Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tofu Erotica

Let's face it, when you hear the word 'tofu', you probably don't think 'erotica'... yet. This dish is complex in taste and texture and just so luscious that it has earned its name.

Before I tell you how to make it, I want to tell you the story of how this dish came to be. For me, it's a highly personal story that reflects many phases of my life.

Many years ago, I checked out a book from the library called Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook. This book has been tremendously influential on my cooking for two reasons: 1) it taught me many of the secrets of Chinese cooking, and 2) it was a library book so I had to take it back and that gave me the freedom to improvise on what I had learned rather than continuing to reproduce Mrs. Chiang's food. One of the dishes in the book that I loved was Anise Chicken, which became the seed of what over about 20 years eventually evolved into something entirely different, Tofu Erotica.

Each time I made Anise Chicken, I changed it a little. I added more mushrooms and more hot peppers. I added different kinds of mushrooms. It became one of my favorites.

One year, after I had recently come out, my life was in a lot of turmoil and I found myself living in a new town and alone at Christmastime. On Christmas eve, I knew that rather than feeling sorry for myself I needed to do something special. I went to the store and found all the ingredients, went back home and made Anise Chicken, just for me. After a lifetime of cooking for a family and always thinking about the tastes of others, it was a revelation that I could take the same care and cook something special just for me. It wasn't a traditional holiday food, but I wasn't having a traditional holiday experience - or rather, without realizing it then, I was creating one for myself.

For the next several years, even though I had more and more people around me in an extended, chosen family, I would make Anise Chicken sometime near Christmas to remind me to take care of myself. One time, I had some friends, John Nanci and Penny Jacobs over and they tasted it and I think it was Penny who said, "This is so good you should call it Chicken Erotica."

The next year, I was hosting a large gathering of family, friends, lovers, and lovers of lovers for a holiday we made up called "Winter Warmth Day". I believe in starting one's own traditions. Winter Warmth Day falls somewhere between the winter solstice and Christmas. The food ritual is to make and eat what you like without regard to other traditions. For me, at the time, that meant Chicken Erotica. One of the guests was vegan and I wondered if I could make a vegan version of the dish. I tried using tofu instead of chicken. Not only did it work, it was so much better! The tofu picked up the subtle flavors of the sauce better than the chicken and the texture in the mouth contrasted with the mushrooms in a way that was, well - best described as erotic. I've been making it with tofu ever since, not as a substitute for chicken, but an improvement. Tofu Erotica was born!

I still make this every year for my personal Winter Warmth Day.

When you first read this 'recipe' it will seem like it's full of exotic ingredients. While many of them can be found in the bigger, urban grocery stores, a trip to your local Asian market will be a fun outing and you will find everything in this recipe much cheaper there. You will find that you'll have more of some ingredients than you need. The star anise and peppers will keep for a long time in the freezer and you can also share with friends.

How to Make It

Begin by rinsing about 10 whole dried shitake mushrooms and soaking them in 3 cups of boiling water. It's important to rinse them first, because the tea-like liquid that results from the soaking will also go into the dish. In a separate vessel, soak about 1/4 cup of dried tree ear fungus in about 3 cups of boiling water.

Next, do a bit of preparation at the cutting board before starting to cook. Rinse and slice a 2 inch piece of fresh ginger cross-wise into pieces about 1/4 inch thick (no need to peel). Rinse and trim a bunch of scallions (a/k/a green onions - about 12) and cut both the white and green parts into 1 inch long pieces. Slice 1 pound of fresh mushrooms. These could be portabella, baby bellas, garden-variety button mushrooms, or a mixture. It's ok to buy them already sliced to save yourself a bit of work. Cut up a 14 - 16 oz block of extra firm tofu into 1/2 inch squares x 1/4 inch thick. Precision is not necessary, it's just tofu and will break up a bit as it cooks.

It's time to start cooking. Heat a couple of tablespoons of good high-temp oil, such as peanut, in a wok over high temp, then add the sliced ginger, 10-12 whole dried red hot peppers, and 8-10 whole (or equivalent pieces) star anise. It's helpful to count the number of each that you use - you'll see why later. Keep everything moving with a cooking paddle and pay attention! These ingredients are mostly dry, so they don't have water in them to bring down the temp of the oil and can scorch easily. If you scorch it, throw it away and start over. What you are doing is extracting the aromatic molecules from these ingredients and infusing them into the oil.

After 30 sec to 1 min, throw in the green onions and keep everything moving.

When the green onions begin to wilt, throw in the fresh mushrooms. You can breath a little now, because the mushrooms have enough water in them to moderate the temp of the wok, but don't leave your post. Stir-fry the mushrooms until they've released much of their water and reduced in volume.

