Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tonight We're Having a Soul Satisfying Soup for Supper

Testing a recipe for risotto forced me to come up with a simple vegetable broth recipe. I hesitate to use store bought veggie broth for two good reasons: they are horribly inconsistent in flavor and they don't taste good. Some taste like caramelized onions, some like carrots that have been cooked too long and others taste like nothing at all.

My recipe for simple vegetable broth is pretty much identical to how I begin most of my soups: saute onion, celery, carrots and garlic in olive oil, add water, herbs and salt and simmer about 20 minutes. It's that simple and it works just fine.

The risotto was a success (more about that in a later blog) but the bonus was even better.

Because the veggies only cooked in the broth for a short time they still had good flavor and texture, so I decided to save them and use them in soup. What a bonus! But what kind of soup, besides vegetable?

Recently a foodie friend reminded me of the convenience and versatility of black eyed peas. I don't remember the last time I cooked black eyed peas, frozen or dried. Curious I decided to pick up a bag and stash them in my freezer. Maybe they'll make a good soup?

Fresh vegetable broth simmering in my soup pot, 2 cups of precooked vegetables waiting for a home, and a bag of frozen black eyed peas looking at me was a good start. Was I creating a spin on minestrone, the classic Italian bean, pasta and vegetable soup? Could be. A box of orzo cinched the theme. Perfect. The orzo and black eyed peas take about the same length of time to cook in the broth which would give me a few minutes to come up with an interesting flavor profile for the soup.

I not sure if it was because I got the bright idea to add some chopped Kalamata olives to the pot, but I decided the flavors would profile the Greek pantry. The result: a bit of grated lemon zest, a pinch of dried oregano, and a crumbling of feta cheese on top.

Tonight we had Greek inspired Vegetable, Black Eyed Pea and Orzo Soup for supper and it was yummy.

Quick and Easy Basic Vegetable Broth

This makes a fairly large batch so freeze any unused broth in 2 cup freezer containers for later use. If you'd like to make the soup, but would rather skip the broth making, scroll to the end of the soup recipe and follow the Note for making the soup from scratch.

Cook Time: 35 minutes
Yield: 10 cups

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 stalks celery, 1/4 inch slices
2 medium carrots, 1/2 inch slices
2 leafy springs Italian parsley, including stems
12 cups water
1/2 cup diced fresh or canned tomatoes with some juices or 1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a large broad soup pot. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a piece of onion, add the onion and cook, stirring, over medium low heat until it is golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, celery, carrots, and parsley and cook, stirring 2 minutes.

2. Add the water, tomatoes, bay leaf, salt and pepper and heat to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low so that the broth maintains a slow boil and cook, uncovered, 20 minutes.

3. Cool the broth. Place a strainer over a large bowl and carefully pour the broth into the strainer. Reserve the vegetables (there should be about 2 cups) for soup, if desired. Divide the broth among freezer containers, label and freeze until needed.

Vegetable, Black Eyed Pea and Orzo Soup

This easy recipe uses frozen black eyed peas and orzo to make a version of minestrone, except that it gets a Greek flavor twist with the addition of chopped Kalamata olives, dried oregano and lemon zest. Serve with a spoonful of crumbled feta floating in each bowl.

Cook Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

6 cups Quick and Easy Basic Vegetable Broth
2 cups frozen black eyed peas
1/4 cup orzo
2 cups reserved cooked vegetables from the Quick and Easy Basic Vegetable Broth recipe
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1. Combine the broth, black eyed peas and orzo in a large soup pot and heat to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 20 minutes or until the orzo and peas are both soft to the bite.

2. Add the reserved vegetables, olives, oregano and lemon zest and cook, over medium low heat, 10 minutes. Add black pepper, to taste. Keep the soup warm over low heat until ready to serve.

3. To serve ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle each with about 2 tablespoons of crumbled feta.

Note for making the soup from scratch: Cook the vegetables in the Quick and Easy Basic Vegetable Broth recipe as directed in step 1, but use only 6 cups of water. Simmer 20 minutes. Scoop the vegetables out of the broth with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the orzo and black eyed peas as in step 1 of the Vegetable Black Eyed Pea and Orzo Soup and proceed with the soup recipe as written.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cooking from the Winter Garden at Rancho La Puerta

Walking though the neat rows of vegetables at La Cocina Que Canta, the culinary school at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, where I teach cooking classes on a regular basis, Salvador, the head gardener, regales me with his enthusiastic review of what's at its peak in the seven acre organic garden adjacent to the school.

