten free)
    1/4 cup / 60 ml rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon / 6 g salt
    1.5 teaspoons / 3 g ground white pepper
    1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 ml sesame oil
    8 cups / 1.89 liters vegetable stock
    8 oz. / 225 g firm tofu, drained and sliced in 1/2-inch cubes
    2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch mixed with 1/4 cup / 60 ml water (you may also use cornstarch)
    4-6 green onions, chopped, for garnish
Soaking your fungi.

Soaking your fungi.

DIRECTIONS

Place the dried fungus into a bowl and cover with 4 cups / 1 liter boiling water. They should soften in about 20 minutes to half an hour. Squeeze them out into the bowl and place them on a chopping board. Reserve the liquid (it goes in the pot later).

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Slice up the fungus into spoon-size bits. You will find that the “stem” (pictured above) is particularly tough, so cut it out and discard it. It may be white, or it may not, but you will be able to tell with your fingers that it’s not been rehydrated. (It was only the very center of those two mushrooms that I tossed; there was still a fair amount of useable fungus.)

Strain the remaining juice into a heavy soup pot or dutch oven (don’t want any mushroom grit). I had 3 cups / 700 ml mushroom water, so the remaining 5 cups / 1.1 liters of liquid came from vegetable stock, and I put that on a fairly high heat to bring it to a boil. You can add the mushrooms (both kinds) at this time.

Drain the sliced bamboo shoots and slice to matchstick width (I cut mine in thirds lengthwise), and add to broth. Grate the ginger into the pot (a microplane works well for this if you have one), or grate over cutting board with box grater and add to pot.

Add chili paste, soy/tamari sauce, sesame oil, salt, and rice vinegar to soup. Stir. Add white pepper 1/2 tsp. / 1 g at a time, and taste; I like it hot, but you may want to stop at 1 tsp. 2 g if you are not a heat freak. If soup is boiling, back it off to a simmer. At the 15 minute mark of so, add the drained and cubed tofu.

In a separate bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch with 1/4 cup / 60 ml cold water to make a slurry. Transfer slurry to pot, stirring soup with whisk as you do to prevent clumps from forming. Cook a further 10 minutes and allow to thicken. Add chopped green onions and serve. Serves 4-6.

NOTE: The process can be speeded up dramatically if you do your mise en place ahead of time. Basically, you need to have the mushrooms and the bamboo shoots in the hot broth for about 10 minutes to sofeten them up, and you need a further few minutes to allow the potato starch slurry to thicken the soup. If you use a cornstarch slurry to thicken the broth, it needs a little time to cook off the pasty taste. That’s why I like potato starch.

Also, the “hot” is coming from the white pepper and the “sour” is coming from the vinegar, so those are the two variables you’ll want to control most carefully to achieve the balance you want. You may want to add each of those a bit at a time, tasting as you go.

Soupe de la Semaine: Turkish Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup -or- Közlenmiş Kırmızı Biberli ve Domatesli Çorba [Gluten-Free and Vegan]

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I was tempted to call it the “Istanbowl.” Shame on me.

Yeah, the title is a mouthful. Happily, though, so is the soup.

I didn’t sample this when I visited Istanbul back in the ’80s, but I think I have some general sense of the Turkish flavour palate, and since this dish is reputed to be much like chicken soup is in America (which is to say that there are a quadzillion variations), this should be on pretty safe ground. I consulted with my Turkish pal Nil ex post facto (sending her the picture you see above), and she confirmed that I was in the ball park, and that I had nailed the spelling. I’d hate to give y’all a recipe for Turkish Roasted Red Bat Turd Soup thanks to a typo.

Many recipes call for bulgur wheat as the thickening agent and starchy backbone, but I opted for quinoa, since it’s gluten-free and generally considered safe for celiac patients, depending on whose article you read. If that’s not an issue for you, help yourself to bulgur wheat, rice, or even Israeli couscous (which is actually a pasta) in its stead. The smokiness comes not only from the roasted peppers, but also from the fire-roasted tomatoes and the pimentón de la Vera (or smoked paprika). You may add a pinch of smoked salt to finish before serving if you wish. Lots of bass notes to be had here. You can always add the zest of 1/2 lemon or a teaspoon (5 ml) of vinegar if you feel it needs to be brightened up, but I don’t think you’ll need it, as the acid in the tomatoes should balance it nicely. Some recipes also call for cornstarch as a thickening agent; I would deploy a tablespoon / 10 g of potato starch in a slurry if I thought it needed it. You be the judge.

The biggest downside of this soup is that it requires some time to bring together, unless you happen already to have roasted red peppers (not the marinated kind) and cooked quinoa in your fridge. In that case, it’s a snap. But it will take somewhere between 30-40 minutes-ish to cook the quinoa, and maybe 35 minutes to groom your peppers to soup-readiness. Your patience and dedication will be rewarded!

