Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli

By now, given that it’s not only all over Pinterest, but both Saveur and Smitten Kitchen have a version (though to be fair, hers is based on Saveur’s offering), you probably know about slow roasted sweet potatoes which means I am completely overdue unoriginal on trend with this one. But that’s okay. As a scholar of medieval texts, I am nothing if not interested in old material. Besides, this one comes with thanks to Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and her propensity to respond to people’s recipe request tweets – while tweet-stalking fangirling scrolling through my feed last week, I noticed a reader ask advice for a lamb chop dish, and Alex recommended a side of sweet potatoes with a ginger butter.

That was all the light-bulb I needed for how to dress up these already-basically-perfect sweet potatoes, roasted for an agonizingly long time until their sweetness deepens, and their flesh collapses into rich orange velvet, and their skins need the barest flick of a fork to split, and just before serving you can shove them under the broiler just until they start to blister and crackle for extra texture. Ginger would be delightful here, cutting sharply through the butter and the starchy softness of the potato (you keep your fresh ginger in the freezer, right, for easy grating?). I knew immediately I would add some brown sugar, or maybe some maple syrup, but set all that off with a generous grating of lime zest to keep it from becoming just deconstructed sweet potato pie (though honestly, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing…). And rather than make them play second fiddle to some protein, these would be the central feature of our plates.

An almost-dessert main requires a sidekick to keep it oriented, so our vegetable costar would have to be savory and kicky and intense. I went green. Broccoli, sliced into thick, steak-like slabs to expose flat, crisp-tender centers of each stem, aggressively seared until deeply bronzed, then tossed with a pungent mixture of lime juice and fish sauce for that deep, salty-savory funk. At first taste, N. was thrown off by the sourness of the sauce combination, and I’ll admit, it is strong. But then he kept coming back for more, as the briny strangeness seeped temptingly into the bright florets.

This is a weekend meal to be sure, given the length of time needed for the potatoes. But it’s largely hands off; once you stow them in the oven, glistening with oil and scattered with salt and pepper because we are going to eat every shred of that skin, you can putter around, or sink into a movie, or venture out into whatever sort of garden you might be planning for, or indulge in a cat nap, or continue your binging of season two of Jessica Jones; you are free for whatever needs doing until it’s time to char the broccoli and lick your plate.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli
Serves 4
About 2½ hours
For sweet potatoes:
4 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, approximately equal in size
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
For ginger lime butter:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but not melted
zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (keep it in the freezer for easier grating) OR 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup
For charred broccoli:
1 pound broccoli
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce

 

  • Preheat the oven to 275F. While it warms, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Rub the sweet potatoes with the 1 tablespoon olive oil, arrange on the lined baking sheet, and sprinkle each generously with salt and pepper. Place carefully into the oven and bake at 275F for 2½ hours.
  • While the sweet potatoes take their sweet time, make the ginger lime butter. In a small bowl, use a spoon or a spatula or a small whisk to whip together the softened butter, the lime zest, the ginger, and the brown sugar. Once fluffy and well combined, cover with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until a few minutes before it’s time to eat.
  • When the sweet potatoes have about ½ hour left to bake, start on the broccoli. Combine the 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a small bowl. Cut the broccoli into large, steak-like slices straight across the head – the point is to have lots of flat sides of broccoli flesh to lay against the pan.
  • Heat about 1 tablespoon of the oil mixture in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is shimmering but not quite smoking, carefully arrange slices of broccoli over the surface in a single layer. Try not to crowd; you will likely need to do this in a few batches. Cook without moving until the underside of each broccoli slice is deeply bronzed, around 2-3 minutes depending on your stove. Flip each piece over and repeat, so both sides are darkly browned and the broccoli is barely tender. Remove to a bowl or serving dish and repeat, adding more of the oil mixture when needed, until all of the broccoli is cooked.
  • While you are cooking the batches of broccoli, whisk together the 1 tablespoon lime juice and 1 tablespoon fish sauce in a small bowl. When all of the broccoli is done, pour on the sauce mixture and toss to combine.
  • After 2½ hours, the sweet potatoes are done. For an extra layer of flavor and texture, if you wish, set them under your broiler on high for a few minutes just before serving, until the skin blackens and crackles just a little bit, then carefully remove to a plate, split down the center, add a heaping helping of the ginger lime butter, and serve with a side of the broccoli.

