Monday, May 26, 2008

The Paseo

Last Sunday my kids and I attended The Paseo Arts Festival.

It was 95 degrees, no shade, we were hot, hungry and tired, and decided to step inside The Paseo Grill for a quick lunch.

After we sat down, it was no surprise when my daughter, on the verge of heat stroke, looked up at the waiter and asked, "What kind of soup are you serving today?"

"Cream of Mushrooom," he shrugged. "You can get it in a cup as a side - or in a bowl."

"Hmm ... " she sat there in silence for a second as if contemplating whether or not she really wanted the soup.

"I'll have the bowl." she said.

That's my kid.

Soup is good any season.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Lentils, It's What's for Dinner"

With the high price of beef and gas and food in general, we are all looking for ways to cut back, and lentil's are the perfect solution. High in protein, low in cost, and easy to prepare, I'm surprised they aren't disappearing from grocery store shelves as we type. One thing I like best about Lentils is how fast they cook. No pre-soaking required. Just saute some aromatics and throw them in the pot. Easy!

Many people think of Lentil Soup as a winter meal. But I think Lentils are good any time of year. Cook a pot for Sunday supper, serve with some crusty bread, a salad, a glass of red wine and some smoked sausage and you're in business. Très bon!

Lentil Soup

1 Pound Lentils
1 Large Yellow Onion
2 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 Tablespoon Olive Oi1
1 Tablespoon Salt
1 1/2 Teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 Teaspoon dried Thyme
1 Teaspoon Cumin
1 Cup Diced Celery
1 Cup Diced Carrot
1 14 1/2 oz. can of Tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Organic)
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1 lb. good Smoked Sausage (Kamps in OKC sells a good smoked sausage)

Slice the smoked sausage into 1/2 inch thick pieces and brown with a bit of olive oil in large stockpot. Remove sausage and set aside.

In the same large stockpot on medium heat, saute the onions and garlic with the olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and cumin for about 10 minutes or until soft.

Add the celery and carrots and saute for 10 more minutes.

Add canned tomatoes along with juices and fill pot with about 3 quarts of water. (You could use chicken stock in place of water here, but with the aromatic vegetables and the smokiness of the sausage, it really isn't necessary.)

Rinse Lentils in a colander, then add to the pot, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes or until tender.

During the last 5 minutes of cooking time add smoked sausage back to pot along with 1Tablespoon of red wine vinegar (the vinegar will help brighten the flavor of this hearty soup.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Knead Bread

I finally tried the famous no knead method for baking bread.

It turned out a bit flat. I think it was because I was a little overzealous when transferring the dough to the Le Crueset pot.

With a little practice, I'll do better next time.

The bread was fantastic. Great flavor and texture and my brother-in-law said it was the best homemade bread he ever had.

This recipe originally appeared in the NY Times.

It made great grilled cheese and panini.

No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Picher Haunts

This sounds crazy, but grocery stores have always played a prominent role in my life. I can virtually remember every single store that I have ever been to. In fact, my first job was working in a grocery store in a small town. And the first thing I do whenever visiting or moving to a new town, is scout out the grocery stores. It's my thing. It's what I do.  

Picher, Oklahoma, was in the news this week. A tornado wiped out what was left of it, a mining town gone bust. It had been a ghost town for years. I can only imagine what it looks like now. But there were people who lived there and called it home, and for that I am sorry. Even if your home is a desolate, depressing place, it is still home. I know, because I once lived there.

I'll spare you the entire history of Picher, but to give you an idea of what it looked like, imagine a ghost town movie set, where no grass or flowers or even weeds can grow - and the only sign of life are the drunkards wandering around in the street. This was Picher. And when I lived there, the town's only grocery store, was from a place back in time -  uncannily similar to the grocery store depicted in the haunting short story Thanksgiving by Joyce Carol Oates - where a cash register sets upon the only checkout lane; cracked, filthy windows cast an eerie glow across creaky, buckled wooden floors; leaky cooler's, half-full of tepid milk, hum as if they were on their very last leg; and Faded tins of corn, Chore Girl scouring pads, and stale Wonder Bread line the dusty shelves. The entire store seemed caught in time.

This town, this store, was the first place I ever drove to without an adult in the car, when I first got my license at the age of sixteen. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. Dad needed a few things from the store and my younger sister offered to come along for the ride. We hopped into our Ford Pinto and in a cloud of dust, left two barking dogs behind. We passed a white clapboard shack with it's windows open and a goat chewing on curtains out front. Then we turned the corner at the old gas station where the owner 'One-eye' tinkered with an engine, on past the house where the fat lady sat on her porch, then by the bar where the drunks hung out. Until finally, in the shadow of the mountainous piles of chat, we parked the car and walked inside a huge wooden door, where I bought bologna, canned biscuits and Dad's cigarettes. The man at the register tried to cheat us out of a buck, but I caught him. If there was one thing Picher taught you, it was to stay on your toes and to trust no one.

Picher and its demise was the perfect example of greed and good ol' American capitalism gone awry. Picher was a host that had been destroyed by it's parasite.

