Monday, October 11, 2010

An Accidental Chowder, or, the Pleasures of Fish and Cream

I was recently thumbing through a group of cookbooks, all excellent soup cookbooks featuring soups of New England and chowders. The idea was to test and compare approaches to "authentic" clam chowder. I had a huge batch of fresh clams, potatoes and cream, fresh thyme, onions, and some good fresh cod - in short, all the essentials every one of these authentic recipes required. But as I was ready to go, one item was missing, the salt pork. The salt pork is key: the saltiness, a bit of the smoky, and fat to render with the onions. Clam chowder was suddenly out, at least the New England variety. I did end up making a Manhattan-style clam chowder, and the clams were gainfully deployed, but the recipe I developed was unfortunately not a winner.

Next morning, still without salt pork, I decided to use the nice fresh chunks of cod in a delicate creamy concoction that turned out just perfectly. As New England fish chowder, it wasn't authentic at all, and I borrowed little from the recipes I thought I would feature. But it was definitely worth writing about - quick and simple, too.

I had a short pint of fish stock stored in the freezer, and this with a bottle of store bought bottled clam juice was my stock. I sauteed the onions in butter with a little light olive oil, then let them express with some good white wine. Added broth and potatoes, seasonings, then brought to a simmer until the potatoes were soft. Meanwhile, I heated the cream with a little tarragon - very important step! The cream should be steamy, slightly foamy, but not at a full boil. If the cream is not heated first, it will curdle in the soup! After the cream is added, the cubed fish need only poach in the broth for 5 minutes or so - just until they are opaque and flake easily. Recheck seasonings, especially pepper, then serve immediately. A perfectly delicate chowdery "accident", in just 20 minutes!

Fish Chowder with a French Accent!

2 tbspn butter + 1 tbspn light olive oil
3/4 pound fresh cod or haddock, in bite-size chunks
1 medium onion, diced fine
1/2 cup good white wine
2 cups diced Yukon Gold potatoes
2 cups fish broth or clam juice
1 cup water or light chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
sprig of fresh tarragon, or pinch of dried
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
pinch of cayenne pepper
freshly ground pepper

As above, start with the onions, and when translucent, add the wine, simmering off the the alcohol. Season with the thyme, stirring for a minute or so, then add all the liquids except the cream, the potatoes, the bay leaf and salt, pepper, and cayenne, and continue to cook until the potatoes are soft. Heat the cream with the sprig of tarragon in a separate pot as described above. Add in a 1/2 cup of the broth from the soup, and slowly pour the cream mixture back into the soup pot. Remove the tarragon sprig, add the fish cubes and allow the fish to poach in the broth for about 5 minutes. The fish should be opaque, tender, and easy to flake with a fork. Check the seasonings, adding salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately with a garnish of parsley. New England style chowder crackers are allowed!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Simple Pleasures - A Sunday Soup of Chickpeas from the Greek Island of Sifnos

On the Cycladian island of Sifnos, Sunday's dinner is in the oven the night before: a gloriously mellow soup of only chickpeas and onions, sparingly spiced, it simmers all night in a special clay vessel. In the smaller villages, the vessels are brought to the town bakers' on Saturday night, and next day, it is often the men who solemnly attend to the carrying of the pot back home for Sunday lunch. The island is known for its potters and pottery - no surprise that its most famous dish has its own dedicated piece of crockery - the skepastaria, pictured at the right.

Along with the unique clay pot, villagers insist that the specialness of their soup comes from using the purest rainwater, the freshest onions, and the tangy unfiltered olive oil from their own orchards. Not to mention the somewhat idiosynchratic mensural technique for guaranteeing the right amount of water! A local recipe source says that you add water to the crock pot and cant the vessel. When the water reaches the rim of the tilted vessel, the beans should be completely covered by the water. As it turns out, not all chickpeas are alike, some swell in the soaking more than others. So, the Sifnos cooks have an approximate starting measure of chickpeas (usually a kilogram), and then the amount of water depends on how they respond to the soak. The trick of adding water until the beans are covered in a tilted vessel works perfectly!

I first discovered this soup in a recipe from Paula Wolfert. She calls it Clay Pot Chickpea Soup in her book, The Slow Mediterrenean Kitchen. While acknowledging the Sifnian tradition of overnight cooking, Wolfert develops a somewhat quicker cooking version. This is a bit of a delicious irony: for her slow cooking bible, Wolfert speeds up the original recipe! The soup is very good just as she designs it, and I loved it enough to repeat it often, always promising myself to try out the longer slower cooking method next time.

And I eventually did. With utterly marvelous results:
The chickpeas, which never really got soft enough by the Wolfert method, were meltingly tender. The broth, too, was darker and richer. I'd like to think it was the perfectly imprecise measurement of the water! As for rainwater, I passed. Bottled water will do, if tap is not fine enough in your area. A clay pot to my mind is essential. I used a thinly glazed Amnion clay pot - they don't make this artisinal crockery any longer, but mine has been my bean pot of choice for almost 30 years. And instead of slow cooking all night, started mine in the morning and had it ready for for dinner.

