Creamy Asparagus Soup with Two Garnishes

food-blog-march-2017-0391As it turns out, when you start to conceive a soup for March, there are a number of things to think about. Which half – the “in like a lion” or the “out like a lamb” part – do you capture? Do you take into account Punxsutawney Phil’s ominous scrabblings, or do you celebrate the early vestiges of the spring you feel coming? Do you blitz together creamy, lingering winter flavors, or do you fly light and bright and vegetal, in hopes of what might be just over the horizon?

food-blog-march-2017-0390If you’re me, you mull, you consider, you scribble, and then you try to do all of the above. For some people (read: east coast food snobs foodies), the emergence of ramps is the harbinger of spring. For me, it’s asparagus. I like the image of the little fern-like tops pushing their way up out of the cold ground, extending into bold, fat, turgid stalks. It’s not the likeliest vegetable to put into a soup, but it’s such a welcome green flavor that I wanted to celebrate it. The grassy character of asparagus got me thinking about cream of celery soup, one of those condensed classics that I’ve never actually eaten from a bowl, but have seen on any number of casserole recipes right up there with its gloopy mushroom cousin.

food-blog-march-2017-0376Cream of asparagus soup sounded comforting and easy, but what really got me excited was the prospect of garnishing it. A few Christmases ago, one of our appetizer options was wrapped asparagus: one set lovingly encased in wafer-thin strips of prosciutto; the other bundled into swaths of smoked salmon. And combining my childhood recollection of crackers crushed into soup for texture and the number of smoked salmon Caesar salads with homemade croutons we’ve had lately, my soup toppings seemed set. The prosciutto would be crisped in the oven and float tantalizingly on the creamy surface, and the salmon would be piled right in the middle for a treasure chest you could drag your spoon through on its way to a rubble of crouton.

food-blog-march-2017-0369Of course you wouldn’t eat the soup with both garnishes – prosciutto and smoked salmon (although, for the purposes of photographing each we did, in fact, have both), but two toppings seemed like a nice option to give you. I’ll be honest: we liked the salmon best, and definitely dug the croutons, but the prosciutto does go well with the soup’s flavor profile.

food-blog-march-2017-0365This was delicious – creamy and comforting – but the real excitement came when we sat down to eat it. I turned the heat on our gas stove down to low in case we wanted seconds, finished my photo session, toppings arranged just so, and brought two steaming bowls over to the couch where we were set to embark on a thrilling Friday night: soup and a British murder mystery, and no sooner had the ominous intro music begun to play than the power went out. We sat, we waited a few moments, we relocated to the table and lit a few candles, and then we ate soup in the semi-darkness, with the wind outside ripping down branches and the rain sheeting over the roof (we’re still in Los Angeles, right?), and were pleased to be indoors, with gas heat, and warm soup, and the whole weekend still to come.

food-blog-march-2017-0380A few notes: if you want the excitement of finding asparagus tips threaded through the smoothness of your soup, you can, as we did, leave them aside until after you puree. If you don’t want the disruption, add them along with the stalks and blend away.

However you choose to puree the soup – handheld or regular blender – be sure to be thorough. Unexpected snippets of leek or onion mar our velvet intentions and need to be blitzed into oblivion.

Be sure to cook the croutons until they are quite crisp. I like a salad crouton with a tiny bit of chewy give in the center, but here, the soup soaks in and the cubes need to be fully dry to avoid turning to instant mush.

food-blog-march-2017-0401

Creamy Asparagus Soup with Two Garnishes
Adapted from Jamie at Home
Serves 4
About 45 minutes
For the soup:
4 tablespoons butter
1½ cups diced white onion (1 medium or ½ large)
1 leek, white and pale green parts only, halved, cleaned, and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, cleaned, thinly sliced
1½-2 pounds asparagus, woody ends snapped off, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 quart water (4 cups) (you could use broth here, but I wanted to keep the flavors veg-central)
salt and pepper to taste
¼-½ cup heavy cream
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons chives, very thinly sliced
For the prosciutto garnish:
4 slices prosciutto
For the salmon and crouton garnish:
3 cups ½-inch sourdough bread cubes, cut from about ⅓ of a large loaf or batard
4 cloves garlic, minced, or ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
zest from one lemon
½ teaspoon black pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces smoked salmon

