Archive for the 'soups & stews' Category

october potential

Ouch. Normally October and I are fast friends. But this particular October has been something to recon with. This October took me in, chewed me up, and recently spit me out into a deluge of grey snow flurries. I’ll spare you the details, but do you want to know just how cruel October has been? I haven’t even planted my garlic crop yet. Terrible, I know. But that’s the beauty of garlic. It’s very forgiving.

October was at least kind enough to afford me a teeny bit of time in the kitchen. And there were some memorable moments to be sure. We had a surplus of fresh pressed apple cider this year, so I liberally took 2 gallons and slowly simmered it down to make 4 half-pints of an amazing boiled cider. It sounds extravagant, I know, to turn 2 gallons into 4 cups, but the result is worth it. The cider cooks until it turns into a thick, sweet-tangy syrup – somewhere between the consistency of maple syrup and molasses. I can’t decide how to use it first – spooned onto a cheese plate, glazed over roasted carrots or squash, mixed into a vinaigrette, or simply drizzled over vanilla ice cream. I’ll keep you posted on that as the winter wears on.

cider flow

Making boiled cider is really as easy as putting fresh cider in a heavy stock pot, bringing it to a boil, and then reducing the heat so it can simmer 4 – 5 hours. You really only need to give it an occasional stir until about the last 30 minutes. When it starts to thicken up, you want to stir more often to keep it from scorching. Remove it from the heat when the syrup gets to a consistency you like. That’s it – boiled cider. I went a step further and filled sterile jars and gave them a 15 minute hot-water boiling bath. But, like most concentrated sugars, this will keep almost indefinitely in the fridge, even without canning.

Then there was the night Mark came home with his sweatshirt bundled up and overflowing with fresh purple plums. We sucked down plenty of them fresh, but the stragglers got turned into a simple butter cake. My favorite fall cake – equally as good with pears, plums, or apples. And equally good, if not better, with coffee the next morning. That’s my kind of cake.


The other great thing about this cake is how fast and easy it is. Grease an 8×8 pan with butter and fill the bottom with fresh cut fruit. Melt 9 tablespoons of butter (it is a butter cake after all) and set aside. Mix 5 1/4 ounce (3/4 cup) sugar with 2 eggs. Add in 2 1/2 ounces flour (scant 1/2 cup) and 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder. Stir in the melted butter and pour batter over fruit. Dust with a bit of nutmeg, cinnamon, or ginger if desired. Bake at 350º F for 40-50 minutes until cake is golden and crackly. See how much potential October has?

But I think the standout for the month was a garlic soup from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. The soup itself was simple, yet deceivingly rich and packed with deep flavor. But what really knocked it out of the park was the harissa garnish. It gives the soup just the right punch. For an even quicker meal you could sub in store bought harissa, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Yottam’s version is in the running for the finest harissa I have tasted. It’s well worth the extra 15-20 minutes of effort to mix it up fresh. It didn’t take me long to use up the leftovers – spooning it onto eggs, avocado toasts, and even a green arugula based pizza.

We had the soup as a meal with a big fall salad and sourdough for dunking, but I think it would make a particularly lovely first course for a dinner party. Twenty-five cloves of garlic may seem like a lot of work, but it’s really not too bad, especially if you don’t go and use teeny tiny cloves like I did and subsequently have to double the amount to 50. Careful use of a mandolin can make fast work of slicing perfectly thin garlic. As far as the stock and wine go, don’t skimp on quality – they really make up the flavor base of the soup. And the harissa! The harissa will become a kitchen staple for me, soup or no soup. It’s a tad on the salty side – which is one of the reasons why I fell in love with it, but if you’re leery of salt, start small and taste as you go.


Well there. I feel better for having gotten October off my chest. Hopefully next year we’ll resume our slow-paced, nostalgia filled relationship.

Garlic Soup with Harissa
From Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

For the harissa

1 red pepper (or 3 small)
1/2 tsp each coriander seeds, cumin seeds and caraway seeds
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 red chillies, seeded and chopped
1/2 tbsp tomato purée (or tomato paste)
2 tbsp lemon juice
2-3 tsp coarse sea salt

For the soup

3 T butter
2 T olive oil
4 medium shallots, finely chopped
3 celery sticks, finely diced
25 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
3/4 c white wine
1 generous pinch saffron strands
4 bay leaves
1 quart good-quality vegetable stock
4 tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
Fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Greek yogurt or Crème fraîche (optional)

First make the harissa: put the pepper under a very hot oven broiler until blackened (10-20 minutes, depending on your broiler). Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, leave to cool, then peel and discard the skin and seeds. While the pepper is roasting, place a dry frying pan on a low heat and toast the coriander, cumin and caraway for two minutes. Transfer to a mortar and grind to a powder. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion, garlic and chillies over medium heat until dark and smoky – six to eight minutes. Then blitz all the paste ingredients together in a food processor.

