An Update: Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

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My sister Grace lives in Atlanta and is the new mother of my two scrumptious little nieces. After she traded in her flight attendant’s uniform for maternity jeans a couple of years ago and got a schedule that allows her to be at home for more than a couple of days at a time, she’s become a kitchen enthusiast, even started canning last summer. She texted me this after I posted the split pea soup last week:

Glad you posted that soup recipe. I’m cooking again and it feels nice. I have two comments about the potato leek soup before I forget them.

1. We need proportions and 2. using an immersion blender turns it into paste.

How do you keep that from happening?”

A few months after I started this blog, I wrote a post about a neighbor in our community garden who gave me a bunch of leeks. I used them to make a simple potato leeks soup but didn’t really post a recipe, more of a general description of the process. Grace has been asking me to write down the actual recipe ever since I made it for her and her now-husband when they came out for a visit but I never got around to it. Now that she’s feeding it to her children, I figured it’s time to take my responsibility as an aunt seriously and finally get her the recipe.

The paste issue is another story. We have a family Christmas tradition that my mom started of making a pińata with newspaper and flour paste. Most starch can be turned into some kind of glue when it’s mixed with water and potatoes are no exception. Overworking potatoes, which is easy to do with any tool more powerful than your arm, turns them into paste. I’ve made mashed potatoes that you could mortar bricks with before I learned better.

 So, the goal is to blend the soup enough so that it’s smooth but not so much that it becomes gluey. Julia Child recommends either beating the soup with a fork or using a food mill, but I like a smoother puree than a fork will get me and I know a lot of kitchens aren’t equipped with food mills, so I use a hand-held stick blender as my first choice; it’s the easiest tool to control. A blender or food processor will work, but be judicious and just do a few quick pulses until it is smooth.

Another way to minimize the amount of blending is to cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin with; they will soften a lot while they cook and melt into a smooth puree with the cream almost instantly when they are blended.

Adding turnips to the soup sweeten the flavor a little, lighten the texture and make it less starchy, and also help minimize the glue factor.

Leek and Potato Soup with Turnips

 serves 4-6

4 medium-sized leeks (usually about 1 bunch of leeks, about 4 cups chopped)

3 medium russet potatoes (with the turnips, about 4 cups diced)

2 medium turnips

Water

Sea salt

¼ cup organic heavy cream (grass-fed, if possible)

Fill your kitchen sink or a large bowl with cold water. Trim the root ends and dark green ends off the leeks; I hold them by the white end and then use a knife to sort of shave the dark green outer leaves off into a point. Split the leeks lengthwise down the middle. Swish each half in the cold water thoroughly to and then let them float. Grit and dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink and then you can just lift the clean floating leeks from the top. Chop the leeks into ½ inch crescents.

 Peel and dice the potatoes and turnips. The size of the dice isn’t crucial, but the smaller the dice the more quickly they will cook to tenderness and the less blending is needed to make a smooth soup. I try to do about a 1/2 inch dice. If you prefer not to use turnips, use one more potato instead.

 Put all of the vegetables into a large heavy bottomed pot with about ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Add enough water to just barely come to the top of the vegetables. Remember, the vegetables will release a lot of liquid as they cook and we don’t want to water down the flavor with too much extra water, and you can always add a little extra if the pot begins to look a little dry. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally. I mash a piece of potato against the side of the pot to check tenderness. It should give no resistance to the spoon when it’s done.

 Using a handheld stick blender (my preference), a food processor, or a blender, puree the soup until it is completely smooth and velvety. Add ¼ cup of organic heavy cream, blend until combined and then check for salt. The cream will coat your tongue slightly so it’s best to wait until after adding the cream to add the final salt.

 Although I don’t have a slow cooker right now, I see no reason why you couldn’t simmer the vegetables on low in a slow cooker for several hours. Add maybe a little less water to the vegetables and stir once or twice to make sure the sugar in the leeks isn’t sticking, then blend and season as you would with a stove top version.

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The weather outside is frightful: Split Pea Soup

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It’s blizzarding and frigid outside here in Hoboken!  Our mayor robo-called today to tell us that “street sweeping rules were not in effect during the winter storm but meters and parking rules were and that cars parked in snow evacuation routes would be towed and sidewalks are to be shoveled within 6 hours of the end of the storm but not to shovel the snow back into the street.” So, while blizzards always make me think of Pa eating all the Christmas candy in the snow cave when he got lost in a blizzard in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek out on the wild western prairie, Winter Storm Hercules is being managed with small-town New Jersey efficiency here. And I’m making soup. 

I cooked this soup after Christmas as my in-laws during a visit when our nephew was about 2. He’s the one that said “Good job” to his grandmother when she made a pan of biscuits that particularly pleased him. He was such a fan of this soup that my mother-in-law decided to make more split pea soup for him a few weeks later. She called me laughing hysterically and asked for my recipe. She had put a bowl of soup on the high chair tray in front of our nephew and after one bite, he looked up at with the absolute crushed disappointment that only a toddler can muster and said “BLECH!” and refused to eat any more. She said “I’m not used to getting ‘blech’ comments on the food I cook!” So for what it’s worth, this soup is toddler-approved.

Split Pea Soup

serves about 8

1- 1 pound bag of split peas

2 meaty smoked ham hocks or 1 meaty ham bone

About 6 cups water

Oil (to sauté’ the vegetables)

1 large white onion, chopped

1 large russet potato, peeled and diced to about ¼ inch dice

2 medium turnips, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, simmer the ham in about 4 cups of water over very low heat until the meat is very soft and beginning to fall of the bones. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat and bones from the water. Allow the meat to cool and then remove from the bones, shred into small chunks, and set aside.

 Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables.

 In another pot or sauté pan, heat enough oil to just lightly coat the bottom and sauté the vegetables in it just until they begin to steam and soften.