"Look at the quince," he exclaims with his unbridled enthusiasm. "Look how many are on the tree." His hands move fast through the heavily laden branches as he fills his arms and mine with as many as we can juggle. Immediately my mind is racing to the kitchen as I try to imagine how I can cook the quince for the mystery recipe I need to pull together for the cooking class I'm teaching in a few hours.

Although the menus for the classes are planned in advance, guest chefs at the school have an opportunity to teach an extra recipe based on what looks fabulous in the garden on any given day. I happen to love the spontaneity--and challenge--of making up a recipe at the last minute. Calling it a "mystery" is appropriate because the students don't know ahead of time, nor does the teacher, which makes it fun--and a great teaching moment.

After making the rounds, the quince now nestled in my bunched up apron, Salvador, leads me down the steps to his "cold cellar." It's a Norman Rockwell painting. On roughly constructed shelves and lined up on a big wooden table in the center of the small space are even rows of winter squash: butternut, acorn, and spaghetti. Along another wall are perfectly stacked rows of bunched garlic. When I see the curvaceous butternut squash--a personal favorite--the mystery recipe pops into my head. I'll cube quince and butternut squash, toss them in olive oil and seasonings and roast them in the oven.

I'm excited and curious because I've never roasted quince, but my intuition tells me if the pieces are small enough and they're roasted tightly covered, they should take about the same time to cook as the squash. It turns out my instincts are right.

Perfumed with broken cinnamon sticks, long thin strips of orange zest and a splash of fresh orange juice the students vote the recipe "a keeper." They unanimously agree it'll be on the menu for their holiday dinner parties.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Quince with Orange and Cinnamon

2 pounds butternut squash
1 pound (about 2) quince
4 garlic cloves, bruised with the side of a knife
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 strips (3x2-inches) orange zest
1 cinnamon stick (about 4 inches long) broken in half
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced rosemary or thyme leaves, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash into thick circles; discard the seeds and pulp. Remove the skins of the squash and quince with a serrated swivel bladed vegetable peeler. Cut into cubes somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 inch, not larger. There should be about 6 cups squash and 3 cups quince. (This time consuming task can be done ahead, if more convenient.)

2. On a rimmed sheet pan (about 15 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 1 inch) combine the squash, quince, orange juice, garlic, olive oil, orange zest, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Toss with tongs or your hands to blend. Spread in an even layer on the sheet pan and cover tightly with foil.

3. Roast 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, uncover, and with a spatula turn the vegetables and stir to redistribute. Return to the oven and roast, uncovered, 30 minutes or until the vegetables begin to brown slightly on the edges. Toss in the rosemary or thyme is using. The vegetables can be roasted ahead and reheated just before serving.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Two Black Bean Recipes: Soup and Chili

I must have had black beans on the brain the last couple of times I was grocery shopping because today in my pantry, I found not one or two, but two cans each, of three different brands of black beans. With this bounty I was inspired to conduct my own private black bean taste test and comparison.

All went well. Taste, appearance and quality of all three brands were really quite good: two were shiny black, perfectly shaped, firm on the exterior with a soft interior and tasty. One was tasty and meaty, but with cracked skin that allowed the pale creamy interior to show. Not great in a salad, but not a problem when destined for a pot of chili or a pureed soup. My final thought on the comparison was, "Black beans, you've come a long way in the last 20 years," for there was a time way back, when just the thought of canned beans would make me shudder. But, no more. At least when it comes to the black variety.

With all those cans of black beans opened, I got out two pots and got to work on two recipes: a hearty, spicy, rib sticking chili and a creamy deeply flavored soup. I tweaked the chili with a spoonful of toasty tasting --and spicy--chipotle chili in adobo sauce and the soup with the haunting flavor and meaty aroma of smoked Spanish paprika.

Because I love the dramatic contrast of color, I spooned the chili over a halved roasted sweet potato and topped it with a spoonful of cooling yogurt, pieces of avocado and plenty of chopped cilantro, my favorite herb. For the soup I got out my trusty immersion blender and pureed the heck out of it until it was almost a dark chocolate brown. Because the soup was flavored with piquillo peppers-- a small intensely flavored Spanish pepper available jarred--I diced a few and added them to a salsa of diced avocado and sweet white onion and floated it in each steaming bowl of soup.

