Five Things About Soup that I Wish I Hadn’t Had to Learn the Hard Way.

vichyssoise

vichyssoise with Yukon Gold potatoes

It’s December.  It might be snowy.  It might be cold.  It might be almost Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa.  One thing is for certain: we are overrun with soup recipes.

I’m a big fan of soup all year long, and soup was one of the first things I learned how to make without a recipe.  That being the case, I made a lot of rookie soup mistakes, and missed  a lot of chances for transcendent soup greatness.  If you’re in danger of doing the same, you’re in luck, ’cause I’m on a mission to spare you the trouble.  While these are by no means all the things that could go right or wrong in your stockpot, here are some of the biggest lessons that trial and error taught me.

1. Bullion cubes are awesome.

I use vegetable bullion all the time.  I’s a quick and simple way to add depth of flavor.  But proceed with caution: bullion cubes and concentrates tend to have a flavor such that, even when dissolved in the prescribed amount of water, they can still be overpowering.  So, if I’m adding 6 cups of water to a soup, I might use enough bullion for 3 to 4 cups of it.  This creates a nice background flavor that allows herbs, spices or vegetables to shine through brightly.

2.  Homemade broth is even more awesome than bullion.

If you can make a nice stock at home, do it.  It will be more delicate and delicious than anything you can get at the grocery store, and your soup will be better for it.  Some good things to use: carrots (including peels and green tops), leek tops, onion ends and peels, celery and celery trimmings, mushrooms (even if you don’t like mushrooms.  Trust me.), and a potato or two.  I also like parsley, sage, thyme, and some black peppercorns.  It is rare for me to have all of these things in my kitchen at once, so I collect them over time.  You can save carrot peels/tops, onion peels/ends, celery trimmings, and leek tops in a bag in your freezer.  When you have enough to make some stock, just pick up some fresh herbs and mushrooms, and you’re set.

3.  Don’t add the tomatoes until the end.

My favorite tomato soups are those thickened with root vegetables, such as carrots or waxy potatoes, rather than dairy products.  If you add tomatoes at the beginning, the other things in the pot will not get soft enough to make a smooth puree, no matter how long you cook them.  Well, maybe if you cook them until next week.

4.  Remember the acid.

One of the easiest mistakes to make with a soup (especially a rich or hearty one) is to forget to add an acidic component. Never underestimate the power of a squeeze of fresh citrus with root vegetables, some tangy fresh tomatoes with beans, or some dry white wine with creamy soups.  Add citrus or tomato at the end; add wine before you add any other liquids and allow it to reduce before proceeding.  Add acid before you add more salt (you may find that you don’t need the salt, after all).  This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of potential acidic components, just a few of my favorites.

5.  Soup is a great hiding place for greens.

This one’s pretty self explanatory: kale, spinach, chard?  Chop it up and toss it in!


For your viewing pleasure.

a few mementos from past adventures in my kitchen

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fajitas in the making

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crusty bread from homemade sourdough starter

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vegetable pot pie topped with scratch-made buttermilk biscuits


I came, I saw, I failed, I failed again, I conquered.

Since the semester began, it’s been difficult to find the time to eat, let alone cook, let alone blog.  It also gets dark at 5 pm, while I’m still in class, and my mid-range camera prefers natural light for photos.  So I apologize for the long silence, and while there are no “in process” pictures tonight, I promise that this recipe will not disappoint.

This is not the first post I’ve written about these beans, but I expect it to be the last – because I’ve won.  I have conquered the bean salad.  All it took was some patience.  And 3 tries.  And some wine (though you’ll notice there’s none in the recipe).  I’ve changed up the ingredients a bit since my first attempt, but I kept the original name, as it was too delightfully ridiculous to part with.  The end result is pretty fantastic, if I do say so myself.

Three Bean Fiesta Salad

2 cups each navy beans, red beans, and black eyed peas (cooked)

¾ cup raw corn (I’d usually advise you to use fresh, but in almost-December, frozen corn is nearly as good anyway)

2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced small

3 fresh limes

3 fresh jalapenos

1 large clove of garlic, minced

Salt to taste (the amount will vary widely based on whether you use dried beans and cook them yourself or buy them already cooked and canned)

Directions:

Put the beans, corn, garlic, and tomatoes in a bowl.  Cut off the tops of the jalapenos and slice them in half.*  Scrape the seeds and pith into a bowl and cut the jalapenos, small dice.  Slice the limes in half width-wise and juice them into the bowl with the jalapeno seeds.  Pour the jalapeno-lime mix through a strainer and into the bowl with the other ingredients.  Add salt and toss.**

*There are a couple of ways to go about this.  If you have some latex/vinyl gloves you can wear while you handle the peppers, do so.  If not, you can pour about 2 teaspoons of oil into your palm and rub it all over your hands before you begin.  The capsaicin from the peppers will wash off with the oil when you’ve finished slicing and dicing.

**If you absolutely must, you may add things like cumin or chili powder or chipotle to this salad.  However, I found it so wonderfully bright and fresh just as it is that I didn’t dare risk dulling it with heavy spices.  The choice is yours.


It’s Sort of Food-Related.

