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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing the socarrat.

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

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

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

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

DIRECTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

Just about fork-ready.

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.”

The Return of Be a Star and Save the Bucks — Breakfast Egg Bites [No Instant Pot® Needed Version]

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The so-called Balneo Mariæ, as seen in “The Newe Jewell of Health,” 1576. The one we’re going to use is a little simpler to operate.

In the wake of my recent post about trying to duplicate the Starbucks® sous vide egg bites in an Instant Pot®, a couple of things happened that occasioned this revisit. 1) The bride said I’d gotten the origin story all wrong (she recalls it as having happened this past summer when we were headed out of the Denver metro area on the way to South Dakota in a rented monster truck, and she’s right, as per usual); and 2) my pal Sharon asked via Facebook (and hence via the bride, as I’m still on my 60-day Facebook vacation) whether the recipe could be replicated without benefit of sous vide machine or Instant Pot®.

On the latter point, I had some experience with a technique that I was confident would point me in the right direction.

The low-tech version I’m about to describe has a lot in common with making oeufs en cocotte or, as they’re known in English-speaking countries, shirred eggs. In both of those recipes, though, the yolks are still quite liquid, which means they’re probably not the best option for food destined for on-highway consumption. Also, I wanted to mimic the approximate size of the Starbucks® bites, and all the cocottes (or ramekins) in our pantry are too large for a single-egg bite, unless you’re willing for it to be more puck-shaped than ovoid.

Now that I have you intrigued, frightened, or both, it’s time to introduce you to the delights of the hot water bath known as the bain-marie.

Ever wonder for whom the bain-marie was named? Take a guess: Marie Antoinette? Marie Curie? Marie Osmond? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Maria the Jewess, chemist and process engineer.

Maria the Jewess (a/k/a Maria Prophetissima, Maria Hebræa, Miriam the Prophetess, and Maria of Alexandria, among others) is credited with creating the water bath process that bears her name. Although none of her manuscripts survive, she was cited by the Gnostic mystic Zosimos of Panopolis in the 4th century and the noted physician Arnaldus de Villa Nova in the 13th century for her accomplishments, which also are said to have included the invention of the alembic (an early still). And while Italian cookbook author Giuliano Bugialli is quoted as saying the device is actually named after a 16th century Florentine named Maria de’Cleofa, that seems to be a somewhat dubious claim, given the way earlier Villa Nova citation.

Yeah, great, but what does all this have to do with my eggs?

At sea level, the water in a bain-marie can’t exceed 212°F / 100°C, because it turns into steam. Duh. So the technique is often employed in the creation of cheesecakes, custards, and warm emulsions (such as Hollandaise sauce) that need to be cooked gently. One serious egg-cooking challenge is that the proteins in their whites and yolks coagulate (technically denature) at slightly different temperatures. Cook an egg too long (or hot), it gets rubbery like a Super Ball. Not long enough, and it comes out like a big yellow sneeze. The way these silicone pans are constructed, the bain-marie water can flow around almost all of the egg’s exterior, which makes them an efficient option (as opposed to ramekins or cocottes, whose thicker ceramic sides inhibit the transfer of heat).

Upside-down silicone egg tray.

My silicone tray holds seven servings of 75 ml / 5 tbsp. each, although you won’t want to fill each cup up to the tippy-top, since the egg mixture expands. [If you don’t have (or are not willing to purchase) a silicone egg tray, but you have ramekins/cocottes, by all means give this recipe from the FatLossFoodies blog a shot. I haven’t tried it personally, but it looks legit; read the comments on it as well for some interesting insights.]

All the ingredients in this recipe came directly from the fridge, although over the course of being mixed together and awaiting the water to come to a boil (maybe 10-15 minutes total), I’m sure they warmed considerably. When I put them in the oven, I draped the top of the tray loosely with aluminum foil to prevent the egg bites’ tops from being exposed directly to the oven’s hotter ambient air, which could toughen their texture.

Chillaxin’ in the bain-marie.

I also changed up the recipe a bit from the one in the other post.