INGREDIENTS

    3 red bell peppers, halved, de-seeded, and roasted, with skins removed
    3/4 cup / 135 g dry quinoa, cooked (use package instructions) [will yield 2 1/4 cups / 415 g]
    2 tablespoons / 30 ml olive oil
    1 onion, diced
    3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
    2 tablespoons / 5 g sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (or red pepper paste or tomato paste)
    1 teaspoon / 2.5 g smoked paprika (I prefer Spanish pimentón de la Vera, and I used picante/hot rather than dulce/sweet)
    1/2 teaspoon / 1.5 g red pepper flakes, to taste
    1 teaspoon / 2.5 g dried mint (maybe double that if using fresh)
    28 oz. / 793 g can fire-roasted tomatoes (or 10-12 fresh tomatoes, roasted and chopped)
    8 oz. / 227 g tomato sauce
    4 cups / 950 ml vegetable broth
    Salt & coarsely ground black pepper
    OPTIONAL: 1 tablespoon / 10 g potato starch for thickening
    OPTIONAL: Fresh mint for garnish
    OPTIONAL: Sour cream (or vegan alternative) as garnish
Simmerin' away.

Simmerin’ away.

DIRECTIONS

Roast the peppers: Turn on broiler. Spread peppers on an aluminum foil lined cookie sheet, skin side up, in a single layer (you may need to repeat this step to roast all your peppers). Place cookie sheet about 3″ / 8 cm below broiler element. Roast until peppers are blackened across the top, around 10-15 minutes.

Transfer roasted peppers to a medium-sized bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam for 15 minutes minimum. Using your fingers, peel off the charred top layer of skin and discard. Give peeled pepper slices a rough chop, small enough to fit easily on a soup spoon, because they will not be puréed. Return to steaming bowl and reserve, along with any juices they shed, for later.

Cook the quinoa according to instructions on the label. I find that the stove-top method, while longer, produces superior results to the microwave method. YMMV. Set aside cooked quinoa for later use.

Cook the soup: In a 3½ quart or larger Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, warm olive oil and onion on fairly low heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened and turning translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the roasted peppers (with any liquid they’ve thrown off), sun-dried tomatoes (or tomato or pepper paste), and garlic; cook a further 3-4 minutes until garlic is slightly less aggressive. Add smoked paprika/pimentón de la Vera, pepper flakes, amd mint; cook for about 30 seconds to release aromas. Add the can of tomatoes, the tomato sauce, vegetable broth, and cooked quinoa. Cook over medium heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. After the first 5 minutes or so, add salt and pepper to taste, but not too heavily; you will adjust the seasonings just before serving. Taste periodically along the way (clean spoons each time!). If you think the consistency is too thin, whisk in 1 tablespoon / 10 g of potato starch with a little of the soup broth in a bowl, and add to the pot. Soup should thicken noticeably within five minutes. Taste at 30 minute mark, adjust seasonings (and thickness, if necessary), and allow to thicken if need be. Remove from heat and ladle into bowls. Garnish with mint sprigs and/or sour cream (or vegan alternative) if so desired. Serves 6 to 8 as an opening course, 4 as a main.

Soupe de la Semaine: Celeriac, Fennel, & Apple Chowder (Gluten-Free and Vegan)

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Chowdah!

Chowdah!

It would seem that the most likely derivation of the word chowder comes from the French chaudière, meaning “boiler” (and is also an archaic French word for cauldron or kettle, from the Latin calderia). The Brits, though, not wanting to be left out of the linguistic fun, claim that the word springs from their jowter, or fishmonger. To be sure, many of the best known chowders do contain fish, but this one is a vegetable and fruit chowder that’ll stick to your ribs on a chilly night.

The original recipe was published in the excellent Cook’s Illustrated All Time Best Soups volume, and this variation was also influenced by a post on the terrific Big Girls, Small Kitchen blog and Ina Garten’s recipe for Celery Root and Apple Purée (which is very much like this soup without the vegetable broth).

I took two significant detours: I omitted the heavy cream (thus keeping the soup vegan), and substituted potato starch for wheat flour (which makes it gluten-free). Trust me, you won’t miss the cream a bit; if you process in a Vita-Mix, it will be plenty creamy, but even if you just use an immersion blender the soup will emerge a tiny bit more rustic, while still maintaining that silky mouthfeel.

When it comes to the wine, you don’t really need to use a $38 bottle of Roche 2014 Carneros Chardonnay French Oak Reserve, but damn, it was good (and you only need half a cup (or 120ml).

Special note for celiac patients: Be extra-sure that your vegetable broth is free of wheat or barley or malt products. These often show up in commercial vegetable broths and broth bases.

INGREDIENTS

    2 tablespoons / 30g Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks (or unsalted butter, for non-Vegan version)
    1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    1 fennel bulb, halved, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus 1 tablespoon minced fronds
    Salt and pepper
    6 garlic cloves, minced
    2 teaspoons / 1.6g minced fresh thyme (or 3/4 teaspoon / .75g dried)
    2 tablespoons / 20g potato starch
    1/2 cup / 120ml dry white wine
    5 1/2 cups / 1.3 liters vegetable broth
    1 celeriac (also known as celery root) (14 ounces / 400g), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    12 ounces / 350g red potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    zest of 1 lemon or orange
    1 bay leaf
Soup on the boil.

Soup on the boil.

