My friend Heather had overbought produce for an event, and found her fridge bursting with 12 bunches of assorted winter greens–curly kale, lacinato kale, and great fronds of Swiss chard. She called me, wondering, what could she do? They were becoming limp, and it would be a shame for them to be fodder for the compost.
Later that day, she arrived at my door, arms laden with grocery bags, a jumble of green leaves, bright and dark, veined and rumpled, some sturdy and sweeping, some starting to look a bit weary.
Great greens, girl. Gotta get to work.
Before I could figure out their destiny, I had to assess their condition. I trimmed their stems, and plunged them in tubs of fresh water to rehydrate. Within an hour, most of the greens had perked up. The chard plumped and straightened, out of the tub. The rumpled kale regained its bounce.
Now, what to make?
The thing with greens—any sort really—is that what starts out as monumental quickly cooks down to manageable. Nonetheless, I had enough chard to make a great pot of stewy-soup, and plenty of lacinato kale to make this beguiling recipe I’d just discovered on Food 52.
Both are simple wintertime recipes, hearty and delicious. Most of work is in prepping the greens–cleaning, deribbing, tearing, chopping.
You begin this soup the way you do most soups: You build a foundation. Saute hunks of portabello mushrooms with diced onions and carrots to get a meaty base before adding vegetable broth and tomato paste. The mushrooms and tomato are the powerhouse duo, making the sienna-colored broth in which the chard simmers a veritable umami-bomb of flavor.
And this kale gratin? Ridiculously easy. Only 6 ingredients, 3 of them being salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Everything gets tossed into a baking dish and then placed into the oven. That’s it!
I made two modifications.
The original recipe calls for 3 cups of Cream. I know. So rich, so luxurious, so over-the-top—but I couldn’t bring myself to go there. And, I already had a quart of half-and-half in the fridge. I dialed it back a bit–and substituted the half and half for cream. Instead of placing slabs of sharp cheddar over the top of the casserole, I shredded the cheese–4 ounces each of New York yellow and Vermont white—to generously sprinkle over the mass, the pieces nestling in and around the greens.
Don’t worry about the tower of kale in your baking dish–it cooks down in that hot oven. Some of the leaves get dry and crispy on the top—and boy, is that ever a boon. (Kale chips!) The cheese, as it bubbles and melts, forms a savory caramel crust too. Scoop through that layer of crunch into this compelling press of green, cooked to tenderness, the kale absorbing the nutmeg-scented dairy in the process–a perfect balance of bitter and sweet.
I cannot overstate the absolute wonder and earthy delectability of this dish. If it’s this marvelous with half-and-half, the cream version must be Heaven. I just want to be a little mindful of my heart, and not get there too soon.
SWISS CHARD-PORTABELLO MUSHROOM SOUP
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 pound portabello mushrooms, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 quart vegetable stock
1 small can tomato paste
2-3 bunches Swiss chard, stemmed, leaves cut into ribbons
Place a 6 quart pot over medium heat. When warm, add the olive oil. Then add the onions, sauteing them until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots and continue to stir and saute for another three minutes. Increase the heat to medium high, and add the mushrooms.
Season with salt, black pepper, and thyme. Stir. The mushrooms may stick to the bottom, but don’t worry–that will add to the flavor of the base.
Pour in the vegetable stock. Add the tomato paste and a cup of water. Stir well.
Add the Swiss chard, folding into the broth. It will collapse as it cooks. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Taste for seasonings.
Serve over hot cooked rice.
Makes 10-12 servings
LACINATO KALE GRATIN adapted from Food 52 and Renee Erickson/A Boat, A Whale, and a Walrus
2-3 bunches lacinato kale (a.k.a. black Tuscan or dinosaur kale)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
3 cups Half-and-Half
1/2 pound shredded sharp cheddar (can be a combination of yellow and white sharps)
Preheat oven to 350 convection or 375 conventional.
Remove the kale ribs and tear the leaves into pieces. Place into a large bowl. Sprinkle the leaves with salt, black pepper and nutmeg and toss. Heap the seasoned kale into a 9 inch by 13 inch baking dish. Pour the half-and-half over the kale, taking care that it doesn’t spill over the sides. Top with shredded cheddar, tucking some of the shreds underneath some leaves.
Place into the oven, middle rack, and bake for 45 minutes (convection) or an hour (conventional)
Let cool for 5 minutes and serve.
Makes 8 servings
Even though the days have been heating up, nights have ushered in a welcome cool here in Nashville. Not quite sweater or jacket weather—but soon. Autumn officially began last week, and you can sense the shift. Clear dry air, different quality of light, and just yesterday I noticed the tinge of orange and yellow on the maple trees. I’m ready.
With the onset of fall, I’ve been prompted to clean and declutter. Part of my “As above, So below” philosophy: straightening out a crammed closet, getting rid of unused stuff, doing that “deep cleaning” and organizing. When I bring order externally, it brings order within. It also sheds what I call “psychic dead weight.” Those two bundles of clothes I took to Goodwill? Ah, already I feel lighter.
You gotta keep the path clear for creativity’s flow!
And in the kitchen, I’ve been embracing the braise. Beef brisket for potluck. Cider pork shoulder for a cooking class. And today, chicken breasts in beer with apples, pears, and shallots.
The style of cooking suits not only the season, but also my temperament these busy workdays. Take a meat and brown it, building a foundation of flavor in a heavy duty Dutch oven. Cover it, and let it simmer, undisturbed, into succulence, while you go about the affairs of the day.
