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Archive for the ‘Soup’ Category

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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Tom and I are just back from a week’s birding trip to Eastern Washington. That’s the dry side of the state, protected by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. We’d hoped to encounter good Pacific Northwest regional foods there, as well as many bird species that aren’t found in our part of the country.

Overall, we had fine weather, beautiful scenery at several altitudes, a congenial group of fellow birders, and reasonably successful birding. (We missed a few target species, e.g., Golden Eagle, Varied Thrush, Ferruginous Owl.) The food, however, mostly disappointed. Too much of it was anonymous American, inferior Italian, or ubiquitous salmon. Even so, there were some interesting and memorable dishes.

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At one dinner, my appetizer was called Wood Oven Clams. I hadn’t known you could oven-roast clams, so this was a new pleasure for me. They were sweet, tender Manila clams, as moist as if they’d been steamed open but with a bit more depth of flavor from the roasting, and with a refreshing burst of seasoning with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice.
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Tom’s main course that evening was Cioppino, made with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and some sort of white fish. Obviously not a specialty of this high-altitude area so far from the sea – but it was very good: hearty and delicate at the same time, as fresh and enjoyable a fish stew as one could hope for.
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At another dinner we shared an appetizer of grilled venison bratwurst with hot bacon-cabbage slaw, roasted fingerling potatoes, grainy mustard, and fresh applesauce. The venison may well have come from local mule deer, which were commonly seen in our forest walks. This was a dish for hearty mountain appetites: It could easily have been a main course for one of us.
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From the bratwurst we went on to share an excellent cheese fondue made from a blend of Gruyere, Asiago, and Swiss, with white wine. The dipping ingredients were a heaping plate of grilled sausage, roasted potatoes and carrots, steamed broccolini, bread cubes, grapes, and apple slices. Again, this was meant as an appetizer for two, but it was plenty as a main course for us.
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Finally and quite unexpectedly, for lunch at a cheerful roadside Mexican joint, we enjoyed fish tacos and tacos al carbon, both as lively and good as any we’ve had in the Southwest or elsewhere. A pleasant, spicy change from the milder flavors we’d mostly been experiencing.

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I never considered myself the kind of person who’d spend almost a whole day in the kitchen making borscht. I didn’t even like beet soup. But that’s what I’ve just done, and I loved it.
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My change of heart came about, improbably, because I attended a pierogi making event for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, held at Veselka, a venerable and venerated local Ukrainian restaurant. In its basement, more than 3,000 of these traditional stuffed dumplings are made by hand every day. Early one evening, 20 GVSHP members trooped downstairs, watched a demonstration, and then were invited to make some pierogi ourselves. That’s me in the purple sweater.

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After our lesson, we all climbed back up to the dining room and sat down to what turned out to be almost a full meal: cups of the restaurant’s signature borscht, its homemade bread, three kinds of pierogi – potato and farmer cheese, goat cheese and arugula, and beef short rib – plus sour cream, applesauce, and fried onions.

Everything was good, but what blew Tom and me away was the borscht. It was brilliant: rich and meaty, thick with vegetables, and with an intriguing interplay of beet sweetness and vinegar sourness. Like no borscht either of us had ever tasted before.

As we left the restaurant, everyone received a copy of The Veselka Cookbook, of which the dust-jacket picture and very first recipe was that borscht. I had to try making it.

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When, out of curiosity, I compared Veselka’s borscht recipe to others, it was clear that this was the borscht to end all borschts. The soup is made in two major stages, each with multiple preparation steps. Here are the components of the first stage:

  • On the left, 2 pounds of beets to be shredded and simmered in 10 cups of vinegared water for 2 hours to produce what Veselka calls “beet water.”
  • In the middle, 1 pound of beets to be boiled whole in plain water until tender-firm.
  • On the right, 2 pounds of boneless fresh pork butt, to be simmered in 8 cups of beef stock, 1 tablespoon of peppercorns, 1 teaspoon of allspice berries, and 1 bay leaf, for 2 hours or until the meat is beginning to fall apart.
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When all that was done and everything cooled down, the second stage began with more preparation of ingredients:
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  • In the rear 1 pound of shredded green cabbage, 4 cups of strained beef and pork stock, 3 large celery stalks, sliced, and 3 large carrots, sliced.
  • In the middle, 1 can of lima beans, rinsed and drained, and 2 russet potatoes, cubed.
  • In the front, 4 cups of beet water, the whole boiled beets, peeled and grated, and the pork butt, shredded.

All those ingredients began to come together in a single stockpot: first the carrots and celery, simmered in the broth for 8 minutes; next the cabbage and potatoes, stirred in and simmered for 20 minutes; then the lima beans, for 5 minutes more. Finally I had to taste the soup and add up to 7 tablespoons of white vinegar.
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At this point I was able to set the soup aside and start washing the many pots and dishes I’d used! As dinner time approached, I stirred the beet water, grated beets, and shredded pork into the soup and heated it all together. It certainly made a lurid concoction.
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But it was a truly delicious one, as we discovered when we sat down to our bowlfuls. The meaty broth and shredded pork gave heft and depth to the soup, the flavor of each tender vegetable could just be distinguished in the medley, and it had the same overall tangy sweetness – or sweet tanginess – that we’d marveled at in the restaurant’s version.
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(I didn’t top my borscht with sour cream and bits of fresh herbs, as is shown in the picture on the cookbook’s cover. Those were apparently a food stylist’s trick – they aren’t in the recipe.)

By the way, the recipe says it makes “about two quarts” of soup. Something went wrong there, because I measured my quantity at four quarts. But I’m not complaining, because my freezer  now has containers of luscious borscht to carry us through the ragged end of winter and the damp chills of early spring. Thank you, GVSHP and Veselka!

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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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