DIRECTIONS

Put butter, onion, fennel, and a couple of pinches of salt in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and thyme, cook for 30 seconds to a minute until fragrant. Raise heat to high and add potato starch, stirring continuously, and cook for another 2 minutes or so. Add the wine to deglaze the pot, making sure to scrape up all the bits on the bottom; let most of the wine boil off.

Stir in the vegetable broth, celeriac, potatoes, and apples. Add bay leaf and zest your citrus over the pot. Bring to a boil and then back the heat off to a high simmer. Cover pot and cook for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are all tender.

Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf. Process 2/3 soup in batches; if you are using a blender or Vita-Mix, making sure to cover feed tube loosely with tea towel (do not plug it up, because steam needs to escape). Return processed soup to pot. [Alternatively, use an immersion blender to process soup, making sure to leave at least 1/3 chunky.] Season with salt and pepper to taste, and ladle into bowls. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Soupe de la Semaine: Roasted Pepper Soup with Cilantro Cream

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My pal Beth, herself no slouch around the kitchen, dropped a UXB (UneXpected Book) into our mailbox earlier this week: Cook’s Illustrated All-Time Best Soups. It boasted a number of recipes that will serve as inspiration during soup season — which is all year, of course, but especially in the winter. I had my eyes set on a celeriac, fennel, and apple chowder for the opening salvo, but the bride had other ideas, and she wins.

Over the course of due diligence (I almost never cook a recipe without scanning the Interwebs to see if someone has concocted a more interesting version), I came across the Cookie + Kate blog, in which she lays out several entertaining reasons for not making this soup. Long story short, it’s not particularly cheap to make (unless you grow your own peppers), and the pepper roasting process is both time-consuming and a wee bit tedious. That said, just like her, I concluded that this soup is so tasty that any quibbles about prep were overcome mere nanoseconds after the intersection of tongue and spoon. [All the original recipes I consulted to arrive at this one called for red bell peppers, but the local supermercado‘s red peppers looked a little sketchy, so I made it with orange ones instead. I presume yellow bell peppers, or a mix of all three, would work equally well.]

For those of you who are interested, the recipe is easily vegan-adaptable (see notes below); while the half and half is a tasty touch, I tasted the puréed soup prior to its addition, and I could easily have stopped there, ingredient-wise. Recipe yields 4-6 large servings.

INGREDIENTS

Cilantro Cream

    3/4 cup / 170g sour cream (or soy yogurt for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 30ml half and half (or cashew cream for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 5.3g fresh minced cilantro leaves
    zest of 1 lime, plus juice from half of that lime (approximately 2 tablespoons / 30ml)

Soup

    8 red (or orange, or yellow) bell peppers, roasted, skins removed, and chopped
    1 tablespoon / 15ml olive oil (I used basil-infused EVOO) (double if making tortilla strips)
    2 medium garlic cloves, minced
    1 medium red onion, chopped
    1 teaspoon / 2.5g ground cumin
    1 teaspoon / 2.5g smoked paprika (I prefer Spanish pimentón de la Vera, and I used picante/hot rather than dulce/sweet)
    3 tablespoons / 50g tomato paste (or 8 oz. / 227g tomato sauce)
    1 tablespoon / 10g potato starch
    4-6 cups / 950ml-1.4l vegetable broth; start with smaller amount, adjusting for consistency as desired
    2 bay leaves
    1/2 cup /120ml half and half (or 100ml cashew cream + 20ml coconut oil for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 30ml dry sherry
    2 tablespoons / 5.3g minced fresh cilantro
    salt and pepper, to taste

Garnish (optional)

    3 corn tortillas, sliced into thin, 2-inch long strips, fried in oil until crispy

INSTRUCTIONS

For the Cilantro Cream:
Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until serving.

For the Crispy Tortilla Strips:
Cut tortillas into strips about 2″ (5cm) long and 1/4″ (2/3cm) wide. Warm 1 tablespoon / 15ml olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add tortilla strips and salt. Stir to coat the strips with the oil, and fry until both sides are golden and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to cool. NOTE: If you are making the vegan version, be sure no lard was used in the tortilla manufacture! Corn tortillas are gluten-free, if you are concerned about that.

Peppers pre-peeling.

Peppers pre-peeling.


Post-peeling pepper perfection.

Post-peeling pepper perfection.

For the Soup:
Roast the peppers: Spread peppers on an aluminum foil lined cookie sheet, skin side up, in a single layer (you may need to repeat this step several times to roast all your peppers). Place cookie sheet about 3″ below broiler element. Roast until peppers are blackened across the top, around 10 minutes.

Transfer roasted peppers to a medium-sized bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam for 15 minutes. Using your fingers, peel off the charred top layer of skin and discard. Take peeled pepper slices and give them a rough chop (they will be puréed later, so no need to be fussy about it).

Cook the soup: In a 3½ quart or larger Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, warm olive oil and minced garlic on fairly low heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the garlic gets a little foamy and sticky, about 6-7 minutes. Increase heat to medium, add onions and sauté until softened and turning translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the cumin and smoked paprika/pimentón de la Vera and cook for about 30 seconds to release aromas. Add the potato starch (or flour) and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add the tomato paste (or sauce) and gradually whisk in the stock, stirring to prevent lumps. Add the peeled red/orange/yellow peppers and stir. Bring the soup to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Once your soup is done cooking, remove it from heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes.

