Starve a fever, feed a cold, and Hot and Sour Soup allergies?

I don’t know if it’s because of the unusually mild winter we’ve had this year, but we have been just sucker-punched by allergies this year. It’s just been non-stop sneezing, sniffling, congestion, and dark circles under puffy eyes for the last several weeks. My most irritating symptom has been that my right eyelids have been constantly twitching unless I take allergy meds, and Scott’s has been a nagging sore throat.

Chicken soup is a lot of people’s idea of the perfect anodyne for illness, but when we’re under the weather we both crave fortifyingly spicy Asian soups like Thai tom yum with lemongrass, Vietnamese pho with sriracha and chiles, or Chinese hot and sour soup with vinegar and white pepper. Hot and sour is especially good in the winter; maybe because it’s a bit thicker than the clear broths of tom yum and pho, it seems to stick to your ribs on a cold night. I have always had hot and sour as a first course soup in restaurants, but this home-made version is a meal in and of itself. I recommend eating it in your comfiest and least flattering pajamas.

This recipe might be a little intimidating at first because of the exotic ingredients, but it is really just pantry cooking. I get the dried mushrooms and lily buds at an Asian market and keep them all together in a container (they keep indefinitely) like an emergency hot and sour soup kit for next time I’m in need. Since you only need a few each time, a package of dried mushrooms will be enough to make a year’s worth of soup. Vinegar, soy sauce, and canned bamboo shoots are all things you’ll have in your pantry if you ever cook Chinese food.  And I buy a few thin-sliced lean pork chops, use one for the soup, and freeze the rest individually for next time. I always have eggs and chicken broth around so tofu is usually the only thing I need to buy fresh.

The dried shiitake mushrooms can often be found in regular supermarkets, so if you have trouble finding the wood ears and lily buds, just add a few more shiitake to the soup and skip the harder to find ingredients until you happen run across them. I love all of the elements of this soup, but the earthy meaty richness of the shiitake is an essential element to me.

Hot and Sour Soup

– 3 ounces lean pork, diced small, or ground pork

– Vegetable oil to fry pork, about 1 teaspoon

– 5 dried shiitake mushrooms

– 2 tablespoons dried wood ear mushrooms (also called black Chinese fungus)

– 8-10 dried lily buds (also called golden needles)

– Boiling water to rehydrate mushrooms and lily buds (about 2 cups)

–  1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots, drained and cut into strips

– 3 tablespoons rice vinegar

– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

– 2 tablespoons soy sauce

– 4 ounces firm tofu, sliced into strips

– 2 tablespoons cornstarch

– 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

– 1 egg, beaten

– 1 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper (more or less, to taste)

– sliced scallions

Pour boiling water over the dried shiitake, wood ear mushrooms, and lily buds and allow them to rehydrate for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the water. Some shiitake mushrooms are a little gritty, so if you notice that sediment has settled to the bottom, strain it through a fine sieve or coffee filter.

Trim the tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms and then slice them into thin slivers. Cut the lily buds in half and pull them apart into long shreds. Set the mushrooms, lily buds, strips of bamboo shoots and tofu aside.

Measure and mix the vinegars and soy sauce into a small bowl or ramekin. Beat the egg in a small bowl too. Stir the cornstarch into the cooled reserved soaking water.

A note about the cornstarch: the thickness of the soup is a matter of personal preference. The thickness of the soup can adjusted but it’s a good idea to start small and work thicker a teaspoon at a time after the soup has simmered and thickened. I’ve given amounts for a lightly thickened soup. If you want to add more, mix a teaspoon of water at a time with a splash of cold water and stir it into the soup until it’s thick enough. If you have arrowroot, it is actually a better thickener for this application since it stands up to acid and heat better than cornstarch, but it’s less common, so I’ve called for cornstarch instead.


Once you have your mis-en-place in place (ha) fry the pork in about a teaspoon of oil in a wok or pot over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Lower the heat and add in the mushrooms, lily buds, tofu, bamboo shoots, and vinegar mixture. Stir in the chicken broth and bring everything to a simmer. Stir in the water and cornstarch mixture; as the soup returns to a simmer, the cornstarch will thicken it. Now is the time to decide if you want to thicken the soup a little more. If so, add the cornstarch slurry a teaspoon at a time, simmering between additions until it’s thick enough. Once you’re happy with the consistency, mix in the pungent white pepper.

