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Some heavy dental work a member of my household is undergoing has me thinking about soft, gentle dishes that can soothe an aching jaw. One good candidate is an onion soup from Umbria known as la cipollata. That name is given to many dishes in Italy’s regions, in most of which the onions (cipolle) are served as a vegetable on a plate. The Umbrian version is almost thick enough for that, but it’s definitely a soup.

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This is my own recipe, from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, and while it bears a slight family resemblance to classic recipes for French onion soup, it’s much easier to make. It does take several hours’ time, but most of that involves only the soup itself, not the soup maker.

For four portions, you start by thinly slicing a pound’s worth of mild, sweet onions. I recommend Spanish, as less candylike than Vidalias. To prevent copious weeping, do this with a food processor.
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Soak the onions in a big bowl of cold water for two hours, while you go off and do something interesting.
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In a large pot, melt four tablespoons of lard in a tablespoon of olive oil. For authenticity, the lard should be lardo, the Italian cured pork fat; but lardo wasn’t available here when I was developing the recipe. No matter: it’s fine with commercial hydrogenated lard.

Drain the onions and toss them in the melted fats, adding salt, pepper, and a few basil leaves.
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Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. The onions will give off a fair amount of liquid, and they shouldn’t brown.
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Then add two cups of a well-flavored broth (beef, chicken, or mixed; homemade, if you have it) and three-quarters of a cup of drained, canned, Italian-style plum tomatoes, chopped or pulsed in a food processor.
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Stir, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover the pot and cook very gently for an hour. You can occasionally stir the soup if you’re passing through the kitchen during that time.
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At this point you can stop the cooking and let the almost-finished soup sit for several hours, or even overnight in the refrigerator. It’ll only get better as it ripens.

When it’s time to eat, reheat the soup well. Turn off the heat, dump in an egg beaten with three tablespoons of grated parmigiano, and stir well.
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The proper finishing touch is a slice of toasted, crusty, country-style bread set in the bottom of each bowl. I didn’t do that this time, in consideration of the dental depredations. It’s a very comforting soup, just perky enough to be interesting without overly challenging the palate. A “medicinal” glass or two of red wine goes very well with it too.

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P.S.  A few days later, when the jaw was recovering, I served the remaining soup as a gratinata – the Italian equivalent of French onion soup gratinée – just replacing the gruyère cheese with a young Tuscan pecorino. Quite delicious!

 

 

 

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Two Sturdy French Soups

Cold weather hasn’t seriously clamped down yet, but there’ve been enough damp, dank, chilly days lately to push my culinary interest toward hearty, rib-sticking foods. Still trying out never-made recipes from my cookbook collection, I’ve recently discovered two excellent soups in the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series: Potage Crécy and Potage Purée Soissonaise.

 

Potage Crécy – Purée of Carrot Soup
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I use a lot of carrots in my cooking – mostly as an ancillary ingredient, in the basic mix of chopped vegetables called mirepoix (French), battuto (Italian), or sofrito (Spanish). It was a nice change to have carrots play the star part in this easy recipe. My trusty mini processor made short work of mincing three cups’ worth.
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I then minced ¾ cup of onions by hand, which I softened in butter for 5 minutes in a heavy saucepan.
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Into the pan went the carrots, a quart of Tom’s homemade broth (a deliberate substitution for the recipe’s chicken stock), 2 teaspoons of tomato paste, and 2 tablespoons of raw rice.
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After simmering the soup for just 30 minutes, uncovered, I pureed the entire mixture through a food mill, returned it to the pan, and added salt, pepper, and ½ cup of heavy cream. At dinner time I brought the soup back to a simmer and stirred in a tablespoon of softened butter before serving it.
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It was, as I’ve already said, extremely good. Carrots have so much natural sugar, I’d wondered if the soup would be uncomfortably sweet, but it wasn’t. The flavor suggested a good winter squash. The carrots had totally absorbed the cream, leaving a texture just a little nubbly – quite pleasant on the tongue. This soup will be a good standby in the cold days ahead.