 

  • In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, leek, and celery pieces and turn the heat down to medium low. Sweat the vegetables for about 10 minutes – we are looking for tenderness, not for color. If they begin to brown, turn down the heat.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, begin work on your garnishes – see instructions below.
  • When the vegetables are tender and the onion pieces have become translucent, add the water and the asparagus stalks, reserving the tips if desired. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to keep the liquid at a bare simmer for about 20 minutes, until the asparagus pieces are tender.
  • Blend extremely well using a handheld or a standard blender – you are looking for a completely smooth mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • If you have reserved the asparagus tips, add them now and simmer just until they are tender, about 5 minutes.
  • Pull the pot off of the heat, add the cream and stir, then return to low heat, add lemon juice and chives, and warm through.
  • To make the prosciutto garnish, while the onion, leek, and celery are cooking, preheat the oven to 300F and spread out 4 pieces of prosciutto on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake at 300F for 20-25 minutes, until they are crisp enough to shatter.
  • Set aside until soup is ready and serve balanced on the edge of the bowl, crumbled over the soup, or with one end immersed for drama, as above. Eat immediately; it will not remain crisp for long once it hits the hot liquid.
  • To make the crouton and salmon garnish, while the onion, leek, and celery are cooking, preheat the oven to 300F. In a large bowl, whisk together the minced garlic or garlic powder, the lemon zest, the salt, and the pepper. Add the sourdough cubes and toss well to combine.
  • Spread the seasoned bread cubes out on a baking tray and toast in the 300F oven for 20-25 minutes, until they are thoroughly dried inside.
  • While the cubes toast and the soup simmers, unwrap the smoked salmon and use two forks, back to back, pulling away from each other, to shred it up.
  • To serve, after ladling in a serving of soup, place a small mound of the smoked salmon in the center of the bowl, then place a handful of croutons over the top. As you can see, for aesthetic purposes I piled mine to the side, but you can put them right in the middle if you wish. Eat immediately.

Split Pea and Ham Soup with Collard Greens

food-blog-february-2017-0318Two things come to mind when I think of split pea soup, both from childhood. In the real world, I think of my mom and sister – R. ate a lot of Campbell’s soups for lunch when she was little, and I remember Mom asking her whether she wanted some “hammy pea soup.” On screen, I remember the charming little clip from the beginning of Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under depicting how the fancy restaurant Bernard and Bianca go to gets its soup course to the table. Both memories charm me more than the actual product, so I decided, as a first real dip into the soup project, in a February that veers wildly between dreary and bright (and not just on a meteorological front), making this one over would be a rewarding project.

food-blog-february-2017-0307I’ll be honest, though, right out of the gate: this is indeed a project. This is not a soup you’ll have on the table, or in a mug curled up on the couch, in a half hour or so. This is a multi-step, multi-hour prospect.

Are you still here?

Good.

food-blog-february-2017-0294The average split pea soup is not unlike a dreary February day, the kind where you feel pressed into the couch by lack of motivation, or just unable to move away from your newsfeed. It is thick and heavy and sometimes muddy in flavor, as pulse-based soups can be. There are, I think, two ways to amend this. One is to go the daal route, amping up the spice quotient. The other, the one I chose, is to add freshness near the end of the cook time, forcing the wintry brew toward something springy, no matter what Punxsutawney Phil had to say this year.

food-blog-february-2017-0295My method of freshening was almost entirely though association of the two major players. Split peas are a starchy, dry, processed product. Why not take them to a family reunion with their plump, sweet, former selves? A cup of frozen peas would jangle in at the end to brighten things up. The other major ingredient in the mix – the ham – is usually in the form of a “ham hock,” the lower part of the leg, smoked, with the skin and bone still present. Ham hock reminded me of collard greens, and I started wondering how some ribbons of greens, cooked until tender but not decimated, would do in this soup. Pairing collard greens with starchy legumes is hardly new – food historian Michael Twitty writes this important discussion of the cultural background of collard greens, including their frequent matching with peanuts in the cuisine of the African diaspora.