The beauty of this chicken dish is that, unlike big roasts, it doesn’t take hours to braise. Less than one hour, really. Inspired by a recipe on Cooking Light, I used beer as the braising liquid. I don’t drink beer, but I always seem to have a random bottle or two in my fridge, leftover from one of our potluck gatherings.
Add in shallots, coarse grain Dijon mustard, sliced apples and pears, and you have a luscious dish that makes me think of Belgian farmhouse cooking. As the beer simmers and reduces, it tenderizes the chicken. It melds with the fruit and mustard, transforming into a sauce imbued with the ale’s malt and hops.
There are a number of sides that would be excellent with this. Roasted root vegetables. Creamy polenta. Wild rice. You want an accompaniment that will capture all the savory juices.
I chose to make pearl couscous folded with chopped arugula. It is fast and easy—ten minutes of cooking—something you can throw together right before dinner. I relish the bitter edge imparted by the arugula. Use any type of green that you happen to enjoy, or have on hand.
Here’s to a new season of cooking, eating and sharing.
BEER BRAISED CHICKEN WITH APPLES AND PEARS adapted from Cooking Light
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 Chicken Breasts
3 tablespoons Coarse Grain Dijon Mustard, divided
1/2 cup sliced shallots
1 Gala apple, sliced
1 Red pear, sliced
6 ounces beer
1 tablespoon honey
Place a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil. Liberally coat the chicken breasts with coarse grain mustard, then sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Place into the Dutch oven, skin side down first, and allow the chicken to brown on one side–about 5 minutes.
Flip the chicken. Add the shallots and cook for 1 minute. Add the apples and pears. Stir.
Mix the honey into the beer and pour over the chicken.
Cover and braise for 15-20 minutes. Check for doneness. Stir and scrape up any browned bits.
Place chicken on bed of couscous. Spoon over apples and pears and drench the chicken in the savory juices.
TRI-COLOR PEARL COUSCOUS with BITTER GREENS
1 cup tri-color pearl (Israeli) couscous
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped arugula, or kale, or mustards
1 tablespoon olive oil
Fill a saucepan with 1 quart water. Season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Pour in couscous and cook according to package directions–about 10 minutes.
Drain and set aside.
Put chopped greens into the saucepan. Pour cooked couscous over the greens.
Add olive oil and stir over very low heat, stirring until the green collapse and wilt in the couscous.
Divide between 2 bowls. Top with chicken, fruits, and braising juices.
As a first time author of a cookbook, having just passed a milestone birthday, I have found myself in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about my culinary evolution, how I got here today, how I’ve grown up and grown in the world of food. It had a shaky beginning: a girl, born in New York, who didn’t care for most foods at all.
Moving to The South made a big impact. It took time, but I came to embrace its culinary ways. There’s a real focus on vegetables that we never experienced up North.
The climate supports a greater variety, that alone surprised me. I had never seen or tasted okra, crookneck squash, pole beans, yellow wax beans, collards, turnip and mustard greens, October beans, or purple hull peas.
Have you heard of purple hull peas? These are tender pulses belonging to the family of Cowpeas, Vigna unguiculata, whose relatives include black-eyed peas, crowders, lady peas, and field peas. High in protein (24%) and easy to grow: they actually thrive in poor soil, and hot, dry conditions.
Their history in the South has dark roots in slave trade. Their seeds were brought on ships, along with enslaved West Africans to the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic seaboard. Rejected by the Europeans as poor man’s fodder, fit only for cattle, they acquired the name “cowpeas.” Little did the Landed Gentry realize all the good they were rejecting.
Make no mistake, the lowly legume has far-reaching benefits for man, animals, and plantlife. Easy to grow and prepare, the peas are delicious. They are high in amino acids, lysine and tryptophan. According to Cooking Light’s notes on healthy living, they are among the foods that will help insure better sleep. (Ahhhhh.)
And, used in crop rotation, cowpeas infuse nitrogen in vast quantities into the soil. That’s important, as corn, for instance, consumes nitrogen greedily. (NOTE: read Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate–which goes beyond “farm-to-table” detailing an integrated model for vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is truly sustainable.)
As a picky child, I did enjoy corn on the cob–what self-respecting kid doesn’t? Once you got through the task of shucking (and avoiding any green worms!) the prospect of eating it was as fast as a plunge in the kettle of boiling, lightly salted water.
There’s nothing as blissful as sitting on a back porch stoop, chomping on an ear in the summer, hands and face sloppy with kernels, spurted “corn milk” and butter .
But until I came to Nashville, I had never eaten fresh fried corn–cut from the cob, scraped and skillet-simmered in butter and water. More a technique than a recipe–this is not “creamed corn.” No cream, milk, or flour.
I learned about the pure pleasure of this dish at my first restaurant job in the late ’70’s at a Southern style “Meat-and-Three” called “Second Generation” run by Anna Marie Arnold. Anna grew up cooking with her mother, first generation founder of The White Cottage, a tiny yet legendary eatery that vanished–closed and bulldozed in the ’90’s, when a city bridge had to be widened.
Silver Queen was the favored corn of the day–a small kerneled white corn that had candied sweetness.
A delectable summer combination.