With the soup at a low simmer, pour the egg in a thin stream into the soup while stirring everything in a circle. The egg will cook instantly, making white ribbons throughout the liquid (this is the same way you make an egg drop soup). Turn the heat off right away.

Ladle into big bowls and sprinkle thin slivers of scallions over the top.

Advertisements

Soba Sriracha Salad

 I used to eat “dirt pancakes” when I was a kid. My mom cooked and baked with whole grains, so whether it was biscuits or sandwich bread or cake or pancakes, they would be hearty, honey-sweetened, and bran laden. And in the same spirit that draws children to gummy worms, “ants on a log” and to think that anything gross is hilarious,  we  named a humus-colored Saturday breakfast  “dirt” buckwheat pancakes. We ate them hot off the griddle and smeared with honey or molasses. I loved the earthy, nutty, mineral flavor, especially with the sweet iron tang of molasses. And bonus, they kind of looked like mud pies.

 I don’t remember using buckwheat for anything besides pancakes until I was introduced to soba noodles as an adult. Soba is a Japanese noodle made with buckwheat and wheat flour (I look for buckwheat as the first ingredient when I buy it) and is not only hearty and flavorful both hot and cold, but does it in about half the calories in white wheat pasta. I don’t think of myself as a “health food” cook, but the palate that I developed as a child makes me crave bright, fresh flavors that also happen to be nutritionally rich, un-messed-with foods,  fruits, vegetables, and grains that are colorful and  intensely flavored. I think that’s why I love that identifying fragrance and flavor that buckwheat has, unique and rich; that it happens to also be good for me is a bonus.

This is a one of my favorite ways to eat buckwheat – slightly chilled, slippery with toasted sesame and spicy with Sriracha hot sauce and crunchy with jewel-like strands of beautiful vegetables. It needs nothing and can stand alone as a perfectly satisfying lunch, but if you want to gild the lily, it is outstanding when accompanying broiled salmon or mackerel.

Soba Sriracha Salad

serves 4 generously

– 3 sleeves (about 10 ounces) soba noodles

– 1 medium cucumber

– 1/2 red bell pepper

– 4 green onions

– 1 small wedge of red cabbage (about 1/4 head)

– 1 medium carrot, peeled

Optional additions

– snow peas

– toasted peanuts, cashews or sesame seeds

– radish or daikon

– firm tofu

– hot chile, minced

Prepare the cucumbers, pepper, and carrots by slicing them all into fairly uniform match sticks. I cut the cucumber on a sharp diagonal and then stack the slices, slicing them again into slivers. If your carrots are nice and fat you can cut them up the same way; for skinny carrots, cut them into 2 inch-long pieces, then into thirds lengthwise before cutting them into crisp match sticks. Cut the wedge of cabbage across the middle and then shave into thin ribbons. Chop the green onions into thin discs. I cut the vegetables this way not aiming for perfect uniformity, but so that they tangle through the noodles, giving a nice mix of slippery noodle and crunchy vegetables with each fork-full.

Cook the soba noodles in boiling salted water according to the package direction, which is usually about 6 minutes. Drain into a colender and rinse with cold water until the noodles are cool.

In a large bowl, whisk the dressing together, then toss the noodles and vegetables into the dressing a handful at a time, mixing by hand after each addition. It’s a lot easier to mix as you go rather than trying to mix everything at once and it gives everything an even soaking of dressing.

Serve at room temperature of slightly cool.

Sriracha Sesame Dressing

– 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

– 1 tablespoon olive oil

– 3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

– 2 teaspoons sriracha chili sauce (or to taste, I like it slightly spicy)

– 1 clove garlic

– 1 inch-long piece fresh ginger

Optional

For a creamier dressing, add

– 1 tablespoon tahini

Whisk the oil, vinegar, and sriracha together in a large mixing bowl. Using a microplane grater, grate the garlic and ginger into the dressing and stir to mix. Let the flavors mix while you prepare the vegetables and soba noodles.