Blend the soup: Transfer soup to a blender or Vita-Mix (do NOT fill it over halfway, unless you wish to decorate your walls and person with hot soup); drape a kitchen towel over the blender (so the escaping steam doesn’t build up or burn your hands) and process in batches. Transfer puréed soup to another pot and continue until all of the soup is blended. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to blend the soup in the pot. Blend until the mixture is smooth and creamy. If soup is too thick, add vegetable stock to achieve desired consistency.

Transfer soup back to cooking pot and rewarm gently on the stove; add the half & half (or vegan substitute), dry sherry, and chopped cilantro. Divide soup into individual bowls, and drizzle in cilantro cream. Top with crispy tortilla strips (optional) and serve.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetarian (but not Vegan) Avgolemono

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Yakko digs Greek soup.

Yakko digs Greek soup.

One of the very first Greek dishes I can remember tasting (long before I ever visited Greece) was a deli-style version of this soup. This version recreates it fairly well (except for the chicken pieces), presuming my taste memory is accurate. The big plus here is that it can be made in a little more than half an hour, and requires practically no prep.

Avgolemono is the Greek compound word for “egg” and “lemon,” and doesn’t necessarily refer to the soup (an egg-lemon sauce that shares the name is used widely with pork, chicken, and grape leaf dishes). That said, avgolemono is often called the “national soup of Greece,” even though research seems to indicate that it likely originated in Portugal or Spain, quite probably among the Sephardic Jewish popuation. [It’s probable that they were also responsible for the original Tarta de Santiago, whose picture adorns the top of this blog.]

A couple of notes. I happen to like the version thickened with potato starch in the winter, when I’m serving it hot. In the summer, I tend to serve it chilled, and without the extra thickener. No need to be too fussy about any of the amounts here; the recipe is easily halved, and you can use less or more orzo or lemon depending on your taste. I recently added the lemon zest and white pepper to the mix, and I find they both give the soup a subtle boost. The beauty part about the orzo (as opposed to rice, which is used in some recipes) is not only that it’s a great way to use up excess cooked pasta if you have it, but since dry orzo only takes 7-9 minutes to rehydrate, you don’t have to cook it separately. If you have leftover cooked rice, you can easily substitute it for the orzo. [Dry rice will take 40 minutes or so to reconstitute.]

Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen named Orrington Farms’ Chicken Flavored Vegan Broth Base & Seasoning as the best commercial starter for vegetable broth, and the latter published a recipe for making your own base. The downside of most store-bought vegetable stocks is that they’re sodium bombs, and many of them just don’t taste very good. The lemon in this recipe does a decent job of masking their weaknesses, but the better a veggie broth you use for a starter, the better the finished product will turn out.

Former White House Communications Director and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos makes a similar, if slightly more complicated, version if you want to watch an ordinary home cook in action.

Ingredients

8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock
4 cups / 800g cooked orzo (or 2 cups / 400g dry)
6 eggs, whisked
2/3 cup / 160ml lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. / 12g potato starch (optional)
2 sprigs of fresh dill, chopped (optional)
white pepper to taste (optional)

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Preparation

1. Heat vegetable stock and chopped dill (if you’re using it) in large pot or Dutch oven, to just below boiling. Add dried or cooked orzo when stock is warmed. DO NOT allow this to come to a boil, or it will curdle when you add the egg and lemon mixture, below.

2. While stock is heating, whisk eggs and lemon juice in a separate bowl.

3. Temper egg-lemon mixture by drizzling in 2 cups / 500ml warm stock while whisking continuously. Transfer tempered egg-lemon mixture back to soup pot.

4. if thickening with potato starch, place 1 tbsp. / 12 g in the bowl in which you tempered the eggs. Gradually whisk in a ladle of liquid from soup pot until you have a slurry free of lumps. Transfer slurry to soup pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep orzo from sticking to the pot. Soup will thicken noticeably, enough to coat spoon.

5. Zest lemon over soup pot just before serving, and stir to incorporate. Whisk in white pepper to taste (if desired), and ladle soup into mugs or small bowls, making sure to get plenty of orzo. Garnish with dill if desired.

Soupe de la Semaine: Pasilla, Potato, & Garlic Soup — Vegan-style

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I’ve got a beef (no pun intended) with the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Much like MTV, they drifted away from their original vision and began offering a schedule filled with fake drama and connerie that has precious little to do with anything that happens in a kitchen, professional or amateur. People being tasked to make dishes with ingredients like licorice, chicory, hickory, foie gras, and lima beans. The self-appointed Mayor of Flavourtown swanning around the country, sunglasses dangling ridiculously off the back of his bleach-tipped head like an errant swath of toilet paper attached to a shoe. And the content-free talking-head programs where workaday foodstuffs such as pretzels and cupcakes are routinely characterized by the multiple hosts as amazing. Look: if you can be amazed by a pretzel, your kidney is going to rocket out of your dorsal abdomen when you see the northern lights or the Eiffel Tower. Also, any native English speaker who modifies the word “unique” deserves to be banished to an asteroid outside the Van Allen Belt. So I’ve pretty much gone cold turkey (albeit heirloom breed, free-range, and antibiotic-free) on them.