I frequently come in contact with people who have some problem or another with the use of government assistance programs for food (i.e. SNAP/EBT or WIC). I think that some people are simply generally uncomfortable with the fact that some of their tax dollars are used to feed other people. I think that other individuals take issue with the ways in which EBT benefits are used; some folks seem to have an idea that because they pay taxes, they have the right to be feel indignant when they witness the purchase of “inappropriate” food with an EBT card.

I believe it is important to understand that every situation is different. Some people never struggle financially, but most people do, and no two financial battles are alike. A person may choose to go hungry rather than ask for help. That is his or her prerogative. This does not mean that someone who is unashamed to request assistance when he or she needs it is weaker, lazier, or inferior in any way.  It means that different people have different life experiences.

Do people abuse the system? Always. This doesn’t mean that the system should be shut down; it means that the system should be improved.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post: “frivolous” food purchases. Take, for example, a big, gaudy, somewhat-expensive birthday cake. A person can order a $50 cake at the grocery store for her daughter’s birthday, and buy it with her EBT card. Some people would find this outrageous. I would like those people to take a moment to consider just how little they know about this hypothetical cake purchaser. Perhaps she works full time, and still doesn’t make enough to feed herself and her daughter. Maybe she’s a single mom – unwed, divorced, or widowed – or maybe she’s married to a deadbeat who drinks away her earnings. Or maybe she’s married to a fantastic person who also works full time, but thanks to student loans or being laid off from a better job or a sub-prime mortgage, ends aren’t quite meeting. Perhaps she and her family have decided that they will subsist on beans and rice for a week in order to make room in the budget for a birthday cake. Perhaps it is worth it to give themselves, for just one day, a little relief from the stress of not having enough to get by.

Or maybe the whole family lives on potato chips and expensive prepackaged foods, has 200 channels and iPhones, drives a car that’s less than 5 years old, and receives so much extra on their EBT card each month that they decided to buy the cake just for the hell of it. I’m pretty sure these things happen.

What I’m really trying to say here is that, while you might think you know what is happening when you’re standing behind this person in line at the checkout, you don’t. I don’t know, either. So for you or I to pass negative judgment on someone else for purchasing something we don’t approve of with government funds is highly inappropriate, because it’s none of our beeswax. If you think that it is your beeswax because you’re a taxpayer, then write a letter to your congressman. Tell him that you want control over what is done with your tax dollars and see what he says.

I think that if we take issue with the system, we must address the system via the people who construct and maintain it. Taking out frustrations on citizens who simply use what is offered them in their time of need is ugly and petty and misguided. To make assumptions about who someone is or what their life is like based on 5 minutes of indirect interaction is ludicrous in any other situation, so we must realize that it is also ludicrous here. Such a realization makes it easier to let go, be more thoughtful, and return the mind to where it belongs – one’s own business.


Why Indian Food is Fantastic (plus vegan recipe!).

Recently, while kicking around ideas for where to have dinner, a friend asked me, “Why do vegetarians always want to go to an Indian restaurant?” This is something I’ve been pondering for a few days now.

 I decided to become vegetarian shortly before my 17th birthday. My older brother took me out for my birthday, to the only Indian restaurant in town. It was my first experience with Indian food, and the memory is a happy one. I ate baigan bharta, a puree of roasted eggplant with peas stirred into it. It was rich, savory and perfumed with spices I’d never encountered before. In that moment, I felt I was eating something exotic and exciting.

 If I thought I had experienced something unique, I had only to go to the movies. Indian restaurants are usually portrayed in American cinema as the realm of the uber-cultured and the free spirited (think the 1995 remake of Sabrina and Along Came Polly), some sort of transcendent, worldly food experience. Perhaps it’s like this often, the first time someone eats curry or a korma. I think that’s partly because Indian food has yet to enter the mainstream of U.S. cuisine. Unlike Mexican- or Italian-influenced food, most of us are old enough to remember the first time we encounter Indian food. That initial taste of Indian cuisine is likely to be a complete sensory experience – surrounded by the fragrance of spices, décor imported from India, perhaps with a pop song in Hindi in the background.

 When one moves beyond the novelty of that first experience, the feelings this cuisine evokes can grow into something entirely different. For me, Indian food is satisfying and comforting. It sates a craving, puts me in a good mood, makes me feel cozy. It is simple food, rustic even, elevated by the use of aromatic spices and cooking techniques calculated to maximize flavor. It sticks to the ribs and can be eaten without having to worry about whether or not the cook knows that chicken stock isn’t vegetarian. At an Indian restaurant, vegetarians are not relegated to the usual choice between pasta in an over-salted cream sauce and a salad ordered sans chicken. I cannot speak for others, but that is why I “always” want to eat at an Indian restaurant.

 Sometimes, though, I like to make my Indian food at home. I often change recipes a little bit to reflect what’s in my cupboards, so my Indian cooking is usually somewhat inauthentic. What follows is pretty close to the real deal, except for the bread, which is nothing like naan but still absolutely scrumptious with a spicy stew such as the one below. 