Winter Citrus & Endive Salad

Walking here in the city is, to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson as completely as possible, about the destination, not about the journey. It’s a great place to be a pedestrian, but it helps to be goal oriented about it. And I have to admit I’ve adapted, hook, line and sinker. I cover a lot of sidewalk day-to-day, iPod playing something in my ears that makes me fast and focused, mental route mapped out, watching where I step, navigating other pedestrians and their children, dogs, strollers, granny carts. I’ve caught myself playing sidewalk chicken and doing the classic eye roll/deep disgusted sigh/throw hands up in exasperation combo thing pretty often. I’ll even admit  (and I share this from a deeply conflicted mixture of burning-faced shame and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration) that recently, while walking to an appointment in the wintry rain, I tried to start across the street before the car coming the opposite direction had passed in order to time it as closely as I could.  When the driver stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window and started yelling at me for “being in the middle of the street like an idiot” it took me about half a second to start waving my arms and yelling back. In my defense, everyone I told about it thought I was totally justified, because everyone knows the drivers here are all crazy.  I  haven’t lost my common courtesy completely – sometimes I deliberately smile at people as I pass. It seems to freak a lot of them out, so win/win for me.

So I’m striding down Washington Street a couple of days ago when I came to a short, hard stop on the pavement,  arrested by the scent of hyacinths and freesia. Buckets full of those most fragrant of late winter blossoms were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of a mini-grocery (I think people call them “bodegas”). Completely distracted from my no doubt urgent errand, I stopped and just took a deep breath and literally inhaled the beauty of the moment.

It reminded me to look up occasionally during these things that seem like something to “get through” – a commute, a north-eastern winter, a tiresome daily task – and actually notice what’s going on around me.

That the sunniest of fruits, citrus, is at its brightest and most abundant and varied in the winter is reason enough to take a little pleasure in the journey. Whether you are in California where the tree are incandescent with Meyer lemons, or you just live close enough to warmer climes to get the influx of Ruby reds, Cara Cara navels, clementines, and Sevilles that glow from the bins lining frigid northern sidewalks, they are like yellow signal lights flashing “slow down, pay attention.”

I’ve made this crunchy, bittersweet winter salad with them several times this year. Like that burst of lime squirted onto hot posole, the fragrance seems to instantly brighten the mood and the cool mixture of coral and jade is a feast for the eyes.

(I’ll just add that there are lots of lovely parks and river-front promenades where a contemplative stroll is not generally frowned upon, as long as you stay out of the jogger’s way.)

Citrus Endive Salad

serves 4

– 1 ruby red grapefruit

– 1 navel orange

– 1 Cara Cara orange (red navel orange)

– 1 largish head of Belgian endive

– 1/4 medium sweet red onion

– 2 ounces feta,  crumbled into rough chunks

Peel and section the grapefruit and oranges.  Remember, in this case, the perfect is the enemy of the good, so don’t stress about getting it right the first time.

With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.

Slice down the curved sides of the fruit, removing the skin, pith and outer membrane.

Once the skin is gone, you can go back and clean up any pith or membrane that got missed the first time.

Cut each section out from between the white membrane. get as close as you can, but don’t go crazy; you’ll use the leftover juice for the dressing.

Once all the fruit segments are cut out, squeeze the leftover pulp into a cup to get as much juice out as you can. Save 2 tablespoons for the dressing and drink the rest.

Core and separate the leaves on the head of endive. Thinly slice, almost shave the red onion into slivers. Arrange the citrus sections, endive and onion on a platter and tumble the crumbled feta over the top. Drizzle with the citrus vinaigrette and a little of the fig balsamic and serve.

These aren’t the  3/1 proportions of a classic vinaigrette, but a lighter sweeter version.

Citrus Vinaigrette

– 2 tablespoons reserved citrus juice

– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

– 1/2 teaspoon spicy mustard (may I suggest Figgy Mustard?)

-1 teaspoon finely minced shallot

– fresh black pepper to taste

– salt to taste

-3 tablespoons olive oil

– drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar (optional)

In a screw top jar, combine the juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, salt and pepper. Shake to combine. Add the oil, and give everything a good hard shake until it’s emulsified into a creamy golden color.