One of the shifts in my “food evolution” is using local ingredients in classic recipes. That practice makes good sense, but I didn’t awaken to that sensibility until more recent years. Nonetheless, a creamy risotto lends itself readily to accepting these Southern staples in the stir:
Purple hull peas, cooked in onion, garlic and red pepper
Sweet Corn, cut and scraped from the cob
Short-grain Rice, cooked in tomato-vegetable broth
The tomato-vegetable broth is key too. Certain ripe tomatoes have high water content. When you cook summer tomatoes to make sauce, or chop them to make salsa, if you strain the pulp, you’ll have a lot of remaining juice, or “tomato water.” Use it, in combination with vegetable broth (made with trimmings of carrots, celery, onions, garlic)
Stir—stir—stir. It can be a meditative process. You might find yourself reflecting on your own life in food!
As the rice becomes plump and savory, releasing its starch into the broth, a seductive creaminess results. Fold in the corn and its scrapings, and finally the purple hull peas, along with the “pot likker” in which they were cooked.
Garnish with fresh thyme, if you like, or a few curls of pecorino romano.
But it is not necessary–the risotto is rich with flavor, and wonderful texture. Enjoy it with spoon, to capture every luscious bite.
SUMMER RISOTTO WITH SWEET CORN AND PURPLE HULL PEAS
3-4 ears fresh corn
1 pound purple hull peas (weight is unshelled)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, slivered, divided
2 medium onions, chopped, divided
1 chili pepper of choice, split in half (cayenne, serrano, jalapeno)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter (may use oil to make this vegan)
1 1/2 cups short grain rice, like Arborio or Carolina Gold
8 cups tomato-vegetable broth
salt and black pepper to taste
Cut the corn from the cobs, scraping the cobs for extra “corn milk,” into a bowl and set aside.
Shell the purple hull peas, rinse, drain, and place into a bowl. Set aside.
Place olive oil into a 2 quart sized saucepan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves slivered garlic and 1/2 onion, diced, into the saucepan to saute for 2 minutes. Add chili pepper, purple hull peas and enough water to cover the peas by 2 inches. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Increase the heat to bring it to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, until peas are tender, yet still firm. Let the peas cool.
Place tomato-vegetable broth into a saucepan and warm.
In a large heavy duty pot, (such as an enameled cast iron Le Creuset) melt the butter over medium heat. Add remaining diced onion and minced garlic. Saute for a minute, then add the rice. Stir until the grains are well coated.
Begin adding the broth, a cupful at a time, stirring the rice, watching it plump up from the savory liquid, monitoring its creaminess from the released starch.
This process will take 30 minutes: stirring, pouring in more cups of broth, stirring, stirring, but I do not constantly hover over the pot. I’ll turn my attention to making salad, slicing tomatoes, visiting with my friends…
At the 20 minute mark, fold in the corn. Stir stir stir.
At the 25 minute mark, fold in the cooked purple hull peas. Stir Stir Stir.
At 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Taste for seasonings. Serve
Stories and recipes: what better way to learn about the culture of a people who live in a distant land?
In The Honey Thief Najaf Mazari spins a series of tales, taken from the centuries-long oral tradition of his tribe, the Hazara. A native of Afghanistan ( he escaped the Taliban in 2000, and lives in Australia) , he partnered with writer and friend Robert Hillman to give a permanent voice to the spoken lore of the war-torn nation’s third largest ethnic group.
Centered on characters, some ancient, some modern day: Among the cast, you’ll be introduced to a musician with extraordinary levitating talents, a wise and patient beekeeper, a revered Master Poisoner, and a boy with an uncanny gift for attracting riches. The stories are unusual and beguiling, have elements of magic and wonder. There are struggles, heartaches, and triumphs. There is laughter. There is hope.
The stories speak, too, of the Hazara love of their land, of its natural beauty.
“I could take you places in the north close to the Oxus river that would steal your breath away; places that you would not believe could exist as I lead you through an arid landscape of broken rock and red sand and stunted bushes. Then you would suddenly find yourself gazing down from a mountain pass on the river shining under a blue sky and a green carpet climbing up the slopes. And you would think, ‘Ah! This is Paradise!”
And, while I would encourage you to take delight in exploring this world through these tales, I think you’ll also be drawn in by Mazari’s discussion of the cooking of the Hazara. He devotes a couple of chapters to his people’s diet, their pantry of staples, and some favored dishes.
What I especially enjoyed about delving into these food chapters is that Mazari’s voice is so clear and present in the narrative. Ingredients and specialty dishes are described in a humorous and engaging manner. It’s like he is right there with you in the kitchen, talking you through the recipe.
Take, for example, his Lamb with Spinach, which I chose to make. It is a dish of celebrations, always served at weddings.
“With this dish,” he writes, “your jaws and teeth get a holiday. The lamb has to melt in your mouth and just the pressure of your palate will bring out all the flavour that the meat has absorbed from the spices and herbs. So, good lamb, no excuses, cut from the leg, one-and-a-half kilos.”
I’ve transcribed his recipe in a more traditional American way,
but it is faithful to his instructions. He calls for “pinches” of seasonings, for instance–for which I have given teaspoon measurements. In this regard, he says, “You judge.”
Lamb is prepared in a gentle saute, its delectable taste enhanced in a steady building of flavors and spice. You don’t want these to obscure the flavor of the lamb, or overwhelm it. Onions are critical in Afghan cooking and impart earthy sweetness. Garlic is important too, added with more restraint.
One-by-one, fragrant spices–turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg– are stirred into the stew. Stock, tomatoes, and their juices give the meat a medium in which to bathe and tenderize.
After a turn in the oven, the lamb is ready for its final touches–spinach, lemon zest, and a “proper” yogurt (NOT that foolish kind with strawberries and bananas, Mazari cajoles!)
What emerges is a rich lamb stew, complex in spicing, melt-away in texture. Because I like heat, I added some cayenne, (not too much, Mazari cautions) which elevates all of the taste layers.