For the soup, gently fry shallots and celery until soft and translucent (about 10 minutes). Add the garlic and cook for five minutes more. Stir in ginger and thyme, add salt, pour in the wine and leave to bubble for a few minutes. Add the saffron, bay leaves and stock, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves, add the parsley and blitz with a hand-held blender. Do not over-process – keep some texture.

Serve in shallow bowls. Swirl in some harissa, sprinkle over coriander and serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt or Crème fraîche, if you like.



Never try to outsmart your immune system. It just doesn’t work. I know this, but it still didn’t stop me from trying to fool myself. I’m not really sick, I decided. I’ll just take a few extra vitamin C, drink more fluids and get on with things. Well the joke’s on me. Because this week, I really am sick. There’s no foolin’ no one.

I spent the bulk of the week on the couch with one large orange cat and one small orange dog piled on top of me, box of Puffs within easy reach. My beverage of choice was what I refer to as a “juice cocktail” – a concoction from my youth of half orange, half 7-up, over ice, ideally served with a bendy straw. Between cocktails I alternated with plenty of water and green tea spiked with lemon and honey.
I washed my hands approximately 83 times a day. I know because I had to either heat up or get hot water from the wood stove every time. It gets old after about the forty-second time. To appease myself, I spent a considerable amount of time online (who knew there are so many choices?!) picking out a faucet for our soon-to-be new house. A faucet from which hot and cold water will freely flow. The thought of it gives me chills. Or maybe that’s just my fever coming back.
My appetite waned considerably throughout the week. That’s got to be one of the biggest drags about being sick. I love getting hungry and dreaming about all the amazing things I could eat to satiate myself. This week though, when it came to food, all I thought about was a sleeve of saltines and a rather zingy soup. I didn’t eat much, but I made a point to have a small bowl of soup (sans garnishes) each day just to keep something in the tank if nothing else.
I had made a big pot of this soup back in my “I’m not really sick” phase and it’s a good thing. Because it fed us all week long. And it only got better and better. As my friend Andy says, sometimes a soup just needs to linger in the pot a while in order to really get to know itself. And after a few days, this soup had no questions about who it was. It was a smooth talker – thick and silky. It was pungent and spicy, but mellow at the same time. And it was pure comfort.
I used a semi-hot curry powder homemade by my friends Ulf and Pat. And I intentionally used a lot of it – in hopes of giving my “little cold” a good kick in the pants. I also didn’t shy away from the cayenne. Feel free to use a combination of hot and sweet curry and/or to reduce the amount (though using anything less than 2 teaspoons seems downright silly – it is curry soup after all).

Sweet Potato Curry Soup
(adapted from the North Carolina Cookbook)

2 tablespoons butter
4-5 large shallots (enough to make about 1 cup chopped)
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 scant teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2-3 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
6 cups stock (I used half turkey and half garlic, or chicken would work great too)
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup milk
sour cream or creme fraiche
roasted peanuts, chopped

Melt the butter in a large soup pot and add the shallots and celery. Cook until tender and lightly browned. Stir in the ginger, and all of the spices except the thyme and bay leaf. Cook, stirring for about a minute. Add the sweet potatoes, stock, thyme and bay leaf. Add salt and pepper to taste. Increase heat and bring soup to a boil. Lower heat to medium-low and let simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are tender. Fish out the bay leaf and either transfer soup to a blender in batches, or use an immersion blender to purée the soup. Stir in the milk and serve, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and crushed peanuts.

cold chaser

This is going to sound pathetic, but I have been trying to turn out a batch of chocolate chip cookies since the beginning of September. My husband Mark is a science teacher at Bayfield High School. And I know from experience that the transition back into the chaos of the classroom can be a rough one. So naturally I thought chocolate chip cookies would help.

I must have taken the butter out to come to room temperature at lest a dozen times, only to return it – untouched – back to the fridge at the end of another long day. When I finally did get the dough mixed up, it was a two day affair to get all the cookies into the oven and baked. And after all that, they didn’t even come out looking very pretty. But at least they taste good.

