“Chicken Noodle” Soup: Ramen Noodle Soup with Roasted Chicken

Well, I fell off the wagon longer than I’d intended for a number of reasons, but I owe you a soup recipe for April, so let’s get on that. It would feel disingenuous, I think, to careen through a year of soups without at least gesturing toward the perennial classic that is chicken noodle. Darling of head-colds everywhere, this is the feel good, childhood callback, gentle-on-the-tummy go-to. Every commercial soup company has a version. Usually it’s chunks of chicken, often cooked in the broth itself, along with a mélange of vegetables, and a heap of noodles of some sort, usually high on the egg content.

The problem is, though, and this is an issue with soups in general, that when I think of chicken noodle soup, all I can think of is softness. The vegetables, cooked to within an inch of their lives, are soft. The chicken chunks are tender (unless they’ve been cooking in the broth too long and have toughened while giving over their flavor to the liquid they are drowning in), but the noodles have lost any indication of al dente, sinking into near-mush while they wait for you to drag yourself out of bed and dip up a bowlful. And probably because this soup has become synonymous with “get well soon” food, it is made to be gentle on the belly, and thus its flavors are also soft: it is entirely unobjectionable. While that doesn’t sound like a tremendous issue when discussing food – who would want a bowl of soup to be objectionable? – to me, that’s just a polite way of saying that it’s boring.

My version of chicken noodle soup needed to break, therefore, from the softness that so often pervades both its ingredients and its flavors. When I want a soup with a deep, flavorful broth and perfectly cooked, just chewy noodles, I find I want ramen. This is perhaps a function of living in Los Angeles, where ramen shops are fairly ubiquitous (seriously, between pho and ramen, you could probably live for more than a week in my neighborhood consuming only Asian noodle soups, and you wouldn’t have to eat at the same place twice. And that doesn’t even take Thai restaurants into account).

A bowl of ramen is a treasure chest. In a way, it’s the soup version of my favorite sort of salad: full of stuff. Once you dig through the perfectly chewy noodles, there are hunks of meat, there are so-thin-they-are-almost-transparent slices of chili, there are vegetables or mushrooms or scatterings of herbs or sesame seeds, there are still fresh and crunchy green onions, and of course, quivering like unguarded crown jewels, there’s the soft boiled egg. Sometimes the broth is pork based, sometimes it is miso based, sometimes it is fish or seafood based. I saw no reason, with its deep flavors and its pile of noodles, why it couldn’t be chicken broth and form the basis for my own twist on chicken noodle.

I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to put into my chicken (ramen) noodle soup, but because I was curious, I asked the internet, and Laura’s recipe looked so perfect that I ended up following it almost exactly. I have adapted a few things – adding baby bok choy and changing up the broth approach a bit – but the approach is essentially the same, and her recipe for soft-boiled egg – the first one (and then the second one) I’ve ever made – worked perfectly for me. We did find we wanted the shiitake mushrooms in smaller pieces; the whole caps looked gorgeous floating in there like rafts, but were a bit ungainly to eat. You can do with or without the jalapeño or fresno chili slices; think of them as sinus-clearing options.

Here, we are starting with a premade chicken broth and enriching it, enhancing the flavors even more with more vegetables, and the aromatic warmth of ginger and garlic. Your chicken broth might already be pretty tasty, but trust me on this: deeply flavored broth is important for a good bowl of ramen. When you serve this up, it’s a play of textures, and really, you get to be the boss. If you are nuts about broth, make it brothier. If you are noodle-crazy (like me), use less broth and pile in the chewy noodles. The chicken will still be juicy after a crisp in a skillet and then a quick roast in the oven, but it will still absorb some of the broth from the soup and lap up some of those flavors. As for the egg, well, if you need me to extol to you the virtues of a just-runny yolk stirred into noodles and vegetables, then you’ll need to come over and sit down for a while, because there’s too much to say for this one little post.

This isn’t your traditional chicken noodle, but I see no reason why, with its deep flavors and treasure chest of ingredients, it shouldn’t become your new favorite way to slurp up those classic soup components.

