Sunday, November 30, 2008

Simple Squash Soup

Greetings, dear readers!
I know we're all coming down from the overindulgence of last week and craving simple, lean foods. For my family's big celebration, I made this soup by Michael Chiarello of the Food Network. It is an intricate, full flavored soup which requires many complex steps. It was good. It had lots of interesting flavors; sour, sweet, salty, savory, all of the above. It had fennel, balsamic vinegar, and molasses. It took me a long time and it was worth the work since the family ate the entire batch.

But you know what? A week earlier I'd thrown together a simple squash soup with stuff I had on hand in about 20 minutes and I have to say, I liked my version better. (Sorry Chiarello)

I thought I was crazy when I took the first bite of the fancy schmancy soup and thought, "I wish I were eating THAT soup again". That is, until my darling father echoed the desire for simpler flavors. His support combined with the amazing workload the fancy one requires has sealed the deal. This is MY butternut squash soup, and it's awesome.

Simple Squash Soup

Cook 1 medium butternut squash (approximately three pounds, but this is soup. It doesn't really matter.)

Any squash with a smooth texture will do.

I like to steam my squash, so I halve it (a bread knife is surprisingly helpful for this), scoop out the seeds, pierce the skin with a fork, and cook it for about an hour in the oven on a sheet pan with about an inch of water. When in doubt, roast at 350.

(If you aren't interested in wrestling a huge squash, precooked frozen squash is a perfectly fine substitute.)

Once a knife slides in easily, let the squash cool and then scrape up with flesh with a fork. I find it much easier to remove the flesh from each half then to peel and chop the squash. They are slippery, and heavy, which is annoying at best, and dangerous at worst.

Your lovely squash should look like this.

I have yet to fully understand the connection between color and nutrition, but it's clear that certain shades just beg to be eaten. This orange is one for me.

Next, throw the soup basics into a pot.

1 yellow onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced

In these shots I am using green onion. Because that's what I had. Remember how I just threw this together? It worked fine.

Sweat (not sautee. We're not looking for browing here, just softening. Sweating is more like steaming or boiling than it is like sauteeing.) the holy trinity
until it's very soft, but doesn't have any color.

Next, add two cups of chicken stock. (I'm lazy and don't like dealing with whole animals much, so I use Better Than Bouillon)

Then, toss in the squash, and a little cream. (Ok, I used about 1/2 a cup, but you can use less/more as you like. Milk would be fine, too, for you fat-phobes out there)

Salt and pepper and sage to taste.

If you like a lot of texture in your soup, go for it as is.

After this photo, I put the soup in a blender in small batches. This extra step will give you a luxurious, uniform smoothness that I really love.

It's great with something crunchy and salty. Crackers are perfecto

That's all for now.

Next time, GOAT CHEESE!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Stir Fry and my Mourning Meal

I began this entry while it was really still fall. The nights and mornings were cold, but the afternoons still got very warm. Fall is a transition season, and my life is certainly reflecting the rhythm of the universe these days. It has officially become winter, and I recently lost someone very important to me. (Hence, the lack of blogging.) It has made clear for me how much I love my family and how lucky I am to have so many people in my life who care about me. It has also indirectly made clear to me how much comfort cooking gives me and how important food is in my life. I had been contemplating how food could become a part of my professional life recently. This time has shown me how the act of cooking, while physically demanding, is emotionally soothing to me. (Consequentially, I've discovered how much more I enjoy cooking than writing about cooking.) I'm sorry I've been gone so long, but I'm glad to be back and resolve to post more often in the future. (Winter break is coming after all, the season of time-off from school and cooking.) First, I'd like to share a dish with you, and then I'll briefly describe the meal I made to comfort myself and my husband.

Speaking of, my husband loves Asian food.

I love healthy food.

Stir fries are Asian, and healthy. So, I should be really good at them, right?

Not so much. In fact, creating a good stir fry has eluded me for some time. I always ended up with a bland steamed mess. That is, until now. I've discovered my main missteps and now feel confident that I can pull out a decent stir fry.

The main issues? Heat and oil. (Of COURSE. I always thought it would be something little like seasoning, or flavors. I make too many assumptions.)

1) Heat. The best vessel for a stir fry is apparently a wok. I had one once. It was cheap, so it overheated easily. Since then, I have used cast iron with great success. Someday I will buy a serious wok, I guess.

2) Oil. I had always chosen canola oil to stir-fry because of its high smoke point and neutral flavor. Turns out peanut oil has the perfect flavor to complement the ingredients in the stir fry without overpowering them. I used it both in frying and in creating the sauce. I also found a chili oil that I put in at the last minute for flavoring. You can see some of the last of the farmer's market garlic in this photo, too.

The veggies of choice on this night were Napa Cabbage (otherwise known as Chinese cabbage) , onions, green beans, and red and green bell peppers. I'm lucky enough to get some fantastic peppers from the Vedics. (You know about them, right?)

I like to cut my peppers into strips for this dish. I cut the sides off the center of the peppers. I think this is the easiest way to do it. Be sure to remove the spongy parts on the ribs of the pepper.

I have to give a shout out for two awesome pieces of equipment that I have in my kitchen. The first is this batter bowl by Anchor Hocking.

The more I learn about plastic the less I want it in my life, especially for storage and reheating leftovers. I'm slowly replacing all of our plastic containers with glass ones. Not only is this container glass, the lid is BPA free. (The bowl I marinated the tofu in for the stir-fry is also by Anchor Hocking and is part of the Martha Stewart Everyday line at Kmart) This is a 2 qt. batter bowl.