Both recipes were a win-win as I work my way deep into writing and developing good stuff for my newest cookbook project, Fresh & Fast Vegetarian.

True, canned beans aren't truly fresh, but then neither are dried beans. Plus I'm not against what I call "pure convenience foods" like canned tomatoes or beans, or even frozen petite peas or corn kernels. Often the taste of these convenience foods--especially when it comes to the bland taste of out of season tomatoes and corn--is excellent. My final thought on the subject is that for convenience and good taste you can't beat canned black beans.

I'm glad I had all those canned beans in the pantry. Now, I've got two great recipes and it's time to restock.

Roasted Sweet Potato Topped with Quick Black Bean Chili with Chipotles

Chipotle chiles are smoked jalapenos and always come packed in a piquant adobo sauce. It is impossible to use up the entire can (they are really hot!) once opened so I usually puree the opened can and freeze small blobs (about 1 teaspoonful) on a sheet of foil. Once firm I transfer the frozen blobs to a self closing freezer bag and keep frozen for the next time. I do the same when I open a can of tomato paste, except I freeze the paste in 1 tablespoon portions.

You can skip the sweet potato portion of this recipe if you'd like and simply serve the chili from a bowl. It is quite thick and tomato-y, but I like it that way, especially topped with yogurt (or sour cream if you prefer) chopped cilantro and some avocado.

2 large sweet potatoes , scrubbed, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, well drained or 2 1/2 cups cooked dried black beans
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice or 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes with juices
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons chipotle in adobo sauce, or to taste
Plain low fat yogurt
Chopped Cilantro
Avocado slices, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the sweet potatoes, cut side down, in a 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Add about 1/2 cup water. Roast the potatoes until fork tender, 30 to 40 minutes depending on their size.

2. Meanwhile prepare the chili: Heat the oil and onion in a deep skillet or saute pan over medium low heat. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the chili powder and cumin and cook about 20 seconds.

3. Add the black beans, tomatoes, 1/2 cup water, 1 teaspoon of the chipotle and salt; heat to a boil. Reduce heat and cook, covered, 15 minutes. Taste and add more chipotle if you'd like more heat. Simmer, uncovered, to thicken slightly, about 5 minutes.

4. Place a sweet potato half on each plate and mash the insides with a fork. Ladle the chili on top of the potato. Top each with a spoonful of yogurt and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. Garnish the plate with avocado slices, or dice up the slices and sprinkle over the chili.

Makes 4 servings

Pureed Black Bean Soup with Piquillo Peppers and Smoked Spanish Paprika

There is nothing quite like smoked Spanish paprika. It comes in red tins and is labeled as Pimenton de la Vera. These special peppers have been smoke-dried over a wood fire and then finely ground. The result is a meaty, earthy, dark smoky flavor that I find irresistible.
Note: If you don't want to make the salsa, substitute good quality store bought salsa available in grocer's refrigerated section.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons smoked paprika (Pimenton de la Vera)
2 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 cups boiling water
3 cans (15 ounces each) black beans drained or 3 3/4 cups cooked dried black beans
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes with juices or 1 1/2 cups diced fresh tomatoes with juices
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup chopped jarred piquillo peppers, drained and patted dry
Salsa: (optional)
1/2 cup diced piquillo peppers
1/2 cup diced sweet white onion
1/2 cup diced avocado
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
2 teaspoons minced jalapeno peppers
Pinch of coarse salt

1. Heat the olive oil in a 5 quart soup pot. Add the onion and green pepper and cook, stirring, over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in the paprika, salt, cumin and oregano and cook, stirring 30 seconds. Add the water, black beans, tomatoes and tomato paste and heat to boiling. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in the piquillo peppers.

2. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. If you don't have an immersion (also called a hand blender) cool the soup and puree it, in batches, in a blender. Make sure to puree it long enough so that it is as smooth as possible. Return to the pot and cook the soup, covered, over low heat, 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and if you like, minced jalapeno peppers, to add a bit of heat.

3. Make the salsa: In a medium bowl combine the diced piquillo peppers, avocado, onion, olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, jalapeno and a pinch of salt.