food-blog-february-2017-0296Split pea soup usually has some other starchy ingredient in it – most often potatoes. I opted to omit this entirely, but you could certainly add some back in, or change it up and use celery root instead for a more herbaceous flavor. Instead, I made my base simple: carrots for sweetness and color, leeks for a mild onion-y punch, and just a bit of garlic to keep things savory. At the last minute, I stirred in a handful of parsley for a final bright burst.

food-blog-february-2017-0302As I noticed when I consulted a few recipes for inspiration, differences in procedure really lie in how you treat the vegetables. Some recipes brown them first, then add the peas and broth, but this can result in disintegrated veg by the time the soup is ready. Some, to prevent this over-softening, add the vegetables part way through the cooking, but then the soup doesn’t benefit from the extra flavor a bit of caramelization and initial browning provides. The New Best Recipe cooks the vegetables in a separate vessel before adding them to the soup, and that would be fine if you don’t object to extra dishes… but I always object to extra dishes. I would rather it take longer and have less to wash up.

food-blog-february-2017-0308In my procedure, we cook everything in the same pot. First, brown the exterior of the ham hock first (I used a smoked pork shank, but they are almost the same thing). Once it is crisp and golden on the exterior, the vegetables get browned in the residual fat (plus some fatty bits and pockets, if you want to carve any off and add them), then set aside until the final twenty minutes of simmering, so they retain some texture and have the extra flavor from the pork fat. Yes, this adds some time, but you’re prepped for a project anyway, right?

I have to admit, though I always want to like what I make, I wasn’t expecting to be crazy about this soup. With the dreary, February-gloom hanging around my expectations despite attempts to create brightness, I thought I would like it but not love it.

food-blog-february-2017-0312It’s nice to be wrong sometimes, isn’t it? This soup exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. The play between the two kinds of peas – creamy and starchy on one hand and barely cooked pops of sweetness on the other – was delightful. The ribbons of collard greens were perfect: vegetal and tender, good flavor companions with the peas and the shreds of ham. Sometimes when I make a soup I end up freezing half of it and planning in vain to use it again, but this one we scarfed down the night of, and then for lunch the next day, and then for lunch again, and it was gone, and our bellies were warm and bolstered against the gloom of February.

food-blog-february-2017-0318This will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days in a sealed container, and reheats easily in the microwave or on the stove. You might need to add a drizzle or two of extra broth when reheating, since the peas suck up a lot of the liquid as they cook and as they cool. Delightfully, this is one of those soups that, while it’s delicious the first day, improves as it sits and its flavors mingle.

food-blog-february-2017-0320* yes, that coaster does say “I want to hold your ham.” It’s from a set my sister gave me that features misheard song lyrics, the technical term for which (can I tell you how much I love that misheard lyrics have a technical term?!) is mondegreen.

 

Split Pea and Ham Soup with Collard Greens
3-4 hours
Serves 6
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾-1 pound ham hock, smoked pork shank, or bone-in picnic ham
2 leeks, white and pale green sections only
3 carrots, stem end lopped off, peeled
2 cloves garlic, crushed, papery skins removed
6 cups water, broth, or stock. I used my roasted vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
½ pound green split peas (a little more than 1 cup)
ground black pepper to taste
salt to taste
1 bunch collard greens, tough stems removed
1 cup frozen green peas
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

 

