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.

 

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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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Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho

I would wager a guess that Spain’s two best-known dishes, at least for Americans, are paella and gazpacho. While I see the value in both for late summer, this weekend the temperature in Southern California – and therefore in our living room – skyrocketed uncomfortably, and the idea of cooking anything felt like a death sentence. We turned, therefore, to the option least likely to wilt us further.

Even then, the idea of venturing into the kitchen – away from a trio of fans all blowing directly on me – to chop up a few vegetables before letting my blender do the bulk of the work was oppressive. Don’t let that stop you, though, because having a big bowl of this in your refrigerator is worth it. Gazpacho is, as I always think of it, the Spanish, blended, soup version of the Italian classic panzanella salad. Traditionally it always includes bread and olive oil along with the tomatoes, producing a lovely smooth, emulsified bowl that chopped vegetables can be floated into.

My mom’s version, which we’re having with few adjustments, doesn’t include the traditional bread component. She adds red wine vinegar and a little chicken broth to the vegetables and the olive oil, and always serves hers up cold, with a dollop of sour cream on top that can be dipped into with every spoonful, or swirled through the entire bowl, for a little extra richness. Of course you can leave off the sour cream and use vegetable broth instead, for a vegan option.

In addition to being simple, and cold, and raw, this soup keeps well; its flavors mingle over a night or two as it sits in your fridge, and it requires only a quick stir to bring it back together (it doesn’t have any emulsifying components, so after a long chill the olive oil will pool on the surface a bit which can look unappealing). One summer, I remember Mom keeping a massive tureen of it in the fridge for a few weeks, replenishing the base and adding more chopped vegetables as needed.

Aside from the indolent bother of rising from whatever surface you’re plastered to, the only troublesome complication of this soup is that it really does need to chill for a few hours before you eat it. Not only is it better served cold (some people like it at room temperature but they are wrong I obviously have preferences); the time in the fridge allows the flavors to meld, mellowing the astringency of the raw onion and the vinegar. Somehow the two acids – vinegar and tomato – harmonize as they chill, resulting in a soup that is bright but not overwhelming, and bolstered by the more neutral flavors of the other vegetables. Aside from the tomato, which softens as it sits, the vegetables retain crunch and a bowlful feels light and refreshing, which means, perhaps to the dismay of your dining partners, they will regain just enough energy to wash up afterwards.

Mom’s Chunky Gazpacho
Serves 6
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
3 large tomatoes
1 bell pepper (Mom uses green; I prefer red)
1 bunch green onions, root tips removed, or 1 small red onion, or 1 large shallot
1 large English cucumber
3 cups tomato juice or low sodium V8
⅓ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
¾ cup vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
optional garnishes: sour cream or greek yogurt, hot sauce, chives, dill

 

  • Roughly chop 1½ of the tomatoes, half of the cucumber, and half of the bell pepper. Place these into a blender. Add the white bulbs and pale green portions of the green onion stalks, if using, or half the onion or shallot, roughly chopped. Pour in the 3 cups of tomato juice and blend until smooth.
  • Chop the remaining tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper into bite-size pieces, or to your liking (I like a bit smaller than bite-sized). Thinly slice the remaining green onions, or dice the remaining onion or shallot, if using. Combine these and the blended liquid in a large bowl.
  • Stir in the red wine vinegar, the olive oil, and the broth. Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. If desired, chill the bowls or glasses you will use as well.
  • Just before serving, taste the soup for seasoning again and adjust as needed – I found I wanted a tiny bit more salt. Following in Mom’s footsteps, I like to top mine with a good dollop of sour cream. You could use greek yogurt instead, and a sprinkle of soft herbs like chives or dill, or a few splashes of hot sauce, would not be amiss. Fresh, crusty bread – perhaps grilled and rubbed with garlic – is a perfect accompaniment.

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“Big Three” Vichyssoise

Summer is a strange time for soup. Yes, the need for a vegetal base in most means the potentials for flavors are as wide ranging as your harvest (or, let’s be honest, your farmers’ market or produce section), but there’s that whole hot food in hot weather issue that sometimes turns us off. I know that I, at my most overheated, want only cold salads, grilled meat, and an adult beverage.