The Ingredients:
2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight.
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup best olive oil
2 medium red onions, chopped in a food processor
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt, bay leaf optional
flour and water to make paste seal for the clay pot.

Serve with:
freshly ground pepper
plenty of lemon quarters
finely minced parsely

A note about soaking. Best to begin the night before. In the AM, rinse and drain, then store in the refrigerator covered with water until you prepare the soup. One hour before you are ready to assemble the soup, remove from the refrigerator and add the baking soda. Then rinse and drain once more before cooking.

Assembling the soup:
Using a processor (a mini is just perfect) chop the onions very fine. Put the
rinsed chickpeas into the pot, then add the onions, salt and optional bay leaf.
Pour in the olive oil and mix gently with a wooden spoon. Add water as described above: pour in enough to cover, then tilt the pot and continue to add water until water reaches the lowered rim and still well covers the beans.
Cover your pot and make a seal out of flour and water. Start with a cup of flour, adding water and more flour until you have enough to make a seal ring between the pot and cover.
Here is how the prepped Amnionware looks - pot sealed tight with the ring of moist dough.

Place the pot in a cold oven. Turn the dial to 425, and when the temperature is reached, about 15 minutes depending on the oven, reduce the temperature to 150 to 200 degrees and cook all day - six to seven hours will be fine. Then turn the oven off and count the minutes until dinner. The aromas will surely test your will power, and the sight of the finished dish with its handsome collar will definitely work for eye candy:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gazpacho Rediscovered - A Soup with a History to Match its Bold Flavors

Gazpacho, or what is sometimes referred to as "liquid salad", couldn't be a more perfect choice for the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers ripening right now in gardens across the nation. With spice and flavoring variations to meet the tastes of every palate, not to mention a long list of garnish options, gazpacho can be everyone's "go to" summer soup. (Sorry, couldn't resist the Rachel Ray-ism).

An impressive history, this gazpacho: even the derivations of the word make great reading - do check out the post from the blog What Holt and Barbara Had for Dinner. To summarize, the word gazpacho may be of Mozarabic origin, similar to the Spanish caspicias, meaning crumbs, worthless things. Maybe, too, it has to do with the ancient Greek word, gaza, meaning treasure.
As a thing to eat, the "soup" probably had its origins as almonds, stale bread and garlic worked laboriously in a mortar, and then mixed with olive oil and a little vinegar - food for peasants working in the fields, perhaps. Most definitely, a tasty way to use up stale bread. And not only did the medieval Spanish have their ways with dry bread: the Greeks had their skordalia, the Arabs dipped dry bread in oil and vinegar, and the Italians made panzanella: juicy vegetables and olive oil set to steep over dried bread.
One thing is certain, the earliest gazpachos had no tomatoes. Tomatoes were first brought to Spain from the gardens of Montezuma by the early explorers and colonizers. Even then, it took some time for the Europeans to trust that the tomato, a member of the nightshade family, wasn't poisonous. So, tomato-based preparations don't show up in cookbooks until much before the mid-17th century. (This from Clifford Wright, who has a a beautifully researched write-up on gazpacho in the Food History section of his website.)

I like how gazpacho even appears in an early American cookbook! Imagine that: Mary Randolph, whose cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, was first published 1824, has a Spanish Gaspacho in her recipe collection. Nothing boring about the early American kitchen!

What's agreed about gazpacho is that it is a mix of pureed vegetables, usually tomatoes, peppers and cukes, and these are added to a base of moistened stale bread, garlic and salt, all flavored with olive oil and and vinegar. The mortar and pestle was the tool of choice long before the blender or food processor came into use, and there's definitely something to be gained by re-introducing this implement into the mechanics of the recipe (more about this later in the post). Gazpachos can be made with grapes and almonds, with watermelon and chili peppers, even with fish - I once made Paula Wolfert's wonderful Fava Bean Gazpacho with Sherry, White Raisins and Green Grapes (from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen) - an exquisitely rich and savory gazpacho. But today, with a basket of season fresh tomatoes, I wanted to work out a more typical version. The ingredients were to be "traditional", but I wanted to try working the soup with mortar and pestle, food mill, and no blender. I had a hunch that the old fashioned grinding and pounding of the garlic and especially the peppers with the pestle would do wonders for the texture, and I think I am right. The cells of the vegetables are worked to break down their essentials, including oils and starches, and you can actually see the silkiness develop as you work the peppers against the side of the mortar - well worth the considerable extra effort. In the blender, the blade just minces through the food, cut/slicing the fibers but not breaking them down. To economize, I used a food mill to puree the seeded tomatoes (I didn't have to skin them), and I did finally use the immersion blender to blend the moistened bread with the garlic and peppers once they had been "pestled". I had read about using a raw egg yolk to add richness, and this turned out to be a great idea - I added some olive oil and cumin as I beat the yolk for extra depth, too.