Add the tofu and stir everything together. You can relax a little now, because there are enough watery things in the wok to bring the temp down to 212F. Let this cook for about 10 minutes, stirring gently occasionally.

Remove the shitake mushrooms from their soaking water and pour the liquid into the wok. Add 4 Tbs soy sauce. Add 1/4 cup of Chinese shao shing wine. If you can't find this kind of wine, dry sherry will do or you can leave it out.

Slice the shitakes into strips. If they have tough stems, cut them off and discard them. Put the strips into the wok and stir it all together.

Reduce heat and let it simmer, uncovered for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Employing a great deal of patience, pick out the peppers, star anise, and ginger slices. This is why it was helpful to count the number of pieces you put in earlier.

Drain and rinse the tree ear fungus. Pick or cut out any woody bits, then slice into strips and add to the wok.

Stir in 1 tsp sugar.

Dissolve 1 Tbs corn starch in 1/4 cup of cold water. Drizzle half the corn starch mixture into the wok and stir well. It should make a sauce the consistency of a thick gravy. If necessary, stir in the 2nd half.

Finish the dish by stirring 1 Tbs of sesame oil.

Serve with rice or rice noodles and garnish with sliced green onions, if you like.

This dish is even better the next day. It's best served warm rather than piping hot.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Festive Red Cabbage

Tomorrow is our annual holiday potluck at Bulls Head Friends Meeting, so instead of making soup, I'm making my contribution to the potluck.

Our potlucks tend to be rather heavy on desserts and carbs and rather light on protein and vegetables, so I'm making a healthy veggie dish, Red Cabbage.

The cabbage I have is a big purple-red one and is one of the long-storing vegetables from my last CSA share this year. This is a simple, easy, and cheap dish to make.

I started by slicing a large onion into julienne strips, the I sauted the onion in a big of olive oil in my wok until it was a lovely golden brown and smelled like the good part of the county fair. While the onions were browning, I cut my red cabbage up into thin strips. My cabbage was bigger than my head, so I only used about 2/3's of it. The rest I'll save for something else. When the onions were caramelized, I put the cabbage into the wok and stir-fried them together. The big challenge was getting all that cabbage to stay in the pan - I ended up getting another paddle and gently tossing the veg with both hands. When it was still crunchy, but warmed through, I added 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, a good squirt of soy sauce, and a dash of liquid smoke. I reduced the heat, covered the wok, and let it simmer/steam for about 10 minutes. When the cabbage was tender and crisp at the same time, I stirred in about 2 Tbs of sugar, turned off the heat and let it sit uncovered for about 5 minutes.

The cabbage will absorb the taste of the vinegar and sugar while it waits in the fridge until I take it to the potluck tomorrow. Right before we eat, I'll warm it up just enough to take the chill off before I put it on the table.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup

This week, Friends at Bulls Head Meeting will be treated to a rich, pureed butternut squash soup. Some of the vegetables I'm using - squash and celeriac - are some of the long-storing produce I got from my CSA earlier in the fall.

I started by seeding, peeling, and chunking 2 large butternut squashes. This takes a bit of muscle, as these are formidable vegetables. To get started, I cut them in half longitudinally using a cleaver and a hammer. Yep, it was loud. I also peeled and chunked a celeriac and 4 large carrots.

I heated a bit of olive oil in my soup pot and added 2 finely chopped medium onions. After they were cooked until translucent and just beginning to brown, I added 8 cups of water (2 quarts), the chunked veggies, 3 bay leaves, salt, pepper, and about a tsp of cardamom. I let this simmer until the veggies were cooked.

If you google 'butternut squash soup', you'll find a lot of recipes and many of them call for nutmeg. I've been reading books about food history and the spice trade lately and that has put me in the mood to do a little exploration with spice, so I'm trying cardamom instead. I like the taste of it in Indian restaurant food, so I'm hoping it will work well in this soup. My initial taste of the broth in progress was promising.

When the veggies were tender (the carrots were the last to be done), I removed the bay leaves and pureed the soup. I used an immersion blender that I borrowed from my landlady, right in the boiling pot on the stove. If you try this, be careful! I did not injure myself, but I could see it happening, especially if I hadn't been wearing long sleeves.

After the soup was pureed, it immediately thickened. I added water and then fortified it with 1/2 cup of quinoa. This will give the soup a bit of protein. The quinoa was cooked after about 20 minutes.

The soup is sweet and comforting. We are expecting some cold weather in the coming week and this soup will be good way to stay warm on the inside. Oh, and the cardamom worked.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Full Spectrum Chili

Saturday is usually my day to make soup for Friends at Bulls Head Meeting, but yesterday, I was in New York City for the memorial meeting of a member of the meeting, Adam Pinsker. As a result, I didn't get home in time to make the soup. Fortunately, many other Bulls Head Friends were also present and they were very understanding.

