Betwixt and between: a tomato soup to span the seasons

Standing at the farmers’ market the other day, I wasn’t sure which way to look. Peaches or pumpkins? Corn or delicata squash? Tomatoes or sweet potatoes? The weather last week was telling me to look back at summer, but the week before? A decided nip in the air.

That’s the thing about change. Barring environmental and personal catastrophes, change rarely happens overnight. Conditions sway back and forth, sometimes too wildly for our comfort, until phew! Everything settles down. For a while.

And then it starts all over again.

The fastest track for learning the lessons of change is to invite a child into your home. I don’t mean for the afternoon, but you know, as a baby. Then watch him grow up and watch yourself swing this way and that to keep up, thinking you’ve nailed it one minute and turning around and realizing, the situation has moved on. Your toddler no longer fusses about getting dressed in the morning because he now refuses to go to preschool. There was a moment of peace and a feeling of accomplishment somewhere in the middle of that. Boy, did you feel like at last you were on top of it. Not.

Nothing is static. We might wish for a Groundhog Day existence because it feels safe and comfortable, but if that’s what we want, why not go sit on a bench in Miami right now and get it over with? Everyone, everyone, has times when they must weather slings and arrows. Everyone endures painful times, times of not knowing. 

During carefree times we forget. Years can go by with few bumps in the road, and then…along comes a recession or who knows what, to make us wring our hands. That’s when we need to pay attention to the little moments: the cup of tea or bowl of warm soup on a chilly afternoon, like sweet little islands in a turbulent sea.

So here we are again, on the cusp of a change in seasons, more straightforward than changes in our internal climate. The question of what to eat is not so hard to solve, whether you look forward or backward this month. Peaches or pumpkins? Or maybe a soup that takes the best of summer into the fall: roasted tomatoes and vegetables, smoothed in a blender, to be eaten hot or cold, depending on your mood or the temperature outside.

This was originally published in the now defunct online Magazine of Yoga.

Roasted tomato and vegetable soup (Serves 4)

Plum (Roma) tomatoes have thicker flesh and fewer seeds than mid-summer round, slicing tomatoes and therefore are not so quite so juicy, easily roasted on a rimmed baking sheet without spilling. Use a baking pan if you find that the tomatoes you have on hand are especially juicy. Roasting concentrates all the good veggie flavors; adding water to thin the soup should not dilute them. If you happen to have a little white wine around the house, use it for a little extra oomph; the alcohol evaporates in cooking. If you prefer, leave it out.

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds plum tomatoes (about 14 to 16)

2 garlic cloves

2 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch pieces

2 carrots, peeled and cut in 2-inch pieces

1/2 medium onion, thickly sliced

1 red pepper, cored, seeded and cut in 2-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/4 cup white wine, optional

Snipped chives, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Lightly oil the bottom of 2 rimmed baking sheets.

2. Core the tomatoes, and halve them lengthwise. With your fingers, scoop out and discard the seeds. Trim the root ends from the garlic cloves and lightly smash them with the flat of a knife to break the husks. Leave the husks on.

3. Place the tomatoes in one layer on a baking sheet with the cut side down. Place the celery, carrots, red pepper, onion and garlic in one layer on another baking sheet. Sprinkle the vegetables with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little olive oil. Roast the tomatoes and vegetables for 20 minutes. Rotate the pans, moving the top pan to the lower shelf and the bottom pan to the upper shelf. Continue to roast for 15 to 20 minutes more (about 35 minutes total), or until the vegetables are soft and the tomato skins are loose and wrinkled. If the tomatoes are slightly charred, so much the better for flavor.

4. Remove the pans from the oven and let rest until the tomatoes are no longer hot, about 10 minutes. Slip off and discard the tomato skins. Remove the husks from the garlic cloves.

5. Puree the vegetables in a blender with 1 cup water, until smooth. Be sure to scrape all the juices from the bottom of the baking sheets into the blender. Pour the puree into a soup pot. Season the soup with salt and pepper, and stir in the wine. Add enough water to thin it to the consistency of heavy cream, about 1 cup, depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes. Simmer the soup for 10 minutes. Season with more salt and pepper if you like. Serve hot or cold.

Note: I like mine with a little cream (naturally). Add a spoonful of heavy cream on top to make it look pretty.

Posted on October 8, 2011 and filed under Fall recipes, Soups, Summer food, Vegetarian.

