Monday, February 21, 2011

Jeff's Chicken Noodle Soup

Everybody loves chicken noodle soup. Not loving chicken noodle soup is like not loving your grandmother or puppies or sunsets: it's almost immoral. Unfortunately too many people are exposed only to the oversalted, flavorless canned versions found in the soup aisle of the local grocery store. Such may be okay for a starving college student in need of a little protein, but they pale in comparison with chicken noodle soup made from scratch. So simple, so basic, and sooooo good.

This recipe comes from our friend Jeff. Still at the start of his own foray into the world of delicious things, he brought ingredients down to the New Year's weekend and one afternoon we guided Jeff in cooking his first batch of homemade chicken noodle soup. It was heavenly.

White meat chicken (1 breast per person, 1" dice)
Carrots (sliced into rounds)
Celery (sliced)
1 smallish onion (diced) and/or 2-3 cloves of garlic (minced)
A few Tbsp. of butter or cooking oil
Chicken broth (make your own, or use commercial broth)
Egg noodles
Salt & pepper
Seasonings to taste (choose herby things: parsley, sage, thyme, basil, a sprinkling of oregano, etc.)

1. Brown the chicken and onion/garlic in oil or butter at medium heat in a largish pan. (I tend to use the stockpot I'm making the whole batch of soup in anyway, for convenience and to avoid splatters.)
2. Add the carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery is translucent. Add more oil to prevent sticking if needed, and watch the heat - browning is OK, but no burning.
3. Add seasonings to taste. For Jeff's soup we used parsley and basil. Dried is fine, fresh is better. Pesto works too: add a teaspoon or two of your favorite.
4. Let the seasonings heat up for 5 minutes or so, then add chicken broth (about one 28-oz. box for every two people, plus a little more). Raise the heat to high, bring the soup to a near-boil (not a full rolling one), then reduce heat, cover, and put on simmer until the chicken is completely cooked (about 15 minutes).
5. While the soup is simmering, cook your egg noodles according to package directions. Drain and add to the soup.
6. Serve with crusty bread, or little corn muffins, or a green salad.

If you're making this because you're sick with a cold or the flu, you can up the onions and/or garlic, and add seasonings such as cayenne or chili peppers to add spicy heat.

Keep the ratio of noodles to liquid fairly low, especially if you're going to be keeping the soup overnight in the fridge. Noodles will absorb a lot of liquid and you don't want to end up with a big block of half-soggy chicken-flavored noodles.

Other noodles work well too, not just egg noodles. The smaller bite-sized types work best: rotini, bow tie pasta, even macaroni.

General rule of thumb for seasonings: use less of the stronger herbs (such as oregano or rosemary), more of the mellower ones (like parsley).

Leave the noodles out entirely for a basic chicken soup. Freezes well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ärtsoppa (Swedish Golden Pea Soup)

Split Pea Soup

Pea soup is ubiquitous in Northern Europe. It's simple, hearty, inexpensive and can feed an entire family for days from the same pot, but it's also got some interesting history. Remember the old 'Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, 9 days old' rhyme? It likely dates back to the middle ages, when it was common to put a pot of thick pea-based stew on the fire and as the stew was consumed and the pot neared empty, more ingredients were thrown in to top it off. A pot of stew left like this could be continuously on the fire for days or weeks at a time.

There's been a movement to 'modernize' pea soup from sources like Saveur and Cook's Illustrated, recommending less cook time and a more complex preparation. The results tend to have a texture more like a pot of beans, with every pea separated and an unfamilar flavor. These are great on their own, but I wouldn't consider them pea soup. The Greeks have a traditional version of this soup which is nearly identical to the Scandinavian versions, and even some African countries do.

The bottom line? Everyone loves pea soup! This is a go-to comfort food for millions of people that is definitely best the old fashioned way: thick, creamy and full of smokey bits of ham.

