Too Much Whining, Not Enough Dining

This is twice now.

It started a month ago.  The first bout was more annoying than debilitating: headachey, weak, not sleeping well. In other words, and let’s be honest, sick enough to whine but not really compromised enough to call in to work.

Unfortunately, this proved to be nothing more than the… forgive the term… dry run.

What seemed like low-grade nausea by last Friday Morning turned into excruciating stomach pain by the evening, and I spent the next five days basically tethered to my oubliette. I couldn’t sleep, could barely eat, and I spent a couple of long afternoons drafting tentative agreements with whatever foul deity was in a position to relieve my agony in exchange for my soul.

But you know what I can’t stand, even more than being sick?

Using my chicken broth.  Especially for something so pedestrian as actual chicken soup.
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Soup Dreams

Mkay. Personal life.  Like so many of my issues it relates back to food, but permit me to unburden.

I’ve been stressing out lately.  Beneath my even-keeled calm veneer and amid even the absurdly simplistic zen garden of my life, I find myself very jittery of late, and not always dealing with these jitters in the most productive of ways.

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Best. Soup. Ever

It’s a wonder that Beth still talks to me, prone as I am to leaving her voice mail messages like this recent one:

“It’s me.  Stop.  Just stop. Whatever you are doing. Stop.  You are going to make soup.  And more specifically, you are going to make THIS soup, in precisely this manner. You will never make a soup THIS good and THIS easy. ”

“If you are inside, you will put your coat on and run.  Past that African market that doesnt have anything for sale, only bar I know still bearing “Like Cola” signage, and past that scary little graveyard where Ethan Allen’s family is buried, to that co op downtown where you shop.  You don’t even need to grab one of those undersized little “look at me I shop in fancy grocery stores” carts, and I don’t care if you push Christopher Kimball to the ground to do so, but you will hightail it around the store chop chop.”

“You will buy a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, and grab a package of baby spinach, an onion, and one of those packages of fresh tortellini.”

“You will then walk to the meat counter and buy eight ounces of Italian sausage.  You will not buy low-fat sausage.  You will not buy turkey sausage. You will not by artisanally produced charcuterie you people pawn off to the tourists from Boston and Montreal.  You will not NOT buy sausage.  You will buy Italian Sausage. “

“I know you have chicken broth and bay leaves in your kitchen so you will now pay for your items and run home.”

“You will dump the tortellini into a large bowl and cover it with boiling water for a moment.  You will then drain it. You will dice the onion, and smash the garlic. “

“You will put your large soup pot on medium-low heat, and add the sausage to it in little crumbled up pieces.  When the pork product attains a medium brown color you will remove it from the heat and add the onions and garlic.  You may add olive oil at your discretion. You will sweat the onions and garlic until they soften, making sure to scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pot.  You will add five cups of chicken broth, even though I know you are going to use that turkey broth you made last week.  Whatever. Just add it.  Then the can of tomatoes, mushing up as need be, depending on what kind you buy.  You will add the tortellini and the sausage and a bay leaf and, if you must, some red pepper.”

Now.  Here is the difficult part.  This one time, you will not adulterate this soup in any manner.  You will not gaze wantonly around your kitchen for “whatever else” might go well with this dish.  You will not search your fridge for that one extra mystical bonus ingredient as if selecting the next incarnate Lama.   You will not add tofu. Or beans. Or squash. Or dried bananas, ginger, harissa, plantains, birdseed, devilled eggs, sriracha sauce, artinsnal radishes or Dayquill tablets. None of that.

Just bring it to a boil, then simmer it for about ten minutes.  Then serve with crusty bread and realize that you are eating perhaps the most amazing soup ever.”

She never called back.

It…Moved

This recipe is a work in progress.   I mean, it’s not like I focus group this stuff.

Here’s the question:  What protocol, however informal, do you follow when you want to cook something new?

Before I explain how I do things, let me reveal another tidbit about myself that should shock all of you.  I am a stubborn, arrogant, pigheaded SOB incapable of believing anything I see, hear or read. Ever.

So, yeah, when I want to cook something new I typically go through a three-step process.

1. Comb the Internet as well as my vast array of crumb-besmirched cookbooks looking for the perfect recipe.
2. Reject everything I read because it just seems “wrong” for often arbitrary reasons I may or may not choose to articulate.
3. Wing it.

In my case I’m fortunate because my culinary repertoire tends toward “forgiving” recipes.  Soups, braises, stew.  Baked items with plenty of butter,  veggies at the last minute that are perfectly tasty if either overcooked or undercooked slightly.

I guess am the kitchen equivalent of a spread-option quarterback.

But sometimes you don’t want to play it safe.  While you might be able to guarantee “pretty good,” circumstances sometimes demand “outstanding.”  A cheese souffle (this has become my standard), Or, more to the point, something that demands the purchase of an expensive, blockbuster main ingredient.

This was one of those times.  I really, really wanted a Lobster Bisque.

The key problem for me to solve was “how much of what type of liquid?”   I knew white wine would need to be involved.  And chicken broth.  And, because it was a bisque, some sort of cream would be called for.

I also had it in my head that lobster bisque needs to be seriously yellow.  To me this means a bit of steeped saffron which means, yes, more hot water.

I no longer consider myself a bechamel ninja.  I can do three tablespoons each of butter and flour followed by three cups of liquid, usually milk.  This creates enough for a mac and cheese or some other sort of binding agent.  What I’m not very good at, however, is extrapolating.  It’s difficult for me to sort of adjust the quantities of butter and flour when I am not exactly sure how much of exactly what liquids I would be adding.  Long story short, I got lucky.