4. Ladle the soup into bowls and float a rounded tablespoonful of the salsa in the center of each serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mom's Roasted Red Peppers

My mother, Marie Mataraza, cooked for family and friends until she was almost 90 years old. She was happiest when she was feeding people. I obviously inherited my love for cooking from her. Mom's red peppers were always a treat. She would buy big batches in the late fall when they were at their peak, roast them, peel them and freeze those we weren't eating immediately, layered between aluminum foil, so when they were thawed they would peel apart without tearing.

She would pack the layers of peppers in small shallow aluminum trays (she loved exploring the aisles of the local "dollar store") with enough portions for about four servings so they would be handy for Sunday dinners throughout the winter, and as my cousin Michele reminded me today, to give to her many devoted nieces and nephews as a "gift" --and a token of her love-- when they stopped by to see how she was doing.

Our Sunday dinners through the winter always began with antipasti of roasted peppers (from the freezer), drizzled with olive oil, and garnished with capers. We'd eat the delicate strips of pepper and briny capers with chunks of Italian bread dipped into the delicious olive oil before moving on to the pasta course.

Because Mom roasted many peppers at once she would broil her "roasted" peppers. She placed the peppers in neat rows on a sheet pan and broiled them about 2 inches from the heat, turning with tongs as they charred and blistered. Then she would transfer them to a large bowl, cover the bowl with a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle. The skins would peel right off the cooled peppers without resistance. She never rinsed the peppers with water because "that would rinse away all the flavor." As they were peeled, the peppers would be spread out on a plate, but all the roasted juices, seeds and skins were allowed to drop back into the bowl. When she was done peeling the peppers she poured the contents of the bowl into a strainer saving the fragrant and delicious juices, and tossing out the rest. Years later when I began roasting red peppers in my own kitchen I would add the juices to Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup or a quick tomato sauce for pasta, but Mom used them to dress her Roasted Red Pepper and Caper Platter making the bread dipping experience even more luscious.

I "roast" peppers pretty much the way Mom did, although I often line the sheet pan with a big piece of foil and then use the foil to wrap the peppers while they cool. I also use her trick of saving all the juices from the interiors of the peppers to season the platter of peppers at serving time. Because the peppers can be fairly labor intensive--especially if you're preparing a big batch--I have also come up with a short cut.

My short cut is truly roasting since I cook the peppers in a 400 degree oven instead of using the broiler. What I do is quarter, core and seed the peppers before roasting and line them up on a sheet pan lined with a large sheet of foil. (Easier to clean the pan, as well as catch all the juices as the peppers cool.) I season the peppers with a drizzle of oil, some bruised garlic cloves, coarse salt and a grinding of black pepper and roast about 50 minutes turning and moving the peppers on the pan as needed so they blacken evenly. When they get nicely blackened (but not burned!) I remove the pan from the oven, pull the foil up around the peppers, and crimp it closed. Once the peppers are cool the skins will slip right off. This method saves a little time and the peppers are almost as good as Mom's.

I only roast as many peppers as I'll have time to peel, as I'm not as adept at cooking from the freezer as Mom was. I usually do four to six peppers, or one per serving plus a little extra, since it hardly seems worthwhile to do fewer. It's fun to have a child or other willing cook's assistant on hand to help out. As our Nana always said, "Many hands make light work." Even when she was a "difficult teen" our daughter, Stephanie, loved to peel peppers. I would roast them ahead, wrap them in foil to cool and leave them on the kitchen counter for her to peel when she came in from school. Today Stephanie's daughter, Seraphina, has been known to pitch in with the pepper peeling task.

Mom's Roasted Red Pepper and Caper Platter

Roasted and peeled red peppers won't last in the refrigerator too long. I never store them for more than 4 or 5 days. But it's easy to use of leftovers. They're great on sandwiches, finely chopped and served with a slice of cheese or curls of Parmesan on crostini, stirred into soup, added to salad and tossed with pasta.