How fine to dine in an Afghan tradition. Sabzi Gosht is indeed Feast-worthy!
SABZI GOSHT (LAMB WITH SPINACH) adapted from The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 lbs. lamb, cut from the leg into 1″ cubes
2 large yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 cup beef stock
5 large ripe tomatoes, or 1 28 oz. can plum tomatoes
1 bunch fresh baby spoon spinach
1 cup plain yogurt
zest from 1 lemon
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Warm olive oil on medium heat in a heavy-duty pot–best if the pot can go from stovetop to oven. You’ll begin by sauteing in stages.
Add lamb and begin to brown the meat–don’t crowd the pieces.
Stir in the diced onion and continue sauteing for a few minutes. Stir in the garlic.
One by one, stir in the spices—turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom—and then stir in the black pepper and salt.
Add the tomatoes and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Pour in stock. Stir well.
Cover and place in the oven, preheated to 300 degrees.
Allow the lamb to cook for for 1 1/2-2 hours.
Remove from oven and stir in the spinach. The heat will collapse and cook the leaves.
Fold in plain yogurt and lemon zest.
Taste for salt and seasonings.
Let the stew “settle” for about 15 minutes–allow the flavors to marry.
Serve over basmati rice and garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Makes 6 servings.
On fleet and chilly foot, this year is surely making its exit. I trust that your holidays have been full of joy and camaraderie, and good food shared with those you love. Ours have been exceptional, heralded by the birth of my first grandchild, Zachary James. He was due to arrive on the first of December, but he chose—wisely, no doubt– to wait until the 12th to make his wondrous entrance. For parents who married on 10-10-10, his 12-12-12 birthdate is all the more auspicious.
I was privileged to be a part of the birth team, and witness his entry. I was thrilled to be one of the first to caress his pink cheeks and welcome him into this strange new world.
A week after his arrival, I returned to my own home after a month-long absence to put Christmas together. A hectic pace, but the tree got trimmed, presents got wrapped, the beef got roasted, and the chocolate mousse trifle got mounded high in the bowl.
But what I’d like to share with you today veers away from the indulgences of the season.
It is a healthy, hearty dish using Escarole.
This great green bouquet resembles lettuce in appearance, but belongs to the Endive family. (The sprawling head made me think of the old wives tale imparted to children about where babies come from…) Also known as broadleaf endive, Bavarian endive, or scarola, it is one of its less bitter members. Escarole can be eaten raw in salads, but it is really luscious when braised into soups or stews.
I’ve never prepared these greens in any form before now. But the forces aligned. Friend and farmer Tally May of Fresh Harvest Coop had grown splendid rows of escarole, market ready on my return. A vivid description of this recipe from my cousin Cathy and her husband John (given as they drove me to the airport!) left no doubt that a pot of escarole with fusilli and cannellinis would be simmering on my stovetop soon.
It is a traditional Italian dish, which, depending on the amount of liquid that you choose to add, becomes either a stewy pasta or a robust soup. Either way, you’ll want to serve it in a bowl, with a spoon and hunk of bread to sop up all the sumptuous broth.
It’s a garlic-friendly dish, too. Don’t be timid with those cloves!
Highly seasoned cannellini beans are also key. I used Rancho Gordos mega-meaty, super creamy beans, which I prepared the day before. If you use canned beans, be sure to drain and rinse them before simmering them in good olive oil, garlic, and bay leaf.
Cathy also insists–and rightfully so–on using DeCecco brand fusilli. It’s an excellent pasta: full-flavored, with terrific texture. Those tight curls capture the broth while remaining resilient in the sauce.
Here’s a trick I used to add more body to the broth. I reserved a cup of cooked beans and pureed them before stirring them into the pot. The sauce becomes almost silken. And the greens themselves maintain integrity in the braise–toothsome, juicy, with a pleasant hint of bitterness.
In the waning days of 2012, we’ve been enjoying our bowls of beans, pasta, and escarole. Bill calls this peasant food, and he means it in the best possible way. Simple. Soothing. Nutritious. Satisfying. You really couldn’t want for anything more.
Wishing you all the benefits of peasant food in the coming year–
Many thanks for your continued visits to Good Food Matters.
ESCAROLE WITH FUSILLI AND CANNELLINI BEANS
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 head escarole, cored, washed, and chopped into ribbons
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 cups vegetable broth (you may use chicken broth if you prefer)
3 cups cooked cannellini beans (recipe below)
1/2 lb. dried fusilli (De Cecco is a preferred brand)
1/2 cup fresh grated pecorino-romano
In a large stockpot set on medium heat, warm olive oil and saute garlic and onions until translucent.
Add chopped escarole and stir well to coat the leaves.
Season with salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes.
Stir, allowing the heat to collapse the leaves.
Pour vegetable broth over the escarole. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Boil fusilli in lightly salted water until al dente–about 9 minutes. Drain.
Puree one cup of cannellinis, and return to bean pot. (discard bay leaves)
Combine pasta and beans (whole, pureed, and liquid) with the braised escarole. Toss well.
Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
Ladle into bowls and sprinkle grated cheese over the top.
Serve with hunks of crusty bread.
Makes 6 generous bowls.
1 1/2 cups dried cannellini beans, soaked for 3 hours (or overnight) and rinsed (Rancho Gordo’s cannellinis are big and meaty!)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup diced onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
Heat olive oil in a 3 quart saucepan set on medium. Stir in garlic and onions. Add salt and black pepper, and saute until translucent.