  • Begin by prepping the vegetables. You’ll be happier later. For the leeks, slice off the root end, then cut vertically so you have two half-moon shaped logs. Rinse these under water, working your fingers between the layers to excavate hidden dirt. Shake vigorously. Set on your cutting board with rounded sides up, then cut in half vertically, then in half again so you have four piles of thin strips, as in the photo above. Slice across these strips to produce small squares. For the carrots, cut each in half horizontally, then in half vertically. Treat these like the leeks, slicing each rounded half-log into four thin strips, then cutting across the strips into small pieces. For the collard greens, once you have removed the tough stems, stack the leaves in a pile and roll them up tightly into a fat log. Slice across the log into thin ribbons. You can cut those into smaller pieces if you want to, but I liked the look and feel of the ribbons.
  • In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. When it is shimmering, add whatever sort of ham you’re using and cook until all sides are nicely browned: 2-4 minutes per side. Remove the meat and set aside. Lower the heat to medium and add the prepped carrots, leeks, and garlic. If the ham has some pearly fatty bits, carve those off and add them to the pot with the vegetables to continue rendering. Cook, stirring, until nicely caramelized: about 10 minutes.
  • Remove vegetables and fat scraps to a plate. Discard the fat scraps, if there were any, but reserve the vegetables. In the pot, add the stock or broth or water, the ham again, and the bay leaves. Cover the pot, turn the heat up to medium high until you reach a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and simmer until the ham is tender and pulling away from the bone. For me, this took about 90 minutes. It may take you up to 2 hours, depending on what kind of meat you are using.
  • When the ham is quite tender and pulling away from its bone, remove it from the fortified cooking liquid and set it aside until it is cool enough to handle. After it cools, separate the meat from the bone and shred the meat. Discard any rind or fatty bits.
  • To the cooking liquid in the pot, add the thyme sprigs and the green split peas. Keep the liquid at a simmer for 45 minutes, until the peas are tender but not dissolved. Once you’ve shredded the ham, you can add the bone back into the cooking liquid if you wish. Season to taste with salt and pepper, keeping in mind you’ll be adding ham back in, which can be quite salty.
  • With the peas tender and just beginning to fall apart, add the reserved vegetables, the prepared collard green ribbons, and the shredded ham to the pot. Return to a simmer for 20 minutes. Many of the split peas should now have collapsed into a creamy mess.
  • Finally, add the frozen peas to the pot and cook just until they are hot – another 5 minutes at maximum. Remove the bay leaves, the crushed garlic pieces, and the ham bone, if you put it back in there. Stir in the parsley, taste for seasoning once more, and serve, preferably with a piece of garlic-rubbed toast to dip.

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Project Soup Foundations: Roasted Vegetable and Chicken Stock/Broth

food-blog-january-2017-0245This last week has been a lot. A new president, an elderly dog with suddenly severe mobility challenges, a new president, a state that seemed to offer a pointed meteorological response, particularly on inauguration day (and then clear, sun-swept skies for the women’s march the next morning – what up, universe!), oh, and that whole new president thing. I opted, as is my usual practice, to respond in part by shuffling into the kitchen. Cooking doesn’t do a great deal on a large scale, but it makes me feel safe and in control, and it is with those feelings that I gain a foundation of strength and confidence to undertake other, more consequential actions. So let’s talk foundations. The foundation – the basis – of soup is liquid. That’s not always the part you add first, and it often doesn’t feel like the most interesting part,* but it’s what separates soup from puree, or pasta, or pile-of-diced-vegetables-with-some-beans-and-meat-or-maybe-potatoes.

food-blog-january-2017-0163food-blog-january-2017-0169food-blog-january-2017-0175Obviously you have a lot of choice when it comes to choosing this liquid. You could, of course, work with plain old water, and per some rational arguments this does work, but most soups advocate for a stock or broth of some sort – usually the variety that most closely matches the “star ingredient” in the finished dish. I’d wager a guess that chicken and vegetable are the most common, with beef coming in a wavering third. There are many good options in the aisle at the store for all of these varieties – when I go with store-bought I opt for low-sodium – but what fun would it be if I told you to go out and buy the base of our project for the whole year? Nope. Doesn’t sound like me. We need a strong foundation. We’re going to make it ourselves.

