Posts filed under Soups

Spring bounces back with watercress soup

There’s something unnerving about a summer day in March. The show outside is like a time-lapse movie: buds on fruit trees don’t sweetly emerge in a slow and lady-like fashion, but pop screaming into existence from their branches in contrast to the surrounding dark and barren limbs that didn’t get the memo.

I want nature to behave, to be consistent. I want some outside sign to tell me all is right with the world, because inside I’m at sixes and sevens. (It’s those odd numbers that get you.) I just wrote to a friend telling her I was at a conference with a thousand other people and it felt like a visit to Maggie’s Farm. I’ve come home with a head full of ideas, going from cheerful to discouraged and back again at whiplash pace. In other words, business as usual.

The noise in my head is just the noise in my head. It’s a congenital condition that I must constantly manage. I’m beginning to accept that as I watch my life unfold. In low moments it feels like a B movie, but I’m learning to laugh at myself for that, too. At the conference I reconnected with some wonderful people, and met many more talented and inspiring fellow food writers. The sheer numbers and volume of information were temporarily overwhelming.

Be yourself! Write what you are passionate about! If you’re not Giada or Gwyneth, you can’t write about that! Write what will sell! Be authentic! Get a platform! Be on facebook and twitter! Don’t be on facebook and twitter! (Unless it feels right!) Monetize! Don’t monetize! (Unless if feels right!) Be on the radio! Make t.v. appearances! (As if.) Have a vision! Have a plan!

(Breathe deeply.)

Now that I am home, the weather is cooperating. Chilly April days prolong the blooms, and the spring light is heartbreaking. For once I welcome the cold. It feels right. I know I just have to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the other. At the end of the day, is there any other choice? The warm weather will arrive soon enough and the garden awaits. Meanwhile, I’m making bowls of comforting spring soup.

These are Vidalia spring onions, with bulbs much larger than scallions

Spring watercress soup

Serves 4 (makes 8 cups)

Although you can find it all year long, wild watercress grows from April to November in cool, shallow running water. In our restaurant near Woodstock, New York we gathered watercress from a treasure trove growing at the head of a spring that emerged here and there on its course down the mountain. Watercress duty was a particularly coveted mission—not often could you find a reason to escape the hot kitchen and see the light of a midsummer day to plunder piles of the peppery greens from hand-numbing water.

Many

nutritional claims

have attached themselves to watercress over the years: it is rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium and folic acid.  According to Francis Cuppage’s book, James Cook and the Conquest of Scurvy, watercress kept the good captain’s sailors healthy with the green. In addition, British author Colin Spencer wrote that the Romans treated insanity with watercress and vinegar. Whether watercress is mind-steadying or not, making the soup is. A classic in the French and British repertoire, it is indeed a spring tonic.

Choose bright green watercress without any yellow leaves or slippery stems, and use within a day or two. Watercress does not stay fresh for very long.

2 bunches watercress

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large spring onion, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups) (not scallions, see photo above)

2 potatoes (1 pound) peeled, halved and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

5 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock or water

Salt and pepper to taste

Unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche, for garnish

Chives, chopped, for garnish

1. Trim and discard 1 inch of the thick stems from the bottom of each watercress bunch. Rinse well, and cut across the branches to make 3-inch pieces.

2. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook gently for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they are soft but not brown. Add the potatoes, watercress, and stock. Bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to a simmer and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

3. Fill a blender jar with about half the soup solids and half the liquid. Cover the top of the blender with a folded dishtowel, and start blending on low speed. Increase the speed slowly, and puree until smooth. Pour into a clean pot and repeat with remaining soup. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Reheat before serving. Garnish each bowl with a spoonful of unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche, and sprinkle with chopped chives.

Posted on April 8, 2012 and filed under Soups, Spring food.

Winter appetites: “Spanish” onion soup recipe (with vegetarian option)

Winter ushers in predatory cravings: brawny flavors, thick, meaty stews, hunkering-down kind of food. Even the ‘that’s-so-seventies’ favorite, French onion soup, gets the juices flowing. No time for thin and delicate broths, no siree. I want the melty-cheesey goodness of that seventies’ cliché by the bowlful.