Add cannellinis, stirring well so that the beans are coated with oil.
Pour water over the beans–enough to cover them by two inches.
Stir in bay leaves and red pepper flakes.
Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
Skim off any scum that may accumulate as the beans cook.
Cook, partially covered for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if needed.
Cannellinis will retain their structure, but will creamy to the bite. Discard bay leaves.
Five days old, Zachary in my arms
Sleepy Dreamy Babe
Sungolds, Black Cherokees, Sweet Millions: these three varieties of cherry tomatoes showed up unannounced in my garden. Volunteers!
Make no mistake, I’ve been thrilled with their appearance, and their profusion of tangy-sweet yellow, orange, and dark red-green fruit.
(no doubt my most successful crop!)
When we haven’t been popping them into our mouths for snacks, I’ve been finding other ways to use them.
Easy–I’ve cut them in half and strewn them over salad greens.
Crafty–I’ve hollowed them out, and piped pesto cream cheese into little tomato cups. (Makes nice, kinda fancy hors d’oeuvres.)
A little different– I slow-cooked a few handfuls with a dab of honey into tomato jam. (tasty with cured meats on a sandwich)
But now, faced with an overwhelming number of them
(don’t they look like candy?)
The best thing, I decided, would be to toss them into a big pot and turn them into soup.
I know–tomato soup. How mundane is that?
But, wait. Let me tell you, this one surprised me. The taste is so pure, so bright and intensely tomato.
It reveals what a true summer tomato soup can be.
Cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt-n-pepper, a few sprigs of thyme:
There are so few ingredients that it is barely a recipe. More of a technique, really.
The first part is laissez-faire.
Once you toss your little truckload into the soup pot, let it simmer, covered, for thirty minutes, or so. You can practically forget the pot while you tend to other things.
Meanwhile, all the little globes collapse and release their juices.
The second part is where the magic happens: with the food mill.
I discovered that milling twice—once with the coarse grinding disc, once with the fine sieve—is the key to making silken full-bodied soup.
The first pass really crushes the pulp, and removes some of the peel, and few of the seeds.
It’s the second pass through the mill that extracts all the remaining juices, and that intense flavor. I’ve read that the most acidic part of the tomato (which gives its sweetness dimension) is in the gel that surrounds the seeds. In this second pass, you get that essence, and leave the seeds behind.
There’s no added water. There’s no cream, and yet it seems creamy.
It’s All Tomato.
Dress it up, like I have here, with a scoop of arborio rice and diced roasted veggies–a late summer meal in a bowl.
Or enjoy it for its acid-sweet goodness alone…
Or with a grilled cheese?
SILKEN TOMATO SOUP
6 pints assorted Cherry Tomatoes, washed
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 teaspoons Salt
2 teaspoons fresh Thyme leaves
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
Place all the ingredients into a large heavy duty soup pot on medium heat.
Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Occasionally stir, mashing the tomatoes to release their juices.
Remove from heat.
Set food mill fitted with coarse grinder over a 4 qt. bowl. Run all of cooked tomatoes and juices through it. The mixture will contain a fair amount of seeds and peels. Discard peels and seeds that remain in the mill.
Rinse off the food mill and fit it with a fine grinder. Place it back over the soup pot and churn the tomato mixture through the it.
This time, the soup will be velvet smooth, with scant seeds.
Warm the soup, tasting and adjusting for salt. Makes 4-6 servings.
Serve simply by itself, or make it heartier with the following enhancements:
Diced Roasted Summer Squashes
Sticky Rice–spoon in a mound of arborio, or another favorite short grain rice
Fruity Olive Oil–a zigzag pour over the top
Shredded White Cheddar
The Onion Family
garlic, scallions, onions, leeks, shallots, chives
I credit this humble tribe for waking me up, turning me around, and nudging me in the right culinary direction, oh-so many years ago. Once an affirmed picky eater, I had disliked ‘most everything. I had heaped onions and their ilk into my big pile of things never-ever to eat.
It wasn’t until I lived in Holland that I became enlightened to their beneficent ways.
I was an exchange student, just out of high school. Gert, my Dutch mother, was a kind and patient woman who allowed me to accompany her on her daily round of shopping for the meals. Together we’d choose vegetables, a bit of meat, potatoes–of course!–and a hearty loaf of bread. I would help her wash and cut carrots, peel the spuds, trim the white endive.
She understood that I was picky, and that I was trying to push past the barriers I’d long entrenched for myself. Working together on the meals not only helped me to better learn the language and culture, indeed it forged a loving bond, easing me into the fold of her family.
Maybe she sensed that, deep inside me, there was a burgeoning chef, the anti-picky eater.
In any case, it was her skillet thick with sliced onions, simmering in butter, softening, then gaining that rich caramel glaze that I recognize as my revelatory moment: what my writing teacher calls a “Shimmering Image.”
I had come home from a class late one afternoon, and Gert had already done most of the dinner preparations. I don’t remember what the skillet of caramelized onions was for–could have been a base for a soup or stew. It doesn’t–and didn’t– matter. What mattered was the smell. It filled the kitchen with a pungency that was heady and earthy and sweet and compelling. It touched on something–a memory? a desire?
I wasn’t sure. It was nothing I would ever have attributed to onions. I had to have a taste, pickyness be damned!
I grabbed a spoon and dug in. Mercy, what had I been missing?
It’s funny how change occurs. Often it is slow, almost imperceptible in its unfolding. And then there are those Great A-Ha’s! A dramatic turn, where nothing is the same as before. After my indulgent spoonful of sweet sauteed onions, I opened my senses to the world of food.