Lots of folks have special hints, provisos and family secrets for their great gazpachos. Clifford Wright cautions that no one ingredient should ever predominate - gazpacho should be "a completely harmonic result of an orchestra of flavors" , others say that while the list of potential toppings is long, never use more than two or three per serving. As for famous family secrets, I have a few from a charming story by way of a friend who is lucky enough to have an actual Andalusian mother-in-law, who made what I always imagined must have been the most luscious and refreshing gazpacho (and my friend said it indeed was!)

When my fellow foodie friend Liddy, first visited her husband's family back home in Spain, she was eager to learn all about gazpachos and ollas from the source. So, she sat coyly in the kitchen with her new mother-in-law and asked leading question after leading question, hoping to get to her cooking magic. She asked, do you peel the peppers or grill them to remove the skin. The answer, with a smile, was, "it depends". When she asked, can you use canned tomatoes for your gazpacho, again, it was "it depends." What liquid do you use to soak the bread? "Ah, well, that depends"... For every ingredient and step of the recipe it seemed, there was, "it depends." Just before poor Liddy was totally exasperated, and still feeling too new in the family to ask about all those dependancies, her mother-in-law turned teary, walked over to her, gave her a melting hug, and said, "I have waited years to finally have a daughter-in-law to share with all my secrets." Of course, over the years of wonderfully heartwarming visits, most of the secrets were eventually revealed:
You use a peeler to peel the peppers if they have been in the refrigerator and are no longer sweet because there's no sugar left to carmelize when you singe the skins! You grill and scrape away the skin only if the peppers are at their freshest and sweetest!
What liquid is best? If you have enough stale bread you can use the juice of the tomatoes after they are pureed. But, if you have only a little piece of dry bread, you seed all the tomatoes, scraping the gelatinous seed clusters into a dish and then squeeze the juice onto the bread - the almost jellied seed liquid adds more body to less bread!
My all time favorite nugget of gazpacho wisdom has to with using canned versus fresh tomatoes. According to the Andalusian mama, after you cut up the tomatoes, you take a deep whiff of their fragrance. If the smell reminds you of watermelon (as tomatoes sometimes do when not their freshest), use canned tomatoes for the gazpacho, and the ones you just cut up should be put to another use.

So much for the anecdotal. I finish with the recipe which pretty fairly matches what I worked on today:

2 lbs freshest Roma tomatoes, seeded
2 to 3 mini bell peppers, any color
1 long thin pepper, more sweet than hot
1 small cucumber, seeded
2 large cloves garlic
2 to 3 stale slices from a long french bread
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons good quality sherry vinegar
1 egg yolk + 1 tsp olive oil + heaping 1/4 tsp cumin, whipped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For my version, I make no apologies for the rather involved and tedious methods applied - this was definitely a labor of love on a morning when I had plenty of time!
I started by seeding all tomatoes, saving seeds and seed liquid, squeezing the liquid through a cheesecloth onto the broken up bread pieces for a good 20 minute soak. While the bread softened, I cut up all the tomatoes, salted them and let them sit in the sun to sweeten further - 1 hour, and probably not an essential step. While tomatoes steeped, I removed the skins from the little peppers by singing them over the gas burners, slipping off their skins under cool water. I liquified the garlic with a scant teaspoon of salt using the mortar and pestle, then worked the peppers to a smooth silky paste in the same way. (The flavor and texture of the garlic and peppers was a major taste moment.) I also used the mortar and pestle to grind up the cucumbers with a dash of salt - this was actually pretty quick and easy. The bread was now soft, so I used the stick blender to blend together the bread with all the "ground" vegetables (no tomatoes yet!), then folded in about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. I blended until I had a very smooth paste - this by choice; some might prefer a grainier texture in the finished soup. The tomatoes I pureed using the medium disk of a food mill - that gave me some pulp for body, but no skins. Next I stirred the tomatoes into the bread-vegetable base, seasoned with just a little more salt, more olive oil, pepper, the vinegar, and chilled by stirring in a glassful of crushed ice. So far, I had a very bright tasting, refreshing and rich gazpacho. I served this plain, with some toasts with chopped egg, olives, parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Very good.

Better, however, was the reserved half of the broth that I mixed with a raw egg whipped with the teaspoon of olive oil and cumin! This version was creamy without being mellow, had depth, but still really tasted just as fresh as the vegetables themselves. Here below, topped with some chopped olives and white of egg.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Postcard from Cucumber Country

A friend sent me this very cheery postcard from a trip to Europe: armfuls of cucumbers surrounded by the reigning prince and princess of the cucumber capital of Germany - Spreewald, about an hours ride south of Berlin. It sounds like an idyllic area: a protected biosphere where the cultivation of mostly cucumbers conforms to carefully controlled sustainable agricultural practices and acres of forest land are protected from all but eco-friendly tourism. Miles of bike paths course through fairytale villages, along the banks of the river Spree (Berlin's main river) and alongside even more acres of rolling farm fields.