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Potage Purée Soissonaise – White Bean Soup
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I liked this recipe at first glance, because it calls for marrow beans. Large, plump, and richly flavorful, marrows are my all-time favorite white bean. This soup was a more elaborate production than the previous one, so I started early in the day, making half a recipe’s worth. Using bouillon cubes, I made up 1½ quarts of chicken stock, dropped in 1½ cups of beans, and gave them a 2-minute boil.
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Then the pot sat off heat for an hour, letting the beans soak, while I chopped half a carrot, half an onion, and a big leek in my large food processor. At that point I had to take exception to the recipe. It wanted the vegetables softened for 5 minutes in 1 tablespoon of butter in a 6- to 8-inch skillet. That would have been ridiculous: My half quantity generously filled a 10-inch pan and still took more than 5 minutes, beside needing more than half a tablespoon of butter.
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I went on to prepare the remaining ingredients. The recipe called for a chunk of lean salt pork, which is just about unobtainable these days. (It’s a mystery how some things, like salt pork and Bibb lettuce, just disappear from the marketplace.) At my butcher’s suggestion, I’d gone out and bought the fattiest bacon I could find, 2 ounces of which I blanched in boiling water for 10 minutes. I also made up a bouquet garni of bay leaf, parsley, and celery leaves.
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Next, I had to drain the beans, measure the liquid, and add more if needed to make it up to a quart. It took just a little. Back went the liquid into the soup pot, along with the beans, the bacon, the vegetables, and the bouquet garni.
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Now came the annoying part. I had to leave the pot uncovered and simmer the soup for two hours, or until the beans were tender. That meant almost constant attention to keep the soup from, alternatively, boiling too hard and doing nothing at all. After the first hour, almost all the liquid was gone. I had to add several doses of boiling water from a kettle, and keep the simmer going for almost an extra half hour, before the beans were ready.

Finally, it was time to drain all the solid ingredients, discard the bacon and bouquet garni, and purée the rest through a food mill. It was very dense, requiring long, hard, hand labor.
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When I returned the puree to the pot I was to add “enough of the liquid to make the soup as thick as heavy cream.” As you can see in the picture, there wasn’t very much liquid left. My puree absorbed it all, almost without noticing it.

The recipe did say I could add more stock if the soup remained too thick. That increased my annoyance with the pointless precision of measuring and adjusting the liquid to begin with and expecting it to last through two hours of uncovered cooking. I didn’t have any more stock. So I thinned it out a bit more with hot water, bringing it to a sort of porridgy density, swirled in a tablespoon of butter, and served it.

After all that, I’m glad to be able to say the soup was fabulous. All its flavors came together in a subtle, creamy, almost meaty whole – hard to describe but deeply satisfying.

I’ll definitely make this soup again, but with some adjustments. Let the beans soak for two hours, not one, at the start. Use at least half again as much liquid. Use homemade stock (the bouillon cubes were heavy on salt). Partially cover the pan for the entire two-hour simmer. Let my big food processor, not the manual food mill, purée the solids. I don’t think any of that could hurt the soup, and it will certainly ease the job of the soup maker.

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Menudo Estilo Norteño

Menudo is a Mexican tripe soup-stew, often served for hearty breakfasts and especially recommended as a hangover cure. The idea to make it came to me from my pandemic-time reading of a mystery novel series set in New Mexico. Whenever the heroine-detective is baffled and discouraged, her family always comforts her with a big pot of homemade menudo. It seemed like a good nostrum for our current troubled times.

My Mexican cookbooks have recipes for two basic kinds of menudo: one from the northern regions, which uses hominy (pozole), and one from the south, which doesn’t. I chose a northern style (estilo norteño) from Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico. Conveniently, I had a pound of partially cooked tripe in the freezer, enough for half a recipe’s worth, and also a quartered pig’s foot, two of whose chunks made a reasonable substitute for the recipe’s requested calf’s foot.

My only challenge then was finding pozole. After some searching, I succeeded at Kalustyan, which, though principally an Indian grocery store, carries an enormous range of international foodstuffs. (It came only in a very large can, so in the near future you may see me writing here about other recipes for hominy!) 

The first step was to assemble the tripe, cut in small squares, the pig’s foot quarters, onion, garlic, salt, black peppercorns, and red chile powder in a large earthenware pot.
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I poured on two quarts of water, and while the pot was coming to a boil, I took two roasted Hatch green chilis from the freezer, peeled and seeded them, cut them into strips, and added them to the pot.