Which brings me to the lobster tails.

I have never worked with lobster.  In fact, the only time I remember actually eatinglobster was at this revolving restaurant overlooking Niagara Falls, while on a family vacation twenty five years ago.

Supposedly, retail lobster is cheaper this year.  People are ordering less lobster in restaurants, which means that restaurants are ordering less, which means that there is actually a glut of the little guys up in the northeast, and prices throughout the rest of the country are starting to catch up.

Anyway. I had two “fresh” lobster tails.  Actually, it was pretty obvious that they had been frozen at some point and allowed to thaw in the grocery case, which was fine by me.

But it led to an “eeu!” moment.  It wasn’t quite Annie Hall, but when I unsealed them from their little packet, they each “twitched” for a moment.  I watch too many zombie movies not to be unnerved when supposedly dead things are still animated.

And, like I said, I got lucky with the soup base.  It was thick enough and yellow enough and had a good balance between the cream and the wine.   I may need to tweak a little bit, so that 25 years from now when I make something like this again, I’ll remember what I did.

Lobster Bisque Version 0.9

Lobster tail(s) weighing a total of about 12 ounces. This should yield a cup and a half of meat.
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup of boiling water containing as many saffron threads as you are willing to part with
1/4 cup half and half
4 T butter
4 T Flour
1 large celery stalk, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1/2 of a large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
salt
pepper
paprika

Prepare the saffron-water. Pour the boiling water into a ramekin and add the saffron. Stir a bit, then cover. Stir occasionally as you continue with the recipe. The water should turn a luxurious yellow.

Next, prepare the lobster(s). I find it easiest to steam them briefly. In your soup pot, bring a little bit of water to a boil and set the tails on top of your steamer insert. Cover the pot, cook for about six to eight minutes. They should be slightly undercooked. Set them aside to cool.

Melt the butter over low heat in your soup pot. Add the onions and garlic, along with a little salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until they turn pale. Add the other veggies and cook for another few minutes until they, too, are soft.

Sprinkle on the flour, stirring constantly. You will reach a point where the mixture begins to smell “grainy” but there should be no large clumps of flour on the bottom of the pot.

Add the wine first, all at once. Adjust the heat to a high simmer.

Add the broth, saffron water, and paprika. Stir frequently until the mixture thickens.

Harvest the lobster meat. I used my poultry shears to cut open the carapace and a serrated melon baller to extract the flesh. (you can do this and the soup cooks) Add the lobster meat, lower heat to a simmer, and cook for another twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serves two as a main course (with bread of course!) or four as a starter.

OH!!

Forgot about the chocolate truffle torte.  Yum.  Recipe is here.

Once You’ve Had Meat, You Cannot Retreat

The following fact may shock you.

But in 2005, I turned vegetarian for a short time.

A month actually. And, you know, the really shocking part is that I rather enjoyed it. I lost weight, I felt healthier and more energetic…

I might have lasted even longer were it not for a horribly complicated breakup and the sight of Alton Brown smoking a pork shoulder in a couple of flowerpots.

When I look back on that summer, I realize that what I missed wasn’t meat as a stand-alone food choice, burgers, chicken breasts, pork chops… what I missed was meat as an ingredient. The thick fragrant broth, the savory bits of a stir-fry hat balance out the crispness of the veggies, and, yes, the gooey rendered fat that made everything else taste more unctuous and satisfying.

Case in point is the following soup. The first time I made a barley soup was late into my Magic Month, but I used a vegetable stock and, of course, omitted the bacon. It was obviously disappointing.

A shame, really, because I like barley a lot. It has this way of thickening a broth without overwhelming it, and it adds a subtle grainy fragrance that I can’t get from anything else.

Spellcheck note: “grainy” was “granny” for a long time. That is not the fragrance I am talking about.

Okay, barley for soup requires special handling. The stuff absorbs at least three times its volume of liquid, so a undercooked barley inserted into a soup will pretty much turn your soup into a patty. Barley also takes a while to cook.

I tend to solve both problems via a quick par-cook. The barley will still absorb SOME of the liquid, and thus thicken the soup a little bit, but you won’t have a soggy casserole on your hands the next morning.

The other thing I do is make sure to cook the barley in with the rendered fat before adding the broth. It gave it a rich, roasted flavor which I enjoyed.

Aside from that, this recipe pretty much writes itself. You can use bacon… you can use salt pork, or, if you are me, you can use both.

Barley and Pork Product Soup

1/2 cup uncooked pearl barley
2oz salt pork, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 big carrot, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
5 cups chicken broth
3 strips cooked bacon, chopped
salt and pepper to taste (but you won’t need much salt, trust me)

First, par-cook the barley in 3 cups of boiling water for about fifteen minutes. Drain, rinse, and set aside.

Render the salt pork in your large soup vessel, cooking on medium-low heat until the solids have yielded all their fat. Remove the solids. You may add them later to the soup if you wish, or, just eat them as a snack if you must.

Place the vegetables and the garlic in the pot, and cook until translucent.

Add the barley, and cook on medium heat, constantly stirring, for five minutes, or until it smells very nutty.

Add the broth, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes. Note the broth might look a little thin, but as it cools, the barley will absorb some of the liquid.

Add the bacon.

Cool and serve.