INGREDIENTS
4 eggs
2 tbsp. / 30 g sour cream (or crema Mexicana, Salvadoreña, Hondureña, or Centroamericana)
½ cup / 100 g tomato artichoke bruschetta mix
1 cup / 125 g grated cheese (I used queso de bufala from Spain, but any melty cheese works)
2 tbsp. / 11 g fresh basil, chopped
pinch pepper
olive oil or canola oil spray to coat the molds
6 cups / 1½ liters boiling tap water for bain-marie
aluminum foil

DIRECTIONS
Set water on to boil. Preheat oven to 300°F / 150°C. [Alternatively, you can put your bain-marie tray and the water — even warm tap water — in the oven as it heats, and let it all come to temp together. It will save you a pot, if not any huge amount of time.] Oil egg bite tray and set aside. Chop basil, grate cheese, and set aside. In a medium size bowl, whisk the eggs, sour cream, and tomato artichoke bruschetta mix together until smooth. Fold in the basil and grated cheese. Spoon mixture evenly into oiled cups in the egg tray. Sprinkle pepper evenly over egg cups. Add the boiling water to the bain-marie, if you haven’t already done so. Lower the egg tray (or ramekins/cocottes) into the bain-marie. Cover the egg tray loosely with aluminum foil, and cook for 50 minutes. Remove bain-marie from oven, remove egg tray from bain-marie (the easy, non-finger-burning method is to slide a spatula under the tray and lift it while balancing it against the potholder in your other hand), and then allow egg bites to cool for 10 minutes before unmolding. Eat immediately, or refrigerate in sealed container for up to five days. Reheat for 30 seconds on “high” in microwave.

Silky and seductive.

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: 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.

Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

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: 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: 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.

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

Balkanizing My Kitchen, Part two — Ajvar and Pinjur

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Oops. That's not Ajvar and Pinjur, it's Akbar and Jeff from Life in Hell, with apologies to creator Matt Groening.

Oops. That’s not Ajvar and Pinjur, it’s Akbar and Jeff from Life in Hell, with apologies to creator Matt Groening.

If you happened to see my earlier post on lutenitza, you’ll recall that I promised to return with a further exam of its kissing cousins, ajvar and pinjur. First, let’s have a look at the real deal.

The REAL Ajvar and Pinjur.

The REAL Ajvar and Pinjur.

Although thought to be Serbian in origin, ajvar (pronounced “EYE-var”) is said to have derived its name from the Turkish word havyar, which shares an etymology with “caviar.” [In Russian as well, the word ikra (or икра), can mean both traditional caviar and also a vegetable purée or paté.] It’s made from red peppers, aubergines, garlic, oil, and spices. Both lutenitza and pinjur, which share many ingredients with ajvar, generally include tomatoes, while ajvar does not. Perhaps the most striking difference between ajvar and the other two, though, is its consistency; you can turn a room temperature jar of ajvar upside down without spilling its contents. Pinjur and lutenitza, not so much. Depending on the recipe, ajvar may be made with smoked or roasted peppers or not; in this bottled version, the peppers are not roasted, giving it a lighter, brighter flavour than either the pinjur or the lutenitza.

The FatFree Vegan Kitchen blog has an excellent (and quite healthy) recipe for homemade ajvar, as does the Kitchen Window blog at NPR (where they dub the dish “Serbian Salsa“). In both cases, these recipes opt for roasting the red peppers.

Pinjur (also known as pindur, pindjur, pindzur, and pinđur) is widely available throughout Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Just in case you’re unclear on just where all these places are, here’s a map.

For the geographically challenged, this is where ajvar and pinjur come from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

For the geographically challenged, this is where ajvar and pinjur come from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

Unlike ajvar, which is more of a spread, pinjur (pronounced “PEEN-jur”) resembles a salsa or sauce. And, like salsas and sauces, it comes in a fairly wide variety of styles. It’s generally characterized as being an aubergine (eggplant)-based sauce/relish, rather than a roasted pepper sauce/relish, even though lutenitza generally contains aubergines, and pinjur generally contains roasted peppers. Confusing, ain’t it? In my limited experience so far, lutenitza is a little spicier than pinjur, but there are so many variants on the recipes, it would be impossible to make a generalization that really sticks. Dealer’s choice here.

Both pinjur and lutenitza are terrific mixed in with rice, ladled over vegetables or meat, or as a dip for chips; they can be served either warm or at room temperature. Both are gluten-free and vegan (as is ajvar), and they’re all a great way of dealing with the overabundance of vegetables from the summer garden, offering a tasty treat for home canning enthusiasts well into the winter months… provided you can wait that long to break into those jars.

The Food Network’s UK website has a tomato and pepper-free recipe for pinjur that relies heavily on aubergine for its base, but if you want something closer to the commercially available versions, you can opt for this recipe from the Healthy Food Base blog.

As the Macedonians would say, “Cреќен јадење!” [transliteration: “Sreḱen Jadenje!”] [translation: “Happy eating!”]

Balkanizing My Kitchen, Part one — Lutenitza

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Three tasty pepper-derived foodstuffs.

Three tasty pepper-derived foodstuffs.

Not to worry: my kitchen has not split into warring factions. I just happened to be at Big Lots! [or, as some stores’ signage reads, Big! Lots (formerly Pic ‘N’ Save)] earlier today, poking around to see if they had any more jars of Macedonian Lutenitza, as one often does on a Tuesday. And that’s when it happened.

