Jan 202013

Yellow eye beans
If you’re like me, these days our legislative branch makes you go all frothy at the mouth. So why, you ask, would I endorse something that is served daily (and has been for many, many years) in the Senate cafeteria? I offer the following reasons:

  1. This soup won’t make you the laughing-stock of the free world.
  2. This soup won’t spiral you down into debt.
  3. You’re not stuck with this soup for the next six years, especially if it’s really bad.
  4. And, finally, unlike its name-sake, this soup gets the job done.

Senate bean soup with yellow eye beans

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Jan 062013

Chicken tortilla soup

Names are funny things.

Take this soup, for instance: tortilla soup. I think that ostensibly, this type of soup is usually served with strips of fried corn tortillas or (in a pinch) bits of tortilla chips… or something. I’m not really sure. To me, this is tortilla soup, though nary a flat-bread has ever graced it, as far as I know.

And really, that’s fine with me. I’m normally kind of stickler for those sorts of things: I like to know what things are called and how to use names and terms properly, because they mean something. In this case, though? Whatevs. See, this is my grandmother’s recipe, and far be it from me to go changing the title. She was a wise old bird, so I figure that she knew what she was talking about.

And really, once you throw on a goodly hand-full of cilantro, squeeze on plenty of lime, stir in half a bit of an avocado, and take a bite of this, who cares what it’s called? You may find that after all, the only truly appropriate name is get-in-my-face soup, and isn’t that the only name that matters?

Chicken tortilla soup

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Dec 092012

Turkey soup!

If you’re like me, when you’re cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey carcass (with plenty of bits of meat still clinging to the bones) starts to look a lot like opportunity. I am loathe to ever throw away any animal bones: you can make too many delectable things with them (well, really, I’ve only ever made stock with the bones, but you can make so many things with the stock that it totally counts).

I’m also well-known for not thinking that turkey sandwiches are the bee’s knees. Given left-over turkey, there are several other things that I’d rather make with it, and one of them is soup! I have such a proclivity to it and The Hubs has such a proclivity for the sandwiches that we have always ended up in turkey-turf-wars about how the leftovers are going to be used. Not being possessed of two ovens but still needing to make several sides while the sacrificial bird is cooking, we grill our turkey so the birds we buy have to be relatively small so that it can fit on our Weber — hence, there’s not enough turkey to go around for both of our needs and strife ensues. This year, I avoided marital turkey-drama by buying two birds. I was so proud of myself for coming up with a solution to the problem, but then I went and shot myself in the foot by discovering turkey pot-pies, creating yet another need for large amounts of turkey. What’s a cook to do? And don’t you dare suggest I buy yet another bird: it’s not that it’s madness, it that there isn’t enough room in our cooler to brine three of them!

So, without any further adieu, I present a recipe for turkey soup, which is something my family has been making ever since I was a wee one. Like most soups, the ingredient list is more of a suggestion than a rule. It’s also slow-cooker friendly, which we found to be very welcome this year, since, well, y’know how on Thanksgiving Friday you don’t want to cook at all? Well, I kinda screwed that one up big-time by experimenting with the pot-pies, so come Saturday we really super-mega didn’t want to cook, but luckily I had slow-cookered up a big batch of this the night before. Victory, “turkey soup” is thy name.

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Sep 142012

Pasta Fazool

I am such a huge sucker for hearty bean stews. The moment that the summer heat shows that it might be wavering in its resolve, I’m pulling out all my cookbooks and playing match-maker with my stash of beans. Borlotti beans often find a starring role in my kitchen in every imaginable application, and this soup is no exception.

Pasta e fagioli (aka pasta fazool) is a dish born of frugality, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be boring. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to find bland versions of this soup, with boring beans, mushy pasta, and a lack-luster broth. This soup rectifies all those wrongs and then some, all without requiring you to slave over a stove for hours or leave a pot simmering all day. Served in small portions, it makes an excellent appetizer (or primi if you’re going authentic-Italian-style), or scooped up into bigger bowls, it’s hearty enough to be a meal in itself. Either way, it’s a delicious and welcome addition to any table — whatever the weather!