Fortunately for us, and for this project, there are some soups designed to combat the heat problem, in that they are traditionally served cold. It’s a strange sensation if you’ve never tried one – the first time I had a cold soup, I found myself blowing on the spoon a few times before tasting, because even though I knew it wasn’t a hot liquid, my body was so programmed to treat it as such that I couldn’t overcome the instinct.

It’s possible that the best known, or perhaps most popular, cold soup is gazpacho, but since we just talked about tomatoes, and since the tomatoes I’ve seen at the market in the last few weeks haven’t quite been at their peak, I’m waiting till September, our hottest month in Southern California and therefore the best time to have this cold, raw, bright blend waiting for me in the fridge. Instead, I’m taking us in an unlikely and humble direction: let’s talk leeks and potatoes. It’s a little strange that these two wintry vegetables are the star players in one of the best known cold soups, but maybe it’s a subtle nod to wish fulfillment: if you find you want things to be cooler, then you are lusting after a season half a year away. Vichyssoise, this chilled reminder of cooler times, is the creation of chef Louis Diat. While working at The Ritz in New York in the early 1900s, Diat made a soup that reminded him of a simple bowl his mother used to put together when he was a child in France, but decided to serve it cold with a sprinkling of chives on top. The resulting concoction can be served chunky or pureed, hot or chilled, but as Diat popularized, ice cold and velvet smooth is the most common.

Most recipes are very simple. So simple, in fact, that cooks tend to add and tweak and substitute to make the finished product… what? More interesting? More original? More publishable, I suspect, without leaving the same old classic, unadorned team assembled. Butter. Potatoes. Leeks. Broth or water. Cream. Chives. Sometimes onion bolsters the leeks, various combinations of seasoning are added, and one intriguing option I saw used buttermilk at the end for tang. Differentiations lie in the quantities of the two star players – is it leek-led, or potato heavy? – the amount of broth and of cream, and the thickness of the finished product. To make mine, I turned to the internet and found, among a wealth of potentials, three that looked straightforward, fairly traditional, and from recognizable names. Then I realized all three authors’ names started with B, and I was stuck – the wordsmith in me loves the “rule of three,” and when your sources are Brown, Bittman, and Bourdain, how can you alter course?

There are a few differences in quantities and in seasoning options between these “big three,” but the basics are there. Alton Brown suggests Yukon gold potatoes, which I was pleased to see, since so many other recipes don’t specify. The biggest difference, interestingly, was in cooking time and dairy additions. Bourdain and Bittman sweat their leeks for only a few minutes; Alton (I just can’t call him “Brown”) goes for almost a full half hour. I erred on his side, since really, it’s a lot of leeks, and there are so few ingredients that we need to develop flavor somewhere.

I debated for a few minutes deglazing the limp, pale pile of cooked leeks with a few glugs of vodka to play with the potato idea, but ultimately decided against it, and wound up with a pot of sippable silk that needed only the traditional sprinkling of chives to make it interesting (well, N. thought it also needed a few additional grinds of pepper, but that’s him).

Two possibilities if you wanted to fancy this up. As we ate, unsurprisingly, we noted how this soup is on some level just really, really loose mashed potatoes spiked with onion flavor. To that end, we thought about the possibilities of baked potato toppings: imagine a bowl of creamed potato velvet topped not only with chives, but crumbles of crisp bacon, shreds of sharp cheddar, maybe even a dollop of sour cream. This would add some textual interest as well as other flavors, since I’ll admit a small bowlful of this is all you need – more than that and it runs the risk of monotony.

The other option plays into my bibliophilic considerations above. Small bowls are one thing, but what if you wanted to serve this as, say, an hors d’oeuvre option at a summer soiree? Imagine a cold, very lightly spiked soup in tall shot glasses, served on a shallow, ice-packed tray. You would need only to add a half cup or so of vodka to the concoction, before the long simmer if you want to eliminate the bulk of the alcohol, after if you want this to be a boozy option.

Like many thick soups, vichyssoise is even better on day two than day one, and conveniently, it takes no additional preparation since you don’t even have to reheat it. That said, the onion flavor from the leeks gets progressively stronger as the soup sits, so by day four it is pretty allium-heavy. Also convenient, though this is traditionally a cold soup, it is also delicious served warm, so if you can’t handle the cognitive dissonance, or your last weeks of August are looking chilly, this remains a viable option.