The apple doesn't fall (too) far from the tree: Grandmother's apple cake

Grandmother’s apple cake was probably the only dessert my mother ever baked. I vaguely remember her cursing over piecrust, but can’t recall the pie. Probably because the cursing, from the lips of a woman who might threaten to wash your mouth out with soap for saying "sheesh," made such an impression that other details slipped away.

I used to tease my mom that the domestic gene skipped a generation. If slogan t-shirts had been invented when we were kids, Mom would have worn the one that said, “I’d rather be painting.” Let’s just say my mother was born too soon. She was a gifted painter and sculptor saddled with four children because that was what was expected of her. She wore her wifely and motherly duties, especially cooking, like a ball and chain. A very heavy ball and chain.

Grandmother, on the other hand, took an interest in cooking. As I have mentioned from time to time on this blog, Grandmother (never Granny, Grandma, or Gran) had her shortcomings in the empathy department for her fellow humans, most notably her children, but she possessed powerful instincts when it came to food. With help from a cook and a nanny when her five children were young, Grandmother carried her motherly duties a lot more lightly than my mom did. Yet she, too, had her priorities. Her t-shirt would have said, “I’d rather be playing bridge.”

Perhaps a preoccupation with social life drove my grandmother’s interest in food. Or perhaps for her, as for me, food simply held a fascination. To glean some insights into what might have made her tick, I recently pulled a few of her cookbooks off the shelf. She had a habit of scrawling recipes and comments in the columns, on the back pages, on the book flaps, and just about anywhere there was space. Many of them were recipes from friends or from her sisters: Dolly D’Aloia’s thumbprint cookies, Twinnies’ chocolate fudge, Emma’s Icing. Somehow they all sounded familiar.

My Grandmother with admirers

Then I realized the same recipes appear in my mother’s recipe box, carefully copied. Though she took little pleasure in cooking, my mother occasionally relished recreating dishes from her childhood, particularly sweets. And she, too, took up the habit of writing in her cookbooks.

Grandmother inscribed one book, Lowney’s cookbook, produced by the makers of cocoa and chocolates, with her name, date, and the words “My first cookbook.” I imagine how pristine it once was, and how excited and grown up she must have felt to embark on her new cooking adventure.  After more than a lifetime of use, it has lost its binding and the pages crumble each time I open it. The stains, faded scribbles and notes tend to congregate in the dessert section. The once blank pages are filled with recipes jotted down with lists of ingredients, no instructions: Aunt Livia’s Cottage Pudding, Molasses Layer Cake, Hot Milk Sponge Cake, Lillian's Candy. A testament to the way food and cooking connect us.

One significant discovery I made in Grandmother’s books was an entry for ‘Mother’s Apple Cake’. My mom always referred to it as Grandmother’s apple cake, and I simply assumed that the grandmother in question was my mother’s mother, my grandmother. So after this revelation, I asked my mom about it. “Yes,” she said, “that was my grandmother’s cake. We kids used to sneak into the kitchen for a slice on Sundays when we visited. They expected it, so there were usually two or three cakes cooling on the table.”

Something came over my mother when she spoke of that cake, that kitchen, that time. She had just finished showing me a photo album that my grandmother had made for her. As we looked at the album she sighed and said, “I guess my mother did love me after all. She made me this album, with pictures of me.” My mother—who is now in the looking-back stage of life—never felt particularly loved by my grandmother. Yet she recalls her childhood with happiness, surrounded by family, filled with Sunday dinners, and the constant ebb and flow of cousins, aunts and uncles. And apple cake, always the warm, inviting apple cake.

My Aunt Mary, Mom, and Uncle Billy

Mom, age 12 or 13

The cake part of this cake is not very rich; it is just an excuse to pile on the apples and end up with slices of cinnamon apple goodness. It is quick and easy enough to make for breakfast on the weekend, or anytime you need a fast apple fix. Plums, peaches and pears are welcome here, too.

Grandmother’s apple cake

Make one 9-inch cake 

For the cake:

1 cup all purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 /8 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, thinly sliced

1/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 apples, peeled, cored and cut in 3/8-inch thick slices

For the topping:

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon butter

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 9 by 2-inch round cake pan. Dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl.

3. With your fingers, crumble the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

4. Beat the milk, egg and vanilla together with a fork until combined. Add it to the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Spread it evenly in the pan with the back of a spoon.

5. Starting at the outside edge, arrange the apples in a circular pattern over the cake, overlapping them slightly.

6. For the topping: Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in small bowl. Sprinkle it over the apples and dot with butter. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean when withdrawn.