The other super-awesome piece of equipment I have to share is my Oxo salad spinner. I registered for this for the wedding, and it's one of the gifts we use the most. As recommended by Cook's Illustrated, it has all the features I look for in a salad spinner. It's very large (though I still have to do the cabbage in two batches), and is has a non-skid ring on the bottom. It has a brake to stop the spinner, which is really helpful. It's also easy to clean because the top piece separates, and it's easy to store because the handle can lock into the lid so it's flat. I highly recommend it. It's amazing to see just how much water you get out of greens.

Long story short, fry this all up in a really REALLY hot cast iron pan in peanut oil, and serve with al dente soba (buckwheat) noodles. In this photo, we used chicken.

For the sauce, mix a cup of chicken stock, chili paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, green onions, garlic, peanut oil, and fire oil. I think I also threw in some cumin, because I like it. To thicken this up, mix up a little stock and cornstarch.

The chicken is really good, especially if you slice it very thin, but I was looking for something a little different. I wanted a protein whose texture was a contrast to the veggies. I decided on fried tofu, and boy was it good.

I found lots of different approaches to frying tofu, and I think I've settled on the best one. After pressing the firm tofu between cloths for around 30 minutes, I marinated the it in the same mixture as the sauce above. (check out the Anchor Hocking bowl. It holds liquid UPSIDE DOWN!)

Then I put the tofu cubes onto a paper towel to drain a little. (Frying+water=pain)

A simple coating of wheat flour with salt and pepper, then into the frying pan. I thought of fried chicken, so I only used enough oil to come halfway up the cubes.

(sorry, blurry)

Here are the cubes with a little of the reduced sauce. Sorry, the first pic is blurry.

But you better click this one.

Finally, the meal that distracted me for a few good hours. We had spent a few days out of town with family, so when I returned home all I wanted to do was be in the kitchen. Here's the meal. No recipes, just images.

Chicken Pot Pie with a homemade pie crust. (A little different than my usual pot pie)

Tyler Florence's Ultimate Scalloped Potato Gratin (which was only meh)

And for dessert, roasted pears. I found some of these super cute seckel pears. They are super sweet and juicy, and just adorable.

Butter + sugar= comfort.

I can't resist buying pomegranates when I see them, and they were a great complement to the pears. (I've since learned how to peel them)

You know what always makes me feel better? No matter how terrible things are?


And flowers. (I love you Carrie)

And dogs. (meet Razi, our new doggie! He is perfect. His favorite place to be is right next to me. :))

Apologies for the absence and resulting super-long post. I will be blogging more soon, I promise.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Indian Summer Part II: A Pumpkin Duo (Plus leftovers)

The Indian Summer continues, but winter is a short exhale away.
Today on A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor likened an Indian summer to having an intense love affair just after having a heart attack. Moving into the new house has drawn my attention closer to the trees in my neighborhood. They line most streets here. The slow mixing of colors resulted in some beautiful combinations. The trees are still in transition, though they're now moving from vibrant to bare. The temperature has allowed us to squeeze in a few more hours outside. I even rode my bike to work!

The walnut tree in our backyard is mostly bare (thank god it finally stopped dumping walnuts on our yard) but the massive pin oak and maple are still displaying their final colors. In this photo you can see the trunk of the pin oak and the tall grass growing in the back corner.

Here is the top of the oak, as seen from the front yard.

And the bright yellow maple that shares the backyard.

Halloween was all the more pleasant this year thanks to the weather. We had many interesting characters visit, and many complements on the Mario pumpkin, from adults and kids alike.

We've also been somewhat productive in the kitchen. Everything is rearranged, cabinets and hardware back on, and dining room painted.

On to the food. I bought a pie pumpkin on a whim and learned that one pumpkin makes a LOT of flesh. The following recipes barely made a dent in the 4-6 cups from my $2 pumpkin. The flavor is very different from canned pumpkin, as is the texture. I like the real stuff for risotto, but I think the poundcake would be better with the smoother canned stuff.

Pumpkin Risotto

Just like any risotto, use short grain arborio rice. (forgive the blur)

add 2 cups of pumpkin to your diced onions.

I found this great aluminum cup at a thrift store. I snagged it right away because my mom always had one. It's perfect for stuff like this at one cup.

Using chicken broth and sage, make your basic risotto.

Midway through cooking (you can really see in this photo that the middle of the pieces of rice are still opaque white. Their translucence is a good visual cue for correctly cooked risotto, but it can't stand in for tasting)

Creamy perfection.

This risotto is a filling dinner on its own or with a salad, but if you have leftovers, which we ALWAYS do, here's an interesting idea, thanks to Giada.

Mine is a simplified version.

Risotto Balls

Take a tsp. of risotto, roll it into a ball, and press a small piece of cheese inside. (Here I'm using string cheese (mozzarella) Any melter will do.)

Then, roll it up and coat it in breadcrumbs.

Get them all ready on a tray before frying them. No after picture, but, you know. Golden brown and delicious.

Finally, pumpkin pound cake.
Each fall I get the urge to make pumpkin bread. This fall, I tried to indulge that urge fully and make pound cake rather than bread. I found this recipe on the message boards at (love the message boards and added tons of spices to it.

Spiced Pumpkin Pound Cake

Use this recipe.
When you bake, be sure to always have dairy products at room temperature. Bake only until a toothpick comes out clean.

To that recipe, add freshly ground nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger.

I coated 1/2 of my mini-loaves in a glaze of powdered sugar and water.


I thought I'd share an image with you. I have one relative, who shall remain nameless, who is a republican. (!) This photo illustrates their standing in my family well.

Finally, my mother gave me a nice plate with a fancy candle for my birthday. She also included a bunch of these chestnuts The tree that these came from was grown from a seed planted by my great grandfather.

Ok folks. Get out there and enjoy this weather. Soon winter will be here and we'll be suffering from S.A.D., so enjoy it while you can!!
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