food-blog-january-2017-0182food-blog-january-2017-0184The first hurdle to surmount is the question of broth vs. stock. These terms get used pretty interchangeably, but there is a difference. Harold McGee offers mostly an etymological distinction, citing the latter as deriving from “an old Germanic root meaning ‘tree trunk’” and the former as “more specific and ancient,” going back to the turn of the first millennium with the root bru, which means “to prepare by boiling” – quite similar to our word “brew” (599). Alan Davidson agrees, adding that though broth or bru at its inception just meant the liquid and its contents, in recent centuries the word has implied the presence of meat. A broth could be the resulting liquid of brewing down these ingredients, or a finished product in itself, like the broth of a soup. Stocks, on the other hand, Davidson positions as less finished, component parts of a dish-to-be (108).

food-blog-january-2017-0197More recently, though, at least in American cooking parlance, stock vs. broth tends to be a question of bones vs. meat. A broth is a liquid made from meat that has been simmering, usually along with vegetables and herbs for flavor. Stocks are made from bones as well as connective tissue, along with vegetables and aromatics for flavor, and the collagen extracted from the bones during the simmer results in a product with more body – a heft or thickness absent from broth. As Alton Brown notes, it is hard to remove all meat from bones when you are making a stock, which means that many homemade stocks are actually a hybrid between the two bases; that may be in part why we tend to use the words interchangeably. At least, that’s the answer I’m going for.

food-blog-january-2017-0199food-blog-january-2017-0223food-blog-january-2017-0235According to these defining principles, then, what we’re going to make here is one broth (no bones; all vegetables), and one stock (well, broth-stock. Brock? Stoth?). The ingredient lists are similar and the procedure is easy, if a little time-consuming: roast some veg or a chicken, pop the roasted veg or bones in a big pot, add flavoring agents, cover with water, simmer long enough to produce a bronzed, aromatic liquid. Strain, cool, and store. That’s it. Yes, it’s an additional step or two on your quest for soup, but it makes plenty, and then you’re set for a few months, depending on the frequency of your broth needs. Call it a project for a rainy day, which we seem to be having plenty of lately.

food-blog-january-2017-0210food-blog-january-2017-0207I particularly like making the effort just after Thanksgiving, when the bones and trimmings of that turkey carcass make enough meaty, strengthening, belly-consoling stock to service my soup, stew, risotto, couscous, and arroz con pollo needs for at least a quarter of the year.**

food-blog-january-2017-0213food-blog-january-2017-0211* it’s also not the most interesting or sexy thing to take photos of, so I hope you appreciate Lucy’s willingness to help out by posing with various vegetables (she couldn’t be bothered with the celery, so we stuck with onion and carrots).

food-blog-january-2017-0218** with the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, I increase the amount of water in the mix, but tend to leave the other ingredient quantities about the same.

 

Roasted Vegetable Broth
Makes 10-11 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours, if you are organized
The mushrooms and soy sauce here produce a final product that is darker in color than the broths you might be used to, but I like including them because they contribute such deep, earthy flavors. Don’t worry about the saltiness of the soy sauce – it’s only a few tablespoons in a tremendous three quarts of water. This leaves the finished broth slightly under-seasoned, so you can reduce it down into a sauce without worries, or add salt to taste as you use it for other dishes.
1 onion, stem end and root stub removed, papery skins still on, quartered
1 leek, dark green leaves removed, roots lopped off, halved and rinsed well between the layers
3 thick carrots, stems lopped off, cut in thirds
3 celery stalks, top and bottom tips removed, rinsed free of dirt, cut in thirds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
8-10 garlic cloves, skins on
8-10 shiitake mushroom stems or 4-5 whole shiitake mushrooms (you could use crimini instead, if you prefer, but I had shiitakes. Just go for a dark, flavor-rich mushroom that you like.)
¼ – ½ bunch of parsley, stems and leaves
2-3 big sprigs of thyme (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons soy sauce
12 cups (3 quarts) cold water