 

Chicken (Ramen) Noodle Soup
Lightly adapted from Fork, Knife, Swoon
Serves 4 modestly or 3 generously
6-8 cups chicken broth, store-bought or homemade
2 inch knob of ginger
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 yellow onion, root and stem end removed, quartered
3 carrots
2 stalks celery
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin on
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
3 heads baby bok choy, trimmed, rinsed, and larger leaves separated so only small heads remain
½ cup sliced scallions, dark and pale green parts only
2 packages (3 or 3.5 ounce) ramen noodles
Optional: thin slices from 1 jalapeño or fresno chili, ¼ cup cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F. While it warms, add broth to a large pot – if you prefer a more noodle-forward soup, use 6 cups of the broth. If you prefer a brothier end product, use all 8 cups. Pop in the prepared onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and ginger, then bring to a boil with the lid on. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • While the broth is warming, season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the chicken breasts skin side down and cook without moving them for 5-7 minutes, until the skin is golden and crisp. Flip both breasts over, cook another 4-5 minutes, then transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 15-20 minutes (start checking doneness at 15 minutes), until cooked through. When done, remove from oven and cover with tinfoil to keep warm until you are ready to serve the soup.
  • After the broth has simmered 20 minutes, remove the large vegetable pieces with a strainer or a slotted spoon. Taste for seasoning and add soy sauce until the broth reaches your desired saltiness. Add the shiitake mushrooms as well, and simmer 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are softened. If desired, now is the time to fish out the mushrooms, remove their stems (which can be a bit tough), and slice them before popping them back in.
  • At this point, pause for a moment to make your soft-boiled eggs. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, then use a spoon to add the eggs, still cold from the refrigerator, one per diner. For a custard-y middle (that is, still liquid but quite thick), boil for 7 minutes, then remove to an ice bath for 5 minutes before peeling.
  • With your eggs working, add the prepared bok choy to the broth with mushrooms and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the noodles and simmer 3 minutes more.
  • Now you are ready to assemble. With tongs, pile the noodles in a large bowl. Add broth and vegetables. Slice the peeled soft-boiled eggs in half and position atop the noodle pile. Slice the chicken into thin strips, keeping as much of the skin on as possible, and arrange these around the bowl. Scatter on the scallions, and add the chili pepper slices, the sesame seeds, and/or the cilantro, if using, over the top. Serve immediately.

Wasabi Roasted Cauliflower

This is not the most photographically alluring side dish I’ve ever made. It doesn’t offer crisp angles or bright colors or sharp contrast. It doesn’t stack neatly or layer into a cup or offer much opportunity for props. It’s essentially just an inelegant heap of cauliflower and breadcrumbs, that most anemic of vegetables tumbled together with toasted panko.

But here’s the thing: the cauliflower is roasted for a quick half hour at very high heat, so that its florets bronze and crisp but still retain some juiciness, and then the moment it comes steaming out of the oven, you toss it in a mixture of wasabi mayonnaise and chives, and then you douse the whole tray with panko that you’ve toasted in olive oil to an intense golden crunchiness, and you toss, and you pile it onto your plate, and what you find yourself most invested in is the size of the pile, not its aesthetic potential.

I found the basis for this simple little vegetable side among my mom’s recipes during the Christmas holiday. I typically go through her cookbooks when I visit, and this one was shoved into a binder with a collection of snippets and newspaper clippings from the food section, in her own handwriting, with the word “delicious” written at the bottom. I was intrigued, so I did what any technologically-steeped child does: I snapped a photo of the recipe with my phone, and then promptly forgot about it for two months.

When I came back to the recipe a few weeks ago, I saw immediately that I would make a few changes. Mom’s version instructed me to steam the cauliflower, but I’ve never been a fan of the cabbage-y mustiness that steaming or boiling this particular vegetable produces. No, if part of the point was to elicit a crunch, then we would go the extra mile and roast it first. Hers suggested mixing regular mayonnaise with wasabi paste, and you can certainly do that if you want to adjust the level of spiciness, but there are a number of brands of pre-mixed wasabi mayonnaise available, and I happen to like the balance and ease of Trader Joe’s version, so I’m using that (though I’ve provided quantities for the mix-it-yourself-option as well). Mom probably used a standard American style breadcrumb, and toasted it in butter. I went for panko instead, for even more shattering crispness, and increased the quantity considerably for my breadcrumb-loving dining partner.

The first thing you notice when you eat this is the panko. It is toasty and deep with just enough salt, and just as you’re fully appreciating the texture, the wasabi hits with that perfumed, nostril-curling sharpness. You are taken aback at first, but you keep chewing, and then you get the tender/crisp roasted richness of the cauliflower underneath, and then you’re suddenly shoveling in another bite. We decimated our first tray in an embarrassingly short space of time, and I wanted to eat this again three days later. So we did.