But when one network closes, another one opens. I discovered that one of my local PBS station’s digital sub-channels features programming from a sort of network-within-a-network: Create TV. It’s excellent, and filled with cooking friends both old and new. Julia Child. Andreas Viestad (of New Scandinavian Cooking). Rick Bayless. Steven Raichlen. Hubert Keller. And the timeless Jacques Pépin.

It was Pépin’s show that inspired me to make this soup; his version is potato-free and employs sour cream (I wanted to make mine vegan). I also wanted to tone down the heat a bit, and give it some more body. As it turned out, I had half a dozen Yukon Gold potatoes lying around, and they filled the bill nicely. But to add an extra bass note, I roasted them first. I should also offer up a hat-tip to the Kevin Is Cooking blog, whose Roasted Pasilla Chile and Potato Soup with Shredded Chicken recipe also inspired me.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts, don’t blanch at the concept of the soup using a whole head of garlic. (Don’t skimp, either.) Because the garlic is added initially as whole cloves, it’s not overwhelming (even though it is puréed later). Which reminds me: if you are using pre-minced garlic or garlic paste, dial it back… A LOT.

Ingredients

8 large dried Pasilla chile peppers, rehydrated (Ancho or Guajillo peppers may be substituted if necessary)
8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock or water
6 medium-to-large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3 lbs. / 1.5 kg)
2 large yellow onions, diced (about 4 cups / 600g)
1 head garlic (approximately 20-25 whole cloves)
2 + 2 tablespoons / 30ml + 30ml oil (I used garlic-infused olive oil)
1 large can (28-ounce / 793g) diced tomatoes — fire-roasted if you can get them
1 tablespoon / 3g dried oregano leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, if desired, for garnish
Vegan sour cream substitute, if desired, for garnish
Fried tortilla strips or crumbled tortilla chips, optional (check to see that they are made without lard if you are cooking for vegans)
1 sunny side up egg per bowl, optional (this invalidates the vegan-ness, so have a care)

Onion family reunion.

Onion family reunion.

Preparation

1. Soak dried Pasilla chile peppers in vegetable broth for approximately two hours. When they are rehydrated, remove them from broth, seed them and chop them roughly. Set aside. Be sure to reserve soaking broth.

2. Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Wash and dice potatoes into 1″ / 2.5cm cubes (you may peel them if you prefer, but it is not necessary). Place cubed potatoes into plastic bag with 2 tbsp / 30ml oil), and shake to coat. Dump potatoes out on a cookie tray and spread out into a single layer (you can line the pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper for easier cleanup). Salt lightly. Roast for 45-60 minutes, until nicely browned. [If you wish, you can turn them over midway through the roasting process, but it’s not strictly necessary.]

3. Peel garlic and dice onions. [No need to be too fancy here, since it’s all getting puréed later.] Place in large pot or Dutch oven with the remaining two tablespoons / 30ml of oil, and cook over medium heat until onions are translucent, approximately 5-7 minutes.

4. Strain in the reserved vegetable stock (this will catch any remaining seeds from the Pasilla soaking), and add chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, oregano, plus a little salt and pepper to taste (be frugal; you can always add some more later).

5. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat, cover partially, and cook at a simmer for 60 minutes (or longer, if you have the time). Process soup with immersion blender, food processor, or Vita-Mix. [Be very careful when you purée hot soup — leave room for steam to get out (I cover the feed tube loosely with a dish towel), and if using an immersion (stick) blender, be careful when it exits the surface of the soup, so as to avoid coating both chef and walls.] Adjust spices as necessary and serve.

Before the blend.

Before the blend.

Soupe de la Semaine: Sweet & Sour Cabbage Soup — Vegan-style

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sweet-and-sour-cabbage-soup

As you might have guessed from the headline, I’m going to try to post a soup recipe every week. We’ll see how that goes. But if I am to hold the throne of “Le Roi de Potage,” awarded me in Paris a few years back (another story for another time), it’s time to step up.

They say it never rains in southern California, but that’s not quite true. This evening was one of those rare and welcomed occasions, and soup is the ideal antidote for a dark and stormy night. As I trawled the Internets, looking for something to suit my fancy, I unearthed a couple of Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup recipes, which I melded to make this one. The first was modified from the NY Times by ofallytasty.com, who adapted it from The National. The second came from cookforyourlife.org, who wisely noted that the pimentón helps to make up for the smokiness that ham would ordinarily bring to this soup in its non-vegan state. Alternatively (or even better, additionally), you could finish it with a tiny pinch of smoked salt (I heartily recommend Hepp’s 7-Fire Smoked Sea Salt — it’s not cheap, but a little goes quite some distance, and it’s sooooo good). Some of the recipes I read called for an immersion blender to purée a portion of the soup, but I found it unnecessary. Dealer’s choice.