Pasta Fazool!

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Sep 082012

Creamy Gazpacho Andaluz

My favorite summer soup is also one that can go disastrously, epically wrong. It all lies in the tomato: use super-market tomatoes or try to make this soup in the winter, and you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even local restaurants can get it wrong: why on earth would you ship in insipid dyed-with-ethylene-gas “tomatoes” when you can get perfectly ripe ones in the peak of tomato season? There was a restaurant in Tucson that I absolutely loved, but when I noticed that the tomatoes on their sandwiches were exactly this type, I swore to never sample their gazpacho.

Gazpacho is one of the best vehicles out there for peak-of-summer, flavor-saturated, eat-them-over-the-sink tomatoes. When it comes time to make a batch, I head out to the farmers’ market (because I have not yet mastered the art of tomato -growing) and load up on whatever looks — and more importantly, smells — the most flavorful. I tend to flavor black heirloom varieties (like Black Krim, Black Brandywine, and Cherokee Purple), but there are plenty of other varieties in other colors that pack just as much flavor.

This Spanish treat is an ideal one for summer for another reason: it’s completely raw, so there’s no need to add to the heat in your kitchen by turning on a stove! Another bonus: it’s extremely healthy! Be sure to drizzle plenty of fruity olive oil over the top, though: not only is it delicious, but it will help you absorb all the vitamins in the soup! Oh, and one more thing: I like vegetables for breakfast. I know, weird. When this soup is in the fridge, I can’t think of a better meal to start my day. Give it a try some time!

A side note: this summer I had a watermelon gazpacho for the first time. I was amazed at how well the ripe watermelon and tomato complemented each other (though I know that this is by no means a well-kept secret in the food world). I’m going to have to try to find a good recipe for that too, so if you have one, by all means, please share it!

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Nov 062009

By now, you’ve probably been able to tell that I’m having a love affair with Rancho Gordo beans. They’re just so damn good (and good for you) – I can’t help trying to put them into every food imaginable. I love them so much that someone who possibly lives in my house may have possibly placed an order for 45 pounds of beans from them a couple of weeks ago. My thinking was that I was buying a year’s worth of beans, but at the rate I’m finding fantastic recipes, the ten pounds of garbanzos may only last a couple of months. We’re not even going to mention the fifteen pounds of black beans and fifteen pounds of borlottis that arrived in the same shipment. But I digress.

I’ve recently started reading the Rancho Gordo blog and was ecstatic to find this particular recipe on there last week. It sounded so delicious, so healthy, and so satisfying, that I had to hurry up and make some chicken stock post-haste (as we had just run out two days before – like I’ve said before, the stuff burns a hole in my freezer) so that I could put this soup on the table.

Clearly, I hadn’t really been paying attention when I read up on the ingredients – I must have just been skimming for the produce I would need to add to the grocery list. So I didn’t really notice that it called for cinnamon until I was mise en place-ing everything. It was such a pleasant surprise though – we Americans are really missing out by regarding cinnamon as a wholly sweet spice rather than something that can be used to great effect in savory dishes. It brought a whole new dimension to the soup: adding a fullness not otherwise present and bringing to mind the most comforting of comfort foods. Try this on a cold, dreary winter night with a glass of lush cabernet and discover it for yourself!

Chickpea soup with barley and chard

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Sep 272009

I have been meaning to post this for a loooooonnnggg time. In fact, if the word “long” was as long as the length of time I’ve waited to post this recipe, it would be approximately sixty-three syllables long. But I digress.