The cucumbers are prized in Europe; they are smaller and a bit more flavorful than the long English or Holland variety. Compared to American varieties, they would be somewhat between a Kirby and the Persian cucumbers in texture and flavor, just a little larger. Spreewald Gherkins, pickled, are a protected trademark throughout the EU. (They achieved international renown in the 2006 foreign comedy, Goodbye Lenin, in which they were featured as one of the best loved food tastes from the former East Germany.) And the recipe for the pickles is of course a closely guarded secret among the 20 or so registered growers: ingredients such as basil, lemon balm, grape leaves, cherry leaves or walnut leaves give Spreewald gherkins their special sour, spicy taste.

Spreewald cucumbers are now in season, so my traveling friends report, and everywhere they went cucumber soups were featured on local menus. While no one would divulge the secret of the special local pickling brine in the Spreewald preserves, everyone seemed happy to share their recipes for the soups made from the fresh cukes! And my good friends knew that Souperlatif was ready to try them all, albeit with American-grown varieties.

Just in time for the super fresh local cucumbers I found at the market here is a basic cucumber preparation, a soup starter as it were, which serves for any number of variations of chilled, creamy soups. Good news is that this kind of soup needs no cooking - the cucumbers steep with salt and sugar to soften, and are ready to season and serve in under an hour.

You will need a box grater and the following ingredients:
- 3/4 lb of cucumbers
- 1 medium onion -
- 1 whole garlic clover
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar

Peel and half the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Using the middle grade of the grater, grate the cucumbers into a bowl. Peel, halve and grate the onions as well. (Even if the onion makes you teary, resist the food processor: the blade action won't break down the cells of the onion as well as the grater, and will leave you with the wrong texture.) Drop in a whole garlic clove into the mix, and sprinkle on the salt and sugar. I used a cotton, non-terry dish towel to line the bottom of a colander and poured in the cucumber puree, setting the colander above a bowl to drain. (Several layers of cheese cloth will also do.) The salt and sugar leaches out water from the cucumber and sweetens or cures the onion. After 4o minutes or so, quite a bit of juice will have gathered in the catch bowl, along with most of the dissolved salt and sugar - you won't need this for the soup, and it can be discarded or saved for veggie broth. Use the towel or cheese cloth to squeeze out as much water as possible, and the remaining puree, minus the garlic clove, is ready for a soup.

Simple is always best: mix the puree with 1-1/2 cups of light, very clear and degreased chicken broth, chilled, and 1-1/2 cups of Greek style yogurt or creme fraiche. Among the variations my friends described, pretty classic, are the following:
1. Mix in some zest of a lime, fresh ground pepper and serve just with finely minced parsley.
2. Same as above, but use lemon zest and minced dill.
3. Puree the yogurt or creme fraiche with a diced avocado before folding into the cucumber and broth, mix in a teaspoon of lemon juice and top with chives or cilantro.
4. Season puree with 1 tsp or less of curry powder, top with finely sliced green onions, and serve with toasted pitas and chutney.
OR, as in the picture below, serve with a drizzle of flaxseed oil (the traditional flavoring in Spreewald country!), a spritz of fresh squeezed lemon juice and fresh herbs.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Red, White and Blue Soup

While everyone is firing up the grill for the Fourth, Souperlatif is in the kitchen whipping up dessert soups: a great idea to bring along to the Fireworks; one, a spiced blue blueberry potion travels hot in the thermos for a warmer-upper, and a chilled red berry creamy soup for a warmer weather cooler.

Fruit soups are ever popular in Europe, either for dessert, or sometimes as breakfast for the kids. Thinking "blue" for the red, white and blue, I remembered a hot fruit soup they have in Sweden (and if you live near an IKEA, you can even get it local!). The Swedes call it blåbärsoppa, soup of the bilberry (not exactly our American blueberry, but close in appearance and taste), and the spiced quaff is often served to skiers just in from a run, as a warm- up beverage. In summer, they drink it cold, and the bit of corn or potato starch makes it wholesomely thick.

For my red soup I needed only a fresh idea for red berries - not a smoothy kind of thing, and not cloyingly sweet red pudding either. I experimented and came up with a lovely pale red straw-raspberry soup, flavored with lemon grass, vanilla and a spike of ice wine (a moscato would also do.) The lemongrass is softer than lemon peel and is becoming my favorite way to add a little lemon to a dish, especially that it is now so easy to find.

Both these fruit soups are definitely not just pureed fresh fruit - they are, as soups should be, a blend of flavors that can only be achieved through cooking. But both are only gently cooked, and thereby avoid the scorched taste of stewed fruit preparations.