In no time, the disdained became the embraced.
This simple hearty soup is a celebration of that first skillet of Genus Allium. I’ve put in most of the family—I love ‘em all—each contributing a lush layer of savory-sweet bite. It’s vegetarian, although you could make it with chicken or beef stock, if you like. I prefer the straightforward vegetable. Delete the butter, and it becomes vegan.
Farro, that wonderful nutritious and nutlike grain, cooks up beautifully in the soup. It adds body, and a pleasant chewiness. Serve the soup with crusty bread—or try this easy, airy spoonbread. Essentially, it’s a cornmeal mush souffle—and it is divine.
FIVE ALLIUM FARRO SOUP
2 medium Yellow Onions, sliced “pole to pole”
2 Leeks, cleaned, cut into 1/2″ pieces
2 large Green Onions or 1 bundle thin green onions, cut into 1/4″ pieces
1 large or 2 medium Shallots, diced
5-6 cloves Garlic, chopped
2-3 T. Olive Oil
1 T. Butter
Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
a few sprigs fresh Thyme (optional)
a few sprigs of Chives, finely chopped
1 quart Vegetable Stock
1 cup Farro, briefly soaked in water and drained
Heat a stockpot and add olive oil and butter. Add your cut onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic. Stir well to coat the pieces. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally. After 15 minutes (or so), the onions will begin to release their natural sugars and caramelize.
Pour in vegetable stock and stir well, scraping any browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pot. Add the farro. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes.
If the soup get too thick, add water–2 cups–to thin. You will not sacrifice flavor. Check seasoning—add some red pepper flakes, and fresh thyme at the end of the cooking cycle, if you like.
Spoon into bowls. Garnish with chives and serve.
Have you ever eaten spoonbread?
It is a Southern delicacy, light–airy—so like a souffle.
Some recipes call for separating the eggs, beating the whites and yolks separately, and folding into the mix, just as you would for a souffle. This recipe, based on the famous one served at Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky, calls for whole eggs, beaten into the cornmeal mush for a long time.
It, too, results in a Grand Puff.
You’ll enjoy dipping your spoon into this special treat–a bit elegant, but rustic at its roots.
2 cups Lowfat MIlk
1 cup Yellow Corn Meal
1 t. Salt
3 T. Unsalted Butter, plus 1 T. for coating baking dish
3 lightly beaten Eggs
1 t. Baking Powder
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a saucepan, heat milk. Stir in cornmeal and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring continuously, until mixture thickens, but becomes smooth—corn meal mush. Stir in butter until it is melted. Remove from heat.
Place eggs into a stand mixing bowl. Add baking powder. Begin beating. Gradually add cornmeal mush. Keep beating—up to 15 minutes total. This seems long—but it beats sufficient air into the batter, which will make a delectably light spoonbread.
Pour batter into buttered baking dish or casserole.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until spoonbread has risen, with a browned top, and a toothpick, once insert, removes clean.
Serve immediately. Serves 3-4.
Living with a vegetarian restricts my intake of red meat. This is not a complaint–trust me. I consider it a benefit. I’m an omnivore who is happy–and better off– not consuming the vast quantity of beef that many Americans do. And, with just two in our household, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy those great hunks needed for pot roast, meat loaf, and the like.
But, cooking for our Third Thursday Community Potluck is a different matter. No restrictions! Here I get the chance to Go Big and Meaty, should I choose. From time to time, I splurge, and cook up a cauldron of something wonderful and stew-ish. Because it’s so infrequent, I enjoy the process, lengthy as it can be, and really savor the results.
For our most recent potluck gathering–a week before T-Day–I indulged in stewy-splurge. I made a supa-sized batch of Shepherd’s Pie, fancy-pants style. Onions, carrots and parsnips, oven-roasted to a caramel sweet, were folded in with tender chunks of beef, browned and simmered in an enamel cast-iron pot.
Not so fancy, you say?
Not until this step–
Potatoes seasoned with chives and paprika were whipped light and buttery—then piped in a mound of pretty rosettes, sealing in the stew. The whole she-bang went into the oven for a final blast, emerging puffed and golden and utterly irresistible.
Another fancy note, regarding the green you see flecked in the pot. This is “Par-Cel” a parsley-celery hybrid that one of our local farmers was selling last week. Have you ever seen–or used it before? I couldn’t resist something so new. I was surprised at how it tasted: Indeed a true hybrid–possessing both fresh parsley and celery leaf flavors. It was a nice addition, plunged into the pot at the end of cooking time.
FANCY SHEPHERD’S PIE
STEP ONE: THE BEEF
5 lb. Boneless Chuck Roast, trimmed and cut into cubes
4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
1/4 cup Olive Oil
4 T. Balsamic Vinegar
1 1/2 t. Kosher or Sea Salt
1 t. Black Pepper
a few sprigs of fresh Thyme
a couple of sprigs of fresh Rosemary
2 Bay Leaves
1 T. Olive Oil
2 T. Flour
Place cubed meat into a mixing bowl. Stir in minced garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Strip the sprigs of thyme and rosemary and stir into the meat. The meat should be well coated. Add bay leaves. Allow to marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Heat the stew pot on medium. Add olive oil. Add meat, a few pieces at a time. Do not crowd. Brown the meat on all sides, and remove–putting into a separate bowl. Continue the browning process. When all the meat is browned, toss with 2 T. flour.
Return to the flour-coated meat to the pot and cook gently–toasting the flour. Stir in water to cover, scraping up browned bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. Cover and simmer for at least an hour. Meat should be fork tender.