Idiot me, I didn’t measure how much the recipe made, but it will easily serve 10-12 as an opener and 6 as a main, especially if augmented with a baguette.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons / 30ml neutral oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
2 teaspoons / 4g caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
1 large can (28-ounce / 793g) diced tomatoes — fire-roasted if you can get them
1 fairly large cabbage, cored and shredded (approximately 2.5 lbs / 1.1 kg)
8 cups / 1.8 liters vegetable stock or water
4 tablespoons / 50g brown sugar
2-3 teaspoons / 4-6g smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera is preferred if you can get it)
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 tablespoons (45-60ml) fresh lemon juice or vinegar (apple cider vinegar is what I used, but white wine vinegar would be fine)
Pinch of smoked salt for finishing, optional
Sour cream or vegan sour cream substitute, if desired, for garnish
Baguettes or rolls to serve alongside, optional

Preparation

1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the caraway seeds and cook for 1 more minute.

2. Add the diced tomatoes (along with their juice), the stock (or water), and the bay leaves. Cook for about 10 minutes or so, to warm the liquid.

3. Add the shredded cabbage, brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour (but two is better, especially if you want your cabbage a little less crunchy).

4. Stir in vinegar or lemon juice right before serving (start with 2 tbsp. stir, and add more to taste), then cook for about 1-2 minutes to allow flavours to blend; serve with a baguette. If desired, sour cream or vegan sour cream substitute may be dolloped on top, and a tiny(!) pinch of smoked salt may be added per portion for finishing.

NOTE: When reheating, add a small amount of your acid (lemon or vinegar) to refresh taste.

Celebrating Celeriac with a Superb Soup [Vegan]

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Celeriac, before and after a trim.

Celeriac, before and after a trim.

If there is an uglier vegetable on the planet Earth than celeriac (Apium graveolens variety rapaceum), I have yet to find it. Fortunately, much as beauty is only skin deep, in the case of this magnificent and underappreciated vegetable, so is ugly.

While celeriac itself doesn’t grow very deep — maybe six inches or so beneath the surface of your average garden plot — its roots in food history are deep indeed. In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a component of Calypso’s garden, albeit in the Greek it is referred to as selinon. In one passage, Hermes admires the environs of Calypso’s cave, festooned with grapes, violets, and wild celery before stepping inside to beseech her to let Odysseus go and finish his journey back to Ithaca. But that’s another, much longer, story.

In ancient times, and for much of their early history, both celery and celeriac were regarded more as medicines than as foodstuffs. Pliny the Elder claimed that the so-called helioselinon was “possessed of peculiar virtues against the bites of spiders.” He also suggested that it could be used to revive sick fish. But by the 17th century, it was being cultivated in France, and by the 18th, it was being used in England for soups and broths.

Fast forward to today: soups and broths! For your consideration, here’s a soup that contains not just one, but two of the planet’s least photogenic vegetables (the latter being parsnips), along with a little ginger (no beauty contest winner itself), some onion, tarragon, and lemon thyme.

CELERIAC AND PARSNIP VELOUTÉ WITH GINGER AND LEMON THYME

Ingredients
48 oz./1.42 litres vegetable broth
2 large celeriac roots, peeled and roughly cubed
3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 tsp./1.2g dried tarragon (it’s what I had at the time; fresh is good too, but use less)
4 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 carrot, cut into “coins” (optional)

Before you get all huffy, this is not technically a velouté, inasmuch as it is not thickened with a roux and cream, but it resembles one in texture. If you just want to call it soup, you have my blessing.

Cleaning the celeriac is best done with a very sharp knife, and it may be treated the same way you would strip off the rough outer skin of a pineapple; ideally, you’ll get off all the brown bits underneath the skin, but don’t make yourself crazy (or whittle the vegetable down to half its original size) getting there. Chopping the peeled celeriac is a bit of a chore, and may require rocking your knife back and forth a bit to get through the dense root. Alternatively, you can use a cleaver, if you have one. The parsnips should be scraped with a vegetable peeler, much like carrots, then chopped. As for the ginger, I started with a segment that was about the size of my thumb and scraped off the peel with a spoon before mincing it as finely as my admittedly mediocre knife skills would permit.

Once the prep is completed, making the soup is a snap; basically, you just dump all the ingredients into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and back it off to a simmer for about an hour to soften up the veggies and give the flavours a chance to blend. Then remove the thyme sprigs (which will have shed their leaves), and transfer the soup, in batches, to a food processor, blender, or Vita-Mix. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT clamp down the lid on your food processor/blender in such a way that steam cannot easily escape, or you will run the risk of both scalding yourself and decorating your walls with hot soup. I leave the top plug out of my Vita-Mix’s “Action Dome” and drape a tea towel over the opening to allow steam, but not solids, to egress.] Alternatively, the soup can be processed in situ with an immersion blender. Process until smooth.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all -- well, almost all -- roots.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all — well, almost all — roots.

You might note that salt is not a component of the ingredients list, and that’s because the vegetable broth I used (I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any vegetable stock of my own lying around) contained 570mg of sodium, presumably in the form of sodium chloride, which was plenty salty for my taste. Your taste (and your broth) may vary.

To finish the soup off, I sliced a small carrot on a hand-held mandoline, arranged the carrot “coins” into a small “flower,” and sprinkled a few leftover thyme leaves on top. I might drizzle a few drops of olive oil on it as well next time, but it’s by no means necessary. Serves 6-8 (easily!) as an opening course.

