Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

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The art of simplicity

I do so love synchronicity. Also, soup.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butterHere’s what happened:

  1. Bought a cauliflower 2 weeks ago with good intentions to use it in…something. It sat, staring at me, every time I opened the fridge.
  2. Randomly joined a cooking class! First class focused on learning tastes and flavors and how they interact (including the importance of acid and salt as essential components of a dish or meal).
  3. Received an email from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen the next day with a 5-ingredient recipe for cauliflower soup highlighting the simple flavor of cauliflower (and calling for the exact amount of cauliflower I had).

This soup turned out to be perfect, and with perfect timing, in so many ways. First, let me start with this–you know the traditional, creamy, potato-leek soup? This is its equally tasty, equally creamy (but without the cream), less carb-y cousin. It’s cozy and warm and filling and fast.
Simple head of cauliflower It was also the perfect vehicle for applying what I learned in last week’s Cooking Lab class. Try this: as you make the soup, taste the ingredients at different stages in the process. What does the raw cauliflower taste like? To me, a little bitter, maybe a little earthy (that’s umami), maybe a tiny bit sweet. How about raw leeks and onions? (I got an F in tasting on this one–I don’t like raw onions.)
Sliced cauliflower Split leek Thinly sliced onions How do the onions and leeks taste once they’ve softened with the salt? Kind of sweet, but also a little salty? What about the cauliflower once it’s cooked and softened? More sweet, less bitter.
Leeks and onions, softenedCauliflower, just addedSoftThe well-browned butter? Sweet and nutty, earthy. The browned cauliflower mixed with sherry vinegar? Sour, obviously from the acid, but also sweeter than I’d expected.
Butter-fried cauliflowerHow about when it all comes together? How does the flavor of the basic soup change with a little of the butter, a piece of the vinegar-ed cauliflower, the chives? A balance of all five flavors in a perfect little bowl.
Creamy cauliflower soup, garnishedIt’s so fascinating to me to intentionally taste how ingredients change as they cook, and in a soup like this with so few components, the changes are easier to taste. Plus, blah blah flavors and tastes, it’s the perfect warm and cozy when we’re in the midst of yet another cold snap (also known as “winter in Chicago”).

Creamy Cauliflower Soup Continue reading

Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

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New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

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Best Veggie Chili Continue reading

Finding tiny bits of beauty

To be fair, I did warn you. I said that I could live on soup through fall and I wasn’t lying. As I also seem to have come down with the latest strain of the plague making its rounds of my office (why are students so germy? even college students, eesh), I was craving a soup flavorful enough that I could have some chance of actually tasting it.

Creamy lentil soup

For about a year lentil soup was my shoot-I-forgot-my-lunch lunch from a little Mediterranean kinda-fast-food-but-not-really joint: a cup of lentil soup, a fresh pita, and three falafels for under $5. I was so sad when the place closed, and still haven’t found a good cheap-and-reasonably-healthy lunch replacement. This lentil soup is nothing like theirs, except for the hit of lemon at the end, but it’s delicious in a totally different way. (I don’t think there were enough hyphenates in that paragraph so here’s an I-need-another-hyphen hyphen: – )

Lentil soup ingredients

This soup is creamy (without any cream), rich (with a minimum of butter and oil), so packed with flavor I can still taste it with a compromised olfactory system (thanks onion, garlic, and curry powder), and just so simple (all the ingredients were in my cupboard). Perfect.

Can I stop for a second and point out how beautiful French lentils are? Indulge your inner child, scoop up a handful, and really look closely–tiny saucers of deep olive green with blue-black speckles, stripes, swirls remind me of pictures of Jupiter and its whirlpool of clouds or the jar of spotted, striated river stones my mom keeps in a glass jar on a shelf.

French lentils

Just gorgeous. How can you not love food and cooking when it involves tiny bits of beauty like this?

French lentils

I also love that this soup gives me an excuse to use a lot of really good curry powder, breaking one of the cardinal rules of cooking in an apartment: no seafood or curry if it’s too cold to open a window.

Curry powder for lentil soup

Oh well, I can’t smell anything right now anyways, and my neighbors can just indulge me for a day.

