January 20, 2008

Soup Weather (Brown Lentil & Tomato Soup)

Winter, particularly its snowy, rainy, and slushy bits, is the weather for enjoying a good steaming bowl or mug of soup. I like soup. I especially like soup that has an identity. While I grew up with the ever-evolving (mutating?) pot of "Heirloom Soup", which served a terrific purpose and was generally tasty, there is certainly something to be said for creating a soup that will dependably turn out to be exactly what you are craving.

Lentil soups are often on the uninteresting side - serviceable, but not truly delicious. Oh, there are exceptions, of course, and much depends on the nature of the type of lentil being used. For a hearty yet basic brown-lentil soup that is full of vegetables, I have been developing this particular recipe for a few months now, and have come to the conclusion that it overtakes all others in terms of a go-to, dependable, delicious winter lentil soup. Its foundation is European, somewhat along the lines of an Italian soup, but I've never really tasted one quite like it. The addition of red wine vinegar at the end perks up the flavours remarkably, and contributes substantially to the overall depth of flavour.

It is much more handsome if you add a cup of finely chopped parsley (or indeed, a fine chiffonade of spinach) and stir it in right at the end, and the fresh, scarcely cooked greenery adds a certain brightness of flavour that is very pleasing, too. However, if you are planning to freeze the soup for future lunches and dinners, you may wish to leave those out, and add them upon re-heating. The soup in the photo is greenery free, because I forgot that I was out of both parsley and spinach when I started making it. It was still very tasty.

I have yet to try this as a purely vegetarian (or indeed, as it would be, vegan) soup, which would entail exchanging the beef stock for vegetable, but I am confident that this particular recipe would be delicious either way. Next time I plan to try it as a vegetarian version, with the added spinach as suggested above, and (possibly) with a little hit of cumin.

Brown Lentil & Tomato Soup

Makes about 8 cups

1 cup dry brown lentils, rinsed and drained
1 stalk of celery, strung and diced small
1 medium onion, diced small
1 1/2 cups small-diced carrots
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups beef stock (I use Better Than Bouillon)
2 cups water
2 bayleaves
1 14 oz./398 ml. crushed tomatoes (I prefer no salt added)
1/2 teaspoon oregano leaves (less, if powdered)
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (to taste - start small)
1 cup finely chopped parsley (or spinach)

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil and saute the onion, celery and carrots until the onions are tender and a little translucent. Season with white pepper, bay leaves, oregano, and add the garlic. Stir through. Add the drained lentils, the beef broth, the crushed tomatoes, and the water. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, and let cook at a low temperature (bubbles just barely breaking the surface of the soup) with the lid on, until the lentils are tender - 30 to 35 minutes. Taste, and add salt if needed. If the soup is thicker than you like, stir in a little more water. Stir in vinegar, parsley (or spinach). Taste, and add more vinegar if you like.

If you like the look of the perfectly round little carrot pieces, use "baby" carrots, and simply slice them into coins. Otherwise, dice as you like. I think that a sort of evenness of size makes a soup like this the most attractive but, certainly, feel free to to adapt as the spirit moves you.

January 12, 2008

Nigella Express - Macaroni & Cheese

One of my Christmas gifts was the brand-new Nigella Express, which I had been eyeballing in the bookstores. While there are a number of items that jump out as must-make, no-time-to-waste, I happened to notice that the amount of cheese called for in her streamlined macaroni and cheese was exactly the amount that I wanted to clear out of the fridge, having rather a lot of post-holiday cheese accumulation taking up space. Since I couldn't legitimately claim not to have the time to make it, I actually managed to get on this recipe fairly promptly.

While I have long been making my favourite version (adapted-from Cooks Illustrated) of Macaroni and Cheese, which is done entirely on the stove top and really does not take long at all, I know that Palle's very favourite kind is the baked variety. Upon further review, I noticed that this recipe not only calls for slightly less cheese overall than my usual recipe, it does not contain any butter at all! This makes it a somewhat healthier dinner (or side dish, if you must), and increased my enthusiasm for trying it out.

Her method is almost ridiculously simple: boil up some macaroni, and while it comes to a boil, throw some cheese, evaporated milk, egg and seasonings into the food processor. Blitz it up, as she says, and combine it with the now-cooked and drained macaroni. Pour the mass into a shallow pan, and bake for about 15 minutes. Dead simple.