Split peas are related to lentils and come in a variety of colors and sizes. The most common in the US is the green split pea, but dried whole green peas, yellow peas, or any color of lentil can be substituted. Whole Golden Peas are traditional in Scandinavia and it makes a beautiful, cheery yellow stew. You can also mix and match - half and half yellow and green peas will keep your pea soup bright green with no chance of it looking murky or grey. If substituting lentils for the peas in this recipe, make sure to wait and add the lentils only in the last 2 hours of cooking, since they cook much much faster than peas do and will break down quickly.

1 Large Crock Pot or slow cooker
2 C Split Peas
2 Sweet or Yellow Onions
4 Bay Leaves
1 Smoked Ham Shank
5 C Water

Salt and Pepper
1/4 C Red Wine Vinegar

A note about ham: Your choice of ham will make or break this soup. Choose high quality ham with lots of smokey meat on it - shanks are better than hocks, which are mostly gristle. Alternatively, just use a small boneless ham but try to find one that's all natural or cured without nitrites if you can. This will make your soup both tastier and healthier. (Yes, those are hocks in the photos. Do as I say and not as I do!)

Rinse the peas in a colander and pick out any stones, stems or bad peas.

Peel and dice the onions. Big chunks are ok but small diced onion will cook faster. You can even shred them on a cheese grater.

If using dried peas, reserve 1/2 cup of peas and throw the peas, onions, ham, bay and water into the crock pot. If using lentils or soaked peas, reserve all the peas and add them in to the rest of the ingredients after 2 hours.

Cooking times vary a lot. The best advice I can give is to make this first on a day when you're home and can check it often. Length of cooking will vary depending on how fresh your peas are, what kind you're using, and the size and type of ham in the pot. To speed it up, soak your peas (don't soak lentils) overnight in a bowl covered with water. I don't recommend this method - the ham never gets enough time to cook and the soup tastes a little watered down.

8-10 Hours: Unsoaked Whole Dried Peas
6-8 Hours: Unsoaked Split Peas
2-4 Hours: Dried Lentils, Soaked Peas

Set the crock pot on High for 30 minutes to bring everything up to temperature, then turn it down to Low or Warm. It's good to check the soup every half hour or hour and stir it, though it's not strictly necessary. Cover the pot with a towel to insulate it.

Ham Hocks, steamy and tender after 4 hours

After 4 hours, check to see if the ham is cooked: it'll be tender and falling apart to the touch. Once the ham is cooked, pull it out and let it cool for about 30 minutes so you don't burn your fingers, then shred all the good meat back into the soup and add the reserved peas. This will add some texture to a soup that would otherwise be just a thick slurry. Throw out the ham bones, gristle and skin.

The Final Product

Continue to cook until you like the texture. It should be creamy and thick without any crunch. If the soup gets too thick, add a little water to thin it.

Add the Red Wine Vinegar, then salt and pepper to taste. Serve with crackers.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Recipes Go Wrong

I'm lucky. Just about everyone I love adores food and can cook pretty well, and I live in a land of plenty. I'm fortunate, then, to be surrounded by lots of food, and lots of people who can prepare it well, and who like to do so. It's rare enough for a meal to be truly mediocre - and even more rare for one to go terribly, nightmarishly wrong.

But it does happen, now and again.

I've cooked noodles beyond the point at which it was morally acceptable to eat them, they were so floppy and spineless and mushy. And my dear spouse, who loves to fiddle around with random ingredients in random ways (and usually comes up with orgasmic flavors from the most unexpected combinations), once cooked a hot dish with feta cheese in it that smelled so bad I couldn't eat it, much less share a kitchen with it. It literally made me gag.

My dad, who can slow-roast a chicken over hot coals until it sweats crisp, buttery, smoke-laced goodness, has the unfortunate tendency to overcook vegetables. He's also been known to drop or spill dishes in spectacular style at family dinners: the story of him showering his grandfather with raspberry compote at a Thanksgiving affair many years ago is a family classic.