For a true white soup, I just plain ran out of time! A dollop of cream as garnish will have to do (and not bad, at that). So on with the Red, (White) and Blue.

The Straw-Raspberry Soup

2 quarts cut up stawberries and raspberries
1/2 vanilla bean
2 stalks of lemon grass, each snipped into 4" lengths
1/4 cup or less brown sugar
1/4 cup ice wine
1/4 cup creme fraiche

Place berries, lemongrass, vanilla bean and sugar in a saucepan and allow the sugar to draw out some of the juices - 30 minutes to an hour. Bring to a boil and gently simmer until the strawberries are soft. Remove the vanilla bean and the pieces of lemongrass. Stir in the sweet wine and cook just until the alcohol is burned off. Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender. Heat the creme fraiche in the microwave (15 seconds) and fold into the soup. Test the consistency: you may add a little water or more a splash of wine to thin out a too thick puree. Serve lemon peel curls and/or a decorative basil leaf.

For the Blueberry Soup (Blåbärsoppa)

6 cups blueberries*
3 cardamon pods
1 cinnamon stick
zest of small lemon
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup apple juice
1 cup cold water
2 tablespoons corn starch
for garnish:
1 cup whipping cream and
1/2 cup creme fraiche

Bring the blueberries, sugar, spices, lemon zest and apple juice to a boil and simmer until the fresh berries have popped, the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is fragrant and bubbly - 5 minutes. Strain through the fine mesh screen of a food mill - a food mill will trap more of the tiny seeds from the blueberries than a blender - and return the liquidy puree to the saucepan. In a separate cup, dissolve the corn starch in the cup of water. Over medium heat, add the corn starch mixture into the blueberry puree and continue cooking until the broth begins to thicken - this occurs just as it comes to a boil. Remove immediately, cool, and chill at least 5 hours at least 4 hours if serving cold. For warm soup, heat gently to a sip-able warmth, not hot. Serve either the hot or cold with a dollop of whipped cream. An especially nice touch is a mix of whipped cream and creme fraiche: whip 1 cup of cream and fold in 1/2 cup of creme fraiche, then whip together until cream peaks.

* I like to add at least a cup of thawed frozen berries as part of the 6 cups. The frozen are usually darker and add a deeper flavor as well - more like the actual bilberries.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Diet Soup with a Pistou Splurge

Summer is time for slimming down - watching out for the body beautiful. Remember the Cabbage Soup Diet? Not too much enthusiasm from the foodie crowd. But in this post, I give it a rethink. There's no denying that a combination of fresh vegetables simmered til just done is a refreshing thought for summer, and when the calorie count is as low as 267, even with a swirl of Paula Wolfert's scrumptious version of Pistou, well, perhaps you want to read on...

Here’s a Provencal-inspired update to the old somewhat fearful diet cabbage soup. This version is still full of high fiber, low-carb vegetables, and makes an excellent fat burner meal. But the undeniable best part is the splurge of Pistou, a traditional Provencal sauce very similar to an Italian pesto, but without the nuts to add unwanted calories. I don't dare call this soup a Soup au Pistou - no beans of any kind to challenge the diet discipline here! But this soup, even before the dollop of Pistou goes on, has real flavor merit: lots of baby bell peppers, fresh fennel and savory savoy, cooked in a light vegetable broth and flavored with fresh thyme and dried orange peel. Let the calories disappear with the sip of the spoon!

Diet Soup with Pistou

The Light Vegetable Stock
(make more or even double - this stock is wonderful for poaching fish, too!)
1 large shallot, or small onion, sliced
handful of celery leaves and stem parts
handful of parsley with stems
1 small carrot, rough diced
salt and pepper to taste
large pinch of tarragon
4 cups of water
1/4 cup white wine

Simmer all the vegetables in the water for 10 minutes, then add the wine and continue to simmer 5 to 8 minutes more.
Strain out the vegetables and set aside for the soup.

The Ingredients

Do get all the vegetables and spices ready before getting started with the soup!

1 onion, diced fine
2 garlic cloves, diced
1 small whole celery heart, chopped or 4 -5 stalks
1 small fennel bulb, diced
1 package mixed color mini bell peppers, sliced in 1/4 inch rounds
1/2 savoy cabbage, cut in 1/2 inch ribbons
2 roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (the less you use, the more you lose!)
few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 -3 peels of orange rind, with as little pith as possible
pinch of bouquet garni
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups of broth
1 cup of water

For the Pistou
recipe courtesy of Paul Wolfert, Food and Wine, Aug 2006
2-1/2 cups of rough torn fresh basil leaves
1 large tomato, seeded and grated
1 scant teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
4 cloves of garlic, rough chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated cheese - Paula Wolfert suggests a Mimolette or aged Gouda.