6. Cool the cake in the pan. Cut in wedges and serve warm.

Posted on September 24, 2011 and filed under Breakfast, Cakes, Sweets.

Some like it hot: pickled jalapenos

I am trying (unsuccessfully) to make peace with the end of summer. I know, I know. There are plenty of people (Man of the House, for instance) who love the fall and relish the new nip in the air.

I am not wired like that.  I struggle with my resistance to the change, but glass-half-empty is in my DNA. When the light fades earlier and earlier every evening, I feel wistful. What to do? Get summer into jars.

Being an eleventh hour type, and being preoccupied these last few weeks by settling College Boy into his first apartment, I now have only a few precious weeks left to do that. Nevermind. There is still a lot to choose from. I have peaches, pears and plums ripening on the kitchen counter for jam later this week, and I have just finished another batch of pickled jalapenos. A batch would seem like a lifetime supply, but I know they will be gone in a month or so. But oh they are good while they last.

My first Thanksgiving at my soon-to-be in-laws opened my eyes to the necessity of having a jar of jalapenos around at all times if I really wanted to be part of the family. Sure, we had the turkey, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the pies, but perched right there on the table next to the cranberry sauce was a small dish of jalapenos. A revelation! I watched in awe as my mother-in-law daintily cut a tiny piece of the pepper on her plate and popped it in her mouth. “A little chaser, “ she said with a sheepish smile.

Who knew? I’m from New Jersey.

The do-it-yourself pickling project started a few years later, when we lived in the country and our local grocery store did not supply us with jalapenos. How crazy is that? I had to take matters into my own hands. After the first attempt proved successful, soon I was making enough to give as token Christmas presents to my many sisters-in-law. I even grew jalapenos in my garden. Wow, I was ambitious back then. Now I see piles of jalapenos at farmers’ markets; you can also buy them from just about any grocery store (where you can buy them in jars, too, but that’s beside the point.)

Just in case you think pickled jalapenos are all about the heat, think again. I am here to tell you there is much, much more. By the time you add herbs, carrots and onions to the mix you begin to understand the argument in favor of pickling them yourself. The bonus vegetables take on the heat of the peppers, and the peppers take on the flavors of the vegetables. The marriage is a happy one even if it doesn’t last.

Oh, and p.s, our own marriage worked out, maybe it has something to do with the pickles?

Pickled Jalapenos

Makes 3 pints (recipe can be doubled)

I probably don’t have to tell you how to eat these, but I should mention that the pickle ‘juice’ is just the ticket for spicing up guacamole or sprinkling over the contents of a taco. Save it until every little drop is gone because you can add it to anything that could use a little puckery heat. (Corn chowder, for example, if you haven’t made it yet this summer.) Process them in a boiling water bath if you make lots and lots and want to give them away, or store them in the refrigerator for up to six months.

1 pound jalapeno peppers

2 sprigs fresh oregano, cut in 3-inch lengths

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 bay leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 white onion, halved lengthwise and thickly sliced

2 carrots, thickly sliced

6 whole garlic cloves, peeled

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 1/2 cups white vinegar

1/4 cup water

1. Cut a small cross in the tip of each pepper. Leave the stems intact.

2. Place 2 lengths of oregano, 1 sprig of thyme and 1 bay leaf in each of 3 pint jars.

3. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until the onions wilt.

4. Add the jalapenos, salt, pepper, vinegar and water to the pot.  Increase the heat to high and bring to a full boil. Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes.

5. Set a colander over a bowl. Ladle the vegetables into the colander, and reserve the liquid that collects in the bowl.

6. Pack the peppers and vegetables into the jars. Ladle the hot brine over them, leaving a 1/4-inch head space. Gently slip a wooden skewer or chopstick between the peppers and the side of each jar to release air bubbles.

7. Seal the jars and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. Or, for room temperature storage of up to 1 year, process the jars while still hot in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

HOW TO PRESERVE IN A BOILING WATER BATH

(You will find a visual tutorial on water bath canning here.)

1. Fill a large, deep pot with enough water to cover the jars by 1 inch. Bring to a boil.

2. Inspect canning jars for cracks and discard defective ones. Thoroughly wash the jars in hot soapy water or run through the dishwasher.

3. Wash the lids and screw bands. Use only unused lids each time to ensure a good seal.

4. Fill jars to within 1/4 inch of the top (headspace) with hot pickles. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean, wet paper towel before covering with the lid. Screw on the bands.

5. Set a rack or a thick folded dishtowel on the bottom of the pot of boiling water.

With a sturdy pair of tongs, place the jars in the pot.

