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.