Let me back up a minute. Back in the ’50s, in Culver City, California (not far from where I live), a guy named William Zimmerman put together a chain of stores that specialized in overruns and closeouts, and called it Pic ‘N’ Save. Later, as the chain expanded — overexpanded, as it turns out — they redubbed themselves MacFrugal’s, and were purchased in 2002 by Consolidated Stores Corp., who converted the locations they kept open to their pre-existing brand, Big Lots! (and ultimately renamed the entire business Big Lots, Inc., which currently trades on the NYSE with the symbol BIG). While most of the merchandise in these stores is off-brand or otherwise out of favour (see picture below), they occasionally bring in weird little items that magically appear — and then just as magically disappear. So it was with my introduction to Macedonian Lutenitza.

Get 'em while they're not hot.

Get ’em while they’re not hot.

Lutenitza (also known variously as ljutenica, lyutenitsa, or lutenica, plus a dazzling variety of Cyrillic-alphabet spellings) is a type of salsa/sauce/relish widely made throughout Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia. Its basic ingredients are tomatoes, red peppers, aubergines (eggplant), vegetable oil, sugar, and salt, though variants also contain onions, carrots, garlic, and black pepper, among other things. Like salsa, everybody’s grandmother makes “the best,” and family recipes are handed down as prized possessions. I’m sure my Bulgarian friends — if I had any — would blanch at the idea of buying commercial lutenitza, but heck, I didn’t even know about it until a week ago. [Note to self: Make some Bulgarian friends.]

For the geographically challenged, this is where lutenitza comes from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

For the geographically challenged, this is where lutenitza comes from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

While lutenitza itself is entirely vegan, it’s served on meats, fish, breads, roasted vegetables, French fries, and pretty much anything that doesn’t move. Some versions are apparently hotter than others, but if you make your own — which I’m guessing you’ll probably have to do, unless you have a Balkan grocery (or Big Lots!) in your area — you can adjust spices to taste. This recipe, courtesy of rhubarbfool.co.uk, looks like it would match up pretty closely to the one in the bottle I have, except it would seem that this commercial version has upped the pepper and carrot content in favour of using aubergine, and he uses olive oil rather than a more neutral one such as canola.

Lutenitza Serving Suggestion, courtesy http://www.mucizelezzetler.com

Lutenitza Serving Suggestion, courtesy http://www.mucizelezzetler.com

Lutenitza –- Bulgarian Vegetable Relish

Ingredients

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 medium aubergine, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large roasted red peppers, skin and seeds removed and then diced
1 400g (14 oz.) can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or summer savory if you have it)
2 tablespoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Take a medium sized saucepan and fry the onions, carrots and aubergines in the olive oil until soft. Add the red peppers and fry for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and seasoning, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture seems too dry. Mash some of the mixture using a potato masher. You are aiming for a thick ratatouille type texture. Spoon into a clean preserving jar, cool, seal and refrigerate. Makes about 1 kg/2 lb.

If, however, you plan on making it the old fashioned way — which is to say in bulk to put up for winter — this video, which calls for an astonishing 8kg (nearly 18 lbs.) of tomatoes, might serve you better, as might this video, featuring the “Sexy Chef,” Liz Todorova.

More on lutenitza’s cousins, ajvar and pinjur, in a later post. Do come back.

Super fast, super easy, super tasty summer salad

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Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

It’s hot. It’s muggy. It’s summer. Who wants to stand over the stove for an hour or two to make a nice risotto? Not me, that’s for doggone sure. Instead, here’s a no-bake, so-simple-a-kid-could-assemble-it dish magnificently suited for a summer weeknight. I first tasted a version of this at Church & State bistro in downtown Los Angeles, and I was hooked.

TOMATO WATERMELON BASIL SALAD
INGREDIENTS
3 pounds or so seedless watermelon, diced
1 package cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced (12 oz. or more)
4-5 sprigs of basil leaves, chopped or chiffonaded
3-4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (or other wine/champagne vinegar) to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste

Slice and dice half a seedless watermelon (or an entire “personal size” watermelon, should you have one), chop up a fistful of fresh basil, take a 12 oz. container (or about 1.5 – 2 cups) of cherry or grape tomatoes and slice them in half, add about 3 – 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 1 -2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss together in a bowl, allow the dish to chill for half an hour (or not), and have at it. Sprinkle just a tiny bit of kosher salt on each portion before serving.

For an interesting variation on this recipe, substitute chopped mint for basil.

As you can see from the photo, this salad pairs nicely with Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend, as well as Ironstone Vineyards’ Obsession Symphony.