Tag Archives: cooking

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!

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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.


Soaring and Thud.

“I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.” ― Anne Shirley

Have you ever made something on the fly, something new and creative that just popped into your head unbidden and then turned out to be phenomenally delicious?  It’s like soaring.  It feels like a moment of genius, like poetry, like artistic inspiration.  That first bite can seem like a religious experience, and it’s all the better if there’s someone else around to fawn over your brilliance in that glorious moment.

When I crave fulfillment, I often head for the kitchen to create.  This is nothing new for me; one of my favorite childhood activities was playing mad scientist in the kitchen.  I didn’t get to do this terribly often because my mother, who was both on a budget and trying to teach me a life skill, usually made me follow a recipe.  Occasionally, though, she would give me parameters regarding ingredients and quantities and let me have at it.

As an adult, I still test out hypothetically delicious situations in the kitchen. For example, this week I set out to make what I was certain would be a fabulous salad. I had already come up with a silly-in-an-ironic-sort-of-way name: Three Bean Fiesta Salad, which sounds like something you would order at Taco Bell but which is made entirely from scratch, which is why it is ironic. I planned to feature red, cannellini and green beans, marinated with lime juice, olive oil, and adobo sauce.  Some fresh organic corn was dropped in my lap the day before, which only promised to add to the experience.  I would post about it here, inspiring all sorts of strangers to try my recipe. “I can’t believe how simple, yet satisfying it is,” they would rave. “Is this really vegan?”

Three Bean Fiesta became Two Bean Fiesta when the entire pot of cannellini beans turned to a thick white paste before they were soft enough to eat.  Two Bean Fiesta became Bean and Corn Fiesta when I realized I’d only bought enough green beans for the stir fry later in the week.  Bean and Corn Fiesta Salad became Bean and Corn Fiesta Burritos when my husband came home and decided it didn’t seem like a cold dish (he was totally right).  And before you know it, I was 9 years old, playing in the kitchen again.

Usually Mom’s expendable ingredients were things like flour and sugar and fat.  This was before I discovered that baking is an exact science and that, for that reason, I am not very good at it.  I had not yet learned to fear baked goods, so that’s what I most often tried to make, but I occasionally attempted other things.  My bizarre concoctions were frequently complete flops.  I remember particularly well some banana-peanut butter cookies that tasted strangely rotten, and an ice cream maker-less attempt at blueberry ice cream that ended up as frozen purple milk.

I had expected that salad to be fantastic.  Why?  Because I’ve made lots of fantastic things in my life. I’ve got an excellent palate, and my husband, who is a classically trained chef, raves about my food on a regular basis. I fear neither global cuisine, nor home cheese-making, nor deseeding hot chiles. I am a real cook!

The truth is that when you cook on the fly, there’s a lot of trial and error between each perfect bite. I’ve spent the last few days attempting religious experience and accomplishing purple milk. But I’ve remembered something else about those childhood culinary failures. No matter how a concoction turned out, I still wanted to make more things.  I kept trying.  I was striving for that moment of genius.

In honesty, not every moment is creative.  If I’m going to write about my culinary triumphs, I think maybe it’s important to write about my culinary failures, too. To admit that I don’t always feel brilliant. To appreciate the mundane for the way it allows me to experience elation at my own creativity. To acknowledge mistakes as a necessary part of the process that leads to moments of genius.