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.

Vegan Tomato-Dill Soup

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It's soup!

It’s soup!

Despite the widely-held belief that “it never rains in southern California,” it does, albeit not often enough. Tonight, for instance, was a prime example of the occasionally intemperate nature of SoCal weather; a much-needed downpour, most of which would wind up in storm drains on a quick trip to the Pacific Ocean, rather than into the aquifers and reservoirs that could make the best use of it. Rain, for me, signals an opportunity to make soup, which matches inclement weather the way pearls go with Sophia Loren’s exquisite neck.

In my youth, tomato soup meant a can of Campbell’s, made famous by Andy Warhol. My late and much beloved mom used to prepare it in high style, diluting it with milk rather than water for an instant “cream of tomato” concoction, which remained the gold standard for tomato soup in my estimation until well into my adulthood. One weekend in my thirties, though, on a trip to Lake Tahoe, I tasted freshly prepared tomato soup for the first time, and it was nothing short of revelatory. I’ve been spoiled ever since.

INGREDIENTS:

2 tbsp.olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. Cup4Cup gluten-free flour
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz.) San Marzano diced tomatoes
4 tbsp. stemmed and chopped fresh dill + 4 fronds for garnish
28 oz. vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if the vegan version isn’t sufficiently compelling)
1 bay leaf
salt
ground black pepper
dollop of cashew cream (for vegan version) or sour cream or yogurt (non-vegan version)

The humble onion.

The humble onion.

DIRECTIONS:
First, heat the olive oil in a soup pot, then add the diced onion at medium heat. Sweat the onion, allowing it to release its liquids, but don’t brown it. Add the Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, and stir, making sure to break up any lumps that might ensue (a whisk is good at doing this). Add the garlic and cook for about two minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the tomatoes, broth (a simple way to measure this is to fill up the empty tomato can), chopped fresh dill, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.

Adding the flour.

Adding the flour.

Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, but you needn’t be particularly fussy about the timing; it’s just enough to let the flavours blend.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

From here, you have a couple of options. 1) Allow the soup to cool overnight in the refrigerator, and serve it the following day as a rustic cold soup, garnished with a dill sprig (and remember to remove the bay leaf!).

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

2) Alternatively, you can remove the bay leaf, toss it in the food processor and purée it. Be sure to work in small batches, and DON’T plug the feeding tube unless you’d like your kitchen walls redecorated with a fine spray of tomato soup. [The steam needs somewhere to go; best bet is to drape a kitchen towel LOOSELY over the top of the feeding tube.]

You can add a delightfully silky texture by stirring a dollop of cashew cream into each bowl (or cup). Garnish with a dill sprig, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Shameless repurposing, part three: Wolf at the Door, or The Puck Stops Here

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Wolfgang and Oscar, together again

Wolfgang and Oscar, together again

Yeah, I know I’m going to hell for the puns. I think it was the endless hours of watching Rocky & Bullwinkle as a kid, in which upcoming episodes would be teased with titles such as “The Midnight Chew-Chew, or Stick To Your Gums” and “Fuels Rush In, or Star Spangled Boner.” In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview Wolfgang Puck, who was as charming on the telephone as he is on the television (and, presumably, in person). I realize that one doesn’t climb to the Elysian heights that Puck has ascended without a healthy double dollop of ego, but I found him to be surprisingly modest. Much like Emeril Lagasse, Puck has built a loyal cadre around him, many of whom have been in his employ for upwards of 20 years, which is no mean feat in the remarkably transient business of hospitality.

And, like virtually everyone who has achieved justifiable fame in the cooking profession (I’m pointedly leaving out many — though by no means all — of TV’s instant celebu-chefs, who maintain a virtual chokehold on the Cooking Channel and the Food Network “reality” shows these days), he laboured for years before ever penetrating the public consciousness, leaving home at 14 to work as an apprentice at a bakery. His first major gig in America was in Indianapolis, of all places.

Fine Dining at the now-shuttered La Tour, Indianapolis, circa Wolfgang's era

Fine Dining at the now-shuttered La Tour, Indianapolis, circa Wolfgang’s era

It was all glamour and glitz from there, Oscar parties and multi-million dollar deals, but his passion for food still comes through in conversation. In fact, here’s a recipe he gave me for Savory Squash Soup that can be served warm or cold, making it an excellent year-round dish.

Savory Squash Soup in situ

Savory Squash Soup in situ

Savory Squash Soup (serves 6)

Ingredients
4 butternut squash (about 3 3/4 pounds)
2 acorn squash (about 1 3/4 pounds)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 white onions (about 4 ounces), peeled, trimmed, and finely diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
8 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, heated
2 cups heavy cream
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Garnish
Cranberry Relish*
Cardamom Cream**
Spiced Caramelized Pecans***
8 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil

Preheat the oven to 350° F/ 175° C.

Cut each squash in half and discard the seeds. Brush cut sides with 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Arrange the squash cut side down in a roasting pan and bake until tender, about 1 hour. Cool, scoop out the insides of the squash, and purée the flesh in a food processor. Reserve. (You should have about 6 cups of puréed squash.)