Fisherman’s Stew

All I wanted to do when I got up on Sunday was edit photos (final soup post! Some photos of pelicans N. took!), draft this post, and hide from the suddenly summery weather that has invaded this weekend (sorry, East Coast. I shouldn’t complain, but 80s in January? Come on). What I did NOT want to do was computer shop. And yet, when our stuttering, stumbling, dying desk top (named GLaDOS after the computer in Portal here’s her final song in the credits if you want some nostalgic joy) wouldn’t load even the admin user profile, we sighed and resigned ourselves to replacing it.

In the meantime, I had to figure out photos. So I’m trying something new here: since I won’t have a new machine for a week or so, I’m testing Google Photos’ editing capabilities. Decent, I think, though I do like my Lightroom better…

That out of the way, and since I realize it’s only grilling-and-salad-and-vodka-tonics weather in a few areas of the country, let’s talk about this last soup. In planning the year’s project, I knew from the beginning what I wanted the December soup to be: a take on the Fisherman’s Stew from a restaurant in Eugene we adored called The Humble Beagle.

The Beagle was honest, slightly more than simple pub fare with Middle Eastern influences. The pizza had dollops of labneh. The hummus was impossibly light, and you could stuff it into a pita with crumbled lamb or fried eggplant, sliced of boiled potatoes, lightly pickled cabbage, and a hard boiled egg. The pub, as the couple who owned it affectionately called it, was only open for dinner, only five nights a week, and we watched their business and family grow as we moved through our PhD program. At one point Anni stopped appearing in the dining room, and what seemed like only a few months later, there was a curly haired, giant-and-wise-eyed moppet on Ari’s back as he took orders and chatted with guests.

At a certain point, both us of exhausted by the demands of the program and not up for the weekly happy hour at a campus bar that had lost a bit of its charm, N. and I started having dinner at the Beagle on Friday nights. We probably could have been thriftier with our meager stipends, but we told ourselves, as we drove there through the sheeting rain that seemed to last all winter, that we deserved the occasional reward for our hard work, and besides, it was better to spend a little more on really good food than fill ourselves with beer and bar fare.

During these Friday dinners, I started ordering a new item from the Beagle’s menu: the Fisherman’s Stew. This was usually among the priciest of their offerings, but again, reward. And once I had eaten it once or twice, I didn’t care. It was a rich but not heavy tomato based stew, laden with seafood – mussels, clams, sometimes tiny bay scallops, chunks of meaty white fish – and topped with a dollop of tart, creamy aioli and a slice of toast that never lasted long enough. It was complex in flavor and comforting on the tongue and in the belly, and I got so stuck on it I dreamed about it after we moved away from Eugene.

Seafood around the Christmas holiday feels right. It’s a time of indulgence, and it’s culinarily supported – I’m thinking about the Italian-American tradition of the feast of the seven fishes (not to mention the line practically out the door at Whole Foods to buy king crab legs!). Thus, it felt right to pay homage to the Beagle with my final soup of the year. In constructing the recipe, I had exactly the opposite experience as last month: I’ve remained friends with Ari on Facebook, and, expecting nothing, I messaged him to request the recipe. Within two days, he responded with the quantities and procedure they used at the restaurant, and it remained only for me to break this down into reasonable household quantities.

This is a convenient soup in that, even though it takes about an hour to put together, each cooked component sweats, or sautés, or simmers long enough that you have the time to get the next component ready. You cook down some aromatic vegetables and herbs, during which time you can chop up potatoes and carrots. While the root veg simmer away in tomato puree and water infused with a pinch of saffron (Trader Joe’s has the best prices I’ve ever seen on the stuff), you have plenty of time to clean and prep the seafood. You could even, as Ari suggested to me, make the soup base (the vegetables and liquid components) ahead of time, and reheat and add the seafood just before serving. This is a soup that ages well over a night or two, the complex flavors melding and deepening as they linger together, so dividing the process makes sense (plus, you can choose to heat up just the amount you need that evening, and freeze the rest).