This week, the weather here in the Hudson Valley has started to get wintery. Although we haven't had snow yet, as some other parts of the U.S. has, it has been cold enough to bring me into a mood for chili.

The soups I've been writing about on this blog have not been spicy so far because I've been cooking for a variety of palettes, but when I cook for myself it's all about the heat. I'm serious about my love of peppery heat and if it doesn't have burn, for me, it's not much worth eating. Making chili is a chance to really indulge my love of hotness.

I've done a bit of observation about hot food in myself and I've checked them out with friends. There is a lot more subtly to the experience of heat than simply the Scoville rating. It seems that different kinds of hot food effect different areas of the mouth. I feel jalapenos and other hot green chilies right in the front of my mouth, including the lips and the tip of the tongue. The red, ripe chilies such as cayenne and many used in Chinese foods are felt primarily in the back of the throat and seem to have a delayed and accumulating effect. Yellow banana peppers and those pickled in vinegar, I feel right in the middle of the tongue. Horseradish, fresh radishes, mustards, and wasabi hurt so good in the sinus cavities. I feel black pepper in the top of my palette and the back of my throat.

What I've noticed in dining with friends is that individual people seem to be more sensitive in different places to different kinds of heat. One friend who can barely tolerate paprika can dowse her sushi with wasabi. I, who can tolerate extreme levels of heat with red and yellow chilies, am only moderately bad-ass when it comes to green Serrano chilies.

What I aim for when I make chili is to tickle the heat sensors, no matter where you are most sensitive. So, I use green jalepenos, red cayenne, ground black pepper, hot yellow banana peppers, and wasabi powder to cover ALL the bases. I don't want anyone to feel left out from feeling the heat. Hence the name: Full Spectrum Chili.

One more thing before I get into the actually making of the chili. It's about heat, but it's not ONLY about heat. It has to taste good too.

Here's how I make it:

I heat a bit of olive oil in the bottom of my soup pot. Then I add 2 large cloves of chopped garlic, a large chopped onion and a pound of lean ground turkey. While it's browning, I break the meat up with my cooking paddle and cut up a large green bell pepper (see, not everything is hot). When the meat is cooked, I throw in the pepper. Next I pour in a large (28 oz) can of whole tomatoes with the juice. I used canned products in this pot of chili because it's winter and that's what's available. If fresh is available, I would use it. I break the tomatoes up coarsely with my cooking paddle and then add a large (28 oz) can of diced tomatoes and an 8 oz can of chopped green chili peppers, both with their juice and an 8 oz can of tomato sauce. These chilis are not hot, but add a wonderful rich flavor that complements the green bell peppers well. I drain and rinse 2 15.5 oz cans of red kidney beans and add them. If the resulting mixture seems too thick, I will add a bit of tomato juice or water at this stage, know that it will thicken more as it cooks.

The fun part comes with seasoning the chili. I don't measure anything, but throw these things in and taste often, knowing that the flavors will improve as they have time to mingle. The tasting is mostly to make sure it result is hot enough, but not too hot and that I haven't forgotten anything.
Here's what goes in:
  • A couple of liberal dashes of Worcestershire sauce.
  • A generous couple of tablespoons of ground cumin. This is essential for deliciousness.
  • About the same quantity of chili powder.
  • Ground or crushed oregano.
  • 2 or 3 chopped fresh jalapenos or equivalent preserved green hot peppers. Use the seed and insides if you really like heat.
  • One or more of these: crushed red pepper, ground cayenne, Tabasco sauce, or Sriracha sauce (also known affectionately as 'Rooster sauce').
  • A good handful of pickled hot yellow banana peppers, chopped, with a shot of juice.
  • A hit of dry wasabi powder.
  • About 2 Tbs granulated white sugar.
  • A couple really generous shakes of black pepper.
  • Adobo seasoning. I use this instead of salt because it tastes better.
  • A couple of spoonfuls of recaito base. You could add fresh chopped cilantro after cooking instead.
I cook this over low heat to give the flavors a chance to mingle. It's usually ready to eat in about an hour. I make a lot so I will have it for days. This is one of those foods that's better the next day. It's great with corn muffins.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Miso Cabbage Soup

Ryan New chats with Friends while dishing out soup
I'm happy to be home from my travels. Among the many joys that say 'home' are sleeping in my own bed and cooking in my own kitchen. Also, being back in the midst of the Friends in my Quaker community. My son, Ryan New, was visiting me this weekend. Last night, after we made s'mores on the wood stove, he helped me make this week's soup. He came to Meeting with me this morning and after an early morning discussion of William Taber's pamphlet 'Four Doors to Meeting for Worship', help dish up the soup that we sent home with Friends.