But after a solid month of feasting, one glance in the mirror speaks to me in no uncertain terms: I am not (and was never) the slender Alpine girl who eats dairy products with abandon and then rises at dawn to check on the cows in the barn. That’s the kind of life that supports the diet I am craving. City living does not. Sigh. But I found an alternative. In a book.

If you want to learn anything about cooking by using a book, take a copy of the Zuni Café Cookbook to bed. It will only take a few minutes before you will discover something you want to jump up and cook, right then and there, in the middle of the night. (And if that doesn’t do it, try reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones and Butter. But I digress, more on that in another post.) Luckily for us, the publishers of Judy Rodger’s book allowed her the space to write outrageously seductive recipes, and uncharacteristically for publishing houses, in great detail. A lot of them. And that, my friends, is how you become a good cook. Details!

I would like to say that the soup which I am about to urge you to make is an adaptation of Ms. Roger’s onion soup, but ‘inspired by’ is a better way of putting it. I cannot seem to follow a recipe, not even one of my own, unless I am forced to write it down to share with anyone willing to try it. I transgressed so many times when I made her soup, that it has become something else. I apologize to the chef; no doubt her way is much better.  And you can search it out. You’ll find it on page 159.  I beg you: buy the book.

Onion soup is a poor man’s feast. Some fat, some onions, some broth, some cheese, a few pieces of dry bread. What’s so good about that?  I’ll tell you what:  you could use duck or goose fat if you happen to have some leftover from your Christmas feast (always, always, save the duck fat in your freezer!) Or, failing that, you could stir in some of that good meat gelée from your duck confit. No duck gelée?  Why not stir in some flaked, house-cured salt cod or brandade? Lord, but those chefs are annoying sometimes. No, I don’t happen to have any brandade made from my house-cured salt cod anywhere about me.

But wait! Let’s just calm down and pull back a little. This exercise doesn’t have to end in frustration. The whole point of reading a book by a chef is to help you start using your imagination in a different way. If you are a novice, try the recipe as written. After that, go for your own improvs. Ms. Rogers uses a little tomato in her soup, and poaches an egg on top. She doesn’t caramelize her onions (I did), but she is definitely on to something. The tomato and egg made me think of Spain for some reason, and so, for my little soupçon of something extra, something extravagant, I pulled out my old tin of saffron, the one that I save as a remembrance and replenish with each new vial of the precious golden red filaments. In case you haven’t noticed yet, I am ignoring the cheese.

An egg on top of anything is humble and comforting and intimate. Instead of poaching the eggs right in the pot as Ms. Rogers does, I slid them gently on top of the sodden bread floating on top of the soup and slipped the bowls into the oven. The soup bubbled and spat onto the sides of the bowl, lending a "rustic" look to this imperfect meal. But cooking the egg in the bowl allowed me to eat a solitary breakfast of soup and egg when no one was looking. I could share it table-for-two style, too. Keeping my options open. We are back to basics here. A poor man’s feast, indeed.

Onion Soup with Poached Egg (with Vegetarian option)

Serves 4

Although I was craving cheese, I wanted to make something more in line with New Years’ resolution style eating. So I nixed the cheese and topped the soup with an egg. You could also nix the bread if you want to be Spartan about it, but that would be going a little too far for me. Furthermore, to vegetarianize this recipe, just use a really, good, rich homemade vegetable stock. No cheating.  I tried not to dumb down Judy Rogers’ recipe too much, but used what I had on hand, which was basically onions and olive oil. It was just as satisfying as I had hoped.

For the toasts

4 slices sturdy country bread or some sliced baguette

Olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Brush the bread with olive oil on both sides, spread them on a baking sheet, and bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes.

For the soup:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoons olive oil

3 large onions, about 2 1/2 pounds, halved and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2-inch sprig rosemary, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)

2 canned tomatoes with a spoonful of juice, chopped

Small pinch of saffron, crumbled

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

5 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian version)

4 eggs

1. Heat the butter and olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat and add the onions, garlic and rosemary. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. They should be soft but not mushy.