As for the seafood, it’s much easier than you might think (well, it’s easier than I thought, anyway). I had never cooked my own clams or mussels before, and I had raised an eyebrow at Ari’s direction that the fish you add will be done in the time it takes the shellfish to open. He was, of course, exactly right; in fact, my fish ended up a tiny bit overcooked because I was nervous about doneness. Yours will not, since, of course, you’ll learn from my mistake.

The hardest part about the seafood prep here is ensuring cleanness and safety, but even that isn’t too daunting. The important thing is ensuring your shellfish are alive, and scrubbing off sand and grit – I submerged my clams and mussels in cold water for only about ten minutes (much more than that can kill them, since they are salt water critters) before scooping them out, scrubbing as I rinsed, and pulling off the mussels’ “beards” (toward the hinge only, please). From there, they go straight into the stew to cook briefly until they pop open, and if they don’t pop open, you discard them. That’s it. the kitchn offers the following expansion on this: “Freshly purchased mussels that are prepared properly pose very little food safety risk. Before cooking, look over the mussels carefully. The mussels should be tightly closed. Discard any mussels with cracked shells. If you see a mussel that is open, tap it gently against the counter; in a live mussel, this will trigger a reaction to close its shell. If the mussel doesn’t close, it has died and should be discarded. Also discard any mussels that don’t open after cooking. This might sound a little scary, but trust your instincts. Follow this simple advice: before cooking, shells closed; after cooking, shells open.”

When the shellfish have popped open, the fish is done, and your stew is ready to eat. Ari’s final word on the matter: “That’s it! Maybe add a dollop of aioli and a piece or two of crusty bread.” He’s right. And if you don’t have aioli, you can either doctor up some mayo with grated garlic and maybe a touch of lemon juice, or you can just put a teaspoon or so of straight mayonnaise right in the center of your bowl. I know that sounds indulgent, but trust me – it swirls into the soup to add just the right richness and balance against the acidity of the tomato base.

That’s 2017’s project in the books at last, then. Next week, we embark on a new project: the Chopped Challenge! The recipe post will go up on Monday as usual, but if you want, check in on Sunday when I’ll reveal the ingredients N. has chosen, and tell me in the comments what you would make with this mystery basket.

 

Fisherman’s Stew
Serves 6-8
Approximately 1 hour
¼ cup olive oil
3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, split vertically, cleaned under running water, and sliced thinly into half moons
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed (reserve a few fronds for serving), bulb halved and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon herbs de provence
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, papery skins removed, finely minced or smashed
4-5 anchovy fillets (I used a 2 ounce tin, drained of oil)
2 carrots, peeled and cut in small dice
2 large or 3 small Yukon gold potatoes, cut in small dice
32 ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
4 cups warm water
½ teaspoon saffron threads
2-3 wide strips orange peel (use a potato peeler)
juice of half a lemon or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound firm white fish like cod or halibut, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 pounds mixed shellfish, like mussels, clams, and small bay scallops (get these already shelled and cleaned, for ease)
To serve: fennel fronds, a few dollops aioli or mayonnaise (see above for mayo doctoring suggestions)

 