My mom had a couple of recipe disasters that are still the backbone of cautionary tales against bad cuisine at family gatherings. Bless her, she had one of the best recipes for oven-fried chicken that I've ever had in my life... but her pot roast still gives me nightmares. And I don't mean the kind of nightmare that you wake up and shake off, I mean the kind that you wake up from screaming, in a cold sweat, and you're afraid to go to sleep the rest of the night. I have no idea why it was so bad - maybe it was the cut of meat? Maybe it was the seasoning she used on it? I have no idea.

Her meatloaf was never much of a success either, and is probably the reason why I don't really like meatloaf to this day. She tried everything she could to make it appealing, but when she made her Meatloaf Surprise... zombies rose from their graves around the city, the seventh seal was broken, and an unholy wrath was unleashed upon our dinner table the likes of which even god has never seen. What was the surprise? She baked a dill pickle into the middle of the meatloaf.

Needless to say, that was the last meatloaf mom ever made.

Even good cooks can fuck up a meal. Feel free to post your cooking disasters in the comments section.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gwen's Comfort Foods

Brought to you by homemade oatmeal cookies.
Believe it or not, I used to be a really really picky eater when I was a little kid. The list of things I'd willingly eat was very short, and dominated largely by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. Hot dogs, grapes and/or raisins, juice, my grandmother's pepperoni pizza, and Top Ramen rounded out the list. I couldn't stand milk, and wouldn't drink it until my mom discovered acidophilus. Twinkies were my favorite dessert. I was one of those kids who wouldn't eat a food I liked if it was even sharing a plate with a food I didn't like or found suspect, and if those foods were touching each other, it was the end of the world.

At some point hovering around high school I actually started trying a lot more kinds of food. Living in a major port city on the Pacific Rim, there were plenty of food choices: Korean, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Moroccan, Lebanese, seafood, fusion cuisine, soul food, pub grub... you name it, my hometown's got it, and got it good.

I also gained a greater appreciation for the feasts my family would put on, based on decades of tradition. Thanksgiving dinners at my dad's parents' house involved turkey with all the trimmings; green bean casserole, cornbread sage stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, and grandma's pumpkin pie rounding it all out. My mother's family, with their roots in the British Isles, brought the richness of roast lamb and beef, twice-baked potatoes, popovers, and apple pie with sharp cheddar cheese.

I love food. That should be obvious; after all, I write a food blog with my BFF, and I wouldn't do it if I weren't utterly enchanted by all the sensual possibilities food has to offer. It doesn't just fill you up and keep you alive, food is an integral part of social interaction, and - for me, anyway - a pleasure critical to my mental health, not just nourishment for my physical well-being.

Arguably, any food is comforting in its own way: if it looks good, tastes good, smells wonderful, has the right texture and temperature in the mouth, and leaves a satisfying feeling in the belly, food is a success. But comfort foods are a little bit different: a lot of my comfort foods aren't things that I'd normally eat. Maybe they're a funny color, or they're not that healthy, or they really don't taste that good, except in the moment that I eat them. And I eat comfort foods when I'm driven by a particular mood: I eat them when I need succor and soothing. They're often the foods of childhood, and what comes with them is a remembrance of how I felt when I ate them as a kid.

I eat comfort foods in moments of vulnerability, when I've had a crappy day or week and need time alone to recuperate. These are solitary foods, rarely eaten in the company of others (unless it's a night in with the girls, spent commiserating about life's downs). This is not the kind of food that cements relationships, but the kind of food that helps get you through a long dark teatime of the soul.

Here's my list. Feel free to post yours in the comment section.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (white bread, creamy peanut butter, grape jelly)
Popcorn with salt and butter
Baked potatoes with butter, salt and pepper
Boiled red potatoes tossed with dill and butter
Hostess Twinkies or Golden Cupcakes (the latter are hard to find)
My grandmother's potato salad (bland, simple, starchy)
Macaroni and cheese
Tea with cream and sugar, and little cookies
Biscuits and gravy
Southern cooking (sweet tea, hush puppies, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, etc.)
Blueberry pie with vanilla bean ice cream
Beer milkshakes
Chicken pot pie
Chicken noodle soup
Chili dogs