Banana Bread

We had a short visit this past week from Grace and her husband, one last visit before the baby is born. One of the reasons they are great guests is that they will enthusiastically eat whatever I cook. Jonathan once at so much potato leek soup at my house that he had to lie down on the floor for a little while afterward to recover. Come to think of it, that may have been when I decided he was probably a keeper. Since I’ve been tinkering around with a banana bread recipe for a while, I made a loaf of my latest version to see what they thought.

It’s not like there is a shortage of banana bread recipes. It’s just that a lot of them are too something (sweet, greasy, crumbly, dry, cakey, dense) or not enough something (banana-y usually) to suit me. I don’t want cake and I don’t want something that tastes too “health food-y.” I’ve had banana bread that is so buttery that it will leave a grease stain on a napkin. That’s not what I want. So I tinkered.

I kind of think of bananas you want to use to make your banana bread in terms of the story The Velveteen Rabbit, the premise being that if you love your velveteen rabbit enough (in the case of bananas, love = letting them sit on the counter), when it gets old and ugly and looks like garbage, it becomes a REAL rabbit (in the case of bananas, REAL = banana bread). The bananas in this picture are gorgeous compared to what you want. You want them to be brown and soft and ripe to the point when as many of the starches in the banana have turned into sugar and intense banana flavor and they have a face only a baker could love. That’s when a banana really shines. What I was trying to figure out was how much: you want enough of them so that you aren’t needing to add lots of extra sugar to sweeten the bread or more butter to keep it from being dry.

I think I’m going to keep this version. I may still tinker a little for fun; I’d like to try coconut oil instead of butter sometime. But this one gets the “Family Taste-tester’s Seal of Approval”; we ate the whole thing in two days.

Banana Bread

-2 or 3 large very ripe bananas, mashed (enough for 1 1/2 cup coarsely mashed)

– ¾ cup brown sugar

– ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, melted

-1 egg

-1 teaspoon vanilla extract

-1/2- teaspoon lemon extract

-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

– 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

-1/8 teaspoon ginger

-1 ½ cups all purpose flour (or white whole wheat)

-1 teaspoon baking soda

-1/3 cup ground flax seed

Preheat oven to 350°.

Butter and dust the inside of a loaf 9×5 inch loaf pan with flour, tapping out the extra flour.

In a large mixing bowl, blend the bananas, sugar, butter, and egg until thoroughly combined. Stir in vanilla and lemon extracts. In a separate bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together thoroughly, then fold the flour mixture into the banana mixture. Spoon the batter into the loaf pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, 45- 55 minutes. Cool before removing from the pan.

Get stuffed

Sometimes you want to have an all out,  pull-out-all-the-stops free-for-all, all day, special occasion, feast day, soup-to-nuts cook-a-thon. And sometimes (most of the time) you just want something tasty for supper that is neither an indulgence in time or in calories, something you can make in half and hour or so with ingredients that are easy to pick up on the way home from a busy day, something that doesn’t make you consider re-upping your gym membership and getting a cholesterol test taken again. I’m talking about “convenience food” in some shape or form, but I’m not talking about a blue box of mac and cheese or a bucket of fried chicken from a drive-thru.

I am talking about chicken, though. Boneless chicken breast is undeniably a convenience food. They are totally easy to find in any market, quick to cook, lean, and easy to portion. It’s not usually my favorite piece of chicken  for a couple of reasons: first, because it is so lean, unlike the legs and thighs, it tends to be pretty flavorless on its own, and second, it can go from undercooked to dry, stringy, and rubbery in a New York minute if it isn’t treated properly. But there are at least a couple of ways to take advantage of  the convenience factor without losing the good eats factor.

    Poaching is one cooking technique that will infuse flavor without drying the meat out. If I’m going to make chicken salad, I usually poach the chicken breast. For some reason, I usually prefer poached chicken when it’s eaten chilled.  Another option (the one I’m talking about here) is to slice a pocket into the chicken breast that will create as much surface contact as you can between the chicken and a flavorful filling, a filling that contains enough moisture to steam itself  through the blander chicken surrounding it, but not so moist that it ends up just turning everything into a puddle.

