Thursday, October 11, 2012

party soup

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 10, 2012.


Every fall my aunt invites the women in our family for a soiree. For twenty-four hours, I luxuriate in the absence of dirty floors and fussy kids and throw all my energy into visiting, relaxing, and eating myself into a coma. It couldn’t be better.

The schedule is fixed. We arrive at her home at noon on Saturday and eat a many-coursed meal on the veranda. Entertainment is provided in the afternoon—one year there was an ooh-la-la belly dancer, another year we took oil painting lessons, and this year we received professional, full-body massages. In the evening, we eat out at a restaurant. The next morning there is coffee in the sunroom, a walk to the bakery, and a huge, leisurely brunch.

About a week before the event, my aunt starts sending us emails, saying things like, “The beds are made!” or “The delivery man just dropped off three big boxes!”  This year, she wrote, “I grated off the tip of a finger, made two things that totally flopped, and lost my cash card at the grocery store.” (Another aunt promptly shot back, “We'll eat flops as long as they don't have the tip of your finger in them.”)

Despite my aunt’s struggles, when we gathered around the table for the noontime meal a couple of weekends ago, there was nary a flop in sight. This first meal is always extra special because my aunt never tells us what any of the dishes are and she makes everything herself. It is our self-appointed job to guess the ingredients, rave wildly, and devour every morsel.

As we waited for my aunt to emerge from the kitchen, we sniffed the air for clues. When the first course arrived, we scrutinized the dish as though we were world-class connoisseurs. Dark red, with a swirl of sour cream in the middle, the soup smelled both musky and sweet. It had to be red peppers, we all agreed, but what else? Even before we took the first bite, we were already calling out possible ingredients.

Chicken broth! Tomatoes! Paprika! The guesses came rapid-fire.

I put a spoonful of the velvety, smoky soup into my mouth and shouted the first thing that popped into my mind, “Chipotle!”

My aunt, on her way back to the kitchen, turned and smiled at me. Bingo!

The rest of the meal was superb—pulled lamb, grilled broccoli, focaccia, greens with granola croutons, and lemon-blackberry-ginger parfaits—but it was the soup that impressed me most, and the recipe I recreated after I returned home. I’ve been sipping a mugful every lunch.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
I’ve adapted my aunt’s recipe. She had adapted hers from one she found on My Recipes.

4 large red bell peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
28-ounce can plum tomatoes (or 1 quart home-canned)
1-2 teaspoons minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons smoked (or plain) paprika
3 cups chicken broth
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper
sour cream, for garnish
chopped cilantro, for garnish

Cut the peppers in half, remove the seeds and white membrane, and place on a baking sheet, cut-side down. Broil for 15-18 minutes until the skins are blistered black. Put the roasted peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic. Allow them to steam-soften for about 10 minutes before peeling off and discarding the skins.

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil over medium high heat until translucent and soft. Add the roasted peppers, tomatoes, chipotle pepper, and paprika. Simmer for several minutes. Blend until creamy smooth.

Return the soup to the kettle, add the broth, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat through and taste to correct seasonings. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with dollops of sour cream and cilantro.

Yield: one-half gallon

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

making dinner easy

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on September 26, 2012.


Now that September is here, my days are filled to the brim with the children’s schooling. All the time I’d previously given to cooking vanished in a flurry of math problems, piano lessons, and geography games. In no time at all, we’d run clean out of prepared food. It got so bad that my husband gave up on packing his lunches and resorted to fast food. (And his wife writes a cooking column! Oh, the irony! The scandal!)

After three weeks of suppertime scrabbling, I’d had enough. I declared that the next Saturday would be my cooking day. I would cook food for the entire week ahead. I would cook until I ran out of supplies. I would cook until I dropped.

On Saturday morning, I tore around frenetically from stove to freezers to sink to counter to refrigerator. Pans of meats and veggies thawed on the table, big kettles cluttered the stove top, and wayward bits of chopped onion crunched underfoot. What a royal mess!

To make matters worse, my older daughter, invigorated by the flurry of kitchen activity, decided to give the refrigerator a much-needed dunging out. She emptied the shelves of their contents, and then the fridge of its shelves. And then, because empty space needs to be filled, she climbed into the fridge, just for the heck of it.

With the contents of my refrigerator sitting all over the kitchen floor, using things up became easier than ever. Into my soup pots went the good part of the tail end of a moldy piece of ginger, a solitary keilbasa sausage, a partially-filled jar of raw cream that was banging around the refrigerator freezer, some sour cream, the scrapings from a jar of applesauce.

The kitchen was trashed. The refrigerator crisper drawers perched precariously on kitchen stools. “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” blasted through the computer speakers. Bread flour covered the counters with a white film. The dirty dishes piled up higher and higher.

Early afternoon, exhaustion hit. I pushed through, bagging up the loaves of bread and putting the jars of prepared foods into the sparkly-clean refrigerator before collapsing on the sofa. The week’s meals were made, and the week hadn’t even started yet. Hallelujah.

We ate the curry on Tuesday night. All I had to do was cook a pot of brown rice, set out the condiments, and dinner was served. It couldn’t have been easier.

this picture is from another curry dinner - thus the white rice instead of brown

Golden Chicken Curry
Adapted from The Flavors of Bon Appetít 2000 cookbook.

1 chicken, cooked and deboned
2 tablespoons oil
3 large onions, chopped
1/4 cup minced, peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup tomato sauce
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup applesauce
1 pound (2-3 cups) packaged frozen peas
½ cup sour cream
½ cup coconut milk
salt, to taste

Sauté the onions in oil until tender. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté one minute. Add the curry, cumin, cinnamon, and flour and sauté briefly. Stir in the yogurt and tomato sauce and simmer for one minute. Add the broth and applesauce, bring to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes. Add peas and heat through.

Remove the kettle from the heat and stir in the chicken, sour cream, and coconut milk. You may continue to heat, as needed, but do not boil. Taste to adjust seasonings.

Serve the curry over rice, with a smattering of condiments such as cilantro, green onions, chutney, chopped bananas, raisins, chopped peanuts or cashews, and coconut.

Extra curry freezes well.