Creamy Lentil Soup

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Soup season, take two

And so begins the Week of All Food, Thanksgiving week. The only holiday dedicated solely to cooking and eating (and appreciating the people you cook and eat with) is on Thursday and, as you would expect, I’m super excited and have all sorts of capital-P Plans. But since I know the latter half of this week will be overflowing with treats in all forms, savory and sweet, better to start the week with something light.

Carrot-Ginger-Miso Soup

I’ve already mentioned that soup is one of my favorite dishes this time of year, and this particular one is just so good for so many occasions. Feeling like you’ve over-indulged in all that fall and winter have to offer (or know you’re about to)? This is substantial enough to satisfy, but won’t make you feel like taking a four hour nap after one bowl. Coming down with a bug and not in the mood for chicken soup? Copious amounts of ginger, garlic, and carrot are all fantastic for fighting whatever ails you. Or simply feeling especially virtuous? You will feel like a saint when you pull this out of your bag for lunch.

Carrot-Ginger-Miso Soup and dumplingsCarrot-Ginger-Miso Soup

And now, a bit of a diversion–I was lucky enough to meet Deb Perelman who writes the Smitten Kitchen food blog (the source for this particular recipe) on Sunday, and it was amazing. Rare, perfect mid-November weather in Chicago, one of my favorite neighborhoods, awesome indie bookstore, and great company with the friend who introduced me to the Smitten Kitchen blog (thank you again Katherine!). Could it get much better? Turns out, yes!

Deb was, as expected, incredibly kind and generous to the huge crowd of people anxious to meet her, taking a few minutes to talk to everyone. And personally, when I mentioned that she inspired me to set up shop in this little corner of the internet and told her the name of the blog, she asked if I commented on her site because the name sounded familiar. Oh yes. This blog sounded familiar to Deb Perelman. Shut the doors, turn off the lights, we’re done here because it can’t get better than that.

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Hugs in a bowl

Fair warning–if I had to pick one type of dish to eat for the next four months, it would be soup, hands down.

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Soup is so much more than the sum of its parts: water; bits and pieces of vegetables and herbs; maybe a little meat for flavor and richness; maybe some grains, beans, or noodles for heft. Those are the basic ingredients, but the end result is soul-satisfying like no other: it’s curling under a blanket with a warm bowl in your hands, inhaling the rising steam while the wind howls past the window; it’s dipping the golden corner of a gooey grilled cheese into the unmistakable reddish-orange creaminess of tomato soup; it’s essentially a big hug in a bowl.

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I love making a huge pot of steamy, simmering delicousness on Sunday and not having to think about cooking dinner or packing a lunch for at least three days. I love how soup warms me up from the inside out; allows me to satisfy my carb cravings with a hefty slice of bread and salty butter, fluffy dumplings, or a perfect grilled cheese; keeps my hands toasty warm as I wrap my fingers around the bowl. No other single dish can do all of those things the way soup can.

I have two soups in the queue to share, the first stick-to-your-ribs rich, the other equally satisfying but a perfect prescription for when I start to feel like I’ve over-indulged a bit and need a reset.

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This first soup is one of those great freezer-clearing recipes that uses up whatever vegetable odds and ens you have around, adds some incredibly flavorful but inexpensive cuts of meat, and finishes by cooking the grains in the broth, leading to a soup that’s creamy and pretty much defines stick-to-your-ribs. It makes enough to satisfy a crowd but the ingredients are about as humble as they get.

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So with the first snow in Chicago appearing this week, I’m grabbing my favorite cozy blanket, my biggest stock pot, and cooking up some comfort in a bowl–how about you?

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Cure for the creeping crud

It seems inevitable that any time the season changes, I start to come down with some bug or other. You know the feeling: running normal errands suddenly feels like running a marathon, that tell-tale tickle starts in the back of your throat, your ears start to itch, and you just feel…off.
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As soon as I felt it sneaking up this weekend–this gorgeous, perfect, early fall weekend–I made my list: carrots, celery, onions, garlic, chicken. Roasted then simmered for most of the afternoon while I napped, it is the best cure for just about anything that ails you. And by freezing the broth, I’ll be sure to have some handy for the next time that little tickle starts in on my throat. Continue reading