 

“Big Three” Vichyssoise
Serves 4-6 as a main course; 8-10 as an appetizer
About 60 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound leeks, white and pale green portions only, split vertically, cleaned, and sliced thinly into half-moons
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon gold (3-4 small), diced
1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ – 1 cup heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced chives

 

  • Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat, then add the leeks and the ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and allow the leeks to sweat, not brown, until very soft; about 20 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes, the broth or water, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg, cover, and bring to a boil over medium or medium-high heat. Once boil is attained, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potato cubes are soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are tender but not quite disintegrating, turn off the heat and VERY CAREFULLY puree either with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. If you are using a regular blender, blitz only small batches at a time and cover the top of the blender with a kitchen towel as well as the lid – pureeing hot liquid can cause spurts and small “explosions.” Get the mixture very, very smooth.
  • If you are feeling fussy (I was), pour the pureed liquid through a sieve or colander back into the cooking pot and return the heat to low. Add the heavy cream (start with ½ cup – we found we didn’t want more than that) and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to your liking. Sometimes cold food needs more seasoning than hot food, so you can be a little aggressive, especially with the salt. Potatoes can take it.
  • Transfer the smooth soup to a mixing or serving bowl and serve immediately, if you want it hot, or chill until quite cold: at least 2 hours.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle with chives.

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Corn and crab chowder

I realize, now that summer has fully reared its head and you probably have a fan pointed at you while you read this, that soup is likely not high on your “most wanted” list, particularly not a thick soup – verging into chowder territory – intended to be served hot, possibly with fresh, warm bread on the side. But I owed you a soup for June (yeah, moving. What can I say?), and corn was fresh and sweet and on sale, and this batch of soup was really. really. good. Maybe file it away for a cool weekend on the coast, or a last harvest end-of-summer reminder. Or maybe just sweat.

I think it’s easier for me than for other sorts of writers to answer that perennial “where do you get your ideas?” question, since my answer is “from everything I eat!” and “from most of the television I watch!” This soup has its foundations in two other steaming bowls: the corn chowder in a bread bowl from the French Market at Disneyland, and a now-unfortunately-defunct grocery store treasure: the “Cravin’ Crab and Corn Chowder” from the little soup kiosk at Safeway, a delightfully sinus clearing spicy bowl my mom used to stock in multiples. This one combines an old Dorie Greenspan recipe from Bon Appetit magazine and one of Kenji Lopez-Alt’s from Serious Eats, then hangs around my brain long enough to pick up some ideas gleaned from various food television shows, resulting in a substantial soup rich with corn flavor, studded with sweet, starchy kernels and plenty of crab meat, topped with a fresh salad of more corn – raw this time – more crab, mixed with enough herbs and lime juice to give it kick, that can either sit atop the soup for occasional sampling, or be stirred in last minute. It could easily take wafers of jalapeño or fresno chili, in both the soup and the topping, and it is as completely at home in a hollowed out boule of sourdough as it is in a gleaming white soup bowl.

The attraction of Greenspan’s recipe was the extra step of cooking the corncobs – devoid of their plump, shiny kernels – in the milk that becomes the “broth” of the soup as a method of injecting extra corn flavor. Lopez-Alt does this too, but uses broth instead of milk and steeps rather than boils. When you strip kernels off of a cob, there is usually a good bit left behind – both the bases of the kernels and the corn “milk” that they release when cut into. Extracting that flavor along with some spices in the same way you might, for example, steep shrimp shells or even tea, ensures a more flavorful liquid base.

I wanted mine really packed with corn, and determined that despite earlier considerations about swirls of heavy cream, or miniscule cubes of potato, all this really needed besides the seasoned base was onion, celery, a bit of butter, and some water to thin it without masking the flavor of the corn. This meant that the soup itself might be on the thin side, so I followed my Lopez-Alt’s idea of pureeing a quarter of the finished product to add thickness. This, along with a little bit of flour cooked down with the vegetables, led to a perfect consistency: not so thin that it would seep into our bread bowls, but not so thick that it was more like spoonfuls of sauce than of soup.

