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