This week, I was working with an abundance of vegetables from the special Thanksgiving share from Hearty Roots CSA. It was full of lots of wonderful fall veggies, but most especially green cabbage... so cabbage is the star of the soup this week.

We started by heating some olive oil in the bottom of the soup pot and then adding 2 cloves of chopped garlic and a chopped onion. I washed a leek really well by cutting it up and immersing in it water and then drained it and added it to the pot. I rinsed some dried shitake mushrooms and put them in some hot water to soak while Ryan kept the pot stirred. Into the pot went some chopped carrots, celery, and a whole mess of cabbage. When the mushrooms were softened, I poured the soaking liquid (now mushroom-flavored water) into the pot, cut up the mushrooms and threw them in too. Next came a couple quarts of water and a squirt of Bragg Liquid Aminos. I let that simmer for a bit while Ryan & I watched Peter Sellers in Being There on Netflix.

When the carrots were tender, everything else was done too. I broke up some buckwheat soba and added that to the simmering broth. I only let the soba cook until pliable because this soup will need to cool and then be served at a later date, and I don't want the noodles to become complete mush by the time they are eaten. I dissolved a couple tablespoons of red miso into some warm water and poured that into the soup. I left the miso until the very end because it is a great source of beneficial pro-biotic bacteria, but only if you don't kill it with heat - so as soon as the miso was stirred through, I turned off the stove and let the soup cool.

Mary Foster Cadbury heads home with her soupWe didn't have a big crowd in meeting this morning because quite a few Friends were traveling for the holidays. Others were dealing with their own Thanksgiving leftovers, but some were really happy to get this soup and a few others decided to take some after they smelled it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eat Kale Every Day

This week, I'm writing from Chicago where I'm attending a retreat for the Traveling Ministers Program, sponsored by Friends General Conference. I'm have a wonderful and rich time, but it also means thatanother week goes by with no soup from me for Bulls Head Friends. I'm looking forward to being back in my own kitchen next week and with my soup pot steaming.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you a bit of wisdom that was passed on to me by Santha Cooke, a wonderful massage therapist, nutritionist and all-round cool person in Salt Point NY. "Eat kale every day." You cannot go wrong with this advice.

Here's how I prepare kale: I tear it up with my hands. If it's mature and has tough stems, I tear the more tender part of the leaves off the tougher stem parts. Leave some of the thinner stems though because they add a nice texture. Then I boil them just until tender - but not to the point of overcooking. After draining, I dress the cooked Kale with a Bragg Liquid Aminos, liquid smoke, sesame oil and a shot of the juice from a jar of pickled hot banana pepper rings. If you don't like hot stuff, you could use plain vinegar or the juice from mild pepper rings. Then, I chill it in the fridge and when I need an afternoon snack, I eat a bowl of chilled kale. It's best eaten with chopsticks and a glass of tomato juice!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chicken Noodle Soup

(My apologies to my vegan friends for this departure while I'm cooking for my family. We'll get back to the vegan soups when I get home and am cooking for Bulls Head Friends again.)

There's nothing quite as comforting as a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. It's the balm that will sooth anything from the common cold to a broken heart.

I'm still in Florida, spending time with my 97 year old grandmother, Dot Cesky, while my mom enjoys a vacation in Hawaii. My son, John New, is coming over for dinner today - so today's soup spans four generations. My mom isn't here, but I'm cooking in her kitchen, so I think that counts. Growing up, John and his brother Ryan would often request this for dinner, no matter how hot it was outside. I glad we're having some lovely cool weather here in central Florida because soup and air conditioning are not a good pairing. John makes a mighty fine chicken soup himself - of course he learned from me.

I start by rinsing a whole fryer chicken, putting it into the pot with the giblets, covering it with water, adding salt and pepper and putting it on the stove over medium heat. It's not necessary to use a whole chicken. You could also use leg quarters, thighs, or the left-overs (including bones) from a roasted chicken. Just don't pay premium prices for boneless skinless cuts because making soup is a way to use all the parts of the bird. You can also do exactly the same thing to make Turkey Soup with leftover turkey bones and pieces - so you might want to bookmark this post for the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Be sure to wash your hands and any surfaces that touched the raw chicken. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce heat and let it simmer. It smells so good cooking - homey and warm.

While it's simmering chop an onion, a couple of carrots, and a few stalks of celery, with leaves, and through them in.

You can tell the chicken is done when the legs pull away easily from the rest of the body. It does no harm to cook it longer. Especially if you are working with leftovers, the longer you simmer the more goodness you get out of your chicken parts. When it's done and you're ready, lift the chicken out of the broth, be sure and let the broth drain out of the cavity, and set it on a plate to cool. I use a large spoon and a wooden cooking paddle for this. If I'm working with pieces, or I've cooked it so long that it has fallen apart, I use a large slotted spoon. At this point I fish out the heart and gizzard and eat them. Cook's prerogative.