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F while you prep the vegetables. In a large bowl, toss the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Line a large cookie sheet with aluminum foil and scoop the vegetables onto it using a slotted spoon. Roast at 375F for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, add the garlic cloves and the mushrooms or mushroom stems to the bowl and toss around a bit to coat them with the remaining olive oil and salt.
  • After half an hour, remove the cookie sheet from the oven, toss the vegetables around a bit to prevent sticking and encourage even browning, and add the mushroom stems or whole mushrooms and the garlic. Put the cookie sheet back into the oven and roast another 20 minutes, until the edges of the onions and leeks are deeply browned and a bit crisp.
  • Put the roasted vegetables into a large stock pot or dutch oven (if you’re careful, you can just lift the whole sheet of aluminum foil and dump them straight in). Add the parsley, the thyme, the peppercorns, the bay leaves, and the soy sauce. Dump in the water, turn the heat on high, and clamp on the lid.
  • When the liquid in the pot reaches a boil, turn the heat down to medium low or low and keep it at just a simmer for 60 minutes.
  • After an hour, turn off the heat and use a strainer or fine mesh sieve to scoop out the vegetables and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
  • Roasted vegetable broth can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, deglazing vegetables; anything that needs a rich, earthy liquid as a base.

 

“Everyday” Chicken Stock
Makes 14-15 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours (not counting the time required to roast and pick the chicken)
Here we leave the vegetables in bigger pieces since we will simmer for a bit longer – that way they won’t break down entirely as the hot water extracts the necessary flavor and collagen from the bones. I use skin as well in the mix, because I like the extra flavor and seasoning it contributes. You can leave it out if you wish. I’m calling this “everyday” because though I realize you won’t make it every day, it is nice to have access to on a daily basis, which is why always having a few quarts stashed in the freezer is one of my kitchen goals.
Carcass (and remaining skin, if desired) from a 4½-5½ pound chicken, picked reasonably clean of meat (save for chicken tacos, or pot pie, or sandwiches, etc.)
3-4 whole carrots, stem ends lopped off
3-4 stalks celery, leaves and all (rinse or brush off any dirt at the root end if needed)
1 onion, stem and root ends removed, quartered (you can use or discard the papery skin; I’ve done both and there isn’t much difference to the resulting product)
10-12 cloves garlic, papery skins still on
½ bunch parsley, stems and all
3 thyme sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 sage sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 rosemary sprigs (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2-3 bay leaves
16 cups (4 quarts) cold water. We want to cover the ingredients by an inch or two (though some of the vegetables will float), but not add so much water that the final product is diluted – the bones can only give up so much flavor.

 

  • Place all ingredients together in a large pot. I like to use a big pasta pot with the removable strainer insert. You could, I suppose, make use of the strainer insert, but some of the smaller pieces (i.e. the peppercorns) are going to fall through, so I just use the empty pot. Saves at least one dish to wash later.
  • Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low or medium-low and simmer for 1½-2 hours, until the liquid is golden and aromatic, and the vegetables are extremely tender but not yet falling apart.
  • Use a fine mesh sieve or strainer to remove and discard the bones, vegetables, and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into a large pitcher and store in the refrigerator overnight. Excess fat in the stock will float to the top and solidify; scoop it off and discard it the next day.
  • Once the fat is discarded, strain the stock into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
  • Homemade chicken stock can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, risottos; anything that needs a fragrant, golden, poultry-flavored liquid as a base.

 

2017: Project Soup

Well, I didn’t do too well this year, did I? Apart from the all-too-frequent rain checks and odd missed posts, I only made it through – what – five months of my 2016 project? And not even consecutive months! There were some good candidates among search terms, some I even had ideas about – “how to plate your benedict with coleslaw” was particularly rich for play: I wasn’t sure what the recipe would be, but the images would include famous Benedicts, well, plated… somehow… with coleslaw. You know, Arnold, Cumberbatch; it would be an amusing commentary on male objectification as well as fulfillment of my monthly quota.