It appears, however, that my efforts might have come a little too late. Mark flopped down on the couch this weekend and succumbed to his fate. “They finally  got me,” he moaned. It’s inevitable. It happens every fall. It’s only a matter of when. The dreaded back-to-school cold. And this year’s is a doozy – already making its way deep into his lungs.

But this time I was ready for duty. Garlic! This boy needs garlic and lots of it. And so as a cure for Mark (and a preventative for myself) I made up a steaming pot of garlic soup. It’s a simple soup with just a handful of ingredients, but don’t let that fool you. Its flavor is rich and complex. Head cold or not, if it doesn’t bolster your spirits after a long day, I don’t know what will.

The key is to make this soup with the freshest garlic you can find. Older garlic runs the risk of being too hot and sharp. This time around I used a nice mild Spanish Roja. The recipe, which comes via the New York Times Cookbook, calls for roughly 36 cloves of garlic. Since garlic cloves can vary quite a bit in size, I’ve settled on average clove weight of 3 to 4 grams. So depending on the garlic I’m using, I typically chop up anywhere from 100 – 150 grams of garlic. Cold? What cold? I knew it was working when midway through dinner Mark sighed and said he wanted to drink the soup like milkshake.

Soupe à L’ail (garlic soup)
Adapted from the Essential New York Times Cookbook

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
36 average size, cloves of garlic (100-150 grams), peeled and roughly chopped
8 cups water
Salt and ground pepper to taste
3 ounces capallini or other thin pasta, broken into pieces
6 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Fresh thyme for garnish
Olive oil

Melt the butter and oil in a large soup pan. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for about a minute – do not let it brown. Add the water and about a teaspoon of sea salt. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Strain the cooking liquid and reserve the garlic. Put 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and all of the garlic into a blender or food processor and whiz into a smooth puree.

Return the rest of the cooking liquid along with the garlic puree back to the soup pot and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta. Cook for about 3 minutes, until pasta is just tender. Meanwhile, blend the egg yolks with the vinegar.

Turn off the heat, pour the egg whites into the hot soup, cover and wait a few minute until the egg white form a cloud-like mixture. Do not stir them in. When the whites are fully cooked, add the egg yolk/vinegar mixture and stir very slowly to combine. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and a drizzle of olive oil.

antsy pants

This is the time of year that I tend to get a little squirrelly. The peas and radishes are up, but they’re weeks out from being ready to eat. Same with the first crop of carrots and beets. The tart cherries are in full bloom, but a pie is at least a month off. Basically, the garden at this point is brimming with hope, but not much action. There’s rhubarb, that’s promising. But even as much as I love those tart crisp stalks, theres really only so many places you can take them. Which leaves me pacing the freshly strawed garden paths and twiddling my thumbs.

Inevitably my gaze falls on the showiest thing in the garden – an innocent row of perky garlic. And I wonder out loud, “Should I?” Meaning, dare I indulge myself and recklessly dip into the fall harvest prematurely? When garlic is harvested at this stage it is referred to as green garlic. It looks something like a cross between a scallion and a leek – just a straight slender stalk, without its traditional bulb attached to the end. Herein lies the dilemma. What could potentially become 8-15 individual plump cloves of garlic instead gets scarfed down as one. And that’s it. Party’s over. It feels like such a disgrace, such a rip-off to the garlic plant.

I casually avert my eyes for a moment. Oh the agony! Green garlic is really good. It is everything I crave this time of year. It’s earthy and mild and fresh and garlicky. It puts the lingering heads of our fall stored garlic to shame. But it just feels so wrong. Still, I can’t help myself. I never can. A stalk here to mix in with the pasta. A stalk there for an asparagus frittata. And several stalks to make spinach and green garlic soup. This really feels like going overboard, but it is so worth it. So much so that I now make it a point to plant a small bed each fall of what I know is going to be harvested as green garlic. Somehow it eases my guilt. At least a little. It’s not like I went and got anyone’s hopes up or anything. Those garlics knew their fate right from the get-go.

Any remaining doubt is generally absolved when I take a deep inhale over the resulting steamy bowl of bright green garlicky goodness. I am normally a slow eater. Painfully slow by some people’s standards. But not with this soup. This soup puts my hand into high gear, involuntarily spooning it into my mouth faster than I can keep up. It dribbles down my chin. I don’t care. I lick the bowl clean and then go back for another scoop to do it all over again. It’s so earthy and green, I literally feel my body soaking it up after a winter’s worth of starchy root crops.