The first time I made this, we piled it next to fillets of salmon. The next time, it was a side for simple pan-browned bratwurst. It was perfect with both, and the hefty dosing of breadcrumbs means you likely won’t miss having a starch. You could dress things up a bit by adding a teaspoon or two of sesame oil to the olive oil you use to toast the panko or roast the cauliflower, and only after we were washing dishes after dinner did I consider the idea of combining the panko with some sesame seeds, or adding citrus zest for extra brightness, or pulverizing some dried seaweed sheets and tossing them in with the crumbs at the last minute. If you want to flirt with these possible additions, I’d suggest about 3 tablespoons of sesame seeds, or the zest of one lemon or lime, or 2 tablespoons of seaweed – it can be fairly strong.

Wasabi Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
35-40 minutes
1¼ cups panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
(optional: zest from one lemon or one lime, or 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, or 2 tablespoons very finely chopped or pulverized dried seaweed)
½ teaspoon salt
1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed into medium florets (I went for large bite-size)
(optional: 1-2 teaspoons sesame oil)
1 tablespoon finely sliced chives or green onions
¼ cup + 1 tablespoon wasabi mayonnaise OR scant ¼ cup regular mayonnaise + 1 tablespoon wasabi sauce or paste, or to taste

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F and line a 9×13 inch baking tray with aluminum foil. While the oven warms, cut up the cauliflower and spread it out in a single layer on your prepared baking tray. Toss it with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil (and the sesame oil, if you are using it). This doesn’t seem like much oil for roasting, but we are adding more fat later with the mayonnaise, so we’re taking it easy here. Roast in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then retrieve, flip over each piece (yes, I’m serious) to expose the other side, and roast a further 15 minutes.
  • While the cauliflower is roasting, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and the ½ teaspoon of salt (if you are using citrus zest or sesame seeds, now is the time to add that as well). Toast, stirring very often, until the panko crumbs are dark golden, probably 3-4 minutes at the outside. Set aside. (If you are using seaweed crumbs, stir them in once the panko has cooled.)
  • After you’ve toasted the panko, combine the wasabi mayonnaise (or the regular mayonnaise with the wasabi sauce or paste) and the chives or green onion in a small bowl.
  • When the cauliflower is roasted, take it out of the oven, scoop and dollop the wasabi mayo mixture onto it, and toss gently to coat. Add the toasted panko crumbs (it will seem like too much, but trust me), again toss gently to ensure even coverage, and serve immediately, scattering on any extra crumbs that are unwilling to adhere.

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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.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream

food-blog-february-2017-0288There is no way I can connect this recipe with Black History Month. I’ve tried. The transition just isn’t there. But when this issue of The New Yorker showed up on our doorstep, with this beautiful new imagining of the iconic Rosie the Riveter staring confidently back at me on the front, I wanted to make sure you saw her. Clearly a response to the Women’s March, she is also a powerful image of intersectional feminism, replacing the white WWII era working woman with an African American marcher, pink pussy hat and all. And though the cover doesn’t bear Rosie’s original accompanying phrase – “We can do it” – there’s no way to divorce that message, with all its connotations, from this new version.

There is so much to do, but we can do it.

food-blog-february-2017-0260These started not as crepes but as a desire to modify my favorite zucchini spice bread recipe into a pancake (I told you there was no transition. I just wanted to show you my magazine cover and remind you about the history we should be celebrating this month). There would be nutmeg and cinnamon, there would be caramelized crisp edges, there might be golden raisins… and then I made the mistake of searching for “zucchini bread pancakes” online, and of course the first hit was Deb’s recipe, deepening, as ever, my intense love-hate relationship with her and her site. Let me be clear, before you start emailing me: I adore Smitten Kitchen (look, Deb, I’m even giving you traffic!). I have the cookbook, I went to a signing and thoroughly embarrassed myself, and I trawl through her archives all the time, because she has tried everything! But there’s the hate part (or, at least, the jealous part): she’s tried everything! I certainly wasn’t going to make zucchini bread pancakes if she already had the consummate version (which, of course, I just automatically assume she does. Being a jealous fan-girl is weird).

food-blog-february-2017-0263food-blog-february-2017-0267So I had to go with something different, and somehow something different became crepes. I wasn’t sure how they would work, given the sodden heaviness large quantities of shredded zucchini often contribute to a dish, but the zucchini were already in the fridge and the milk on the door was begging to be used, so the experiment had to move forward.

food-blog-february-2017-0255I’m calling these crepes, but they don’t share ratio or ingredient quantities with other crepe recipes. My grandfather called them Swedish pancakes, probably more because he was Swedish than due to any recipe authenticity. They are a bit moister than some crepes – a little less papery around the edges, maybe a bit heavier, and we’ve never been particularly fussy about getting them wafer thin. Here, the addition of the zucchini makes these qualities important, since the batter has to be substantial enough to hold up to the extra weight of the vegetation.