Somewhere along the line, though, I couldn’t sustain. Some of the phrases were just too weird. Some would involve too much research, and frankly, time was a too-precious commodity this past semester. Most problematic, though, and also most concerning, was a simple creative block. I’m not going to say I got tired of cooking this year, but I did get a little stymied in creating new things. I found myself planning dinners that went back again and again to old, comforting favorites. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s hard to go on with a food blog when what you find yourself craving is breakfast burritos again, and then pizza again, and then tacos again. I have a list of food ideas, and I would scroll through them and think “these sound really good!” routinely, but when it was time to plan the week’s menu, somehow none of those dishes made it on.

Clearly, I want to do better this year. I thought for a long time about what this year’s project could be, since I think having a category to hem me in helps a lot (and was one of the difficulties with the “search terms” idea – no large, anchoring genre of food). I thought briefly about a year of cookies or a year of desserts, and then I got home from our holiday travels feeling amazed my clothing still fit, and decided that wasn’t a wise direction.

Ultimately, it was one of my Christmas gifts that made the decision for me: I’ve been making sourdough loaves for a while now, but haven’t done much else with naturally yeasted breads. Unwrapping Chad Robertson’s beautiful hardcover Tartine Bread presented an exciting challenge though, weirdly, what I’m choosing is not bread at all. Rather, as I leafed through the pages, I found myself thinking about what kinds of things I would make to go with bread, and the one that kept coming up – perhaps because Northern California, where we were, was chilly and damp – was soup.

Soup presents a good challenge for several reasons: first, and most glaring, summer. There are a few classic cold soups I can rely on, but it will take some creativity to get through the warmer months when curling up and letting the steam from the bowl swirl around your nose isn’t quite how you want to approach dinner. But soup is also both comfortingly fundamental and infinitely variable. It starts the same way – some kind of broth or other liquid fortified with a few choice aromatics and seasoning – but can go in so many directions twelve months won’t be nearly enough to investigate everything. The different sorts of broths alone that are readily available at the average grocery store present at least five or six directions. Soup is easily adjustable to most diet plans – gazpacho satisfies the urge to go raw – and can work as a light starter or a hearty main course, depending on how it is enriched. It is also, with only a little effort, an exercise in eating seasonally, not only in terms of heartiness, but in terms of vegetation: whatever produce is most recently tugged from the ground or snipped from the stem can easily become inspiration for a soup.

There it is, then. The idea was really consummated when I watched a recent episode of Top Chef, though, and one of the contestants made consommé (see what I did there? Consummated? Consommé? I could have gone with clarified too… words are fun). The clear broth and the simple, fresh elements he added appealed to me more than some of the fancier, heavier dishes put out by other contestants.

I have a few ideas for what I’ll make us as the months progress: there will definitely be some fiddling with cold soups, there might be a chowder or a cioppino – something fish or shellfish based – I’m contemplating a lighter, brighter split pea and ham (to dip fresh, warm bread into, of course), and I had reasonable minestrone with barley in it a few weeks ago that I might try to elevate. We will start with broth – certainly not the most innovative or interesting recipe (and to tell you the truth, barely a recipe at all), but a requirement and, I think, a secure starting point for our project.* I’m also happy – in fact I’d welcome the challenge – to entertain your ideas or requests, if you want to offer them up! What kind of soup do you want a recipe for? Feel free to leave an idea in a comment, or send me an email (I’m trying to be better about checking that this year too).

Welcome to 2017: Project Soup.

 

*And, if I’m honest, a tiny chance for me to get ahead of things before the semester starts…

Carrot Ginger Soup with Coconut and Turmeric

I threw away my bathroom scale today. Before you applaud me, this isn’t some kind of new-year-new-me-self-acceptance resolution. No, it’s because unless we have had a 46 pound ghost living in our bathroom for the last month, the scale has stopped working. No amount of fiddling with the dial on the bottom has had any effect, aside from bulking up our imaginary squatter to 77 pounds.

Food Blog January 2015-0205Though I realize there are probably many videos, tutorials, and step-by-step Pinterest boards devoted to fixing this problem (how to evict your imaginary scale-ghost!), I decided it was easier to just throw it away. Then I went out and had chicken and waffles for lunch.