I guess traditionally I think of a bread crumb based stuffing-like for turkey at Thanksgiving – but if you think about it in terms of a savory tart filling, vegetables can really be the star. I probably had  spanakopita on my mind when I came up with this particular combination but if If you can think of a flavorful vegetable that would be good with chicken, it will probably be good in chicken. I usually quickly roast or saute my vegetables first to cook off a little of the water that they naturally contain, just to soften them and  concentrate their flavor, then add some seasoning and a little something to oomph the flavor (in this case, feta) and then while it’s still hot, stuff the chicken and stick it in the oven for a few minutes.

Chicken Breast stuffed with Spinach and Feta

-2 boneless chicken breast halves (I used skin-on, but boneless skinless may be easier to find)

– Oil to saute’ and oil the baking dish

-1 shallot, minced

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-6 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped (frozen thawed spinach works well too)

-Pinch each of dried basil and oregano

-1/3 cup panko crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)

2 ounces crumbled feta

-Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °

In a large saute’ pan or skillet, heat a splash of oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic  with a pinch of salt and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle the basil and oregano over and stir everything together until the herbs become fragrant. Add the spinach leaves to the pan. Don’t bother to dry the spinach when you rinse it; the water that clings to the leaves should be enough to wilt and steam the spinach. Once the spinach has shrunken and wilted, take the pan off the heat. Gently stir in the panko and feta chunks. The panko will absorb most  of the residual liquid in the pan, leaving you a moist but not soupy filling.

 Place each chicken breast on a cutting board, skin side up, so that it looks like an upside-down pear shape. With a sharp knife, make slit all the way down the center of the top of the chicken breast, starting just below the wide end so that it will still hold its shape after it is filled. Then use the point of the knife to slice pockets into the meat on either side of the slit, widening the cavity so that the stuffing is making as much contact with the chicken as possible. This is what will help keep the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

Divide the still-hot spinach mixture between the two chicken breasts. It should be a generous amount, enough to fill the pockets in the meat and mound up in the middle. Smear a tiny bit of oil in the bottom of a baking dish to keep the chicken from sticking to the bottom.  Bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is done and the filling is bubbling and beginning to brown on top.

 

Chili con Carne

I did something heinous to my back about a week and a half ago, one of those things where you lean forward and when you straighten back up, you want to die, so I spent about a week lying very still and thinking gloomy thoughts about my mortality and the effects of aging on the skeletal system. In the process of all of this mulling, I came to a realization that while I am not a “world-beater” personality, I really hate being unproductive, so while I’m doing much better but not quite 100%, I’m happy to be back on my feet to potter around the house and making occasional short trips down to the river. Today I took advantage of my forced indolence to make one of my favorite winter meals for this weekend – chili con carne.

It’s probably a good idea for me to define my terms here before I get into the particulars of how I make this. Chili is one of those things that inflame the passions of purists and sticklers who claim that adding anything besides meat and chiles is heretical. I read a comment online recently where someone said of a vegetarian chili recipe that “you can call it a spicy bean soup, but don’t call it true chili”. But as I am no such food fundamentalist,  I unashamedly adulterate “true” chili con carne by adding beans and tomatoes because I like it that way. I like a rich, spicy, thick, beefy chili, with creamy beans and a little tomato to brighten and sweeten the sauce.

But really, chili con carne is all about the chiles. When we lived in California and I was growing and drying a variety of chiles in our garden, I began to appreciate their nuanced flavors and the ability to combine them into a “custom” chile powder. I love their earthy, spicy, berry fragrance when I open the container where all my chiles are stored.  The Mexican supermarkets in Concord had bins filled with ancho, New Mexico, cayenne, California, and guajillo chiles. It is these chiles that are the basis for a lot of Mexican salsas and sauces, like red enchilada sauce, and they are the flavor basis for chili con carne.

This link has a good guide for chile varieties, including substitutions and heat levels

For my chili powder, I use a mixture of ancho (which is dried poblano), serrano, California or New Mexico chiles, and a chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño) that I grind myself. The serranos add some heat, but the other two are just earthy, rich and should have a nice dried berry smell. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and a deep smoky flavor. If you don’t want to grind your own powder, I still encourage you to try to blend a couple of different good, freshly ground chiles rather than using the standard chili powder. If you think about chiles as berries, think about the difference between dried cherries and dried blueberries. They each bring something unique to the flavor of the dish, which you can control to your taste when you make your own blend. Penzeys is a good online source and they carry ground ancho and chipotle.