On my second bowlful, I generally come up for air long enough to dunk a piece of buttered baguette into my bowl and have a sip of wine. My friend Mary, who knows way more about wine than I do, recently turned me onto an amazing petite sirah, old vine zin and old vine mourverde blend (Phantom) from Boggle. It’s as earthy and as deep as this soup – in a wine sort of way. They are a match made in heaven. And with that, I know I’ll make it. I can put my antsy pants back on the shelf for another year. Summer is nearly here. I can taste it. I just hope the peas and carrots get on with things in a timely manner. For the garlic’s sake.

This recipe is an adaptation from Zuni Café in San Francisco, via one of my favorite food blogs, Orangette. I usually sacrifice at least a baker’s dozen (sometimes more) of garlic plants for the soup. If you don’t have your own garlic plot to contemplate pilfering, (or even if you do, but happen to have more restraint than I do) fear not. This is the time of year you are likely to find green garlic shoots at farmer’s markets and other places that sell local produce. You’ll want to use just the tender white and pale green parts of the plant. Save the tougher green tops for use in a vegetable stock if you’re so inclined. You could also try the soup with regular garlic, but I would use just a few cloves, minced and simmered just a titch longer. It’d still be a lovely way to celebrate that long awaited spring spinach.

Spinach and Green Garlic Soup

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 – 3/4 lb. trimmed green garlic (13 -15 1/4″ thick stalks), thinly sliced
Salt & pepper
4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or boxed)
10 oz. fresh, spring spinach leaves, chopped if the leaves are large
1 Tbsp. yogurt, keifir, or crème fraîche
Fresh lemon

Heat the  butter and olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the green garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. You should notice the pungency of the garlic mellowing as it cooks. Add the stock, bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat to keep a gentle simmer going for about 15 minutes. Add the spinach, and turn off the heat. Stir the spinach in and let it sit covered for just 5 minutes. Puree the soup using an immersion blender (or regular blender).

Stir in 1 Tbsp. of yogurt, keifir, or crème fraîche, another pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Serve warm or hot, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a few drips of yogurt, keifir, crème fraîche.

Serves 4 (Unless your body is totally thirsty for greenness. Then you could possibly, maybe, eat almost an entire pot all by your very self. I know. I’ve done it.)

emergency tonic

My mom had an emergency appendectomy last week. Is there any other kind, really? My appendix decided to cash things in when I was seventeen. And it too was an emergency. In retrospect, the real emergency came several days after surgery. I was sent home to recover, but I never did. I have a vague memory of dad slinging me over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and laying me into the back seat of the family toyota for a run to the emergency room. The details from there on out are sketchy at best. Being force fed what seemed like a considerable amount of chalky, white, nauseating barium is the only thing that really stands out. The rest is all hearsay. My intestine had twisted over on itself and to complicate matters, it had leaked. Infection was raging. A second surgery was ordered.

Evidently the prognosis was dire. Dire enough that my dad felt compelled to smuggle our family cat, Max, into St. Paul Ramsey Hospital. Here was a man who didn’t mess around. He knew just how to get to the core of things. He drove Max downtown, stuffed him into a soft sided brief case, rode up several flights in the elevator, and waltzed into my room. They didn’t stay long, but long enough. Somehow I managed to pull things off. Or rather my surgeon managed. I spent another solid week in the hospital, but eventually I got home. Home to Max. Home to my parents who nursed me back to life.

Needless to say, I was glad to learn of the tremendous technological strides that have been made in the world of appendectomies in the last 20 years. Three cheers for laparoscopic surgery. But medical advancements or not, I went to help my mom recover. She’s always been tough, and this was no exception. Her sturdy farm-girl roots shinned from the get-go. The surgeon made her promise to at least fill the pain prescription. She did, but the bottle sat in the bathroom, unopened. She was in and out of the hospital in under 24 hours. And once I got her home and settled in, I proceeded to do what seems to me like the obvious thing to do in almost any situation – I cooked.