Once you take the chicken out you will have a very rich broth and extra room in your pot. If you are concerned about fat, you can remove it from the broth now. Add more water and put it back on the heat but be sure to leave a few inches from the top of the pot so you have room to add more good stuff.

I added a coarsely chopped green bell pepper, a package of frozen green peas, and some leftover green beans. Add whatever veggies you like. This is a good way to use leftovers. When it's cool enough to handle, pick the meat off the chicken and break it into bite-sized pieces and throw them back into the pot. Discard the skin & bones.

The egg noodles are what will really set apart a truly amazing bowl of soup. It's not hard at all to make your own. Here's what I do: I beat 2 eggs with some Abodo seasoning and black pepper. Then I mix in some All-Purpose flour. I keep adding flour in small quantities until I have a ball of dough that sticks together and I can shape it into a ball. Don't knead it or handle it too much so your noodles will stay tender. Some people will then roll the dough out on a floured surface and then cut them into strips. I like to follow a shortcut and just flour my hands well, pick up the ball of dough, pinch off pieces, and throw them directly into the boiling soup. Then, all you have to do is call the noodles 'dumplings'. If it starts to stick to your hands too much, just grab more flour. Be very sloppy about letting extra flour fall into the soup because this will thicken the whole pot and make the soup extra hearty.

In certain parts of the country you can also purchase Reames frozen egg noodles, which are quite good. Of course you can also use the dried egg noodles that come in a plastic bag from the grocery store, but if you do, put them in at the very end of cooking. If they get overcooked they turn to mush.

Herbert Hoover rode into the US Presidency on the slogan "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." Not a sustainable economic or environmental policy for certain. Considering the impact and conditions of factory-farmed chickens, you don't want to do this very often. Back home, I have a source of fresh, local chickens grown in a natural setting. The most reasonable thing to do is eat a free-range laying hen after she's finished producing eggs - and the stewing cooking method I describe above is perfect for a tough bird. The sheer sensory pleasure found in an occasional pot of chicken soup, tells me why the slogan resonated so well with the voters of his day.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Vegetable & Chicken Stir Fry

Hey! That's not soup.

The Ministry of Soup is on the road this week as I'm in Florida visiting family. Bulls Head Friends will do without soup this week, but my family will benefit from my cooking. It's odd to cook in my mom's kitchen because I don't have my usual ingredients at hand and that's means even more improvisation than usual. I'm also cooking for a different audience this time, so I'm not under the usual dietary restrictions.

I started this dish by cutting up some boneless skinless chicken breast and putting the pieces into a bowl along with some soy sauce, chopped garlic, sesame oil and a bit of cornstarch. I set this aside and let the flavors mingle while I prepared the veggies.

I chopped up a couple of inches of fresh ginger and some more garlic. I cut a bunch of green onions into 1 inch pieces, a red bell pepper into strips, a bunch of mushrooms into chunks, and trimmed the ends off a couple of baby bok choy. I rinsed and drained some snow peas and mung bean sprouts.

Because my mom's kitchen is so much bigger than mine, I went a little crazy and cooked in 2 pans at the same time. In the first pan, I heated a bit of oil and then stir fried the garlic and ginger for about 1 minute, then the chicken went in. When the chicken was nearly cooked, I added the mushrooms.

In the second pan, I also heated a bit of oil, then added the veggies in this order, stir-frying each for a minute or so before adding the next: green onions, bell pepper, bok choy, snow peas, and mung bean sprouts. At this point Mom (Carole Seibert) came in and took over stirring this pan while I finished off the other pan.

While the chicken was finishing, I mixed some more soy sauce with a bit of white wine, some sesame oil and corn starch. All the liquids were cool to make it easier to mix the corn starch without it lumping. I stirred this liquid into the chicken & mushrooms and it quickly thickened too much, so I added a little water until the chicken was coated in a nice gravy-like sauce.

To finished, I dumped everything in the veggie pan into the chicken pan and made a big mess as I mixed it all together. We ate it over brown rice.

This dish is very simple and mild. At home I would have added fermented black beans, hot red peppers, and probably some other strange condiments from my fridge - but for Dot Cesky, my 97 year grandmother this was adventurous enough.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pumpkin King Stew

As I sit down to write this week's blog post, I'm thinking about the ends of things. Last night I heard news of the death of a member of Bulls Head Meeting. The second of our small community to die this month. I'm remembering Adam with fondness.