For your platter of Roasted Red Peppers with Capers you will need:

Large unblemished red bell peppers, washed, dried, broiled or roasted and peeled
Reserved roasted red pepper juices
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons capers, optional
Snipped fresh rosemary leaves, optional

Cut the peppers into wide strips or leave in quarters. Arrange in a single layer on a platter. Drizzle with enough reserved roasted red pepper juices and olive oil to moisten. Sprinkle lightly with salt and add a generous grinding of black pepper. Sprinkle capers on top and add a few rosemary leaves, if available.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Couldn't Resist the Beautiful Bunches of Fennel at My Market Today

The bulbs were big slightly flattened ovals, the tops were tall, and the fern-like fronds reminded me of the gentle branches that drooped from the giant willow trees surrounding my childhood home.

Fennel is reminiscent of hearth and home for me. But, never cooked. Always raw. As kids we called it "finook" our shortened version of finocchio. It was a favorite treat, a delicacy, served in a the same cut glass celery dish only on special occasions.

It wasn't until I was an adult and cooking my way through Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" that I discovered cooked fennel. It was transcendent. Gone was the crisp crunch and juicy taste of licorice. In it's place was a soft silken texture and sweet subtle taste that I loved.

I still enjoy biting into a crisp ring of raw fennel, but my favorite winter vegetable side dish is braised fennel. Over the years I've strayed a bit from the original recipe, but the technique I learned from Marcella.

To make a vegetarian supper I serve Braised Fennel with Melted Parmigiano Reggiano with Oven Baked White Beans and Quick and Easy Roasted Red Pepper Wedges.

Skillet Braised Fennel with Melted Parmigiano Reggiano

Don't skip the first step that requires soaking the cut fennel in ice water. Soaked fennel always seems to be softer and moister than fennel I have neglected to soak before braising. Also, I know an 8-ounce wedge of cheese sounds like a lot, and it is. You won't use the entire wedge, but you'll need it to be able to shave off wide curls of Parmigiano Reggiano to melt on top of the fennel during the last few minutes of cooking.

2 bulbs fennel
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
I wedge (about 8 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cut the tops from the fennel bulbs leaving only about 1 inch of the stalk attached. Wash the bulbs and use a serrated vegetable peeler to remove any bruises. Cut the bulb lengthwise into quarters. Finely chop 2 tablespoons of the fennel fronds and set aside. Place the cut fennel bulbs in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Add a few ice cubes and let the fennel stand about 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.

2. Place the fennel in a deep skillet or saute pan. Add about 1/2 inch of water and a pinch of salt. Drizzle the fennel with the olive oil. Bruise the garlic with the side of a knife and add it to the pan.

3. Cook the fennel, covered, over medium low heat, 15 minutes. With tongs carefully turn the fennel. Pierce it with a skewer or the tip of a small knife. It should be very soft. If it is still firm, cover and cook 10 to 20 minutes longer. Then uncover and cook over medium high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Sprinkle with the fennel fronds.

4. Use a cheese plane or a vegetable peeler to remove large curls of cheese from the wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. You won't use all the cheese, but you will need a nice sized wedged to be able to get nice big curls. Place one or two curls on top of each wedge of fennel. Cover and cook just until the cheese begins to melt, about 3 minutes. Top with freshly ground black pepper and serve.

Makes 4 servings

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's raining and cold. Tonight I'm making soup.

I spent the afternoon clearing off my desk and organizing my papers--and my brain--for my latest book," Fresh & Fast Vegetarian." I've been working on this book fairly consistently for the last couple of months, but I don't feel as organized as I'd like to feel. The desk cleaning was almost an excuse to "clear" my head. I call it "percolating." It took me twice as long as I thought it would. But, what else is new? At a little before 6 o'clock I felt the first pangs of hunger, it was dark and rainy outside, and worse yet, there was a chill coming through my office door. I headed to the kitchen without a real plan. This doesn't happen often, but when it does I open cabinets and pull things from the refrigerator seeking inspiration while noodling around in my head are two important questions, "What do I feel like cooking?" and "What do I feel like eating?"

I had been trying to organize the soup chapter for part of the afternoon, therefore I had soup on my mind. It felt like a good antidote to the dark, cold, wet weather. I knew I had a perfectly shaped organic butternut squash waiting in the kitchen, but, alas I hadn't thought ahead to roast it while fiddling with my files, and the thought of peeling and chunking up that hard squash and getting soup on in the next hour just wasn't appealing. I guess all that desk clearing had tuckered me out. But, I couldn't get the idea of squash out of my head. So, what next?