STEP 2: ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES
1 lb. Carrots, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal into pieces
1 lb. Parsnips, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal into pieces
2-3 medium Onions, sliced lengthwise into 1/2″ strips
Salt and Black Pepper
Par-cel, or Fresh Parsley Leaves, or Celery Leaves
Spread out vegetables on a baking sheet and lightly coat with olive oil. Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes, until pieces are softened and caramelized. Remove from heat.
When the beef is tender, add the vegetable to the pot. Stir in chopped Par-cel (or parsley, or celery leaves) Taste for seasoning.
STEP 3: WHIPPED CHIVE POTATOES
4 lb. Russet Potatoes, washed, peeled, quartered
1 stick Butter, cut into pieces
1 bundle fresh Chives
Salt and Black Pepper
1 c. Milk
pastry bag fitted with a star tip
Place potatoes into a large pot of lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife tip.
Pour cooked potatoes into a colander. Drain well and return to the pot. Under low heat, toss the potatoes in the pot to cook off any remaining water.
Place warm potatoes into a big mixing bowl. Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the potatoes until the lumps are broken down. Beat in the butter. Season to taste with salt, black pepper. Beat in chives. Slowly add milk, continuing to whip the potatoes until they become creamy and somewhat fluffy.
Spoon whipped potatoes into a large pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe rosettes allover the top of the beef stew. Continue to mound the potato rosettes.
Sprinkle with paprika and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes—until stew is bubbly and potato topping is puffed and golden.
Serves a Potluck Crowd!
Third Thursday Potluck friends surround the feasting table.
How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly, I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has fallen in the horse’s mane.
I found this Robert Bly poem, “Watering the Horse” tucked in the back of a mottled recipe notebook, long untouched. It was on a sheet of mimeographed paper, that odd purplish ink, the public school printing method of long ago.
I still love this poem today, perhaps more than when I was a teen–the notion of ambition having altered with experience. At the other end of child-rearing and career building, I call it into question: what I embrace; what I give up; what has meaning.
And then I cook.
One clear ambition, I tell myself, is that each autumn, I seek out alternative ways to prepare butternut squash.
You may recall, in seasons past, that we’ve cooked up Butternut Lasagna layered with leek bechamel, swiss chard-butternut gratin, flan-like timbales with walnut pesto, and savory bread pudding , served with vegetable veloute, perfect for the holiday dinner table.
Each recipe, a tasty vehicle for this versatile gourd.
Now, that ambition could run wild: this being the first year that I tried my hand at growing our favored winter squash—and harvested a healthy basketful.
All sizes and shapes!
This morning, a cushy blanket of fog cloaked our neighborhood. Emerging colors of yellow, gold and burgundy fairly glowed as the fog gave way to an overcast day. I love how brilliant colors come forward in that kind of dull, diffuse light.
The air was cool, too. Chili weather! And then, it occurred to me that the meaty nature of the orange-hued squash would work well in a vegetarian chili.
I decided to give it a go. With Rancho Gordo beans in my pantry, assorted peppers: poblano, banana, jalapenos along with a few stray tomatoes from the garden, garlic, onions, and spices, I had the foundation for a hearty batch.
While the beans began their long simmer, I roasted the diced butternut pieces along with the poblanos. I let them get a little caramel crust, and set them aside to cool. Not wanting the squash to break down in the chili, I would add the chunks towards the end of the cooking cycle, to meld with the “pot liquor” the sauce made by the beans as they cook. I turned my attention to bread–cornbread.
My go-to recipe uses 12 tablespoons of melted butter–an ingredient I lacked. My friend Maggie has a skillet cornbread recipe that uses canola oil–another ingredient missing at the moment in my pantry. What if I made the cornbread with olive oil?
What if, indeed!
I hand whisked the batter. It came together quickly-easily, and went into the cast iron skillet, into the oven.
It baked into a firm but tender crumb, the olive oil imparting depth, an Old World sense to a New World dish.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the Rancho Gordo Beans (used in this recipe: “Good Mother Stallards” but other beans would also be delicious) are remarkable for their richness. Meaty beans make mighty good chili.
The butternuts proved their mettle in the mix, too. Slightly sweet, they latched on to the layers of peppery heat. A little allspice and cumin, perfect with this squash, added intrigue. It’s a worthy veggie chili, complex with minimal ingredients, hearty, full-bodied, aand satisfying on a gray autumn day.
And, not at all ambitious to make.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH-HEIRLOOM BEAN CHILI
3 cups chopped (large dice) Butternut Squash (I used 2 small butternuts for this)
1 large or 2 medium Poblano Peppers
1 heaping cup of dry Beans ( I used Rancho Gordo’s Good Mother Stallards. But, use a good bean of your choice. This recipe would work with black beans, too.)
2 cloves Garlic, minced
1 medium Onion, chopped
2 Banana Peppers, chopped
1 Jalapeno, sliced thin
2 t. Allspice
1 t. Cumin
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread diced butternut squash and halved poblano peppers on a baking sheet pan. Coat with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for about 20 minutes. The squash will roast and caramelize. Pepper skins will blister—peel, chop and set aside separately.
In a large saucepan on medium heat, saute diced onion, banana peppers, and garlic in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until onion is translucent. Add dry beans, and stir until they are coated with the olive oil-onion mix. Pour in water, covering the beans by at least 2 inches. Add roasted poblano pieces.