This week also marks the end of the growing season in this part of the world. Our last regular CSA pick-up was on Tuesday, though there will be a special Thanksgiving share that I'll get next month. This morning, I went to the last Hyde Park Farmers' Market of the year. Last night we had a frost and the weather guys declared an official end to the growing season. There is still a bit of green on some of the trees, but as many of them are bare now too. I love the crisp feel of the air and the way the light filters through the autumn leaves this time of year.

Because I'm thinking of making something really nurturing for the Meeting as we deal with another loss; because I'll be traveling a lot in November and won't be around to make soup for the meeting for the next 3 weeks; because I'm enjoying filling my home with the warm smells of cooking; and because my CSA offered me all the pumpkins I could carry this week, I'm making an extra-special soup. This is more complicated than I usually do, but what the heck, I'm feeling inspired.

I have a bunch of pumpkin already cooked and smashed, like for pie. Here's how you do it:
  • Get a good pie pumpkin - either a 'sugar' or 'Long Island Cheese' variety.
  • Cut it in half longitudinally.
  • Scoop out the seeds (see below on how to make the seeds into a tasty snack).
  • Put the pumpkin halves face down in a baking dish with a bit of water.
  • Roast at 350F until they are soft.
  • Let them cool a bit and then scoop out the tender flesh with a spoon. If it's watery, that's ok for soup (for pie, you squeeze out the water).

I also roasted a bunch of autumn veggies to add to the soup at the end. I cup up into large bite-size pieces: 1 onion, 3 large carrots, 2 large parsnips, 5 cloves of garlic, and a baby pumpkin. The pumpkin I cleaned the same way I described above, and then I peeled it and cut it up like the other veggies. Everything went into a large glass roasting pan.

I made this marinade:
Mixed it well, drizzled it over the veggies, tossed them around until the were all coated and put them in a 425F oven to roast and caramelize for about 30 minutes. Check often if you try this, I didn't pay very close attention to the time and not all veg cooks at the same rate.

Aside: This marinade is wonderful on any winter squash. I use it on delicata and red curie squash and eat them skins and all and on tougher-skinned squashes like butternut, blue hubbard, and pumpkins after peeling and chunking them. This makes a wonderful, warm, savory-sweet dish right out of oven and if you want a real treat, try saving some left-overs and mixing them with scrambled eggs for breakfast the next morning. I did this with some red curie squash just a couple of days ago and still have some leftovers that will also go into this soup.

Back to the Soup: I decided this soup would be a good opportunity to provide at least one answer to a question that lots of CSA members have this time of year: what to do with the celeriac. Also known as celery root, celeriac is one of the ugliest vegetables you'll ever meet. It's so ugly that lots of people I know are afraid to eat it. That's too bad, though because it is actually quite interesting. After you wash and peel it - and I peel it with a crude and aggressive touch - really just trimming off the outside parts with my knife, the inside has a consistency kind of like a parsnip with a flavor like mild celery. I cubed the celeriac and put it in a saucepan with water to cook over medium high heat until very tender.

Putting it together: It's finally time to bring out the soup pot. I trimmed, washed, cut up and washed again (you can't be too careful with leeks, they're dirty little guys) 2 leeks, heated a little olive oil in the bottom of my soup pot and sauteed the leeks. While the leeks were sizzling I took the garlic cloves out of my roasted veggie mix and, using an electric blender, pureed the celeriac (in its cooking liquid), the garlic, the smashed pumpkin (about 4 cups total), about 2 Tbs of red miso, and water, in batches. As the leeks were becoming tender, I poured the puree mixture in and stirred well. The thickness is like a nice, thick, smooth soup because I adjusted the amount of water while blending. After tasting the result, I hit it with a squirt of Bragg Liquid Aminos and a tsp of Chinese 5 spice powder. I left this on the stove to simmer for a little while to finish cooking the leeks.

Finally, I gently folded in the roasted veggies and my leftover red curie squash. There was some lovely caramelized stuff in the bottom of the roasting dish, so I rinsed it with a little water, scraped up the deliciousness, and poured that into the soup pot.

The color is a deep yellow/orange and the richness in the mouth is wonderful. The pureed celeriac adds a bit of intrigue and the 5 spice powder a bit of the exotic.

As promised above, how to make toasted pumpkin seeds: Use your fingers to remove the seeds from the pulp. Put them in a strainer and rinse them. Put them in a pie pan and sprinkle with Adobo seasoning (or salt) and black pepper. Toast in a 325F over, shaking/agitating often. Take them out when they are dry and crunchy but not too dark.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Super Soup

I'm calling this one Super Soup because it is full of 'super foods' that are loaded with nutrition - lentils, kale, parsley, and carrots to name a few. It also tastes great.