I opened the pantry one more time and spotted a can of organic Trader Joe's pumpkin I had bought with pie in mind. Do I dare substitute canned pumpkin for fresh roasted or cooked butternut squash? Feeling frisky at the thought of the challenge, I took the plunge. I like to think in flavor profiles of three. I like odd numbers. The flavor profile of this soon to be soup would be pumpkin, tomato and ground cumin. It turned out to be a good bet, although I had some reservations about the canned pumpkin. But in the end it tasted great and was an easy solution for a quick pot of soup.

To help develop the flavors I added the ground cumin to the hot sauteed onion. Heating ground spices helps to bring out their complex taste, a little trick I learned from dabbling in Indian cooking. I also used my other trick of adding water to the sauteed vegetables to create a substitute for vegetable stock. Then I added the canned tomatoes (if fresh tomatoes were in season, I would have used them instead) and the pumpkin and let the mixture simmer. I pureed the soup with my immersion blender. What a fabulous tool that is. No more pouring hot soups into blender jars or food processor bowls and praying to avoid a spill. (I'm always too impatient to let them cool, although I always warn cooks in my books to cool the soup first.) But with the immersion blender one can plunge it into the pot of hot soup and let those tiny little blades rip. In a matter of a few minutes the chunky mixture is transformed into a smooth puree.

Then came time to taste. I liked the cumin and pumpkin flavor, both were subtle, but detectable. But I thought the tomato taste was a little weak. So I added a tablespoon of tomato paste. I'm a great believer in tomato paste. It is the not so secret ingredient in many of my recipes. It adds a pleasant salty edge, a bit of acid to brighten the taste, and a certain concentrated depth and richness to soups, sauces and stews. What I do to accommodate my frequent use of a tablespoon or two here and there is once a can (the small size is 6 ounces) is opened, I drop level tablespoons on a sheet of foil, place the foil in the freezer until the blobs of tomato paste are frozen hard, then peel them off and put them in a self closing quart size freezer bag. I always stash them in the same place in the freezer so I can find them easily when needed. I've been doing this for years. Not sure where I learned it, but it sure is a handy tip. (I have a cook friend who swears by tubes of tomato paste found in many grocers. That is another solution to keeping small amounts of tomato paste handy.)

But, back to the soup. The tomato paste and another 15 minutes simmering helped to smooth out the flavors in the soup. Just before serving I added a generous squirt of lemon juice to brighten the taste, just a little. One final taste and I thought the soup needed more of a "fat feel" in my mouth so I shredded some of my favorite Comte cheese and sprinkled it liberally over the top of the hot soup. It did the trick.

The soup was declared delicious by my long time husband and veteran recipe taster, John. Over the years, John has taste tasted his way through all (over 20) of my cookbooks. Bless his heart. He has a good appetite and I trust his palate.

I served the soup with toasted Comte cheese sandwiches on multi-grain bread and a fresh spinach salad. (John doesn't care for spinach, so he got some left over farmer's market organic broccolini-- the best I've ever tasted-- drizzled with good California olive oil and a squirt of Meyer lemon from a neighbor's tree.)

It was a great rainy night meal: Hot soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. A 21st century riff on Mom's tomato soup and toasted cheese (made from American slices, most likely) rainy day special.

Tomato and Pumpkin Soup with Shredded Comte Cheese

To make this a truly fresh soup (but, not as fast) roast butternut squash ahead, scrap it from the skins and mash with a fork. You will need about 1 3/4 cups mashed fresh cooked squash to substitute for the canned pureed pumpkin. To save preparation time, plan in advance and roast the squash a couple of days before you'll need it and refrigerate until ready to use. As a back up 1 box (10 ounces) thawed frozen pureed squash or 1 bag ( about 12 ounces) fresh squash chunks, steamed until tender, can be used in place of the canned pumpkin.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoons ground cumin
2 cups water
1 can (28 ounces) canned plum tomatoes or 2 1/2 pounds ripe juicy tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 can (15 ounces) pureed pumpkin (see headnote for fresh butternut squash and other substitutions)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup coarsely shredded Comte cheese

1. Combine the olive oil, onion and celery in a soup pot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium to medium low heat, until the onions are golden, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in the cumin and cook, stirring, about 45 seconds.