Another of my chili quirks is that I buy a whole chuck roast and mince it myself with my biggest, sharpest knife. It is usually hard to find “chili grind” beef and I prefer the texture of tender little chunks of beef. The regular hamburger grind seems to either disappear into the sauce or else stay a little rubbery. I just like the control that chopping it myself gives me since it also allows me to trim out gristly bits and big chunks of fat. This step is totally optional – you’ll still have a great bowl of chili without hand-chopping the meat, but try it at least once and see what you think.

The ingredients, in order of use-

-1.5 lbs ground or minced beef chuck

– oil to cook the onions

– 2 chopped medium onions

– 5 or 6 cloves minced garlic

– pinch of salt

– 6 Tablespoons chile powder

(about 6 ancho, 3 California, 3 serrano, and 1 chipotle)

– 2 teaspoons ground cumin

– 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or a pinch of Italian oregano

– 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

If you use whole dried chiles to make your own chile powder as do I, turn on the oven to about 350°. Put all of your chiles into a cast iron skillet or sheet pan and toast for about 5 minutes until they become very fragrant, then take them out and give them a couple of minutes to cool off enough to handle. Tear the stem ends off the chiles, shake out all of the seeds, and tear them into pieces. Grind the chiles into a powder in a small coffee grinder.

Brown the meat in batches over high heat and then remove from the pot and set aside. Add a little oil to the pot and sauté the onions. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt and use the water that they release to scrape up the sticky brown bits that the meat has left in the bottom of the pot. Once the onion has begun to soften, stir in the minced garlic and cook over medium to low heat. When the onions and garlic have softened, stir the chili powder and other spices and stir until the onions are coated with chile powder. There should be enough oil for it to get moist and toast/fry the chili powder and spices.

Add the meat and any accumulated juices back into the pot. Then add:

-3 or 4 cups cooked pink beans or small red beans. If you cook dried beans for the chili, use the cooking liquid in the chili. If you prefer to use canned beans, drain them and use a little extra water instead.

-1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with the juice

-2 bay leaves

– Add water, chicken or beef broth, just to make it loose, not soupy, about 3 cups

Cover with the pot lid, leaving just a crack, and let it burble quietly over low heat for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.  Longer is fine, but keep the heat low and enough liquid in the pot so it doesn’t stick and  scorch on the bottom. The acid in the tomatoes will keep the beans from softening much more than they are, so a long simmer shouldn’t hurt them.

Taste for salt, maybe add a dash cayenne if you want it spicier. It’s better to make it a day ahead of time, say on a Saturday before a big football game or something like that.

I usually serve it with a sprinkle raw chopped onions on top and of course, it’s great with cornbread!

Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

I am, finally, back home in New Jersey. It’s still winter here; I’d been sort of hoping it would be done with if I stayed gone long enough. But alas, it is still February. There are mountains of gray snow everywhere, mounded above my head in parking lots and roadsides. The days are shorter here and the high temperature today was supposed to be 25°F. It’s strange and sort of exotic in a way to one who is not even accustomed to many days with the low temperature of 25°. But speaking of exotic Northern climes….

When I was little, my paternal grandparents lived in upstate New York. Whenever they came to visit their grandchildren in Atlanta, they would bring gifts of apples and maple syrup and sharp cheddar cheese. I remember apples with names I had never heard, exotic and fragrant Winesaps with their coarse skin and red-veined flesh, tart/sweet crisp Empires, Northern Spy and Cortland. They favored crisp crunchy apples with balanced sweet and tangy flavor and brought bags full from the roadside stands they passed on their drive down. They also introduced me to the awesome combination of a cool slice of  apple and a sliver of creamy sharp cheddar cheese, one of the most perfect bites ever devised, in my humble opinion.

With that combination in mind, I started working on this tart a few months ago. I had the idea of a sharp cheddar short crust with a tart apple filling and combined the easy cream cheese tart crust recipe I love to make with a Southern-style cheese straw recipe to make the crust. It has the faintest kick , more like a poke really, of cayenne that just underscores the tang of cheese in the crust. It’s a tart that combines the flavors of fond nostalgia with my ideal of sweet/salty/tangy/crisp balance.