Here I’ll confess to two further substitutions. The green chile was supposed to have been a fresh poblano pepper, and the red chile powder was supposed to have been made fresh from toasted and ground dried anchos. I used a combination of hot arbol and medium-hot anaheim chile powders from my pantry.

After about two hours of cooking uncovered, with additional boiling water as needed, the pig’s foot pieces were softened enough to be taken out and deconstructed. Minus skin and bones, there wasn’t as much meat as there would have been with a calf’s foot, but I chopped up what there was and returned it to the pot.

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I also stirred in three-quarters of a cup of rinsed and drained hominy and let the pot go on cooking for another two hours – mostly covered, this time.
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For serving, Kennedy recommends condiments of oregano, chopped chile serrano, chopped onion, and lime wedges, plus a green tomatillo sauce to put on tortillas. I chose to do some streamlining there, using only tortillas and limes.
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The menudo had a very unusual flavor profile for Tom’s and my palates. It took a little getting used to, but it grew on us very quickly: each bite tasted better than the last. Big squeezes of lime juice brightened it all up beautifully. It needed salt, too. I could see that it would have liked the additional condiments also, and I’ll definitely use them in future versions, of which I’m sure there will be some.

Finally, my menudo was really not as picante as it should have been. Tasted after the first two hours of cooking, it had been extremely spicy, but as the hominy cooked, it must have absorbed a lot of that heat. Apparently I was too stingy with my red chile powders. Well, I’ll know better next time. I’ll also use a fresh poblano and the right kind of toasted and dried hot peppers. (Don’t think I’ll spring for a whole calf’s foot, though.) Meanwhile, a dose of Cholula sauce in each bowl helped pep things up.
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Lentil and Fennel Soup

 

Amid the ever-increasing coronavirus threat, Tom and I are mostly spending the days in our apartment, venturing out only briefly for fresh air and fresh produce. All that time indoors provides many opportunities for cooking – but also for making culinary mistakes. The other day, careless recipe reading made me nearly ruin a hearty lentil soup.

I had a supply of good brown lentils from Italy, so I thought it would be nice to use some in a soup that would be different from the version I usually make. In Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes, I found Lentil and Fennel Soup, a combination I’d never tried before. Bulb fennel is still available in my neighborhood, so that was an easy choice.

I assembled chopped ingredients for half a recipe’s worth: fennel, carrot, onion, potato, and tomato; plus small ditalini pasta and, of course, the lentils.
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The first instruction was to put lentils, fennel, carrot, onion, and potato into a soup pot and cover them with an inch of cold water. That actually wasn’t as simple as it sounds. As soon as I started adding water, the carrots and onions floated to the top, where they congregated and obscured the water level.
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A trivial thing, of course: hardly a problem there. The flotilla did cause me to add more water than called for, but I was sure it could be boiled off during the cooking. We haven’t yet come to my real gaffe.

The vegetables simmered for 30 minutes, and then I was to add the tomatoes along with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and continue cooking for 20 minutes. There was also an instruction to add hot water as needed to keep the lentils covered with liquid. That puzzled me, because I had no need for it. After 20 minutes, my lentils were still barely visible, hunkering down among the other vegetables, and the soup was looking pretty thin. I knew I hadn’t added that much extra water.

Also, it didn’t have the good aroma of a lentil soup that was close to being done. A horrible premonition overtook me. Had I not used enough lentils? Checking back to the recipe’s ingredient list, I was aghast to see I’d measured out only half as much I should have.

This was not the first time I’d done such a thing. Especially when I’m scaling down a recipe and calculating quantities for a number of items to be treated similarly, I can get into a sort of rhythm: half a cup of this, half a cup of that, quarter cup of the next thing . . . This time, I’d failed to note that the quantity of lentils I needed was not half a cup but half a pound.

Arrggh! How to salvage it? The lentils in the pot were already tender, and the only remaining cooking to be done was 15 minutes for the ditalini. But the soup would have been a watery gruel if left as it was. So I threw in another half a cup of raw lentils and kept the pot simmering for another half an hour. Thankfully, after the final 15 minutes for the pasta, the new lentils had absorbed all the excess liquid and were done. Whew!
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And it was a very good soup, a perfect antidote to damp, chilly, winterish weather, and better than I deserved, for my carelessness. I’m still surprised that neither batch of lentils suffered at all from their respectively too long and too short cooking times. But neither Tom’s nor my palate could detect a difference.