Something Like Chana Masala

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 5 cups cooked chickpeas

1 ½ pounds plum tomatoes (5 or 6 of them, usually)

2 cups diced onion

3 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced

8 cups water

1 tsp. oil

2 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. red pepper (more or less depending on your tolerance for heat; 1 tsp. is medium-spicy)

1 tsp. curry powder (the generic kind sold in most groceries)

½ tsp. salt

Additional salt, to taste

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 Directions: Place a small strainer over a bowl. Seed the tomatoes over the strainer to save juices. I like to cut off both ends of the tomato and then carefully push the seeds from one end out the other.

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Discard the seeds, dice the tomatoes and add them to their juice. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, ginger, ½ tsp salt and garlic and saute for 7-8 minutes, until onions begin to turn translucent. Add the spices to the pan and stir constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, until they become fragrant.

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Add tomatoes, water and chickpeas. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours.

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Liquid should be thick, reduced to a level slightly below chickpeas and tomatoes. Salt to taste and serve with rice or flatbread.

 Non-Naan

 ¾ cup warm water

1 tsp. maple syrup or granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ tsp. yeast

scant tsp. salt

oil (canola or light-tasting olive work best)

 Directions: Combine yeast, water and sweetener in a mixing bowl that holds at least 4 cups. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. The top should be foamy. Add flour and salt and knead for 8-10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to create a dough that is stretchy and moist but not sticky. Divide the dough into 8 portions, and roll each portion into a ball (balls should be about the size of golf balls). Drizzle the dough balls with oil and roll each one in your hands to coat. Cover loosely with a towel or plastic and let the dough rest and rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled.

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Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of oil to coat the pan. Flatten a dough ball, stretch it gently until it is thin and somewhat translucent in places (it’s ok if the edges are a little thicker than the rest). It should stretch to about the size of a saucer. Place the dough in the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes.

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When there are spots of golden brown on the pan side of the bread, flip it over and cook for 1-2 more minutes, or until the other side of the bread is also beginning to brown. Repeat for each dough ball.

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Down Home goes Vegan.

I am West Virginian.

West Virginian food is to Southern food as cerulean is to blue. Still the same color, but a unique shade.

West Virginians love hot bologna. They top their hot dogs with chili, cole slaw and raw onions. The state even boasts a unique restaurant franchise whose menu revolves around – wait for it – biscuits.

As in other southern states, being vegetarian in West Virginia is a little bit tricky, because it can be difficult to order from the existing menus at most restaurants, and many people have little respect for a diet that does not include bacon.

There is a stereotype of West Virginia as culturally backward and a stereotype of southern food as entirely meat-centric, neither of which are entirely accurate. West Virginia boasts some fantastic food and arts destinations; southern food, though frequently made with meat or meat by-products, can often be made vegetarian or even vegan by simply swapping pan drippings or stock for something plant-based.

Following are a couple of recipes for two of my favorite dishes, which are delicious eaten together.

Brown Beans and Fried Green Tomatoes

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For beans:

Ingredients

1 lb pinto beans, soaked overnight

1 ½ cups vidalia onion, diced

4 cups vegetable stock

8 cups water

Salt to taste

Directions: Combine all ingredients except salt in a large pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low. Soup should simmer at a lazy bubble – no hotter, no cooler – for a 3-4 hours. When beans are tender and creamy and broth is thick and reduced, salt to taste and serve, preferably over a bowl of crumbled cornbread.

For Tomatoes:

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1 green tomato, sliced into 4 or 5 slices, 3/8-1/2 inch thick, and seeded

¼ cup all purpose flour

½ tsp. Salt

1/8 tsp. Red pepper

1/3 cup medium-coarse yellow cornmeal

3 Tbsp. Oil

Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions: Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet. It is best if your skillet is large enough to hold all the tomato slices at once. Mix flour, red pepper and ½ tsp. salt on a small plate.

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Spread cornmeal on a small plate and pour a small bowl of water. One at a time, dip tomato slices in flour mixture, then water, then cornmeal. Coat both sides with each ingredient. Place slices in pan, and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, until batter is light golden brown. Remove slices from pan and season with salt and black pepper.

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Comfortable Things on Rainy Days.

This has been a busy week, complete with long work hours, crazy amounts of errands and 4,000 things on my mind.  Consequently, I haven’t had much time to play in the kitchen.  I hope to remedy that over the next couple of days, but today I turned to something tried, true, delicious and simple for dinner.

It’s a funny thing about living on the coast of Maine; even in the middle of summer, one might stumble across a dreary day with a chill in the air.  Today is one of those days, so I put on my sweater and made this soup.

Dal-Inspired Lentil Soup

1/2 lb dry green lentils

4 cups vegetable stock

2 cups water

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch cube fresh ginger, minced

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. curry powder

1 tsp. red chile flakes

Salt to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a soup pot or large sauce pan.  Add onions, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes, until onions start to become translucent.  Add spices and stir continuously for 1 minute, until spices become aromatic.  Add water, stock and lentils.  Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer 30-40 minutes, until lentils are tender.  Mash some of the lentils in the pot with the back of a spoon to make a thicker soup.  Serve over rice, with bread, or alone with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of chopped fresh cilantro on top.