The coup de grace of the cold corn and crab salad on top was a surprise to N., but we both really liked it. You can leave it just atop the bowl, so your spoon can dig out bits of it and control the quantities in each bite, or you can stir it in, so you end up with different textures of corn and a little additional herby kick that remains fresh, since it is only warmed by the residual heat of your bowlful, rather than being actually cooked for any length of time. You could use jumbo lump crab if you’re fancy, but I went with claw meat because I was being cheap economical, and we were both satisfied with the flavor.*

If you are doing bread bowls as serving vessels, may I make the following suggestion? Before serving, spray the hollowed insides of the bowls with a little olive oil spray and brown them under the broiler for a few minutes. I know, more heat in your already-too-hot-summer-kitchen, but it helps them hold up against the onslaught of liquid and contributes a lovely toasty flavor. If you really want to treat yourself, once you’ve sliced off the “lids” of each bowl (reserving the interiors for bread crumbs! Maybe for this!), slather them with soft butter and sprinkle on a little salt and some finely chopped mixed herbs, and settle them under the broiler for a minute or two as well. The butter sizzles and browns and the herbs char just a little bit, and you have a kind of giant soup crouton, far more interesting and certainly more indulgent than oyster crackers, with only a little bit of extra effort.

I know this puts me behind in our soup calendar, but next month I am going to try to catch up, and finally give you what the season requires: cold summer soups. Like last week’s salmon, these will cook early in the day, if at all, then slowly deepen and meld in flavor as they hang out in the fridge, waiting to cool you down at dinnertime. But next week, as we careen frantically into August, I vote we pause just a moment for dessert.

*another idea that would, perhaps, give you the most bang for your buck in terms of price and impression, would be to use 4 ounces of claw meat to stir into the soup, and 4 ounces of jumbo lump for the salad on top.

 

Corn and Crab Chowder
Serves 4-6
35-45 minutes
4 ears corn, husks and stems removed
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped white onion (about 1 small onion)
scant ¼ cup chopped celery (about 2 ribs)
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon lime zest
1-2 teaspoons lime juice
Optional: wafer-thin slices of jalapeño or fresno chili
8 ounces crab pieces, picked through for shell or cartilage fragments. I used claw meat, but you could use jumbo lump instead, or even a combination of the two as noted above: claw meat to stir into the soup, jumbo lump to serve on top
salt and pepper to taste
Bread bowls to serve, if desired

 

  • In a pot, bring the milk to a bare simmer. While you wait for it to heat, remove the corn kernels from the cobs by standing each ear on end, holding the remains of the stem tightly, and cutting straight down close to the cob with a sharp knife, rotating the cob between each cut. When the milk just reaches a simmer, add the stripped cobs, the coriander, the bay leaf, and the thyme sprigs. Turn off the heat and cover the pot, leaving it to steep while you prep and cook the vegetables, or for at least 20 minutes.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then add the onion and celery with a pinch of salt and sweat them until translucent and tender. Add all but ½ cup of the corn kernels (reserve that final ½ cup for the corn and crab salad on top), stir to combine, and cook another 5-7 minutes until the corn is just tender. Once the vegetables are all tender and sweet, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons of flour and stir or whisk to distribute it evenly.
  • Strain the cobs and whole spices out of the milk they’ve been steeping in. Add the milk to the vegetable mixture a little at a time, stirring or whisking as you do so. (I found I wanted to cook the soup in the pot, not the skillet, so I poured the milk into the same 4-cup measuring cup I’d used to add it in the first place, scraped all the vegetables into the pot, then slowly poured the milk back in. Adding liquid to solids rather than vice versa minimizes the chances of flour clumps.) Stir in the 1 cup water as well and bring the whole thing to a simmer. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid off, stirring occasionally to prevent a heavy skin from forming on the top.
  • While the soup cooks, make the corn and crab salad. In a small bowl, combine the reserved ½ cup of kernels with the chopped chives, dill, lime zest, lime juice, and slices of chili, if using. Add about 4 ounces of the crab meat and gently stir to combine the salad. I didn’t think it needed salt or pepper, but you might, so season according to your palate.
  • Once the soup has simmered for 10 minutes, remove about ¼ of it and puree it until fairly smooth using a handheld or standard blender (be very, very careful when blending hot liquid, as it can “explode” out the top of your machine). Add the puree back into the soup along with the remaining 4 ounces of crab meat and stir to combine and distribute. Heat through, if needed. Taste for seasoning; we found we wanted a little salt and plenty of black pepper.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into your desired serving vessel – either a standard bowl or a hollowed out and lightly toasted bread bowl (see suggestions for toasting in the post above the recipe) – then mound up a few tablespoons of the crab and corn salad right on top. Garnish with a final sprig of dill or length of chive, if desired.

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