The basis for this soup is lentils, specifically green lentils. Lentils are a legume (bean family) and are high in protein and fiber and low in fat. Unlike other dried beans they cook quickly which makes them easier to use - you don't have to plan ahead with soaking time and long cooking time. They are also CHEAP. I paid 79 cents per pound at a regular, run-of-them-mill grocery store. That's the dry weight. After you cook them you have a large quantity of food. Yes, it is possible to feed a family of four for less than one dollar. In this economy, your food budget really can be manageable.

I started this soup by heating a bit of olive oil in the bottom of my soup pot. As much as I love to cook, I hate to clean up, so most of the time, I'll make everything in one pot. That mean everything that needs to be sauted, browned, or caramelized goes in first.

I peeled and chopped 4 cloves of garlic and 2 onions, threw them in the hot oil and stirred them around. I chopped up a bunch of celery, including the leaves and threw that in too. This is locally grown, organic celery from my CSA, which doesn't have very much resemblance at all to grocery store celery. Actually, I find it too strong from my taste to eat raw, so this soup is a good excuse to use it up. Finally I trimmed and chopped up 4 carrots and threw them in too. I gave it a good stir from time to time as these aromatic veggies cooked and their flavors blended.

I rinsed 2 lb of dried green lentils with cool water and stirred them around with my hand to wash them. Sometimes you'll find a bit of debris in dried beans so its good to look them over as you rinse. They went into the pot with enough water to cover a couple of inches over the top. If you had a nice stock on hand, you could use that instead of plain water for extra flavor.

To season this soup, I added a healthy squirt of Bragg Liquid Aminos, black pepper, and a healthy Tbs of Italian Seasoning blend of culinary herbs (Garlic, Basil, Fennel, Oregano, Parsley, Thyme) from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.

Some people get Shakers and Quakers mixed up. Shakers were a communal religious order that had its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. They lived and worked together, lived celibate lives and are famous now for the furniture they made and some of the songs they wrote (Simple Gifts is one). As I once heard a middle school Friend (Quaker) in Florida explain, "Shakers had better furniture but they didn't have sex, so there aren't very many of them left." Sadly, there are only 3 left and they live at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

I was about to declare the soup finished when I got a call from a neighbor who had a surplus of produce and was offering it to me. I came home with a bundle of parsley and kale which I knew would go perfectly in this soup. So while the lentils were cooking, I chopped up the parsley and tore the kale up with my hands, rinsed them both and threw them into the pot. YUM.

This soup is turning out really thick, like a condensed soup, which is ideal for sharing with members of my meeting. When I fill their containers tomorrow, I'll tell them to add some water or stock when they heat it up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thai Curry Pumpkin

It's autumn in North America and that means that it's pumpkin time. Most of the Americans I know treat pumpkins as Halloween decorations. If it's eaten at all, it is as pie filling from a can. I feel like shouting from the rooftops, "Pumpkin is FOOD!" Wonderful food, too.

My CSA has a pumpkin patch with several varieties of pumpkins that I've been free to pick for the past several weeks. In the photo, you see 2 of them. The one on the left is a Blue Hubbard squash (did you know that pumpkins are squash?) and on the right is a variety called Long Island Cheese. Both are known for being really good to eat.

I wish you could smell this soup. It's so fragrant and rich.

I started this afternoon by cutting open a big Long Island Cheese pumpkin and roasting it in my oven. My oven is so small and the pumpkin was so big that I had to do it one-half at a time. I put it cut side down in a baking dish with a little water and baked it at 350 until I could poke a fork into it easily. I pulled it out of the oven, turned it over, scooped out the flesh and put it in a mixing bowl where I smashed it up with a potato masher.

By the way, I also scooped out the seeds, separated them from the inside goop, washed them, tossed them with some Adobo seasoning and cayenne pepper and toasted them in the oven for about 8 min while the squash was baking - an excellent and healthy snack.

For the soup, I chopped up 4 cloves of garlic and 4 small onions and caramelized them over pretty high heat in the bottom of my soup pot in some olive oil. I had some sweet red peppers so I cut them up and when the onions were pretty brown I through them in to saute a bit too. So far, everything has been locally-grown, organic produce from my CSA.

There was some good oniony stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan so I added just a little water, stirred it around and then added some more water. In went the pumpkin and a can of coconut milk, & a rough tablespoon of Thai green curry paste. I shop a lot at my local Asian market. I've never lived in a town that hasn't had at least one, even when I was growing up Kansas, so chances are good that there is one near where you live too.

At this stage, I tasted the soup and it was a little too spicy, but the pot was only half full so by the time the rest of it was filled up it would be just about right for most people.