Rancho Gordo borlotti beans

I’ve long had a soft spot for minestrone. It’s such great comfort food, and super-healthy to boot. I suppose that soup is normally a fall or winter endeavor, but here I’m going to give a Tucson summer (the fact that it’s late September is irrelevant – it’s in the upper nineties today) the finger and make this soup anyway. That’ll show the bloody weather!

There I go with my digressions again.

I’ve been through a lot of phases with this soup. I first got hooked on it at an Italian restaurant when I was a teenager, so when I started cooking a lot of vegetable soups after I moved to Alaska I decided to try this one out. To be honest, I hated my first attempt. I hadn’t yet started making my own chicken stock, and this was when I learned the hard way that using commercial chicken broth as the base for a soup is Officially a Bad Idea because it is Utterly Repugnant. However, at the time, I didn’t know that was the cause, so I just thought the recipe was a dud.

Many months later, something strange came over me and I decided to try it again – on unsuspecting dinner guests, no less. This time I was using homemade stock, and when I put the stuff in my mouth I had a foodgasm. It was that good. But because I am crazy, I am hardly ever 100 percent satisfied with a recipe, no matter how good it is. I decided that what this soup needed was an improvement in the bean department. Since then, I’ve tried all manner of beans: pinto, cannellini, kidney, great Northern whites, and heavenly borlottis. But all of these were canned and none of them were quite right.

Enter Rancho Gordo beans! These heavenly heirloom beans are as fresh as dried beans can get, especially when compared with lowly supermarket beans that are more than likely about five years old, which explains why those inferior beans cook slowly, unevenly, and blandly. This company carries many little-known and rare varieties of beans, including – look out for the squeeing – borlottis! I tried them for the first time when I was throwing together this soup, and finally, I have found my 100 percent satisfaction. These creamy, velvety, supremely flavorful beans add an entirely new level of flavor that ties minestrone together perfectly. It is definitely worth the time to find and cook the beans. And considering that I only just discovered the key to bean bliss, it was also worth the wait in posting this recipe!

Minestrone soup

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Jan 292008

I have no problem admitting it: I am a garlic freak. It may well be the most perfect herb: flavorful, tangy, plentiful, and easy to store. I have yet to meet a recipe that has too much garlic in it, and when I was in Korea I ate the stuff raw by the clove. When I’m cooking I routinely add fourfold the garlic called for. What’s not to love?

Well, apparently there is something, since I said it was the most perfect, not the perfect herb. Let’s face it: it’s not too terribly difficult for good, well-intentioned garlic to go wrong. Garlic, even more than onions, can make you cry. They can pack remarkable heat into their little cloves, and if cooked improperly, you’ll know all about it.

Garlic, pre-poaching
Nikon D50

So when it came time for me to make a garlic soup (which is an idea I had been obsessing about ever since my husband bought me a garlic cookbook as a sussy), I was definitely looking for a recipe that would exploit the warm, earthy, comforting aspect of the humble clove, not the part that can make you wish that you’ve never been born. If I had ready access to Korean garlic that would not be a problem, since the stuff is sweet an delectable without any fuss or preparation beyond peeling it. But alas, all I have around me is American garlic. There had to be some way…

Well it turns out the that clever folks at Cook’s Illustrated had been wondering the same thing. They devised an ingenious method that used three different types of cooked garlic to give this soup an earthy pleasantness that pairs perfectly with the potatoes in the soup. My favorite by far is the poached garlic heads. Slow, long heat does wonderful things to garlic by stripping away the bitterly painful flavors, softening both texture and taste. So even though in this soup you are preparing garlic in three different ways, this recipe is wonderfully simple, uncomplicated, and well-balanced.

Comfort food, anyone?

Garlic, pre-poaching
Nikon D50

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Jan 262008

Growing up, I never quite understood why chicken noodle soup was supposed to be such great comfort food. Then again, all I had had back then were Campbell’s or otherwise canned versions, and frankly, I think it would be more comforting to be beaten up with a can of soup than it would be to eat that not-very-chickeny-really-freakin’-salty-and-gross stuff.