food-blog-february-2017-0268food-blog-february-2017-0272As I always yell at food competition contestants when they scrunch or tear or mangle their first crepe, the first one probably is going to be ugly. Maybe the second one too. But you have to persist. Crepes require a bit of a rhythm – you have to get a feel for how much batter goes into the pan, how steeply to tilt your pan while you swirl to get an even coating of batter, and how long it really does need to cook before you can flip that delicate, eggy circle. And ultimately, really, it’s okay when that first one rips, because now you get to eat it surreptitiously and make sure it’s good. Cook’s prerogative.

food-blog-february-2017-0277These were indeed good. The zucchini is mild, so don’t worry if it’s not your very favorite vegetable flavor, but it cooks so quickly that every bit of grassy rawness was gone. They could go in a sweet or a savory direction, but I opted for sweet, whisking mascarpone cheese with some honey, some lemon, and roughly chopped toasted almonds for a bit of crunch. Lemon and zucchini play well together, as do zucchini and almonds, and it’s nice to have some texture in with the softness of the cheese and the pliable delicacy of the pancake.

food-blog-february-2017-0280We had these for dinner as a decadent response to a rainy day, but they would make an indulgent breakfast or a superb brunch course as well. You can fold the crepes up into a triangular, handkerchief-like packet with a mound of cheese inside, or you can roll up into a cylinder, which is what my family has always done. I found I liked a few almonds sprinkled over the top, and an extra drizzle of honey as well. Any extra crepes keep fine covered in the fridge for a day or two, until you take them out, reheat them with a bit of salted butter, and smother them with cinnamon sugar, because some days require that kind of solid self care, so you can get out there and keep going.

food-blog-february-2017-0293

Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream
Makes 10-12 crepes in a 10-inch skillet
30-40 minutes
For the filling:
½ cup whole raw almonds
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
zest of one lemon
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
additional honey, to drizzle
For the crepes:
2 cups shredded zucchini, from 2 medium zucchinis
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
3 eggs
1½-1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt

 

  • First, make the filling. Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, roughly chop the almonds – it’s okay to have some uneven sizing. Spread them out on a baking tray and toast in the oven 10-15 minutes until they are golden brown. Start checking at 10 minutes; keep in mind they will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven.
  • In a bowl, whisk the mascarpone cheese and the heavy cream together until light and fluffy (I used the whisk attachment of my stand mixer). Add the honey, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice, whisk again and taste for seasoning – you are looking for something lightly sweet, and rich but not overwhelming. When the almonds cool, fold ¾ of the amount into the mascarpone mixture, reserving the remainder to sprinkle atop the crepes.
  • To make the crepes, shred the zucchini in a food processor or with the large holes on a box grater. Collect them on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then squeeze once more.
  • Warm the milk slightly in a bowl or large glass measuring cup and add the melted butter, stirring to incorporate. This ensures the butter will integrate evenly, rather than hardening back into chunks. Let cool to room temperature and whisk in the eggs, then 1½ cups of the flour, the sugar, and the salt. Finally, whisk in the zucchini shreds. You should have something like a thin cake batter, probably thinner than your average pancake batter. If it seems too liquid, add the remaining ¼ cup of flour.
  • To cook the crepes, heat about 2 teaspoons butter in a 10-inch skillet or crepe pan over medium-high heat. Pour in about ⅓ cup of batter, turning and swirling the skillet as you do so to allow for a thin layer of batter to coat the entire surface. Try to spread out the zucchini a bit – it has a tendency to clump up in the middle, which results in uneven cooking.
  • Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until golden and almost dry. Don’t be alarmed if the first crepe tears or is otherwise mangled – they are delicate, and you have to get a rhythm going. After every two crepes, add another few teaspoons of butter to the skillet.
  • As you finish cooking each crepe, remove from the skillet to a covered plate to keep them warm. They won’t stick together – there’s enough fat in them to prevent clinging.
  • To serve, spread out one crepe on a flat surface and spread a few tablespoons of the mascarpone and almond mixture in a line a bit to the left of the center. Use the tines of a fork or your fingers to lift the edge of the crepe over the mascarpone filling, then continue rolling up into a tight burrito shape. Remove to a serving plate and continue with remaining crepes and filling. Sprinkle the finished rolls with the remaining almonds, and if desired, drizzle with more honey before serving.

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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