  • In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium low. Add the prepared leeks, celery and fennel, along with the herbs de provence, thyme, bay leaves, and a sprinkle of salt. Sweat until the leeks have softened but not browned, about 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant and the anchovy fillets have broken up.
  • Raise the heat to medium and add the carrots and potatoes. Season with about ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring.
  • While the carrots and potatoes are cooking, bloom the saffron by sprinkling the ½ teaspoon of red threads to the 4 cups of warm water. Add the tomato puree or crushed tomatoes, the saffron and its water, and the strips of orange zest to the pot. Squeeze in the lemon juice, then let the soup simmer until the vegetable chunks have softened, 20-30 minutes.
  • While the soup is simmering, it’s time to address the fish component. If you’re using clams and mussels, fill a large bowl with cold water and immerse them for just 10 minutes. They should settle on the bottom and expel a bit of sand. If any float, consider discarding them, as this likely means they are dead inside their shells. After 10 minutes, scoop them out (don’t pour, or the sand and grit that has settled at the bottom will be stirred up again) and scrub them off with a brush or your fingers under running water.
  • If your mussels have “beards,” as in the above picture, remove them by tugging the exposed seaweed-y bit sharply toward the hinge of the shell. It should pull off, and you can throw it away.
  • Now you are ready to put everything together. Remove the bay leaves, thyme sprigs, orange peels, and large garlic pieces, if you smashed rather than mincing. Plop in the clams, mussels, fish chunks, and bay scallops and cook just until the shellfish pop open; this will only take a minute or two. If any of them don’t pop open after a few minutes, discard them.
  • To serve, scoop generous servings into bowls, dollop with aioli or mayonnaise, and, if you like to be fancy, top with a fennel frond or two. Add some crusty or well-toasted bread and eat immediately.

 

Winter salad with roasted cranberry vinaigrette

I know it may seem a little odd to post a recipe for salad on Christmas Day. This is, after all, for those who celebrate Christmas, traditionally a day of heavy, indulgent food. It is about mashed potatoes, and standing rib roast, or lamb, or turkey, or well-glazed spiral ham, and pie. It is, as a dear old family friend of ours once declared (though he was talking about Thanksgiving), “not about lettuce!” I would offer in response that, honestly, neither is this salad. It is about the tartness of fruit, the jeweled colors, the crunch of nuts, the funk of the cheese. And sure, it is backed up by crisp cabbage and neutral greens, but really, it’s about a mix of brightness to break up whatever richness the rest of your table is heaving under, topped off by a puckering dressing of pan-roasted cranberries bobbing in balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice, if you prefer) and sweetened just enough with honey or maple syrup.

The dressing here is based on a recipe from PCC Markets. The spiced walnuts are lightly adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe – I’m not including it as part of my recipe since hers is so clear, but I will say that I used mustard powder and garam masala instead of her cumin and coriander, as I thought they would blend better with the rest of my salad ingredients.

Of course you can add or subtract anything you please here. Roasted root vegetables would add heartiness, arugula or radicchio would add peppery bitterness to the greens; pecans or hazelnuts could replace the walnuts as the spiced nut component. Dried cranberries or golden raisins could bolster and sweeten the cranberries from the dressing. If you aren’t a fan of blue cheese, a crumbled chevre would be a nice replacement.

Whatever beautiful additions or changes you make, be sure to toss it with the dressing at the very last minute – or serve the salad undressed and the vinaigrette in a small dish on the side – as the balsamic instantly sullies the brightness of the apples and radishes. And do serve the dressing with a spoon, so the burst cranberries can be fished out and liberally distributed. And whatever you’re eating this season, I hope it is delicious, and just what you wanted, and that it brings you joy. Merry Christmas.

Winter Salad with Roasted Cranberry Vinaigrette
Serves 6-8 as a side salad
20-30 minutes
For roasted cranberry vinaigrette:
½ cup fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (plus more to taste, if needed)
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For salad:
5 cups mixed greens, such as spinach, romaine, or butter lettuce
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
5-6 radishes, topped and tailed, thinly sliced into discs
14 ounce can drained mandarin orange segments (or fresh segments from 3-4 mandarin oranges)
½ cup crumbed gorgonzola or other blue cheese
½ cup spiced walnuts (see above for a link to Martha Stewart’s recipe)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 green apple, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into cubes

 

  • To make the dressing, heat the cranberries, the 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup, and the tablespoon of water in a skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl or stir occasionally until the cranberries pop, 5-6 minutes.
  • While the cranberries are cooking, whisk together the mustard, balsamic or lemon juice, and olive oil in a glass measuring cup or in the container you’ll be serving the dressing from. Plop in the cranberries and their collected liquid after they have all popped, whisk well, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If the dressing seems too tart you can add more honey or maple syrup, but remember it will taste diluted once it is distributed over the salad. Set aside to cool before serving.
  • While the dressing cools, assemble the salad: toss the greens and the cabbage in a large bowl. Add the radish, the mandarin segments, the cheese, the spiced walnuts, and the pomegranate seeds.
  • Just before serving, prep and add the apple and the avocado (you want to wait till the last minute for this so they don’t brown). Toss, if desired, or serve untossed so diners can see all of the bright components.
  • Add the dressing at the last minute, or serve alongside so diners can add their own dressing as they serve themselves.