2. Push the onions to one side of the pan, and add the chopped tomatoes and their juice. Move the pan so the tomatoes are over the heat source, and cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the tomatoes deepen in color to a rusty red. Add saffron, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the stock and bring the soup to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes.

3. Just before you are ready to serve it, taste the soup and add more salt and pepper if needed. Ladle the hot soup into bowls (or bowl), and place a toast on top of each. Push the toast into the broth. Crack an egg into a small bowl. When the bread rises to the top, gently slide the egg on top. Place the bowls on a baking sheet and slide them into the oven. Bake until the egg is set to your liking, from 5 to 10 minutes. 

The devil is in the details:

Cut the onions not too thick and not too thin....1/4-inch is just about right, not so thin that they will disintegrate, not so thick that they will be clunky.

The herbs: Use thyme, rosemary, or summer savory. Unbelievably, these are still surviving in my northern garden in January! Rosemary should be chopped since the leaves can be a spiky mouthful if left whole.

Lightly caramelize the onions to add flavor, especially if making a vegetarian version. Don't let them turn to mush though.

Push the onions aside and cook the tomatoes until most of their juices evaporate: an extra step that boosts flavor. 

Saffron is another flavor booster. Crumble it before adding (sorry, no photo). If it is not brittle, warm it briefly in the oven to dry it out.

Posted on January 10, 2012 and filed under Soups, Winter food.

Yin-yang merrily on high/peas on earth: keeping it real with vegetarian split pea soup

I guess the title of this post tells you a lot about where I’ve been lately. That is: in search of equilibrium while caffeine and sugar-induced songs run amok incessantly through my head. Somebody help. Please.

Traveling, missing routines, eating out and eating lots and lots of sugar (remind me not to do a baking story anytime soon) were the underpinnings of the out-of-controlness in this week full of highs and lows. But let’s cut to the chase. To the rescue: down-home food. Namely, the mundane but ever comforting split pea soup. Luckily, I made a big pot of it before the madness took hold and stashed portion size bowls of it in the freezer for emergencies. So, do as I did. Make this soup and when you come home from shopping, or when you have a baking day or just when you do what you need to do for the holidays, heat up a bowl or two, bake a few Parmesan crisps, pull out some really good Polish bread, put on some festive music and come down to earth with a bowl of soup. Yin-yang merrily on high.

Technically, I don’t think split peas are particularly yang—I’m no expert on the subject—but they are definitely a fine counterbalance to the sweets of the season. This vegetarian version has the unusual addition of parsnips. Sweet and some say, cloying, parsnips on their own are a bit hard to take, but with all the other vegetables they add a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, which is pretty exciting for such a humble soup. And if you are not of the vegetarian persuasion, go ahead and throw in a ham hock or two. 

Vegetarian split pea soup with Parmesan crisps

Serves 6

Parmesan crisps

Makes 12

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Small pinch Cayenne pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

2. Mix Parmesan, thyme and pepper together in a small bowl.            .

3. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon cheese mixture in mounds 3 inches apart on the baking sheet. Flatten with the back of the spoon. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the oven and leave on the baking sheet until cool. Serve with the soup.

Split pea soup

Serves 6

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium carrots, sliced

2 stalks celery, sliced

3 parsnips, sliced

1 small onion, diced

1/2 teaspoon thyme

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 1/4 cups split peas (9 ounces)*

6 cups vegetable stock

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1. Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, parsnips, onions, thyme, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 8 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.

2. Add the peas and stock, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and add more salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot, and simmer for 1 hour, or until peas are soft.

3. Puree the soup in a blender with the parsley until smooth. Return to the pot and reheat. Taste again for seasoning. Ladle hot soup into bowls and serve with Parmesan crisps. 

*Green split peas are traditional, but you can also use yellow split peas (chana dal). I did not have enough of either one, so used both in this soup (hence the yellow-ish tint.)

Posted on December 14, 2011 and filed under Soups, Winter food.

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.

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.