6. Process the jars at a gentle boil for 10 minutes. If necessary, add more boiling water to cover the jars by 1 inch.

7. Remove  the jars from the water with tongs and set on a dishtowel to cool.

8. After12 hours, check the jars to ensure that they are sealed.  Press on the center of each lid; it should remain concave.

9. Label and date the jars by writing on the lids with permanent marker.

10. Remove the screw bands to prevent them from rusting and store the jars for up to 1 year in a cool, dark place.

Want more pepper recipes?

Potted peppers from

The Garum Factory

Pickled serranos from

Pinch My Salt

Sweet Pickled Jalapenos from

Simply Recipes

Preserved Red Peppers from

Hunter, Angler, Gardner, Cook

Posted on September 12, 2011 and filed under Canning, Condiments and Jams.

It ain't over 'til it's over: corn chowder

Technically, it is still summer. But after September 1st, it sure feels like it’s over. I hate that.

Why? Some folks like it cold, and some like it hot. I like the in-between, but mostly on the warm side. I am the happiest in June, when the summer spreads out before me like a cool green meadow that goes on and on. Sigh.

The upside to September: kids are back in school (sigh again, this time a sigh of relief.) Don’t get me wrong; having your kids home with unstructured time is wonderful in an old-fashioned Leave-It-To Beaver kind of way. But hallelujah when that school bell rings!

The other upside is, of course, a veritable banquet of vegetables in the market to choose from. 

When I make this corn chowder, I am always reminded of the virtues of humble American cooking. Sure, Italian food has sex appeal, but when you apply its primary principle—spectacular ingredients used simply—we Americans can go toe to toe with them any day, especially in September.

With justly famous Yankee ingenuity, our New England forefathers used what they had on hand to make food for sustenance. These resourceful cooks layered ingredients like salt pork, cod, onions, potatoes and a few herbs in a pot (the word chowder is purportedly derived from chaudière, the name of a French cooking pot) with milk and water. Sustenance always came first, but look at the result: salty bacon paired with clams or cod, tamed with cream and potatoes. Now it’s getting interesting.

Corn Chowder

Serves 6

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 stalks celery, finely diced

3 potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and cut in 3/8-inch dice

Kernels cut from 6 ears of corn (5 to 6 cups)

6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or quick corn stock (recipe below)

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 red pepper, cut in half lengthwise

Snipped chives, for garnish

Cream, if you like

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not browned.

2. Add the potatoes, corn kernels, stock and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and adjust the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

3. Position an oven rack 4 inches from the broiler element and turn on the broiler. Place the pepper halves with the cut sides down on a baking sheet. Broil until the skin blackens and blisters, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover the bowl with a plate. When the pepper halves are cool enough to handle, peel and seed them. Cut in small dice.

4. Scoop out 3 cups of the soup and puree it in a blender. Stir it back into the pot and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if you like.

5. Ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish the soup with diced red pepper, chives, and if you like, a generous spoonful of cream.

Once you have scraped away the kernels, you can use the corn cobs for a delicious stock.

Corn stock

Makes 6 cups

6 corn cobs (without kernels), broken in half

1/2 onion, sliced

1 stalk celery, sliced

2 to 3 sprigs parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Place the corn cobs, onion, celery, parsley and salt in a large pot. Add 8 cups water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Strain.

Posted on September 3, 2011 and filed under Soups, Summer food, Vegetarian.

All about eggs part 2: the recipes: angel food cake, lemon curd and a meringue tutorial

Well, College Boy almost had me convinced to set up a chicken coop in the backyard, but I am quite certain that my neighbors in our quasi-urban area would not be sympathetic to such a project. Certainly a few free eggs now and then would not be enough to mollify them. The foxes from the nearby urban golf course might enjoy them though.

Meanwhile, I still have access to good farm eggs, so I will seek them out more regularly. Farmers’ markets abound in the Boston area, and I can almost always score a few dozen eggs every week or so in the summer. I will have to be more determined once the weather cools and these markets close. I love cooking and baking with farm eggs; their yolks are firm and deep yellow, the way eggs should be. I also feel much better knowing that the hens have not been confined to scandalously small quarters and subjected to terrible conditions.

For some reason, my son begged for angel food cake with lemon curd, even though he is not much of a dessert eater. Certainly it has an old-fashioned appeal, and I think he is waxing poetic about farm life now that he is home and getting ready to go back to college. As it happened, one of his friends came to dinner on the day I planned to make it, so the cake became a gluten-free dessert. I am not an experienced gluten-free baker, but with my trusty box of gluten-free multi-purpose flour from King Arthur Flour, I had no problems. If you like, you can substitute cake flour for the gluten free flour in the recipe.