My only remaining regret is that the fennel, which was the main reason I chose the recipe, wasn’t very prominent in the final flavor. I still have a bag of those good lentils left. If ever I ever get over my chagrin enough to make this soup again, I may double the quantity of fennel – that is, assuming I can manage to read the other recipe instructions properly!
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Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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Last week Tom and I were in France, cruising the Rhône on the 110-meter MS Camargue. Starting from Lyon, we traveled up the river to Mâcon, then down to Avignon and Arles, and back again to Lyon. It was an interesting trip, though the weather was unseasonably chilly and the notorious Mistral wind blew strongly much of the time. Those conditions encouraged hearty appetites, which the ship’s chef was only too ready to indulge.

There were three or four courses at both lunch and dinner, with modest wines of the region generously poured at no cost and a short list of better wines for purchase. (Tom has written about the wines on his blog.) Here are some of the meals we enjoyed.
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Cured ham.  Baked chicken rolls, potato croquettes, broccoli.  Crepes with orange sorbet.

That chicken should be our first dinner was an auspicious start for me, the poultry lover. Not so much for Tom, but he admitted it was a very flavorful bird.

 

Mozzarella and tomato. Red mullet fillet, spelt risotto, asparagus tips. Cafe Liegeois.

I’ve rarely eaten mullet and never, to my recollection, tasted spelt before. This dish made me want to look for more of both. The sauce was particularly good too.

 

Fresh pea soup. Pork tenderloin with duchesse potatoes, green beans. Cabosse.

St. Germain: a velvety purée of the freshest green peas. A cabosse is a mold of chocolate in the shape of a cacao bean. This one was filled with chocolate mousse.

 

Salade lyonnaise. Roasted rabbit, gnocchi, carrots. Lemon tart.

A poached egg (barely visible here) makes a marvelous dressing for Lyon’s signature entrée salad. The rabbit was one of the best I’ve ever had.

 

At the end of the cruise Tom and I spent three more days on our own in Lyon. That city is a gastronome’s paradise, and we’d carefully chosen the restaurants where we wanted to eat: no modern, elegant, Michelin-starred establishments but the deeply traditional brasseries and bouchons beloved by the Lyonnais. I’ll devote my next post to those dinners.

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Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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A Dismal Lima Bean Soup

I’ve always disliked lima beans. I never eat them by choice. But I recently got tired of looking at the jar of dried limas sitting in my pantry – leftovers from making a recipe that used some in a modest supporting role a few years ago – and resolved to do something with them.

(From the above title you’ve no doubt gathered that this story is not going to have a happy ending. Since I’ve done many posts on recipes that came out extremely well for me, I feel it’s only fair to admit to some that haven’t.)

We were having chilly fall weather just then, which made a soup sound like a good idea. It would have to be not too elaborate, so if the limas let me down I wouldn’t have wasted all the other ingredients. But also not too bare-boned, lest there be too few supporting flavors for the beans to blend with.

In my ancient, rebound copy of Joy of Cooking I found a recipe simply called Dried Bean Soup, which offered a choice of navy, kidney, lima, or marrow beans. It looked as if it would do, so I soaked a cup of the limas overnight. The next morning they’d tripled in volume and looked pretty good, which was encouraging. They were to start cooking in boiling water with a bay leaf, whole cloves, peppercorns, and a meat ingredient: either ham, a ham bone, or salt pork. I had a chunk of salt pork in the freezer.

 

 

As the cooking began, it was not so encouraging. The required eight cups of water looked like an awful lot for the amount of beans, and the salt pork quickly released a lot of scummy fats. Well, plenty of time for it to improve, I hoped.

 

 

While it simmered along, I chopped the remaining ingredients: generous quantities of carrot, onion, and especially celery.

 

 

After two hours my beans had softened enough that, as the recipe directed, I added the chopped vegetables for a final 30 minutes. At least they made the soup look less like sludgy dishwater.

 

 

At this point the recipe suggested optional additions: garlic, saffron, sorrel, mashed potatoes. Oh, come on, Irma – have the courage of your basic preparation! Is it going to be OK without these things or isn’t it? I added only salt.