I made silky parmesan risotto with mushrooms, creamy macaroni and cheese soup with roasted tomatoes on top, and a ginger chicken soup. I think everyone should have a reliable, cure-all soup recipe in their back pocket to pull out in times of need. And this is my new standby. It’s flavor is very grown up – not like any other chicken soup I have tasted. The broth is beautifully clear and infused with ginger. The chicken itself comes out amazingly tender and packed with the rich flavor of the broth. I know this is a tonic I will crave the next time I’m under the weather.

This recipe originated from Nina Simond’s A Spoonful of Ginger, but I found it in the Essential New York Times Cookbook. Hesser’s version calls for Shaoxing rice wine, which I didn’t have, so I subsistuted sake – and would do so again. I loved the flavor. Depending on the situation, I can see serving just the broth by itself or with the chicken loosely shredded into the soup, which is what my mom and I did. There was plenty of left over chicken for other uses. In fact my mom told me tonight that she ate the last of it in a kung pao chicken.

Clear Steamed Chicken Soup
Adapted from the Essential New York Times Cookbook

One 3 1/2 pound chicken cut into 10 pieces, trimmed
(I opted to remove a good deal of the skin, but left some in tact for flavor)
1 3/4 cups sake
10 scallions, trimmed and smashed gently with the flat blade of a knife
12 quarter-sized discs of fresh ginger, smashed with the flat blade of a knife
6 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
Chopped scallions for garnish

Heat the oven to 425ºF. Fill a pot large enough to hold all of the chicken pieces with water and bring to a boil. Blanch the chicken pieces for one minute and drain.

Combine the everything but the salt in a Dutch oven or casserole with an oven prof lid. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, then place the lid on top. Pour an inch or two of boiling water into a roasting pan that is large enough to hold the pot of chicken. Place the pot of chicken in the hot water bath and put the whole shebang in the oven for 2 hours. Check the water level in the roasting pan and replenish with more boiling water if necessary.

Once the soup is out of the oven, skim the top to remove the fat. Remove the scallions and ginger. Add salt and adjust to taste.

Add a handful of loosely shredded chicken to each bowl. Serve the hot broth sprinkled with scallions.

save your tarts

I have a confession to make. In all the time I have spent in the kitchen, I have never made minestrone soup. Ever. I mean doesn’t it seem like that should be some sort of prerequisite? Truth be told, I have only eaten minestrone soup a handful of times. I don’t know, its just never really jumped out at me. But then, a few weeks ago, I perusing one of my favorite coffee table books – M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating – and I came across something that intrigued me. I should note that I find a lot of intriguing bits in this hefty volume. This is a book that pretty much has a permanent home on or around the couch, as it is the only way I will ever get through all 749 pages of it. I love picking it up for a quick escape – Fisher’s style, wry sense of humor, and culinary opinions are such a refreshing treat. And it’s the type of book you can open to just about any page and start reading. Which is what I did the other week. And here is what Mary Frances has to say about minestrone.

“Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.”

Clearly, I have been missing out on something. Why have I not made this soup? So I tagged it with one of my favorite little sticky notes. And then I went to go look up “huggermuggery” in the dictionary: 1. disorderly confusion; muddle 2. secrecy, concealment. I’ve yet to throw it out conversationally, but I’m working on it.

Back to the soup. M.F.K. has plenty to say on the subject and debates the merits of a water base versus bean broth, which some actually say is not a minestrone at all, but a minestra – who knew? Bacon, or ham, or no meat at all, pasta, no pasta? I have so much catching up to do in world of minestrone! Fisher goes on to quote Mrs. Mazza, who wrote “a plate of this pottage, topped with grated Romano, served with crisp garlicked sour-dough bread, a salad and a glass of wine, and I have dined.” And although Fischer evidentially had her disagreements with Mrs. Mazza regarding the preparation, she does give her this much: “For the rest of the meal, Mrs. Mazza and I are one. There is no point doing much else, the night you make minestrone, because nobody will eat anything else anyway. Save your tarts for a leaner hungrier night.” That’s it. I was sold. Minestrone was in my future.

So after a particularly arduous day this past week, I knew the time had come. I rounded up onions, potatoes, celery, cabbage, carrots, garlic, greens, and a bit of bacon. Then I poured a glass of wine, put on some Buddy Guy, and got to work. I pretty much followed M.F.K.’s recipe – which is always a hoot, in and of itself. I adapted it here and there, but what follows is her original recipe. It’s a treasure. And yes, I felt remarkably better after eating a bowl of warm minestrone. It fed us for several meals, and the last of it just went into the freezer for the next time I get involved in a little huggermuggery.