In a medium stockpot, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Over low heat, sauté the onion. Do not allow it to brown. Add the puréed squash and cook over very low heat until heated through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow it to bubble up. Season with the salt, pepper, ginger, and cardamom.

Pour in the stock and bring to a boil, still over low heat, stirring often. Cook about 20 minutes.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream with the rosemary sprig. Remove the rosemary and pour the cream into the soup. Transfer to a blender or food processor and process, in batches, for 2 or 3 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste.

To serve, ladle the soup into heated bowls. Place a tablespoon of Cranberry Relish in the center, top with a dollop of Cardamom Cream, then sprinkle with chopped pecans. Drizzle pumpkin seed oil over soup.

Note: If desired, bake small squash until tender, scoop out, and use as individual serving bowls.
Note #2: You don’t need to make the full recipe for the Cranberry Relish if you’re using it only for the soup.

***************

Cranberry Relish - photo courtesy wolfgangpuck.com

Cranberry Relish – photo courtesy wolfgangpuck.com

*Instructions for Cranberry Relish (serves 6)

3 cups cranberries, fresh
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup verjus or 4 tablespoons lemon juice

In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Continue to cook until the mixture is thick and the berries are glazed. Allow to cool. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until needed.

**Instructions for Cardamom Cream

2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon black cardamom seeds

In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of heavy cream and the cardamom seeds to a boil. Reduce until only 1/4 cup remains. Strain through a wire sieve and allow to cool.
Add flavored cream to the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream and whip until stiff peaks form. Chill until ready to serve.

Spiced Caramelized Pecans

Spiced Caramelized Pecans

***Instructions for Spiced Caramelized Pecans

1 1/2 cups peanut oil
1 cup pecan halves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Add pecans to a pot of boiling water in two batches, boiling for two minutes. Drain and shake off all excess water.
Sprinkle salt and cayenne over nuts. Coat with sugar, allowing the sugar to melt into the pecans.
Toss the nuts in the strainer, slowly adding all sugar. [NOTE: Do not use utensil to toss.]
Carefully add nuts to hot oil. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove with slotted spoon and allow to cool on cookie sheet.

In Praise of a Very Fancy Blender

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First off, let me say from the outset that I’m not a “juice guy.” Sure, I’ve seen the infomercials and heard the testimonials and been subject to in-store demos, just like the rest of us. And I love juice; very few liquids on Earth bring me greater pleasure than a fresh-squeezed glass of blood orange juice. But I’m not persuaded that juice can rightly claim the curative powers that its disciples ascribe to it. So it wasn’t for that reason that I found myself on Craigslist, obsessing over finding my first VitaMix (or Vita-Mixer, as it was known then).

Last year, I had promised to make mushroom soup for a Thanksgiving gathering at our friends Rick and Lori’s house, and I knew that some of the attendees had dairy issues. Accordingly, I mused aloud on my FB page as to whether I should substitute almond milk, or cashew cream, or some sort of ersatz non-dairy sour cream substitute as a thickening agent, to give it a “creaminess” without using cream. My pal (and head chef at Papilles Bistro in Hollywood) Tim Carey commented, “I never use cream. Get yourself a VitaMix.” Okay. When you get advice from the guy who has made the best cauliflower soup you’ve ever had in your life, it makes sense to listen.

VitaMix products are expensive. No, really. They are. Very. Expensive. Then again, so are Maybachs, and for much the same reason. I’m pretty sure I could throw a handful of gravel in my Vita-Mixer and come out with a lovely powder, suitable for sprinkling over a fruit cocktail that found itself light in mineral content. The one that I bought — a Vita-Mixer 4000, used, for $200 — had been in service for over a decade and a half, and the guy who sold it did so only because he had been given a new one as a present. It’s a champ, the very one pictured at the top of this post. Easy to clean, easy to use (though I have twice made a pretty comical mess of the kitchen by failing to secure the so-called “Action Dome”). The original cookbook, which came as part of the purchase, claims that one can actually use the device to cook soup, due to the friction of its rotors against the canister’s contents. That may be so, but the idea of having to listen to this device at full throttle for half an hour is about as appealing as being subjected to an extra-innings Justin Bieber concert.

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I made a mushroom stock from water and leeks and carrots and parsley and garlic and dried and fresh mushrooms (dried oyster and black trumpet mushrooms, fresh Eryngii, Maitake, and Bunapi mushrooms), then I sautéed a bunch of fresh mushrooms (I think there were seven different varieties of fresh mushrooms in the soup) and some spices, combined the whole lot (mushrooms, homemade mushroom stock, a bit of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary and oregano, and some salt and pepper) in the Vita-Mixer and puréed like a crazy man.

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

[Incidentally, there are consequences to puréeing hot soup in a food processor whose lid has been too securely clamped; the steam forces the liquid out of the container at high pressure in directions hitherto unimagined at a velocity just barely less energetic than an Olympic gymnast’s free-form floor event. Live and learn.]

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The resulting soup — at least the part of it that I didn’t have to wipe off the cabinets, counters, and floor — was magnificent; creamy, hearty, aromatic. And I owe it all to the wonders of what might be the single most essential countertop kitchen device other than the toaster — the VitaMix[er].