Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nuclear Soup

This time of year a lot of attention is paid to putting up fruits and vegetables for the winter. Since I live in southern California with its year-round growing season, it doesn't seem quite so crucial, although the nesting impulse is always there that makes me want to put things back for a harsh season that just never seems to materialize out here in the land of endless summer.

No, now that summer is winding down, it's about time to pull out the stockpot and make chicken and beef stocks. It's great having both in the freezer--along with a bit of demi-glace--for making great soups, stews and sauces during the coming months, especially when holiday cooking time rolls around. But I employ that giant stockpot for another reason--to make what we in our household call "nuclear soup."

Looks mild mannered but it packs a punch!

Nuclear soup has no set recipe. Essentially, it is a chicken and vegetable soup that includes grain--sometimes barley, sometimes brown rice, sometimes something else--and that's loaded with as much garlic, onion and cayenne pepper as I dare put into it. This stuff is purely medicinal. Whenever one of us starts to sneeze, cough or feel the familiar malaise that signals the impending arrival of a winter cold or infection, we thaw some nuclear soup and shovel it in. It has the power to loosen the tightest head cold and ease and warm the passages from skull to chest.

I don't know if there's any hard science behind it--although for many years garlic has been touted as Russian penicillin--but I just know what happens when one of us eats it while we have a case of the winter miseries. Or the summer miseries--my husband, Andy, is suffering with a summer cold right now, which feels particularly bad when the temps reach into the 90s.

We're out of nuclear soup, so I just popped out for some chicken to make a new batch, enough to last us through this cold and, I hope, through several more. Each batch is different, depending on what's on hand, but I prefer to base the soup on lots of dark chicken meat, because it has better flavor and doesn't dry out. Sometimes I use a whole chicken, so I get the stock-enriching benefits of the carcass. I always have carrots and celery to go with the onion and garlic. Today I'm adding fennel and leeks, because they're languishing in the veggie bin, and farro, because I have a new bag of this grain and I've never made soup with it before. Sometimes I toss in potatoes, parsnips, turnips or rutabagas. As I said, whatever is on hand will do (well, maybe not gummy bears or miniature marshmallows!). I'll also add a fistful of fresh herbs from the garden, just to jazz it up.

The idea isn't to kill the person you're trying to nurse back to health, so I try not to get stupid when it comes to the cayenne, but rather I seek a balance between reasonable and bold. As for the smelly stuff, I typically use one large onion and one full head of garlic, sliced or minced.

It's possible to make nuclear soup so that it's both tasty and health restoring, so I do taste as I go. Once when Andy had a particularly bad cold and his head was completely blocked, he started into a bowl of nuclear soup, and by the time he was halfway through, everything opened up. After an extended nose-blowing session, he resumed his meal and then said, "Hey, this tastes good!"

And so it should. Being sick is punishment enough without having our tastebuds dulled by whatever it is that's responsible for such evil.

Soup's on, and Andy's home, so it's time to feed him and burp him and put him to bed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Garden Roll-Ups

I've officially gotten tired of Cosmo swiping the cherry tomatoes off the kitchen counter and making cat toys of them. So I've begun eating them in the yard, never even bringing them into the house.
While they're good on their own, I yearned to do more with them. So one day while watering out back, I devised what I call the garden roll-up (okay, so I was hungry, too). I hosed off some cherry tomatoes and some sorrel and Swiss chard leaves. I layered the leaves, added a bit of oregano from the herb bed and rolled it all around a cherry tomato. It made a great little snack while I was watering the garden.

You can do this with most anything that's available in the garden, as long as it fits in a rolled leaf. This rules out watermelon. And anything that requires cooking, like eggplant. But still, it's a nice way to enjoy fresh garden flavors with absolutely NO work.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Heirloom Heaven

Tomato-Basil-Balsamic Sorbet: I've gotta find a shorter name for it!

I’m loving myself again after momentarily hating myself.

The first time I ever heard of heirloom tomatoes, I made jokes about finding wrinkly, old, dried out veggies stashed in grandma’s attic (my grandmother kept EVERYTHING, so that was a possibility). But with the first enticing bite, I knew they were something extraordinary with which I was destined to become good friends. They typically set me back about $7 or $8 a pound, so for reasons of both economics and sheer pleasure, I refuse to ever let one go bad.
By yesterday, however, I had let several go seriously soft (I never refrigerate them, since the extreme cold damages both flavor and texture.). So after I kicked my own tush around the house for a few minutes for being a lazy, wasteful git, I decided to try making sorbet with those too-soft-for-anything-else specimens of culinary indulgence.