Autumn Bisque, now with post and recipe!

I promised you a recipe when I was feeling a bit better, and suddenly a week slid by! It’s not that I wasn’t feeling better (though suspected food poisoning that requires two days – TWO! Two entire days! – home from work does take a while to recover from); it’s just that the end-of-semester panic that seems to make many of my students momentarily forget how to write seemed to strike me too. The words dulled and tripped and, in the face of multiple fires breathing their way up and down Southern California and all the other apocalyptic promises of the impending end of the year, chose to stay inside, thank-you-very-much.

But it’s time to shed that cocoon and step back out, and besides, this soup, with its medley of root vegetables, apple for sweet tartness, and luxurious quantities of cream, is all the velvet goodness a winter table requires. Its inspiration comes from a gorgeous bowl at my sister’s wedding last fall – a soup so rich and luxe and flavorful it was practically a down comforter. I knew it had root vegetables in it, I knew it had cream and herbs, maybe butternut squash, maybe sweet potato… so I wrote to the catering director at the venue and got into a very silly standoff: I wanted an email with a recipe, she wanted me to call (during HER business hours, east coast time – didn’t she know I was at work too? Didn’t she know I abhor phone calls?!) so she could tell me how she makes it, which sounded more like procedure than like an ingredient list with quantities. This went back and forth for a week, with me refusing to call and her refusing to provide a recipe, and finally I just gave up. Ten months later, the time to recreate the soup arrived, and I had only my muted memories from a night soaked in champagne and joy to go on.

To that end, I have no idea how close this is to the original. I picked sweet potatoes, parsnips, and celery root for an intriguing background flavor – you could change up the vegetable choices and use winter squash, or carrots, or even rutabagas. I suspect the venue’s version had even more cream, and I don’t think it included the spritz of nutmeg I added (mostly for looks, but we liked the flavor of it too), but there’s something about pouring in over a cup of heavy whipping cream and watching the contents of the pot go from bright orange to decidedly pale gold that makes a home cook’s arteries start whispering threats. I also don’t think the venue added a last minute slug of irish whiskey, but I’d recommend that you do, since just that little bit somehow rounds out the flavor in a way nothing else could.

What I do know is: this is cozy. It’s smooth, and rich, and pleasantly filling, and would be perfect with a bright, citrus-spiked salad full of radishes and pomegranate seeds and bitter lettuces.* And a thick wedge of bread to round things out. Maybe this one. And it leaves me lacking only one soup, with three weeks to go, to make this project complete.

* wow, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Want one next week? I’ll see what I can do…

Autumn Bisque
Makes 10-12 first course servings; about 6 main course servings
About an hour
4-6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium white onion, diced
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups peeled and diced celery root
2 cups peeled and diced sweet potato
2 cups peeled and diced parsnips
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme (plus more to serve, if desired)
1 sprig fresh sage (4-5 leaves)
1 bay leaf
1½ cups heavy cream
1-2 ounces whiskey, brandy, or marsala, optional
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
sprinkle of nutmeg, to serve

 