(with deference to Paula's unerring great taste, I suggest a mix of aged Parma and gruyere as more accessible substitues)

The Preparation

Start the soup by heating the oil. Add in onions and garlic, celery and fennel and simmer, covered, 5 to 8 minutes minutes. Add in bell peppers and cabbage, and just when the cabbage begins to wilt, stir in the broth and water and all the seasonings.

Here's how fresh the veggies look after the initial simmer:

Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes. Add in the tomatoes and continue to cook another 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender but not mushy. Cabbage should still be bright green, not brown!

While the soup is simmering, prepare the Pistou. You will need a mortar and pestle: the basil, garlic and salt, smashed against the sides of the mortar will truly be much silkier than the results from a food processor - and its really not much work. That said, start with the salt and garlic, and work with the pestle until you have a smooth paste. Add in basil, working by handfuls, and smash against the sides until well integrated into the paste. Add in the grated tomato and continue to work with the pestle. Gradually stir in the oil until well incorporated, and finally, fold in the grated cheese. Pistou can be made somewhat ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve.

To serve, ladle the soup generously into wide soup plates, and garnish with a good spoonful full of Pistou.

And if noone is dieting, don't hold the country fresh bread. There's bound to be extra pistou to for dipping.

And for those watching their curves, here's the nutritional breakdown, per serving with 1 tablespoon of Pistou. Enjoy!

Calories 267
Protein 7 grams
Fat 14 grams
Effective carbs 21 grams

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pedaling for Soup with the Soup Peddler, and a taste of his wonderful Armenian Apricot Soup

Peddling soup for the love of it AND making money from it, too, has to be one of the best ways to spend your life - I know, I do it, at least in part: the "for the love of it" part.
But then there's David Ansel from Austin, who has one of of my favorite soup stories. His business is called The Soup Peddler, and he started out, literally, pedaling his liquid gold cargo in and around Austin, Texas, at $10 a quart, on a beat up yellow bike. He tells his heart-warming, aroma-rousing story in his off-beat, up-beat memoir,
The Soup Peddlers Slow and Difficult Soups.
A degreed software engineer, experiencing diminishing satisfaction from his job at a software development firm, David Ansel decides one day to up and quit the buzz-word culture of hip-tech, and with alarmingly little in the bank and few ideas as to what exactly he did want to do, he did just that.

The next part of his story I love:

"Finally, I had the idea that changed the course of my life. What can I do? I thought to myself.Well, I can cook alright.What can I cook? Well, I can cook soup pretty good.

So with all that financial desperation and valuable experience behind me, I sent out an email message to friends and neighbors, saying “I’ll bring you some soup next Sunday for ten bucks. Plus, I’ll bring it to you on my bike."

He goes on to tell about dragging hundreds of pounds of soup around on the hilly streets of Austin, and despite the odds, the business grew. That was 2004. Countless stories later, he's got a thriving grassroots catering business, with imaginative weekly soup offerings, and in 2005, even a book. (see above).

One of my favorite recipes from the Soup Peddler is the Armenian Apricot Soup. David Ansel features the recipe in his Fall food section, and uses dried apricots. But its June now, and apricots are very much in season, so I thought I'd give his recipe a try with fresh.

How to describe the soup?
Well, David himself does it best, and I quote from his book:

“I sat down at the computer and gave it a shot:

Dear Soupies,
This week’s soup is Armenian Apricot Soup. Now I know you all know how great Armenian soups can be, and I assure you that this one will live up to your loftiest expectations.
No good. I set my finger down on the delete key and tried again.

Dear Soupies,
This week, in your very bowl, the downy soft velvet of the apricot meets the turgid assuredness of the carrot.
Alright. One more time.

Dear Soupies,
Armenians are finally in season! We slice them extra thin so they stay tender and juicy.”

Indeed they are, and here's the soup, with quantities slightly cut down from the large kettle version in the book!

Armenian Apricot Soup

2 small onions, chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
1 tbspn. olive oil
1 tbspn. cumin
2 cups red lentils, rinsed
6 cups water
8 - 10 apricots; washed, halved, pitted and large diced
parsley and lemon for garnish

Heat the oil in heavy bottom soup pot. Add in the onions and carrots. As soon as they soften, add the cumin, cover, and continue to sweat the vegetables with the cumin, 10 minutes.

Add the lentils and water and bring to a boil. Cook 20 minutes, until the lentils are just tender. Stir in the apricots and continue to cook for about 5 minutes until the flavors are blended.

Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth - a few little bites of apricot won't hurt the presentation. Salt once blended - just enough to tone down the acidic in the apricots. Server immediately with a garnish of parsley and a dash of lemon.