Food Blog January 2015-0210All that being said, it is the time of year when, if we’re invested in this sort of thing, we tend to pay a lot of attention to what our bodies look like and what we put into them. Usually that involves eating less and eating lighter, which is ironic and unfortunate, because so many places in the country this January are having such a harsh winter. We need comfort, we need warmth, we need rich food to sustain us through snow and low temperatures (well, perhaps not in Los Angeles).

Food Blog January 2015-0199The answer to both of these problems seems, to me, to be vegetable soup. I don’t mean a minestrone type concoction, with chunks of various veggies floating in broth, but a pureed soup, featuring a single vegetable star, with minimal back-up supporters and just a bit of spice to keep things interesting. After a recent episode of Top Chef on which one of the contestants made a deep, sunset inspired roasted carrot soup, I knew what my star would be.

Food Blog January 2015-0201Carrots work well with many flavors, but ginger is a particularly nice pairing; carrots are sweet and hearty, and ginger is a warm, spicy kick that keeps it bright. Rather than chicken stock, which I find can muddy flavors a bit, I opted for water as my liquid, with a generous splash of coconut milk to add some richness. Then, on a whim I’m pleased I followed, I sprinkled in a good teaspoon or two of turmeric, which bolstered both the orange glow of the carrots and their earthy flavor.

Food Blog January 2015-0213As I watched my pureed mixture burble in a pot, I started thinking about texture. I’d stopped short of pureeing the carrots to total velvet smoothness, but I still wanted something crunchy to break up the potential monotony of my soup. During the pumpkin madness of autumn, I experimented with some yet-to-be-perfected turmeric-spiced pumpkin bars that featured a pistachio and walnut crumble topping. Pistachios seemed like a good choice again here, and to play with the hint of citrus flavor they carry, as well as add a slight sourness the soup might benefit from, I tossed the nuts with lemon zest before sprinkling them over my vivid orange lunch.

Food Blog January 2015-0209Despite our less-than-wintery weather, this was a comforting, warming bowl. Roasting the carrots brings out their sweetness and concentrates their flavor, but the spices keep it dancing between decadent richness and brightly refreshing. I used some leftover naan to mop up the edges of my bowl, but a crusty piece of baguette or hot pita would, as you might expect, be just as nice.

Food Blog January 2015-0214This is a thick soup – almost passable as a vegetable puree, and you can play with it as you please. Add more or less liquid, replace the pistachio and lemon topping with another toasted nut, or lime zest rather than lemon, or maybe even fried sage and crumbled gingersnaps, to play with the fresh ginger in the soup. My quantities here produce an assertively gingery mix – reduce to just a teaspoon or two for a milder spice.

Food Blog January 2015-0207

Carrot Ginger Soup with Coconut and Turmeric
Serves 2-3
1 pound carrots, tips and tops removed, peeled if desired (I usually don’t – just scrub them off)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon grated ginger (or less, to your taste)
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 cup light coconut milk
1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
additional salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup roughly chopped, toasted pistachios
2 teaspoons lemon zest

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F while you prep your carrots. Remove their tops and tips, then split down the center for two long half cylinders. On an aluminum foil lined baking sheet, toss the carrot halves with the olive oil and the ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper for a gleaming, even coat. Roast in the 425F oven for 40 minutes, until nicely browned and quite tender. Set aside to cool slightly.
  • For a standard blender: add the roasted carrots, coconut milk, water, grated ginger, and turmeric to a blender and blend until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. As noted above, I chose to leave mine with a little texture, but you can blend until completely smooth if desired. Pour the mixture into a medium pot.
  • For an immersion blender: add the roasted carrots, coconut milk, water, grated ginger, and turmeric to a medium pot with high sides (otherwise the soup spatters a bit during blending) and blend with an immersion blender until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. As noted above, I chose to leave mine with a little texture, but you can blend until completely smooth if desired.
  • For both methods: once the soup is your desired consistency in the medium pot, place it over medium-low heat until it is heated through. Be careful – because this mixture is thick, if it comes to a boil it will spit.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve topped with a scattering of chopped pistachios and lemon zest.