A Basic Minestrone
from M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

1/2 pound bacon or salt pork
1 small onion chopped
1 stalk chopped celery
1 handful chopped parsley
2 cups tomatoes, peeled
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon oregano

Soften the onion in the heated meat-fat, add celery, parsley and herbs, and stir for 10 minutes to make a glaze, adding a little water if necessary. Add the tomato, stirring constantly and taking care not to burn. Stir in 2 or 3 quarts of water. Add a little mace if you like it. (At which point she quips…This soup is fun, because it’s so malleable!)

Put at least the first five of the following vegetables through the fine grinder of the vegetable chopper. OR cut them not too finely, let them simmer until tender, and then mash well with a potato masher before you add any pasta. I like this method better than the one I gave before. (Amusing that she still gives the vegetable chopper method then!)

2 large onions
1 potato, skin and all
1/2 small cabbage (Savoy preferably)
3 carrots
6 stalks celery
some spinach…say a big handful
some green beans…the same
You see what I mean?

Bring the whole thing slowly to a boil, and then let simmer until the vegetables are very tender. Add some pasta twenty minutes before serving if you like (not until the next day if you plan to use the minestrone more than once). Churn the soup ferociously, and serve over thin toasted bread or not, but always with a good ample bowl of grated dry cheese to sprinkle upon each serving, as the pleased human who eats it may desire.

*Note: I was most befuddled by the instructions to “churn the soup ferociously.” Maybe I made some huge minestrone faux pas, but I opted to give it a few pulses with the immersion blender. I also set the bottle of red wine vinegar on the table with the parmesan cheese. Both were magnificent additions.

local trifecta

When I think back on the last few weeks of eating, there are three meals that stand out. Three little respites amidst all of the holiday parties, gatherings, and feasts. And to think I was actually a bit skeptical as to how I would fit these particular meals into our hectic December schedule. I’m so glad I managed. These noteworthy delights were our weekly, Dark Days Challenge, 50-mile radius, local meals.

And in fact, the first of these three meals – Curried Root Vegetable Stew with Dumplings – wasn’t only a standout in recent memory, but one I’d claim as a top runner for all of 2010. It will certainly make the rounds at our table again. The recipe is from Molly O’Neill via the Essential New York Times Cookbook and originally appeared in the Times in 1994. It has that perfect blend of sweet and savory, light and hearty. My one conundrum was making the dumplings using my local flour, which is 100% whole wheat. They worked, but they were definitely on the sturdy side and not the most attractive dumpling I’ve ever had bobbing in my stew. It made me ponder how the cooks of my great-grandmother’s era managed to pull off lighter flour based goods. Maybe they didn’t. Or maybe they hand separated the wheat bran and germ to yield a lighter flour. I wasn’t that ambitious.

I also baked a rustic and flavor filled Olive Oil and Apple Cider Cake from the same cookbook to accompany the stew. It was a welcome departure from the overly sweet treats that December typically offers up. Again, I used all whole wheat flour, but in this particular cake, I think it worked well. The whole wheat added structure and a nuttiness that I appreciated. I also substituted honey for the white sugar the recipe called for.

Our fourth meal of the Challenge celebrated the much anticipated arrival of our local bacon. We get a pork share each winter from Hermit Creek Farm in Highbridge, WI. In addition to the most incredible tasting bacon I have ever had, the share includes a wonderful assortment of chops, roasts, sausages, fresh ham, and pork steaks. The thick, meaty bacon arrives a few weeks after everything else to allow for a good, slow cure in the smoker. So the afternoon we picked up our bacon, dinner was a no brainer – bacon sandwiches. Quick, easy, and hard to beat. They featured dried tomatoes from the summer garden, a homemade garlic aioli, and spicy micro greens on local cracked wheat bread.

Rounding out the trifecta was our last meal of the year. We had several tentative options for New Year’s Eve, but in the end we chose what I would almost always pick – we stayed in. Which felt like an especially fine choice once we heard the sound of freezing sleet beating against the windows. Earlier in the day I had ditched my fancy menu ideas in search of something more simple and grounded. Going local felt like the right thing to do. I settled on a crisp, clean, subtly sweet, parsnip soup to ring in the New Year. And it was the perfect choice. I based the soup on a recipe I bookmarked ages ago from the passionate cook’s blog. I dressed it up for the holiday with a bit of milk and cream and I topped it off with a hearty squeeze of fresh lemon juice (my non-local vice) and slivered roasted chestnuts (local via my mom in Lake City, MN).