  • Set the oven temperature to 350F. In a small, oven-safe bowl, drizzle the garlic cloves with a little bit of olive oil, some salt and some pepper. Top tightly with aluminum foil and stow in the oven until the garlic smells sweet, 20-25 minutes. There’s no need to wait for the oven to preheat.
  • While the garlic is roasting, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook gently with 2 pinches of salt until the onions are tender and slightly translucent, but not browned. This is called sweating, and should take 8-10 minutes, during which time you can peel and dice the other vegetables.
  • With the onions softened, pour in the stock, then dump in the diced celery root, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and apple. Stir in the thyme, sage, and bay leaf, then raise the heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
  • Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the soup just at a simmer until the vegetables are fork-tender: easily speared but not disintegrating; about 30 minutes. The apple will be softer than the others; the celery root will likely take the longest.
  • When the vegetable chunks are tender, remove from heat and add the roasted garlic – once it has cooled a bit from its time in the oven, just squeeze the cloves right out of their skins, and straight into the soup. Then, very carefully and working in batches, relocate the soup to a blender and blend until very, very smooth. Hot liquids can expand rapidly in the blender, causing small “explosions,” so leave some room in the top, leave a space with the lid for air to escape, and consider covering the top with a thick kitchen towel just in case.
  • Transfer the smooth soup back to the pot. If you’re feeling especially fussy, you could try straining it first. I didn’t, but if you do, let me know how it goes!
  • Back in the pot, stir in the heavy cream and the alcohol, if using, and the salt. Start with 1 teaspoon, taste, then add more if you feel the soup needs it. Return to low heat until warmed through.
  • To serve, ladle into bowls, dust lightly with nutmeg, and top with a sprig of thyme if you’re feeling fancy.

Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with Herb Puree and Cheese Toast

Just under the wire: your October soup! I debated between this and tortilla soup for several weeks, then it was too hot to think even remotely about soup, and when I came out on the other end, almost time for Halloween and without a single container of chicken stock in my freezer nor an ounce of impetus to make any, all I could think about was a tomato bisque with a swirl of pesto I had at a surprise Friday lunch date with N. last month at a little bistro we like, and the decision was made. Bisque is traditionally a soup made with seafood stock to which cream is added – lobster bisque is of course the poster child. However, it has evolved, as food so often does, and now seems to just indicate a soup that has been blended to smooth consistency and finished with cream. Tomato seemed like a good way of making it a vegetarian option, and I have a soft spot for tomato soup. For extra interest, I wanted to add roasted red pepper to mine, to evoke that dry, smokiness fall can sometimes carry with it. As for the tomatoes, I dithered: did it make sense to look for lingering heirlooms at my Farmers’ Market, or settle for grocery story options, and should I peel or not peel? And would it be cheating if I just grabbed a jar of fire-roasted and called it a day?

Then my friend S. sent me Deb’s new book, and of course she already had the answer, which she says came from Cook’s Illustrated: gently split and drain the canned tomatoes, and roast them until dried and lightly colored. This concentrates their flavor, saves you the headache of deciding on perfect tomatoes, makes this an any-time-of-year option, and gives you time to prep the rest of the ingredients while the tomatoes are in the oven. Yes, it probably makes the soup take a little longer to come together, and yes, if you don’t line your baking sheet with aluminum foil first you’ll be every so sorry, but the flavor difference is noticeable, so I think it’s worth doing. The roasted flavor is evened and enriched by the cream we add at the end, and I think it also combats that too-acidic bite tomatoes sometimes have. But if you find yours are still a touch sour at the end, add a quick squeeze of honey.

A tomato soup is a comforting standard, but the trick – and treat – of this one is the herb puree I made to imitate that pesto from the bistro. A quick whizz of basil along with whatever other soft stemmed herbs you like – parsley, dill, I threw in some sage, but it’s such powerful stuff you really only need a few leaves of it – a clove of garlic, some lemon juice if you dig that sourness, and enough olive oil to bring it all together.

The herb puree can be dolloped on or mixed in, but I wanted to be fancy, so I carefully dribbled a swirl through the center of my bowl. And then, because imagining a bowl of tomato-based soup without melted cheese on toasted bread is impossible for me, I broiled some sharp cheddar onto a few leftover slices of baguette and settled in for dinner.

*This recipe includes charring a fresh pepper and roasting a can of tomatoes, but you can also make it easy on yourself and sub in roasted red peppers and fire-roasted tomatoes, and I bet your results will be similar, and cut down about half an hour of the time it takes to make this. If you try that way, let me know how it turned out.

