September 30, 2006

Meatball Minestrone

I love soup. I cannot think of a culture that does not have some sort of soup. It can be an eloquent, evocative way to capture a sense of a particular cuisine, or a memory of a place. It can also be a tasty repository for things lurking in the refrigerator, slowly measuring their last useful gasps of usability until metamorphosis turns them into - if neglected, well, sludge, but if lovingly tended - a warming, welcoming breakfast (think menudo), lunch, or dinner.

As someone who grew up with "heirloom soup" in the winter, an ever-evolving pot of plenty into which most leftovers eventually found their way, I've always thought as soup as a somewhat ambiguous term, and was amused by people who made "mushroom soup" or "barley soup" because at any given time there might be mushrooms or barley or both in the heirloom soup. Even a soup that started off quite specific - chicken noodle, or oxtail, perhaps - would mutate quickly and, I thought, inevitably. As I grew older, I began to have an appreciation for the carefully thought out soups that highlighted a particular item. I've always had a fondness for minestrone, which somewhat bridges the gulf between the two philosophies of soup.

People will tell you that there are very particular things that one needs to put in (or omit from) a "true" minestrone, but these things vary by region and are often contradictory. Many minestrones are vegetarian, using plain water as the cooking medium instead of stock, and deepning the overall flavour with a rind of parmesan, and others will start with pancetta or bacon, and move on to a chicken broth. To achieve this particular minestrone, I went with a fairly classic approach, chose from the "acceptable" vegetables (since I had them on hand) and then spoiled it all by adding beef meatballs at the end. I'm not a bit sorry - the whole thing turned out just as I wanted.

Meatball Minestrone

2 tablespoons olive oil (or duck fat)
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 fennel bulb, diced medium-small
2 carrots, diced
1 small zucchini, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup of small cauliflower florets
8 cups water or vegetable stock
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can of cannellini beans, with liquid
1/4 cup tripolini or other small soup pasta
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
white pepper
salt to taste
small, cooked meatballs from 1 pound of ground meat (I bake mine in the oven for 25 minutes, rather than frying them)

In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat your olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, fennel, carrots and celery, and stir well. Season with a little salt and white pepper, and stir for a few minutes until the vegetables begin to go translucent.

Stir in the water/stock, tomatoes (with their juices), zucchini, cauliflower, and herbs to taste. bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently, covered, for about 30 minutes.

Stir in the cannelini beans with their liquid, and the pasta. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes or until the pasta is al dente and beans are heated through. Add meatballs and stir through. Adjust for salt and pepper to taste before serving, and garnish each bowl with some fresh basil or a a dollop of basil pesto.

September 14, 2006

More Eating from Other Cultures

I've been longing to try making this since I first tried it in one of the few Persian restaurants here in Vancouver. The version that I had, I think may have not had paprika (and perhaps less, if any tomato), because it was a much yellower colour. The flavour, a lovely jumble of lamb with a lively spang of lime, is quite delicious. I was also delighted to discover that it is no more difficult to make than any other stew in my collection.

I pored over online-recipes until I found a consensus of ingredients and a method that looked sound, and then tweaked it to fit my own schedule and laziness needs. I am given to understand that this dish is usually cooked gently on direct heat (i.e. the stovetop), but I have modified it so that most of the cooking is done indirectly (in the oven), where I need not have to stir it so often.

While the combination of onions (quite a lot) and split peas - a pulse, true, but also vegetable in nature - I decided to add one more vegetable, and the traditionally accompaniment of white rice. The carrots are sauteed in a mixture of olive oil and spices, then squirted with lime juice and simmered in just enough water so that when it cooks down to a glaze, the carrots are just tender. You can vary the spices to go with just about any main course.

Khoresht Ghaimeh
serves 4 - 6

1 cup yellow split peas
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
750 grams cubed boneless lamb meat (leg or shoulder)
2 large onions, thinly sliced into half-moons
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1 - 2 limes, zest & juice

Rinse the split yellow peas thoroughly, and place in a small saucepan, covered with about an inch of water. Bring to a vigorous boil, turn off the heat, cover the pan and let stand until you are ready to use them, later in the recipe.

Heat a large iron skillet over medium-high, and sear the lightly salted lamb chunks (in small batches). Remove to an oven-proof casserole dish or dutch oven. In the skillet that was used for searing the lamb, add the oil and turn the heat down to medium. Add the onions, and sauté until they begin to caramelize and turn translucent, and then add the tomato paste, paprika, turmeric, lime zest and pepper. Sauté for another couple of minutes, stirring constantly, and then scrape into the pot that contains the lamb. At the chicken stock to the emptied skillet and stir over medium heat, scraping up all of the stuck-on spices, tomato paste and lamb fond. When it has been all loosend and the stock comes to a boil, pour it over the lamb and onion mixture. Cover the pot and place in a 350 F oven for 1 1/2 hours, until the lamb is very tender.

Drain the hot-soaked yellow split peas, and add them to the lamb stew. Stir until well integrated, and continue to cook (covered) in the oven for another 20 minutes, or until the peas are tender. Stir in the lime juice to taste, and let stand for a couple of minutes, to integrate the flavours. Serve with white rice.

If you by any chance have access to dried, crushed limes, I am told that is the authentic seasoning, rather than zest and juice. Add them with the paprika, et al. this dish also often has small chunks of potato, added when the peas are added. I didn't have potato, so I omitted it, and didn't miss it.

September 04, 2006

Things to make with Chicken

Ever since the closure of Mirasol, Vancouver's tiny bastion of delicious Peruvian food just off Main Street, I have lamented my inability to dine on Aji de Gallina - a dish of shredded chicken in a marvelous, lightly spicy sauce of mirasol peppers, milk, bread, and cheese.

I had, of course, ever since I first tried the dish, been keeping an eye out for a likely recipe to try. One exceedingly disappointing attempt later, I had given up the notion pending a supply of the proper kind of pepper - and I had started to give up on ever finding them up here.

I kept an eye peeled for a likelier-looking recipe than the one that I had worked from previously, since I seldom take a second stab at a second-rate version unless I can pinpoint where, in fact, I went wrong as opposed to the general crumminess of the recipe. I've seen recipes for Aji de Gallina that call for carrots, jalapenos and saffron, that start with the boiling of an entire chicken, that call for evaporated milk or an entire cup of parmesan cheese, many of which feature bewildering directions. I have shunned them all.

So, of course, I was delighted when Cesar posted a recipe on (Lima) Beans and Delhi Cha(a)t. I bookmarked it, and told myself that I would find a way to make it. A few months have passed since then, but I finally cleared the last hurdle to success: South China Seas on Granville Island Market has begun to stock not only dried aji amarillo/mirasol chiles, but jarred ones, and even a sauce made from these coveted yellow peppers. We decided on the jarred ones (cured in a sort of brine, but not pickled, per se). I nabbed a double-breast of chicken from the poultry shop, and we hurried home to put Cesar's recipe into action.

I confess that I did not follow it precisely - I've neglected the potatoes that should be served on the side, and the black olive garnish for reasons purely of convenience in the moment. Next time, I promise to finish things correctly...and there will be a next time, because this recipe was exactly right. The texture, the flavour, the colour - all completely dead-on with my memory of the dish from the many times I've had it at the restaurant.

I used ground almonds, instead of chopped pecans, because they were what I had available. I used whole brined peppers, rinsed, de-seeded and pureed in the mini-prep. I used sourdough bread from my local Greek bakery. None of these things detracted from the feeling of triumph of re-creating a dish that I fully expected I would never again get to eat in this town.

Now, I must bend my attention to chicha morada...