We got the night started with some local chev topped with friend Linda’s homemade plum-delicious chutney and we closed out just past midnight with a dish of honey-nutmeg ice cream that I had made earlier in the day. Oh, and I guess I should mention the very fine bottle of bubbly that made its way to our table all the way from France. Not the least bit local, but we appreciated it for what it was – a true and rare treat.

Creamy Parsnip Soup

3 cups peeled and chopped parsnips (about 1/2 inch dice)
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 – 3 teaspoons honey
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk or cream (or a combination)

fresh squeezed lemon
roasted, slivered chestnuts

Melt the butter in a heavy soup pan, add the garlic and parsnips and cook for about 10 minutes until they both start turning a nice caramely brown. Add the honey and the stock, and continue to cook for about another 10 minutes or until the parsnips are tender. Purée the soup (either using a blender or immersion blender) and add the milk and/or cream. Heat through gently and taste for sweetness, adding a touch more honey if necessary (the lemon balances the sweetness perfectly). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To roast chestnuts:
Score an “x” in each nut with a sharp knife. Roast the nuts on a baking sheet in a 350º F oven for about 30 – 45 minutes. Nuts should be fragrant, soft, and a bit chewy. Let cool slightly and peel away the outer shell. Slice thin.

Top the soup with a healthy squeeze of lemon juice and a scattering of chestnuts. Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main.

The nitty-gritty…

Dark Days m.3
Curried Root Vegetable Stew
Onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash – a substitute for sweet potatoes (our garden), celery root from Hermit Creek Farm (29 miles), chicken stock (homemade with garden vegetables and a local chicken), butter – homemade with Tetzner’s Dairy cream (15 miles), whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), curry powder (spices from a far, but handmade at our annual local curry making party), salt and pepper.

Whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), milk from Tetzner’s Dairy (15 miles) baking powder, salt, and mace.

Olive Oil and Apple Cider Cake
Apples from Bayfield Apple Company (4 miles), apple cider (pressed an preserved from our apple trees), whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), honey (my bees), eggs from a farm near Delta, WI (50 miles), olive oil, baking powder, and salt.

Dark Days m.4
Bacon Sandwiches
Bacon from Hermit Creek Farm (29 miles), re-hydrated dried tomatoes (our garden) spicy micro greens from Paradise Meadows (12 miles), garlic aioli (homemade from our garlic, a local egg, and olive oil), whole wheat bread made using 100% Spring Hill Farm wheat from Coco’s Bakery (12 miles)

Dark Days m.5
Chev Crisps with Plum Chutney
Herbed goat cheese from South Shore Chev (30 miles), plum chutney (homemade by my friend Linda with her plums), lavash flat bread from Coco’s Bakery – not really local ingredients, but a local business nonetheless. Homemade crackers are my next endeavor! (12 miles)

Creamy Parsnip Soup
Parsnips and garlic (our garden), butter – homemade with cream from Tetzner’s Dairy (15 miles), chicken stock (homemade with garden vegetables and a local chicken), milk and cream from Tetzner’s (15 miles)

Honey-Nutmeg Ice Cream
Milk and cream from Tetzner’s (15 miles), honey (my bees), salt and a dash of nutmeg

Curried Root Vegetable Stew with Dumplings
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

2 teaspoons butter
1 onion, chopped
3 or more cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
4 cups vegetable broth
2 medium carrots, chunked
2 large parsnips, peeled and chunked
1 small celeriac root, trimmed and chunked
1 1/2 – 2 cups winter squash, peeled and chunked
3 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
ground pepper

Melt the butter in large stew pot. Add onions, cook for a few minutes. Stir in garlic and curry powder and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in broth, carrots, parsnips, and squash and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the celery root and cook about 10 more minutes.

While the stew simmers, prepare the dumplings. Combine 1 cup flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 3/4 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon ground mace in a mixing bowl. Work in 2 tablespoons cold butter until a coarse meal forms. Mix in 1/4 cup dried currants. Stir in 6 tablespoons milk and mix until everything is just combined. On a lightly floured surface, shape the dumplings into 1-inch balls.

Back to the stew…remove 1/4 cup of the simmering stew liquid and mix in 3 tablespoons flour to make a smooth paste, then stir back into the stew. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the dumplings in the simmering strew, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.


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