The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups by David Ansel (Ten Speed Press, 2005)

Looking for another version?
Anya von Bremzen offers one in her nicely illustrated and funny Russian cookbook: Please to the Table.
This recipe calls for potato as a thickener and chopped tomatoes for extra flavor.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Overture to Summer - A Fruity Celery Cream Soup

English peas were gone from the market this week. Boo!
And with the departure of the peas came steadily increasing temperatures. No mistaking it's summer in southern California.
But I’m not quite ready for the arrival of tomatoes, corn and peppers, the grilling and the pies. I was thinking about what I could make that’s fresh but not so clearly summer. And then I saw the celery – beautiful thick stalks of a delicate green – tall and refreshing. Almost like a cool drink.

So I went home with my celery and made that cool drink (not with celery, I might add). Then I made this soup: a fruity celery cream soup – very light on the cream and the green, but very bright on flavor with the “sweet” addition of a tart green apple.

This soup is very low on drama - just look at the finished picture - and the soup is really quick and easy. Always a summertime plus.

The Broth
This soup would love a light chicken broth - the kind made at home with some fresh chicken and clove studded onion. If you use best store-bought, try thinning by half and heating for 15 minutes with that clove-studded onion. Vegetable stock can also work, but take care to avoid an overly spiced brand.

The Ingredients

1 small head of celery
2 onions
2 green apples
2 - 3 med. Yukon Gold potatoes
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. dried tarragon
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup whole milk
2 tbsp butter or olive oil

Making the Soup

Prep all the vegetables. The celery stalk can be cut whole, on a slight diagonal, into 3/4 inch chunks. Everything else is fine in small pieces: the soup will be pureed, so the shapes don't matter to begin.

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil/butter just until they are softened and begin to scent. Then add all the vegetables, stirring to coat nicely. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, finishing with the tarragon. Let the vegetable simmer 3 minutes to develop flavor.

Don't deny the senses - the aromas are heaven, and the veggies look pretty good, too:

Now add the broth and bring to boil. Allow to simmer 25 minutes and check potatoes and celery for doneness - soft but not mushy is the rule - and check the salt and pepper. Off the heat, puree with the soup, but not too much. A few small chunks help to separate the flavors as you're eating - then return to the pot. While still off the heat, stir in the cup of milk.

This soup is best served not quite hot, with a few pretty leaves from the top of the stalk and and a side of apples:

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Borscht of a Meal

There is no such thing as a light borscht. Once that dollop of sour cream goes on, all pretensions of a simple soup supper are totally undermined. So, lets go with it - the chunky hearty kind of borscht that's not only a meal in itself, but an inspiration to embellish: I am thinking now about another Eastern European delicacy - the pierogi, or little noodle dumplings, usually served as a meal or appetizer on their own.
So I thought about a nice chunky borscht with wedges of the rubiest little fresh beets, baby new potatoes and carrots, and crinkly ribbons of young savoy cabbage, cooked til just tender in a sweet-sour tomatoey broth - almost perfect. But wait, little pierogis filled with a cinnamon spiced meat filling served on the side or to mix in would be a wonderful texture surprise - a perfect contrast to the vegetables - think of the soft noodle and warm richness of the filling. The pierogis were a great idea, and, as it turned out, very easy to make - with a little help from some ready made wonton wrappers and on-hand leftovers! Just before serving, I sauteed the dumplings in a little bubbling butter to lightly brown them - an extra touch well worth the extra pan!

A grandmother's flavors re-dressed! - The Borscht with Little (wanton) Pierogi Pockets

Let's get started, none too early - the beets need a little pre-cooking, so its best to prepare for this borscht bash well ahead: from a bunch of 4 beets, take three and remove the root tail. Set in a steamer and steam 15 - 20 minutes until just tender.
Cooking the beets ahead is a great way to avoid the unwelcome flat taste of overcooked beets in traditional deli borscht.

Soup Ingredients
1 bunch of 4 medium or 6 small beets, steamed (leave one medium or 2 small beets to grate into the soup near the end - peel first!)
1 large soup carrot, peeled and cut lengthwise, then diagonally into chunks
4 - 5 small new potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 a small savoy cabbage, cut into 1/4-inch ribbons
1 medium onion, diced
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes with juice
2-3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (best, but white wine vinegar is okay too)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 bayleaf
pinch of marjoram or savory
salt and fresh ground pepper
4 - 5 cups good vegetable broth
handful of fresh dill
sour cream for garnish

For the Dumplings:
1 generous cup minced leftover hamburger, brisket or pot roast
1 medium onion, finely diced
chicken fat or vegetable oil to saute onions
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper
16 wonton wrappers (available in most supermarkets)
2 tablespoons butter

Note on timing: The soup needs about 35 to 40 minutes to cook, and with vegetable prep, soup can be ready in just well under an hour. To have the pierogis ready to serve as well, be sure to start dumpling prep just as soon as the soup goes up.