Mine did not turn out as lovely-looking in the pan, because I had the oven rack set rather too low to get the seared and blistered appearance of hers before the custardy mass had set. Next time, I will try it on a higher rack, and then it may be as pretty to look at in the pan, as it was on the plate. Instead of the perfectly smooth, impenetrably orange character of the stove-top method, this had little cheesy pockets amidst the generally cheesy matrix, and a perhaps more rustic texture. I don't mean that as a discreet criticism, it should be noted, but rather a careful observation of discrepancy. Both versions are delicious, and the one to make is the one that best fits the rest of the meal (if there is, in fact, another component to the meal).

I couldn't leave the recipe entirely alone, I admit. Those of you who know me, or have been reading my blog for a while, know that I am almost constitutionally incapable of letting a recipe alone, and when I do I view it as some marvelous achievement of self-restraint. That said, my modification to this recipe was fairly minor - I added a dash of Tabasco sauce and a pinch of mustard powder to the milk mixture. I'd do it again, too.

January 06, 2008

Other Things For Breakfast (Walnut Coffee Cake)

I am generally a fan of the savory side of breakfast. While I adore pancakes, I require a side of something meat-y to really enjoy them first thing in the morning. Crepes, of course, allow for the happy concatenation of the two, but are not always an option.

Still, there is certainly something to be said for a quick burst of food as one is about to fly out the door in the morning, or something that requires zero preparation or refrigeration to be enjoyed once one has arrived at their destination. To this end, there are few things that fit the bill better than a good coffee cake, especially one that is not cloyingly sweet.

While many coffee cakes are tasty, but heavy things, this one is shockingly light and airy and allows for almost infinite variety. Here I have used my basic Buttermilk Coffee Cake recipe (available in the comments section below), but skipped the sugared layering process, and instead scattered well-toasted walnut pieces on top and throughout, and stirred a little nutmeg into the batter.

I enjoy nuts, but I usually tend toward almonds, which are more shelf-stable, rather than walnuts. A walnut that has gone rancid is second only to rotten milk for a heebie-jeebie taste in the mouth that will not be vanquished. Still, a fresh, toasted walnut is so incredibly delicious that it is worth the risk. It also helps to purchase your walnuts from a specialty store that has a high turnover, so you can feel confident that you are getting a product that hasn't been sitting around forever. Also, it is good to purchase only as much as you need, and if you find yourself with a few leftover, you will want to toss them into some sort of endive salad or trail-mix snack in fairly short order.

This cake can also be frozen very successfully, if wrapped in a nice tight layer of plastic wrap, either whole or in serving-sized pieces (which generally will have defrosted completely by the time coffee-break rolls around, if taken from the freezer that same morning). This is one of the endearing features of this cake, because it means that I am not sentenced to repetition (which can be tedious, no matter how good the item repeated may be) in order to use it up while it is still fresh-tasting.

January 04, 2008

Breakfast & the New Year

I don't really make New Year's resolutions, except for the amusing, off-the-cuff kind uttered for entertainment value only. I have long believed that one should implement any improvements that are needed as soon as possible, and not wait for essentially arbitrary milestones.

That said, in the spirit of fresh starts (now that I am once again able to post photographs!) I do hope that my posts here will be a little more frequent in the coming year than they have been and the end of the last.

Also in the spirit of fresh starts, I cannot recommend the meal of breakfast highly enough. Despite my enthusiasm for breakfast, I will confess to having rather recently choked down a few fast-food breakfast sandwiches of the biscuit-y variety, and I probably don't need to tell you that these occasions were met with a flinchy "I can do better than this." So, in fact, I have.

The biscuit here is a cheddar biscuit based on the lovely cream biscuits recipe from Cook's Illustrated's Fall Entertaining issue, made in my kitchen by my friend Lisa, who is somewhat new to the biscuit-making ranks, although a solid cook in her own right. It was she who came up with the idea of prepping a bunch of acceptable biscuits for breakfasts-on-the-go, and we took some time recently to play with the dough a little.

The rest of the ingredients are pretty much self-evident: a little back bacon (easily fried up and stored in a container in the fridge or freezer, depending on how frequently one wants to slap together a breakfast); an egg quickly-fried in a ring - in this case, a tuna can with the top and bottom cut out and pressed smooth; a slice of good, sharp cheddar - coincidentally, the same cheese as the one grated into the biscuit. Alternate versions saw instead a scrambled egg that had been pepped up with a little granulated onion and garlic, which was also a hit (and possibly even faster on the stove top).

Need I tell you how scrumptious it was, and how desperately I am in need of making these again?