2. Add the water, cover, and heat to boiling. Add the tomatoes, pumpkin, tomato paste and salt, to taste. Puree the soup with the immersion blender. If you don't have an immersion blender, carefully transfer the soup, in batches, to a blender or food processor and process until pureed. Return the soup to the pot.

3. Cover and simmer the soup about 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt, if desired. Add a grinding of black pepper and the lemon juice. Ladle into bowls and mound about 1/4 cup of cheese in the center of each serving. Serve at once.

Makes 4 servings

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today I'm Cooking Dried Cannellini Beans

I cook dried beans on weekends when I plan to be hanging around the house-- or more precisely the kitchen-- where I can keep half an eye on them while they cook. I don't cook dried beans every weekend, but when I do I cook a big batch-- very slowly-- in the oven. Once cool I reserve half of the beans for a mid week meal and the other half go into the freezer, tightly sealed into quart sized self closing freezer bags, for meals at a later date.

My favorite dried bean is the cannellini bean. But if cannellini are not available my next choice is the large white kidney bean. (I also love a big flat lima-type bean called gigante, although they are sometimes hard to find.) It doesn't matter which bean you choose because this slow cook oven method for dried beans works for almost any variety.

I prefer this slow gentle oven cooked method to top of the stove boiled method because the oven cooking guarantees a calmer, almost cocoon-like atmosphere, in which the beans can slowly hydrate and cook to tender perfection. Once in the oven there is no opportunity--or need-- to stir them, which is a good thing. Stirring roughs up the beans causing them to shed their skins and turn mushy. Plus the slow, steady oven heat doesn't have the heat fluctuations between hard and slow simmer found in stove top cooking that causes the beans to loose their shape and break up. When oven baked beans are cooked tender each and everyone is perfectly shaped on the outside and soft and tender on the inside-- just like a cooked bean should be.

The extra beans stashed in the freezer retain their great taste, but because their texture softens from the freezing and thawing process, they're best used in soup (see the Tomato and White Bean Soup with Spinach Pesto) or in a white bean puree (recipe coming soon) to spread on toasted bread topped with cooked greens and garlic chips (another recipe coming).

But, today I'd like to tell you how I cook the beans. First, the night before, I place the beans (about 3 cups or 1 1/2 pounds) in a large bowl and add water to cover by at least 2 inches. (The soaked beans will almost double in bulk.) Leave the beans to soak overnight in a cool place. If the kitchen is warm (not ours!) put the bowl in a cooler place in the house, or better yet, in the refrigerator. The next day drain the beans and place them in a large deep oven-proof casserole or Dutch oven. I use my mid sized Le Creuset. Add fresh water almost to cover, but not quite. Do not add salt until the beans are fully cooked. (Expert cooks claim it toughens the skins and I have found this to be my experience, too.) Instead I season the cooking water with a leafy celery top, a thick slice or wedge of onion, a couple of peeled and bruised (hit them with the side of a knife) garlic cloves, a few whole black peppercorns, a bay leaf or two (use Turkish bay leaves, I find the California bay too aromatic) and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Then cover the casserole or pot, tightly, place in the oven, set the oven temperature at 350 degrees, and the timer for 1 hour. When the hour is up, the beans will most likely not be cooked, but check them just the same. The cooking time will vary depending on the "dryness" of the beans which is determined by their age. Older beans (still good) will take much longer (probably 2 hours, sometimes longer) to cook. Freshly dried beans will cook in less time (about 1 hour).

To gauge the remaining cooking time, taste one of the beans. If it is still hard, they'll need at least 1 more hour of cooking. If it is a little soft, but not soft enough, they'll need about 30 minutes more. Oh, and while the beans are out of the oven check the amount of water. There should be water visible near the top of the beans. If not, add enough very hot, almost boiling water, so that you can see the level of water through the beans.

Then the beans go back in the oven until they're tender. Beans cannot be rushed, so keep yourself occupied with other chores and the beans--guaranteed-- will eventually cook.

Once the beans test tender to the bite they're done. Gently fold (use a rubber spatula, not a metal spoon because the metal will break beans) in 2 teaspoons of coarse salt. Then return the cover and let the beans cool in their liquid. The beans will absorb some of the liquid as they cool. To use the beans immediately lift them from the liquid with a slotted spoon. Save the liquid. It makes a great "bean stock" for soup.