 

Cheese-Straw Apple Tart

Crust-

1 stick (8 oz) butter, softened slightly and cubed

5 oz finely grated extra sharp cheddar

1 tablespoon sugar

dash cayenne pepper

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

Use the whisk attachment on a stand mixture to blend the butter and cheese, sugar and pepper, until it’s a smooth blend.

 

 

Throw in the flour. Slowly mix to combine the flour with the butter and cheese. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then speed things up until the dough starts to look like pebbles and pull together. Stop and gather the dough into a ball, kneading it a couple of times to keep it from crumbling.

 

Press the dough into the bottom of a 9 -inch tart pan. Using your fingertips, start from the center of the pan and press the dough out and up the sides as evenly as you can manage. Cover well and chill the crust in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

In order to keep the edges of the crust from slumping when I blind bake it, I put a ring of rolled up foil around the inside of the sides while it cooks. Blind bake for about 20 minutes at 325°.

Cool a bit before putting in the apple filling; it will help keep the crust from getting soggy.

Bump the oven temperature up to 375°.

 

Filling:

3-4 sweet/tart baking apples, peeled and thinly sliced

(save the peel and core)

2 tablespoons  apple cider vinegar

¼ cup sugar ( I used turbinado, but white or brown is fine)

1 tablespoon butter

Arrange the apple slices in the crust in an arrangement that pleases you; I did a sort of homage to the spiral tarte tatin arrangement, but in my typically disheveled fashion. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until the apples are crisp-tender.

Meanwhile, simmer the cider with the apple peels and sugar until the peels are soft. Strain the peels out through a fine mesh strainer. Whisk the butter into the syrup . Brush the syrup generously over the top of the apples.

Easy Peasy Key Lime Squeezy

We’re celebrating a birthday at our house this week. The tough thing about a December birthday is the tendency for it to get swallowed alive by the greater holiday season. People are busy, headed out-of-town, shopping, going to Christmas parties. I really try to maintain its individual specialness by not using Christmas wrapping paper for presents, not doing Christmasy stuff on the actual birthday and not fobbing off Christmas baking as birthday cake. The birthday boy likes pie, so pie is what he gets.

 

 

This year, I took about 20 minutes out of my busy schedule to make what may be the best bang for your buck homemade dessert ever- Key lime pie. I have told people how to make it before and gotten “Seriously? That’s it?” in response. Yes, seriously. It is a crumb crust and three ingredients, baked for about 15 minutes and that’s it. If you want to get really fancy, you can make the crust yourself,  but don’t even think about squeezing the limes, or you are on your own as far as I’m concerned.

 

Key Lime Pie

1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)

1/2 cup bottled Key Lime juice

3 egg yolks

1 Graham cracker crumb crust

 

Preheat the oven to 350. Blend the first three ingredients with a whisk or electric mixer until smooth. Pour into the crust and bake for 12-15 minutes until it has a softly set, slightly jiggly center. Cool. A snowdrift of whipped cream would also be lovely dolloped on top.

 

 

See? Tangy, custardy, creamy, and easy peasy!

 

I’m adding, for those of you who might want to make you own crust, and in keeping with the three ingredient limit on this post, a recipe for a crumb crust.

Crumb Crust

1-9 inch crust

about 1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs, like graham crackers, gingersnaps, or vanilla wafers

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup white sugar

Mix the three ingredients together, thoroughly combining to make sure the butter is all mixed in. Pour the crumbs into your pie plate and firmly press them into the bottom and sides to cover it evenly. I use the bottom of a glass or another pie plate to get a smooth, even crust. Bake for 7-9 minutes at 350˚.

Baby, it’s cold outside: Posole Roja

We had our first snow flurries of the season this morning. People keep telling me “Oh, this isn’t really cold yet” but when I walked down Washington Street, wrapped to the chin in a pashmina, long coat, boots and 3/4 length gloves, to New Hoboken Farm for some radishes and apples, it only took a couple of blocks for my face and ears to stop hurting and just go numb. I’m already deep into my wooliest winter wardrobe and am going to need a lot more layers if it gets any colder. And I’m not really sure what to do about my  lips. They won’t stop peeling. And my nose looks like Rudolph’s most of the time. If this isn’t cold, then I clearly have not developed the Life Skill set nor the wardrobe necessary to cope with actual cold weather.

