I must admit to getting nervous. Counting this week’s offerings, I’m down to 8 Bittman selections, and just over 3 weeks in which to complete them all. If I face the honest fact that it’s unlikely I will attempt any of these concoctions during Christmas or the days that surround it, as family and I insist on old familiar dishes, reality tells me I in fact have just over 2 weeks left.
But I have a determined set to my jaw, sometimes, and I can feel it approaching. This must be done. It can be done. It may mean making soup for lunch from scratch sometimes, but as I’m learning, soup doesn’t have to be something that simmers all day long. It can be a quick meal.
It can be delicious, too. This week’s selection is proof positive.
“Thai Squash Soup: Simmer cubed winter squash, minced garlic, chili and ginger in coconut milk, plus stock or water to cover, until soft. Puree if you like. Just before serving, add chopped cilantro, lime juice and zest, and toasted chopped peanuts.”
This was a lunchtime experiment, because N., in one of his tragic shortcomings, doesn’t like coconut. At first I thought it was something I could break him of. I have, after all, in under a decade, convinced him to eat everything from sushi to quinoa to kale chips. He is, as an eater, unrecognizable as the man I met in college. But the coconut sensitivity is the food analogue to ESP. He can eat a granola bar with coconut oil hidden deep in the ingredient list and say “I’m not sure I like this.” If I don’t choose my sunscreen carefully and it happens to have that delightful coconut aroma that means it’s well and truly summer, N. tells me I smell funny. So a coconut milk based soup had to be consumed in his absence.
½ big butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into small cubes
1 13.5 oz. can coconut milk
½-1 cup water or vegetable stock
½ tsp red chili flakes
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp ginger, minced
salt to taste
2-3 TB cilantro, roughly chopped
2-3 TB peanuts (if you have a nut allergy, consider using the butternut squash seeds instead), toasted and chopped. I used dry roasted peanuts for mine.
zest and juice of ½ a lime
Put the squash, chili, garlic, and ginger into a pot. Add the coconut milk and, if necessary to cover the chunks of squash, water or stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat for 20-25 minutes, or until the squash is tender.
During this simmering process, don’t forsake your kitchen completely. Coconut milk boils over, just like regular milk. If you leave to, say, comb out your hair, do your makeup, and put a few things away, you might return to a stove swimming in chili infused coconut milk sludge sitting underneath your burners. One of which isn’t working anymore. Just saying…
Once the squash cubes are tender, you can choose to puree or not to puree. I, feeling lazy, took my potato masher to them and ended up with a slightly chunky, rough textured soup that I liked the look and feel of.
Top with garnishes and eat!
Alternative: I liked this, and the simmered squash had a nice, fresh flavor. But I missed the caramelized depth you get when you roast it. Were I making this again, I would roast the squash with olive oil and salt until it was tender.
While the squash roasted, I would add the spices to the coconut milk and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Then, when the squash was cooked and the milk was hot and flavorful, I would add the chunks of squash and proceed as above.
This bowl of soup was surprising. It awoke flavors of sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter. The squash was tender and freshly vegetal. The coconut milk added this incredible unctuous creaminess that felt round and thick against my tongue, but the squash itself and the lime flavor kept it light and fresh and delicate at the same time. The peanuts were the right crunch, and I surprised myself by finished an enormous bowl and feeling quite satisfied but not overly full.
The soup wouldn’t have been right without the lime juice. I’m learning, as I continue to cook, that acid is a seasoning just like salt or nutmeg. This new understanding, and a little bit of experimentation, saved the next dish from being muddy and boring.
“56. Cook lentils, thyme sprigs and chopped carrots in a pot with water to cover until tender; drain and remove thyme. Cook chopped onions in oil until soft; add chopped kale and allow to wilt. Add lentils, stir to combine and cook until kale is tender. Add chopped parsley.”
With the holiday season practically upon us, this seemed like a sobering, “healthy” dinner choice which would, against all the logical reasons for eating healthy, permit us to have cake for dessert.
1 cup lentils
12-15 baby carrots, quartered lengthwise, chopped into small rounded triangles
6 sprigs thyme
4 small whole cloves garlic
½ red onion, chopped
2 cups kale
2 TB parsley
sprinkle of red wine vinegar to taste
I put the lentils, carrots, thyme, and – in a flash of inspiration – garlic in a pot and added water according to the lentil package directions (depending upon what color lentils you use, you may need more or less water). I added a bit extra, since I realized the carrots might benefit from some bubbling too. I let them simmer for about 35 minutes, at which point the lentils were just barely still resistant between my teeth.
Never enthusiastic about using multiple pots, I dumped the lentil mixture into a strainer and then, with a bit of olive oil to lubricate the surface, sauteed the chopped onions in the same, now-empty pot. When they were just beginning to turn golden around the edges, I added the kale and a sprinkle of salt. Softening the onions and wilting the kale took about ten minutes.
After the kale had collapsed a bit, I dumped the lentil mixture back in, folded it gently in with the greenery, and let them stew over low heat until the kale was the texture I like. I tasted and felt the muddiness of the lentils and carrots: winter vegetables are wonderful, but sometimes the heaviness they impart is reminiscent of the dirt from which they were pulled. Lentils, though they aren’t root vegetables at all, tend to have a similar effect.
This was my inspiration point. Only a few drops of red wine vinegar pulled the flavors up out of the garden ditch they’d been wallowing in and made them interesting and individual again. Add the vinegar and chopped parsley at the last moment.
I mounded this on our plates and topped it with a tuna steak (I know, that’s not vegan. But the Bittman is, and that’s what matters here!). It would have been better with salmon – the more delicate meatiness would have contrasted nicely against the lentils and carrots. The tuna was almost too dense a pairing, calling back to the muddiness of the pre-vinegared dish. Lamb rubbed with harissa, or maybe even a grilled portobello or a big steak of tofu, pressed, dried, and rubbed with a marinade that involved roasted red peppers, are other potentially promising pairings.
* As the year draws to a close, I’m thinking a lot about friends I’m now physically far from. This title celebrates two of them: M. and Ph. Both became unintentional vegans due to food allergies, and M. is fond of exclaiming, of dishes she likes the sound of but cannot eat thanks to its animal product ingredients, “I’m going to try to veganize it!” So here you go, ladies: these are pre-veganized. And gluten-free. And yummy. What more could you ask for?!