I knew I needed to add some water, but I wanted to bulk up the soup a bit and add some interesting texture to it. So I heated up a couple of cups of water and then threw in a couple of packets of bean thread noodles to let them hydrate. Bean thread noodles, also know as cellophane noodles, are great for soup because they can sit in hot liquid for a long time and not get mushy. They are made from mung beans so people on wheat-free diets can eat them. Also they are fun to eat because you can see through them. After they were hydrated, I drained the water and chopped them up.

The soup was close to ready, but when I tasted it, it needed a bit of saltiness and a bit of tang. Because this I'm using Thai seasonings, I departed from my usual vegan ingredients and added a healthy shot of Thai fish sauce and a squeeze of lemon.

Tastes great. I thought about adding a bit of peanut butter to add richness, but I was a little concerned that it would overpower the other flavors, so I dished up a small bowl of soup for myself and stirred in a spoonful of peanut butter. Sure enough, too much. It was a good call to stop when I did.

Before it goes into the fridge to go to meeting tomorrow morning, there's some yummy pumpkin soup for me for dinner (with extra hot peppers) and I have enough pumpkin left over to make a pie tomorrow.

Recipe Please?

I've been doing the Ministry of Soup for 5 months now, and I have to say my soup is pretty popular. Quite often, I get asked for a recipe for the soup I've just made.

Here's the deal about recipes - I don't have any. I cook the way I love to play music - free improv!

During the time of year when my CSA is in season, I basically make up the soup by looking at what vegetables I have a lot of and then concocting something around that. As harvest time comes to a close I expect that my approach will change. I will have a concept in mind and then will obtain ingredients around that.

I learned a lot about cooking from my grandmother, Jean Fisher, who was an old-fashioned Kansas farm cook. Instead of measuring things, she'd eyeball quantities and then taste the results. I do own a set of measuring spoons and cups, but they're somewhere in the back of my utensil drawer. I prefer to throw things in the pot and let my nose and mouth tell me when I've gotten it right. Soup is pretty forgiving that way. I also remember her saying, "If the kitchen isn't a mess when you've finished cooking, you haven't put enough heart into it." One of these days I'll post a picture of my kitchen in the aftermath of a soup project. You'll see that plenty of heart goes into the soup. Sometimes I stir in some extra love too.

Because folks keep asking for recipes, I've decided to make this blog as a way to share about the soups I've been making. Keep in mind that I'm sharing ideas and experiences of soup-making & soup-sharing rather than recipes. I hope that if you are intriqued by any of the soups, you'll start your own experiments. I suppose it's possible to mess up a pot of soup, but not easy.

What is the Ministry of Soup?

Nearly every Saturday will find me in the kitchen concocting a big pot of soup. On Sunday morning, I take it with me to Quaker meeting to share with Friends. I started making soup for my Quaker community when we noticed that our small meeting has a lot of members who are seniors, caregivers for loved ones, and who also find it difficult to ask for help. As we were talking about how we might support one another, someone said that we should do, "what we love, when we can."

I love to make soup. That came as a surprise to Friends who knew me primarily as a computer geek, website designer and musician. Making soup has helped me feel more like an integrated member of the community and more of a 3-dimensional character in the life of the meeting. It has also given Friends something to talk to me about in addition to asking computer questions.

The way it works is that Friends voluntarily 'sponsor' the ministry of soup. $20 pays for 2 weeks worth of soup. This is pretty informal. Friends just hand me a $20 and I use it to buy groceries. Right now, I have the next 5 weeks sponsored. On Sunday morning, everyone who would find it helpful to have soup in the coming week is welcome to take some home. It's not only the elders and the caregivers who take home soup. People who have a busy schedule coming up and even though who are intrigued by what I might have done with red lentils and quinoa take some too. Friends bring their own containers, and we've amassed quite a collection of yogurt containers in the meetinghouse to use for distribution to those who forget.

One of my challenges has been to account for all the dietary restrictions that our meeting has - we have Friends who are vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, wheat-free, and nightshade-free, so almost all the soups are either vegan or nearly vegan. Sometimes I even manage to make something that meets everyone's requirements. Another challenge is that I personally like my food highly seasoned and am especially fond of spicy foods that would cause pain to the average palette, so I've had to tone things down a lot.

If you ever visit Bulls Head Meeting in the Hudson Valley of New York state, be sure to bring a container. You might want to leave with some soup.

Starting in October 2011, my attentions have shifted to providing meals for Occupy Poughkeepsie.   I've been inspired and made hopeful by the Occupy movement and have been discerning how I am led to be a part of it.  I'm clear that I am NOT led to sleep in an encampment, but that my talents as a soup-maker, web-designer, musician, and political organizer can come into play to support this movement as I am led.  I'm currently seeking how to balance my desire to spend much of my time supporting Occupy with my need to continue to operate a viable web design business and to maintain a healthy spiritual discipline.