One polar climate Life Skill I do have, however, is making soup. I put a couple of desultory afternoon’s worth of effort into what may be the ideal “cold, but not as cold as it’s gonna get” soup: Posole Roja. This Mexican winter soup is in the spirit of chili con carne, but without the weight. Hominy soaks up the rich spicy berry flavor of dried ancho chilis and savory garlicky pork stock like tiny dumplings; fresh cabbage, scallions, and radishes add a fresh crunch; and squeezing lime wedges into the steaming bowl of spicy broth is like taking an IV drip of sunshine straight to the veins.

Posole Roja

3 pounds of pork neck with bones

1 pound pork hock or shank, cut into thick slices

6 whole cloves garlic

about 1 tablespoon onion powder ( I have some  I got at Penzey’s and it has a nice sweet concentrated flavor)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

generous pinch Mexican oregano

6 dried ancho chiles

3 dried serrano chiles

1 large onion, chopped

water

salt

2 cans white hominy

Napa cabbage, cabbage, or lettuce, shredded

radishes, sliced thin

sliced scallions

lime wedges

This posole is made in two basic steps. The  first step is to make a pork stock and cook the pork. Rinse all the meat and put it into a large stock pot; add the garlic cloves, cumin, onion granules, and Mexican oregano. Cover with at least 2 quarts of water and bring up to a low boil. Lower to a simmer. There will be some gray foam that starts floating to the surface. Scoop that off as it shows up; it will gradually disappear. Alternately, if you won’t be able to keep a close eye on the stock making process, you can blanch the pork in boiling water for about ten minutes, then pour out the water, rinse the scum out of the pot and start over with the seasonings and water. I’m usually puttering around close by when I make stock, so I don’t bother with that step.  Simmer, maybe partially covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours, until the meat is so tender that the mere impact of your glance causes it to fall off the bone (or at least until fork-tender). Strain the meat and bones out of the stock and let everything cool down – I put the stock out on the fire escape for a couple of hours which was great because it was colder out there than inside the fridge and didn’t heat everything else up. I let everything chill separately overnight to make it easy to de-fat the stock and remove the meat from the bones.

OK, step two: bringing all the elements together. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over the dried chilis (take the stems off, leave the seeds) and soak them for a couple of hours, making sure they stay submerged, until they are rehydrated. Meanwhile, put the defatted stock back onto the heat. Taste to see if it needs to be reduced for a richer flavor and check the salt. Drain and rinse the hominy and pour it into the warm stock, along with the chopped onion. Put the softened chilis and soaking water into a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth red paste. Pass the chili paste through a sieve into the pot of stock; use a spatula or the back of a spoon to press as much of the paste through as you can. This step will keep the tough skins and seeds out of the soup. Add the shredded pork back into the soup and simmer everything together to get all of the flavors acquainted.

Once the flavors have become thoroughly acquainted and shown each other pictures of their children and become friends on Facebook, ladle it into bowls and bring it to the table. In the same spirit that a big bowl of fragrant ph is customized to the eater’s specifications, mix in the cabbage, radishes onions and lime in whatever amounts you desire.

I think this is the sort of thing that is great to make a big batch of and put half into a freezer bag for a wretchedly cold day when there isn’t time to go through the long (but not necessarily involved) process from scratch. Its flavor certainly improves after a night of mingling in the fridge.

I’m also pretty confident that this could be made over a couple days using a big crock pot. I don’t have a crock pot at the moment, but previous experience makes me think that if you make the stock  and soak the chilis to make the paste the first day, you could put everything back into the pot the next morning and come home to a pretty fabulous smelling house at the end of the day. Any of you slow cookers out there, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Another note- I got the pork at my local grocery store, but if pork neck and hocks are hard to find, using cubed pork shoulder or butt should be fine. I think that stocks made with bones and cuts like the hock that are rich with natural gelatin are substantially superior, but if it’s the difference between your making this soup or not, I’m not going to quibble. It will still be plenty good.