We ate it with lemon curd (recipe below) to use some of the egg yolks. I also love angel food cake with fruit sorbet. You can cut off the top, hollow out the center and fill it with sorbet. Replace the top and freeze and slice. To gild the lily, frost the cake with some lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Gluten-Free Angel Food Cake

You will need an angel cake pan for this cake so that the cake can rest upside down as it cools. If you skip this step, the cake will still taste good, but it surely will be deflated and sad looking. (I know, I hesitated and the first cake drooped.)

Makes 1 nine or ten-inch cake

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup King Arthur gluten-free multi-purpose flour (or cake flour for non-gluten free)

1/3 cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups egg whites (11 to 12 eggs)

1 tablespoon lemon juice or 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 teaspoons vanilla

Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting

1. Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. With a strainer or a sifter, sift 1/2 cup of the sugar, the flour, cornstarch and the salt together onto a piece of waxed paper.

3. In a squeaky clean bowl of a mixer with the whisk attachment,  beat the egg whites  until frothy. Add the lemon juice or cream of tartar and continue to beat until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 1 cup of sugar, beating until stiff peaks form when you raise the beater. Beat in the vanilla.

4. With a large rubber spatula or your hand, quickly and carefully fold the flour mixture into the whites in three additions.

5. Rinse a 9 or 10-inch angel cake pan with warm water. Do not grease it! Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Rap the pan gently on the countertop once or twice to release air bubbles. Bake for 45 minutes or until it is golden brown and feels bouncy to the touch.

6. Immediately invert the pan so it stands on its “legs.” Leave the cake in the pan until it cools completely. Run a knife between the cake and the sides of the pan to release the cake and set it on a cake plate. Dust with confectioner’s sugar and slice with a serrated knife.

Lemon Curd

You could use all yolks in this recipe, but the whites lighten the mixture a bit, giving you a smooth, custardy texture. Straining eliminates little bits of white that may have overcooked (although this shouldn't be much of a problem if you take the pan off the heat and strain it pronto.) You still need to strain out the bits of lemon zest which add flavor when the curd cooks, but detract from the finished texture. 

Makes 2 cups

3/4 cup lemon juice (4 to 6 lemons)

1 1 /3 cups sugar

3 egg yolks

3 whole eggs

Pinch of salt

1/4 pound (8 tablespoons, 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut in small cubes

1. Set a strainer over a bowl and place it next to the stove.

2. In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, egg yolks, whole eggs and salt. Add the butter pieces.

3. Set the pan on the stove over medium heat. Stirring constantly with the whisk, cook the mixture until it thickens and comes just to a boil around the edges.

4. Quickly remove the pan from the heat and scrape the lemon curd into the strainer. Strain and cool. Serve cold or at room temperature with the angel food cake. 

5. To store, press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of the lemon curd and refrigerate. For a special treat, serve it spread on brioche or toast for breakfast.

LOOK AND COOK: HOW TO MAKE MERINGUE

Start with a squeaky clean bowl. Any oil residue or bits of yolk interfere with the expansion of the whites. Beat until foamy and add cream of tartar (first choice) or lemon juice. This helps stabilize the egg whites and makes for a very creamy but firm finished meringue.

Beat the eggs until they start to form soft peaks. Now you can add the sugar.

Slowly add the sugar, a tablespoon or two at a time , beating constantly. The meringue starts to look creamy and firm.

Once all the sugar is added, the meringue should look creamy and hold firm peaks when you lift the beater. 

Return the sifted dry ingredients to the sifter and lightly sift 1/3 of the flour over the meringue.

With a rubber spatula or your hand. Yes! your hand is the best tool, a trick I learned from a very experienced pastry chef. (However, you may not want to get your hands in the batter.) Either way, draw the spatula from the far side of the bowl towards you, scraping it along the bottom.Turn it to fold it over as pictured here. Continue, turning the bowl 90 degrees each time, until the flour is incorporated. Repeat with another 1/3 of the flour. Finish by adding the final 1/3 of the flour.

Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 45 minutes, until the cake is browned and springy to the touch. 

IMMEDIATELY flip the pan over so it stands on its legs and let it cool completely in the pan.

Note: I had a major computer/camera breakdown at this point, so no pictures of finished cake. Being thus preoccupied, I did not flip the pan right away and my cake drooped. I had to start over!!