The Method:
Have all vegetables prepped including pre-cooked beets, all except beet(s) reserved for grating.
For the pre-cooked beets, which should now be cool, slip off the skins, half lenghtwise and cut in quarter or third crescents. Put potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage and bay leaf in a soup pot, add broth and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer 15 minutes; potatoes will be almost tender. Add beets, and grate the reserved beet fresh into the soup (not good to let the grated beet sit around!). Season to taste with salt and pepper, and optionally, the marjoram and/or savory. Continue to simmer another 10 minutes. Then add in vinegar and sugar, 2 tablespoons to one. Taste, then correct by adding more vinegar or sugar. Let the soup continue to cook 5 to 10 minutes to absorb and fully integrate the sweet-sour. Serve each plate with a sprinkling of chopped dill and the proverbial dollop of sour cream.

And voila! Here's how pretty it will look:

For the Dumplings, start sauteeing the onion as soon as the vegetables are in the soup pot. My favorite onion method is borrowed from Elizabeth Ehrlich's poignant food and family memoir, In Miriam's Kitchen: heat up a heavy saute pan, sprinkle in fresh ground pepper and shake to heat up, then put in the onions and stir til they sizzle and begin to turn to a golden translucent - they'll start to release some of their liquid. Then add the oil or rendered chicken fat, lower heat, and continue to saute until soft and more golden.
While onions simmer to softness, mince the meat, warm the meat in the microwave so its not refrigerator cold, and top with the spices. Remove the wontons from the package and lay them out on a lightly dusted large cookie sheet or marble. Put up a large pot of salted water to boil.

When the onions are soft, add in the pressed garlic and stir until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the onions into meat mixture and press together to combine into a loose paste. Using a teaspoon or melon baller, measure a small amount into the center of each wonton. Fold over diagonally and press the edges edges together, using a moistened finger or fork to make a tight seal all the way around. Seal tightly around all the filling - any extra loose edges can be trimmed - not a good idea to leave the filling with any empty space. Drop the dumplings into rapidly boiling water, 6 at a time, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, max. Drain on a piece of parchment and finish the remaining batches in same way. Once ready to serve, heat a saute pan, then drop in the butter to sizzle (just like for an omelet). Quickly lift in the dumplings in two batches - don't crowd. Turn to coat and lightly brown on both sides and remove to serving plate.

Serve immediately with a garnish of parsley, with 16 dumplings, there even might be seconds!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If soup is the broth of life, soup proverbs are the words to live by!

I came upon a proverb the other day, particularly apt: "too many recipes spoil the soup."

And it reminded me of another, "too many cooks spoil the broth." And then another came to mind; you know, the one that says "the more chefs, the better the soup."

I started digging and I found pages of words to live by from every corner of the world. Nothing is more basic nourishment than soup, and nothing nourishes the expression of basic truths like soup metaphors, so it seems! In the following proverbs, soup becomes a vehicle to drive home, often with emotional intensity, at other times with wry detachment, lessons learned from collective experience. These are some of my favorites:

Drink a glass of wine after your soup and you steal a ruble from the doctor. (Russian)
Of soup and love, the first is best. (English, Spanish, Portuguese, etc...)
Between the hand and mouth, the soup is spilt. (Italian and others)
Beauty does not season soup. (Polish and Russian)
You can't sup soup with a fork. (German, Irish, etc.)

Often you'll find the same sentiment, but the expression is culturally specific:
Troubles are easier to take with soup than without. (Yiddish)
Headaches need soup. (Sicilian)

And then you come across the proverbs so arch you can't but smile, even if the sayings come from the bitterest of places:

The less soup, the more spoons. (Malawian)
In your neighbors soup, there's always one fatty morsel. (Persian)
Soup must be hot, insults cold. (Spanish)
If it were ever to rain soup, the poor would only have forks. (Brazilian)
One who has been burned by the soup learns to blow on the yoghurt. (Arab)
Better no soup than no spoon. (German)

A spoon does not know the taste of soup, nor a learned fool the taste of wisdom. (Welsh)
One bee makes no honey, one grain makes no rice soup. (Chinese)
He's not an honest man who burns his mouth on soup and doesn't tell his guest. (Italian)

Last but not least, a few from Nigeria, a land whose Igbo people have proverbs and idioms for everything. Their language, with over a million proverbs and sayings, is one of the richest for linguistic color. Here are a very few, all refer to soup:
  • The chicken always blames the soup pot for his tragic circumstances, not the one who slit his throat.
  • When the soup is unpalatable, and the yam paste that goes in it is not smooth, then its time to know a man who likes pounded yam.
  • If a man makes soup of tears, ask him not for the broth.
  • He who eats the egg forgoes the future chicken soup.
  • Chickens don't praise their own soup.
  • If the soup is sweet, it is money that cooks it.
And with this soul nourishment, Souperlatif is back, after many months of no posting, bemoaning the fact that my food photos just didn't sparkle. I am full of admiration for all the bloggers who take such beautiful photos of their best efforts - I've been working on it, and have been building up a little stock of soups to share. More to come.