 Add the split peas and vegetables to the ham stock.  Bring to a low simmer and cover with a lid, allowing it to cook slowly until the peas are soft and the vegetables are beginning to melt into the soup, probably about 30 minutes, depending on the freshness of the peas. Add more water as needed to keep it from getting too dry or sticking to the bottom of the pot, but not so much that it is watery. Add the shredded ham back into the soup and allow it to heat through.

 Since the ham broth will vary in saltiness, don’t salt until the end of cooking; you may need less than you think and it is easier to add salt than take away. Add black pepper to taste.

A couple of notes:

 1. I am inexact about the amount of water because the amount needed varies so much. Start with the amount on the package of peas, or with the amount I suggest, but use your judgment about adding more; you don’t want it to be too dry and thick.

 2. Cooking the pork slowly in the water first serves a couple of purposes. First, it infuses the water with flavor so that it really mixes into the beans and vegetables as the beans absorb water. Second, if you are using ham hock, shank, or any part of the leg with the bones and all, the connective tissue from the cartilage  melts into the water, giving it a rich texture that makes the stock very tasty and silky, the same as using wings or feet for rich chicken stock.

Sweet Corn Poblano Soup

It doesn’t really feel like summer to me until I’ve had my first ear of sweet corn on the cob. I can eat an outrageous number of buttered, hot, crisp, sweet ears, shearing the kernels off the cob like Mickey and Donald eating it typewriter style.

Fortunately, July hasn’t only brought us a super humid heat wave (hello window AC unit!), it also brought us summer corn season, just in time for the long July 4th weekend.

This light summery soup is a lovely way to enjoy the good fresh flavor of sweet corn. It’s lighter than some creamy chowder style soups,  finished with just a little bit of milk, but the trick of using a corn cob broth that I picked up from David Walbert’s delicious corn chowder post infuses the soup with the flavor of corn without muddling the bright vegetable flavors.

I also use a little bit of corn flour, cooked into the broth like a very thin porridge to thicken the soup without making it too rich and heavy. Soup eaten in summer should be light and fresh, satisfying without weighing down.

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Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup

4 ears sweet corn on the cob, husked and flossed

1 red onion (or other sweet onion)

2 cloves garlic

1 poblano chile

olive oil

1/3 cup corn flour

1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups water

salt

1 cup milk

Stand each ear of corn stalk-side down on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob. Break the cleaned cobs in pieces and put them in a medium pot. Once all of the corn kernels are cut off the cobs and the cobs are put into the pot, cover the cobs with about 4 cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and cover the pot with a heavy lid. Simmer the cobs in water for about 30 minutes. Remove and throw the cobs away.

Meanwhile, dice the onion and poblano and mince the garlic.

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium/low heat. Add the onion, garlic and poblano to the oil and cook until the onion begins to soften and become translucent. Add the corn and stir, then add a pinch of salt. The sugar in the corn will begin to stick and caramelize on the bottom of the pan, so watch the heat to prevent that sugar from burning. Once the corn begins to soften, scrape the vegetables to the side of the pan and pour in a little more oil, maybe a teaspoon, to cook the spices. Pour the chipotle, coriander, and cumin into the oil and stir. Once the spices become fragrant, stir them into the vegetables. Scrape any sticky browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

Once the corn is softened and beginning to caramelize  but still a little bit crisp, stir about 1/3 cup of corn flour (finely ground corn meal) into the vegetables. Stir everything over medium heat just for a minute until the corn flour is slightly toasted.

Carefully pour the corn cob stock into the pan with the vegetables and stir to prevent lumps. Bring to a simmer and stir until the corn flour thickens the broth. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes or so to combine the flavors.

Salt to taste.

As with most soups, this one improves after a night in the fridge, so feel free to make it ahead. It will be even better that way.

A note on corn flour:

Corn flour is just a finely ground corn meal. In the UK, corn flour is the term used for what I call corn starch which is often used to thicken clear sauces. American corn flour is a little more substantial but finer than the grittier texture of corn meal. I typically use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Flour

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Hot and Sour Soup- a Visual Guide

After the last post I wrote about hot and sour soup, I realized that it might be helpful to do a little visual aid. I introduced three relatively unusual ingredients that are usually found in Asian markets, often in packaging that doesn’t have the English names prominently displayed. One of my friends said she hadn’t ever heard of the mushrooms or lily buds before and had no idea what they looked like. I know I have spent plenty of time staring blankly at a shelf full of unidentifiable brown oddly shaped vegetation next to more brown oddly shaped vegetation looking for that one thing I need for a recipe.

So, when stocking your pantry for hot and sour soup, here is the line up:

These dried mushrooms are the earthy flavor base for the soup. They are intensely, flavorful and add richness and depth to whatever you put them in. Rehydrate them in hot water for about twenty minutes to soften the caps. Snip the tough stems off before adding the mushrooms to soup. I always keep a bag of both  dried shiitake and porcini mushrooms; I use them in risotto, meatballs, winter stews and pasta sauces. They are indispensable in my pantry.

Lily buds, or golden needles as they are sometimes called, are the buds of Tiger lilies. They add a floral, musky flavor to the soup. They will need to be soaked in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes. After they have been soaked, check the stem end to see if it is still hard; if so, trim the very tip end off and throw it away.

Finally, there is the attractively named wood ear mushroom, sometimes called Chinese black fungus or cloud ear fungus. It grows in little frills on the trunks of trees. It is used less for its flavor than the crunch it adds to the mostly soft textures in the soup. I usually buy it dried already cut into strips, although I’ve also seen it sold whole.

As with all dried foods and spices, I keep them in an airtight container in a dark cabinet. Stored like this, they will keep for a long time.

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.

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!