When the carrots were tender, I had to remove the meat and puree everything through a food mill. I pause to mention that my salt pork was so fatty there was hardly any meat to work with, and it was very stringy. But back to the pureeing. A blender or food processor would have done it faster, but there was so much liquid there that I thought milling might give it more texture.

 

 

The recipe then said to thin the soup, if necessary, with water or milk. Not a problem here: The soup was so thin I had to boil it down some. Didn’t help much. The bowl looked something that’d be served at Oliver Twist’s workhouse.

 

 

And so it was: like the worst kind of meager, insipid, institutional food. The only detectable flavors were clove, celery, and pork fat. Well, at least it didn’t taste like lima beans! I hate to waste food, but I tossed the rest of it.

I wonder now just where I went so wrong. If the limas hadn’t been so old … if I’d had a good piece of ham … if I’d used less water … if I’d tried one of the optional additions … would I have had a decent soup? I don’t know, but I’m not interested in finding out.

I threw away the rest of my dried limas.

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Mexican Corn Soup

A good cookbook is a treasure chest. You can have it for years, returning to it again and again for the same few favorite recipes, and then one day you open it to a different page and find an unsuspected gem. I’ve just lucked in that way with Diana Kennedy’s 45-year-old classic The Cuisines of Mexico.

This was my very first Mexican cookbook, and many of its recipes intimidated me quite a bit, back then. Ingredients were strange and not easy to find. Cooking procedures were unfamiliar too. My first attempt was Kennedy’s guacamole, which we adored at first bite. Little by little, I tried other dishes, eventually working up to her magnificent 4½-page chiles rellenos recipe. As my confidence grew – and Latin-American ingredients became more accessible here – I acquired other Mexican cookbooks, newer ones that caught my interest and largely displaced Kennedy from my repertoire. Except for her guacamole, which is still the only one I ever make.

Now in late summer, when my greenmarket’s bountiful fresh corn keeps calling out to me, I recalled that Kennedy has recipes for corn soups (one of which I’d blogged about several years ago). Why not try another one? So I did, and it was an idea as brilliant as the recipe. It’s called simply sopa de elote – corn soup, and there’s very little but corn in it.

For half a recipe, I had to cut two cups of kernels off fresh ears of corn. (I had four ears ready, but only three were needed.)

 

 

The next instruction seemed very odd: first, put the corn and half a cup of water into a blender and process to a smooth puree; then put that puree through a food mill. Seemed like suspenders and a belt! But OK, I did it. It made a surprising difference.

 

 

As you see above, what the blending produced seemed to be smooth, but the food mill extracted a lot of chaff from the kernels, leaving a slightly thick corn liquid.

In a saucepan I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and cooked the corn liquid in it for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Then I stirred in 1¾ cups of milk and a little salt, brought it to a boil, and simmered it for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The butter kept trying to rise and separate out as the soup cooked, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.

 

While the soup simmered I prepared small amounts of garnishes to go in each bowl. Here I took a few liberties with the ingredients given in the recipe:

  • It calls for a dice of fresh chile poblano – or canned green chilies if necessary. It’s now easy to get fresh poblanos, but I had one, roasted, peeled and seeded, remaining in the freezer from last fall’s crop, so I used that.
  • It calls for crumbled cream cheese or Boursault. I was sure those were substitutes for a Mexican cheese that wasn’t widely available in the US in the 70s. Now we can easily get authentic queso fresco, which crumbles nicely. I used that.
  • It calls for small squares of tortilla that I’d have had to fry to crispness. Out of pure laziness, I just broke up some packaged corn tortilla chips.

To finish the dish I put some chile and cheese in the bottom of each bowl, poured on the hot soup, and strewed the tortilla chips over it.

 

 

It was lovely. The soup base was the pure soul of exquisitely sweet corn. This is being a good year for corn here, so the soup just sang of green fields and summer. Each garnish provided its own flavor and texture contrast: the poblano a hot chile zing, the cheese a faintly sour soft curd, and the chips a lightly spicy crunch. I’m sure I’m going to make this soup again before corn season is over.

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Incidentally, the corn soup was the centerpiece of a pleasant, down-home Mexican dinner. Before it we had Kennedy’s guacamole with tortilla chips and salsa, and after it we shared two large (purchased) tamales, one of cheese and one of chicken mole, along with which I served red Mexican rice and more of the guacamole.

 

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