But then I remembered my Mom’s famous turkey soup. It wasn’t so different from a chicken noodle soup, yet it was infinitely tastier. Maybe there was hope for this much-maligned recipe after all…

The humble noodle
Nikon D50

I first tried my hand at a, well, decidedly modern take on the stuff that I found in the Mayo Clinic cookbook. It had a chicken stock and soy milk base with edamame in the soup, and well…. it was weird. I didn’t like it. But then…. last winter I was just getting into making my own stock and had had wild success with using it as the base for soups – even with recipes I had panned when I had made them with commercial chicken broth (forgive me, for I knew not what I had done). So I got to thinking that maybe it was time to give chicken noodle soup another shot, and this time I was determined to give it a fair shot.

Chicken noodle soup secret weapons: the herb satchet
Nikon D50

Disillusioned by my first disaster with the stuff, I swore off recipes and struck off on my own. Amazingly, I hit pay-dirt on my first try. I had stumbled upon the First Law of Soups (anything made with a homemade stock is guaranteed to not be bland, boring, or disgusting) and the Second Law of Soups (always cook your noodles or grains in the stock).

Unfortunately, stock tends to burn a hole in my freezer. I just can’t keep the stuff on hand, I use it as soon as I make it. If I do happen to have some in there, I’m usually saving it for something specific. But tonight I found myself with quarts and quarts of it in my freezer, even above and beyond what I will need for my upcoming minestrone soup. I also just so happened to have the salvaged chicken from my last pot of stock handy, and I realized that once again, this soup’s time had come. I mean, it’s been a tough week. I could use some comfort food. Thankfully, I’ve finally found a way for this time-honored classic to actually be comforting.

Comfort meets homemade food
Nikon D50

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Nov 032007

When Cory and I arrived in Florence, one of the first things I noticed on menus at local restaurants was tomato and bread soup. I had never heard of it and honestly was thinking, well, something close to “ew.”

But then there was Il Latini, the renowned restaurant that hasn’t lost its local charm despite its fame (which I have already described in my Panna Cotta entry). Since it was our last night in Tuscany and we had finally found the Florence restaurant of our dreams — the restaurant that we had literally stumbled across, having gotten lost in the streets in our quest for food — I decided to branch out and try some of the truly local cuisine. Even though we were offered many, many delicious options for our primi, I ordered the pappa al pomodoro.

Basil, pre-soup!
Nikon D50

As soon as the waiter set the bowl down in front of me all of my previous expectations evaporated. I had been imagining something much like American tomato soup, thin and watery with an assertive salt flavor. Instead I was served a hearty, thick, delicious soup with deep tomato and bright basil flavor. Its texture on the tongue is like no other soup I’ve ever had. Cory, with his singularly amazing gnocchi, was something akin to jealous.

Bread, thinly sliced before going in the soup
Nikon D50

So, unsurprisingly, Cory and I started looking for a way to duplicate this soup experience when we got back to the States. The William-Sonoma Florence cookbook had disappointing results (which is a cautionary tale to American cooks that what we consider to be aromatics like celery and carrots will never ever stand a chance against plenty of fresh basil), and I was almost beginning to despair until I remembered that in the front window of Il Latini a TV was playing a tape of the international media coverage the restaurant had gotten — and they had played a clip of Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day. Feeling slightly dirty (to put it delicately, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ms. Ray), I hunted down the episode online, and lo and behold, she had their recipe!!! Cory and I cooked it together, and it was everything we remembered and brought back wonderful memories of that night in Florence.

Soup in progress
Nikon D50

So if you can’t make it to Florence yourself, at least do yourself this favor and make this soup. It’s so representative of how Italians can take something most Americans would throw away (stale bread), add it to a couple of fresh, simple ingredients, and create something warm, delicious, and satisfying.

Tuscan tomato and bread soup, finished and topped with fresh basil
Nikon D50

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