The few who stayed behind became an alloy of sorts, fused to the very land that so insidiously ruined their lives.

The town and that grocery store will forever haunt me.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pho Attack

Some kids go off to college, drink beer, get into all sorts of trouble and do wild and crazy things.

Not my kid.

If a Girls Gone Wild video were ever to emerge of her, she would probably be robbing a soup kitchen, running madly down the street, a steaming hot Styrofoam cup in hand, dodging homeless people, a dazed look on her face, desperate for a fix.

My daughter is a soup fiend.

Oh it started out innocently, Gerber Turkey Stew, and Campbell's Chicken Noodle dinner when she was a toddler. Then there was the occasional Alphabet Soup which she called ABC's. Later she moved on to Ramen as an after school snack. And before we knew it, she was hooked, devouring cans of Progresso and Campbell's Select. Then she moved on to the hard stuff ... only fresh, homemade would do. Now she hangs out on street corners, in front of cafes and Panera Bread, looking for a fix. Oh the shame! The horror! A kid who will not eat canned soup!

It sounds crazy, but I cannot think of a day gone by when my daughter has not eaten or at least thought about soup. She has even been known wake up and eat soup for breakfast.

What's a troubled parent to do?

For now, my only recourse is to make more soup.

And that is exactly what I did, last night, around midnight, when the cravings hit and little provisions were to be found. I wound up making this version of Pho - a brothy Vietnamese rice noodle soup usually served with Thai basil, lime wedges and bean sprouts on the side.

If you haven't been to a Vietnamese restaurant that serves this delicious soup, I suggest you go. Oklahoma City has a large Asian district and if you drive along one particular street ... all you see are crowded street mall-turned-restaurants with signs depicting PHO (pronounced Fuh) and funny names like Pho'ever, Pho'nomeal and Pho-Hieu. It's fun to try the many different versions of this soup.

This is our very unauthentic version - which turned out to be more of a Chicken Noodle with a Vietnamese twist. We called it Pho-bulous after the newest restaurant in our area. There are lots of variations on this soup, so feel free to add more spices, fish sauce, ginger and even thin strips of beef or shredded chicken if you wish. Either way, you can't go wrong.

I happened to have chicken stock made from a roasted chicken with lots of onions and vegetables which made the soup extra rich.

Then I topped it with chopped basil (Thai basil is traditional but regular basil will do) cilantro, thinly sliced green onions, a squeeze of fresh lime, and a dash of cayenne pepper.

Twelve-thirty pm. my daughter was contentedly slurping her soup.

When you need a fix, you need a fix.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ugly Soup

In honor of my daughter coming home from finals this week, I cooked a pot of Provencal Vegetable Soup. But I don't have a picture to prove it.

I tried to take a photo. Really. But Annie Leibovitz and the best camera in the world could not have made this 'pot of pond water' look good. The taste was good actually, and that's the funny thing, we ate it, it just didn't look good. And that's the problem with soup, sometimes it isn't the prettiest subject to photograph. Nor, the easiest. I encountered more than one dilemma today when I made Ina Gartern's version of this soup.

First off, I love Ina's cookbooks and am a big fan. But today I think it was the changes that I made to the recipe that rendered it a bit offensive to look at. Basically it is a simple vegetable soup made better by the addition of saffron and some pasta. What makes it special is the Pistou, similar to an Italian pesto but with tomato paste added to the basil and garlic. Ina's soup called for Chicken Stock. I was running low and substituted a combination of dark chicken stock and roasted vegetable stock. That was my first mistake.

Then Ina's recipe called for Saffron. Ina has no kids, drives a Mercedes and lives in the Hamptons. I have two kids in college, drive a Chevy and live in Oklahoma. I had Saffron on my grocery list once, but that's the closest it ever came to becoming a resident in my spice drawer. So in lieu of Saffron, I substituted a pinch of Turmeric. Because somewhere I had once read that turmeric could be used in place of saffron to jazz up the color of a recipe. Well ... let's just say this odd combination of stocks and turmeric resulted in a murky, greenish-brown liquid I once saw at a toxic super fund site.

Then there was the problem with the Pistou, mired there in the sludge like something out of a bad Al Gore documentary.

Lastly, a single piece of broken spaghetti floated atop the bowl like a dead worm helpless in it's environment.

It was awful.

And needless to say, no pictures of soup were posted today.

On a side note and as an FYI: When it comes to blogging, pictures aren't my strong suit. My camera is on the blink and I don't have one of those fancy digital phones yet. So I am always moving things around the house, searching for the best light, taking pictures of odd things like soup.

I remember an incident earlier this spring when my son and I were driving through a beautiful historical neighborhood - and saw a lady crouched down in her front yard, taking a close-up of lord knows what, and my son said, "Must be for her blog." That's when I knew I am not the only one(!).  I take solace in that. 

If anyone is interested, there is a recipe and beautiful pic of Soupe Au Pistou in Ina's Barefoot in Paris cookbook and it really is delicious. The fresh vegetables, mingled with the tomato, basil and garlic of the Pistou are simply delightful. I highly recommend it.