Simmer until beans are tender ( at least 2 hours), adding more liquid as necessary. When the beans are “soupy” and yield tender flesh, add the roasted butternut. Season with allspice and cumin. Taste for salt, and spicy heat.
Serve alone, or over rice. Dollop with sour cream, garnish with green onion, if you like. Enjoy with cornbread.
OLIVE OIL CORNBREAD
1 1/2 cups Cornmeal
1 cup All Purpose Flour
1 T. Sugar
1 T. Baking Powder
1/2 t. Salt
12 T. Olive Oil
1 1/2 cups Milk
1 cup corn kernels (optional)
1/2 cup shredded white cheddar (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Sift the dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs, oil, and milk together lightly, then beat into the bowl of dry ingredients. Fold in corn kernels, shredded white cheddar.
Pour into an oiled cast-iron skillet (or bread pan.)
Bake for 20-25 minutes. Test for doneness. Cool slightly, cut into wedges and serve right out of the skillet.
Today’s beauteous recipe was inspired by the work of a Nashville chef, Roderick Bailey. He owns The Silly Goose, a charming restaurant in East Nashville, one of my favorite dining haunts. Don’t be misled by its name. While the Goose attitude is upbeat, light-hearted, and occasionally silly, the Goose Food is anything but.
In an economy of space, The Silly Goose folks make some serious good food.
Recently, Roderick offered a dish, similar to the one above, as an evening special. We had taken a seat at the bar that looks into the kitchen, and asked for his recommendation. His description made my decision a simple one.
“The scallops just came in and look really really nice,” he said. “And, I’ve made a kind of pureed gazpacho using these fantastic heirloom tomatoes, and organic peppers. I’ll quickly pan-sear the scallops, and place them in the soup mounded with skillet fried corn–fresh silverqueen. And then, I’ll garnish them with young pea tendrils.”
What a bowl of pleasure. A spoon-only meal! I could scoop through the crisp-seared scallops, the spoonful holding corn and heady broth along with each tender bite. Each element held its own kind of sweetness: from candy-acid delight of tomatoes, to the bursting kernels of corn to the briny, almost floral sweet notes of the scallops. The bright green tangle of pea tendrils collapsed and cooked into the broth.
I couldn’t wait to recreate it, and had the right opportunity the following week, when we had guests for dinner.
Well-conceived, the recipe can be made in three simple steps.
Its success relies on fresh picked produce for imparting deep flavors.
Lucky-lucky, my garden had already provided tomatoes and peppers a plenty.
I spread them out on a baking sheet pan, coated them with olive oil, a little sea salt, and roasted them to bring out the natural sugars. Then I simmered and strained the caramelized mass, until it made this lush red broth.
The rest was easy. I love skillet-fried corn, a true Southern cooking technique; unlike creamed corn, or corn pudding, its taste is true, uncomplicated by dairy or eggs. I recommend this preparation to enjoy on its own. Good scallops don’t require much–a liberal dose of salt, pepper, and paprika—cooked on high in a butter-oil combo. No pea tendrils in my purview, but some fresh arugula readily accommodated–a peppery green contrast.
I served these sumptuous bowls with wedges of cornbread, baked in my cast iron skillet, riddled with jalapeno bite. Almost unthinking, one by one, we all broke small hunks into the soup. It added yet another dimension. The table fell quiet, each of us savoring the rare union of soulful sophistication.
ROASTED TOMATO-PEPPER BROTH
4 lbs. Ripe Tomatoes, cored and cut in half (can use a combination of cherry tomatoes, if you like)
1 Red Bell Pepper, cut in half, deseeded
3 Assorted Banana Peppers, stems removed
2 Jalapenos, stems removed
1 large Onion, quartered
4 cloves Garlic
salt and pepper
Place all the vegetables onto a roasting pan. Brush with olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper.
Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes, until skins are blackened and blistered.
Cool, and run all the veggies (and their juices, and oils) through a food mill–twice.
Heat in a saucepan and thin with water.
Taste for seasoning.
Makes 8 cups.
SKILLET FRIED CORN
4 ears Fresh Corn on the Cob, husked and cleaned of corn silk
4 T. Butter
Sea Salt and Coarse Ground Black Pepper
Water about 1/4 cup
The trick to this is how you cut the kernels. Holding the ear of corn upright in a bowl with one hand, slice down through the kernelsâ€”only halfway through, exposing the kernel center and the most â€œcorn milk.â€ Using the back of the knife, scrape down the cob to get out the remaining kernel pulp. Scrape back and forth to get the most out of each ear.
Over medium heat, melt the butter in a skillet and add the scraped kernels. Stir well, coating the corn. Add water, as needed. (Some ears of corn are milkier than others!) Season with salt and pepper. Sometimes people add a pinch of sugar, but fresh corn is naturally sweet and wonâ€™t need it.
Stirring often, cook for about 10 minutes. The frying of the corn is more like a sautÃ©; the natural sugars and starch from the corn will lightly thicken the mixture.
SEARED SEA SCALLOPS
1 lb. (or so ) Diver’s Sea Scallops (figure 3-4 scallops per person)
Cracked Black Pepper
Olive Oil and Butter–combo for searing, 1-2T. each
Rinse scallops and pat dry. Liberally season both sides with paprika, salt and pepper.
Heat butter and olive oil together in a heavy skillet, just below smoking point.
Sear scallops, about 1 minute per side. Remove from heat.
Ladle hot Tomato-Red Pepper Broth into bowls.
Spoon fried corn to the center of each bowl.
Place scallops on top of corn mound. They will sink a little into the broth—that’s good.
Garnish with fresh arugula, if desired.