I’ve seen plenty of tomato sorbet recipes and always thought they sounded interesting, so this was a great opportunity to give tomato sorbet a try. Technically, the tomato is a fruit, right? So it stands to reason—to me, anyway—that a really well developed, fresh one would have great dessert potential.

With the heirlooms, I knew there would be loads more flavor, so I wanted to build my recipe carefully and take maximum advantage of them. I dug up a basic sorbet recipe and then—as I always do—changed it entirely. Mainly I look to recipes as a starting point, just to get the basic ratios right. Then I climb into my cockpit, toss the recipe over the side and start executing all sorts of mid-air acrobatics. It’s great fun playing in the kitchen, isn’t it?

For a sorbet, I knew it would be essential to use only really really ripe tomatoes—and never hothouse. I needed a few extras to complete the full two pounds, so I grabbed a couple of tomatoes a friend with an organic garden had given me. They had that intensity of flavor that improves whatever they’re near. I made up the simple syrup, and while it cooled, I peeled the tomatoes, which handle beautifully when they’re this ripe, and put them through the food mill.

I’m convinced that this was one of the factors in the sorbet turning out so well. The mill doesn’t thrash everything to death the way a blender or food processor does, and it expresses maximum pulp and juice without letting the seeds pass through. I also strained every last bit of juice that remained after the peeling and seeding, and even squeegeed the juice from the cutting board—I wanted it all.

Then I chopped the fresh basil finely, so there would be no strands catching on the mixing arm of the ice cream maker. And I used a really high-quality balsamic vinegar. Not the extra vecchio traditionale I’d spent a mortgage payment on in Modena, but something almost as exceptional. It was sweet, smooth and complex, without the tonsil-seizing aggressiveness of the cheap (and fake) stuff. And I added the barest pinch of salt, something I never see in sorbet recipes. It’s a great flavor balancer, so I figured, why not give it a try?

The resulting sorbet is something I’m exceptionally proud of. It has a wonderfully complex flavor, the most sophisticated thing I’ve ever conjured up on my own. Complex but not kitchen-sink busy. The natural sweetness of those overripe tomatoes, along with the sweetness of the balsamic, rein in the one-dimensional sweetness of the sugar. In spite of all that sweetness, it’s not too sweet. And in spite of there being both tomatoes and balsamic vinegar in the sorbet, it isn’t terribly acidic. The flavors are well balanced, and the sorbet has a nice harmony on the tongue.

Plenty of tomato sorbet recipes call for basil and perhaps balsamic, but I think four things helped me produce a really great sorbet: using heirloom tomatoes, including a primo balsamic, adding that hint of salt and gently milling the tomatoes.

Maybe extreme cold is damaging to a fresh tomato, but when I took that same tomato and made sorbet from it, something wonderful happened. Because of the cold? In spite of the cold? I’m trying not to overanalyze it. I want to simply enjoy it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ernest Hemingway . . . Foodie?

When I think of Ernest Hemingway, I think of an economy of prose bordering on the miserly. He certainly was not one to waste words, most likely because of his training and background as a reporter. And while he seemed fond of topics including war, fishing, war, hunting, war, drinking, war, screwing and war, the man could write about food.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
 Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

While I first read A Moveable Feast ages ago, I just recently noticed this passage, and boy am I impressed. I’m there with him, chasing those briny oysters with a dry white wine. But it’s not just food talk. This combination seems to lift his character (most likely Hemingway himself) above the cold, rainy day and remind him there’s something better beyond it. Sometimes the perfect food, beverage or combination of the two can transport you this way, so that you move beyond mere sustenance into, what, optimism? Yeah, I think so.

I don’t believe he’s talking about depression-inspired gorging. After all, do those who eat this way ever actually TASTE the food they’re gorging on? And do they feel happy afterward? If they did, I’m sure there would be at least a dozen bestsellers written on it. “Eat Your Way Out of Depression.” “Pigging Out for Dummies.” “I Gorged My Way to Happiness and So Can YOU!”

Maybe this would be an instructive exercise to try next time I’m down, to find a great food and a great wine to pair with it, then set the table with linen (no paper napkins allowed!), pour the wine and eat and drink slowly, deliberately and with attention to detail. Even if it doesn’t actually lift me from the funk, it would give me something to blog about. And maybe that’s all I really need—something to get me outside of myself. I’d say that’s worth a few calories.