 

Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque with herb puree and cheese toasts
About an hour, if your tomatoes and peppers are not pre-roasted. About half an hour if they are.
Serves 4 as a light dinner
For soup:
1 large red bell pepper (or 1 jar roasted red peppers, drained)
1 tablespoon olive oil
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, plain or fire roasted
½ cup diced onion
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
2 tablespoons butter
2-2½ cups vegetable or chicken stock (you may not use it all)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (1-2 sprigs)
salt and pepper to taste
½-1 cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons honey, optional
For herb puree:
½ cup basil leaves
¼ cup other mixed herbs – I used parsley, chives, and just a few sage leaves
1 clove garlic
lemon juice to taste
¼-½ cup olive oil
For cheese toasts:
Per slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread:
½ teaspoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons finely grated sharp cheddar cheese

 

  • If you are using plain tomatoes, preheat the oven to 450F. If you are using fire-roasted tomatoes, no need. For both, open the tomato can and dump into a fine mesh strainer positioned over a bowl or a large glass measuring cup to collect the juices. As they drain, use your fingers to gently tear the tomatoes and extract some of the juice and seeds inside.
  • If you are using jarred roasted red peppers, skip this step. If you are using a fresh red bell pepper, while the oven is warming, char the red bell pepper over a gas burner turned on high. Let the skin blacken, adjusting the placement of the pepper with a pair of metal tongs to allow for maximum char. As each lobe blackens, turn to a new side, repeating until the skin is well charred and the flesh of the pepper is starting to soften, around 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap for another 15 minutes.
  • If you are using plain tomatoes, when the oven has preheated, cover a baking tray or roasting pan with aluminum foil, drizzle on the 1 tablespoon olive oil, and add the juiced, seeded tomatoes. Transfer to the oven and roast 25-30 minutes, until the tomatoes have dried out and are starting to take on a little color.
  • While the tomatoes roast and the pepper steams, turn your attention to the soup base. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, then add the diced onions and the smashed garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and smell sweet, 8-10 minutes.
  • After the pepper has steamed for about 15 minutes, strip off the plastic wrap and use a knife to cut a slit into the pepper (be careful – hot steam will be released). When it is cool enough to handle, wrap it in a dry paper towel and rub to remove the majority of the skin – it should slide off relatively easily. Don’t worry if a few charred pieces stay on. Split the pepper in half, remove the stem and seeds, then roughly chop the flesh.
  • Add the chopped pepper and the roasted tomatoes to the pot with the onions and garlic (or add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes and jarred roasted red peppers). Add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the reserved tomato juices to make 2½ cups of liquid. Add to the pot along with the bay leaf and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 20-25 minutes with a slightly vented lid.
  • While the soup is simmering, you can make the herb puree. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, other mixed herbs, a few tablespoons lemon juice, and about ½ teaspoon of salt. Buzz to combine. While the processor is running, stream in about ¼ cup olive oil. Stop the processor, scrape down the sides, and assess. You want a reasonably smooth, well-seasoned puree. If needed, add salt, pepper if you wish, and lemon juice. If the herb pieces still seem dry and not well integrated, run the processor again and stream in some more olive oil, until the mixture comes together into a puree. Scrape into a small bowl and rinse out the processor or blender.
  • After 20-25 minutes of simmering, remove the bay leaf and the stems of oregano, if you used full sprigs, and carefully transfer the soup into the rinsed out food processor or blender. Carefully, since hot liquids can “explode” when blended from the trapped steam, cover the lid with a towel and turn on the processor or blender to low speed. I like to leave the feed tube lid/pusher out of my food processor when I do this, to let steam escape. As the soup blends, turn the machine up to high speed and run until the mixture is very smooth.
  • Once you’ve achieved the consistency you want, return the soup to the pot, add the cream, and season to taste. If it seems a little too acidic, add a little more cream and/or the 1-2 teapoons honey. Warm through over medium-low heat.
  • While the soup warms, it’s a good time to make the cheese toasts. Spread each slice of baguette or half-slice of sandwich bread with a thin layer of mayonnaise, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese, and place under a broiler or toaster oven heated to 400F until the cheese bubbles and browns.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into a large bowl. Carefully spoon on the herb puree in a swirl (or whatever pattern you want, or just a dollop). Dunk in a cheese toast, or serve it on the side, while still warm.

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