Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

Soupe de la Semaine: Roasted Pepper Soup with Cilantro Cream

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My pal Beth, herself no slouch around the kitchen, dropped a UXB (UneXpected Book) into our mailbox earlier this week: Cook’s Illustrated All-Time Best Soups. It boasted a number of recipes that will serve as inspiration during soup season — which is all year, of course, but especially in the winter. I had my eyes set on a celeriac, fennel, and apple chowder for the opening salvo, but the bride had other ideas, and she wins.

Over the course of due diligence (I almost never cook a recipe without scanning the Interwebs to see if someone has concocted a more interesting version), I came across the Cookie + Kate blog, in which she lays out several entertaining reasons for not making this soup. Long story short, it’s not particularly cheap to make (unless you grow your own peppers), and the pepper roasting process is both time-consuming and a wee bit tedious. That said, just like her, I concluded that this soup is so tasty that any quibbles about prep were overcome mere nanoseconds after the intersection of tongue and spoon. [All the original recipes I consulted to arrive at this one called for red bell peppers, but the local supermercado‘s red peppers looked a little sketchy, so I made it with orange ones instead. I presume yellow bell peppers, or a mix of all three, would work equally well.]

For those of you who are interested, the recipe is easily vegan-adaptable (see notes below); while the half and half is a tasty touch, I tasted the puréed soup prior to its addition, and I could easily have stopped there, ingredient-wise. Recipe yields 4-6 large servings.

INGREDIENTS

Cilantro Cream

    3/4 cup / 170g sour cream (or soy yogurt for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 30ml half and half (or cashew cream for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 5.3g fresh minced cilantro leaves
    zest of 1 lime, plus juice from half of that lime (approximately 2 tablespoons / 30ml)

Soup

    8 red (or orange, or yellow) bell peppers, roasted, skins removed, and chopped
    1 tablespoon / 15ml olive oil (I used basil-infused EVOO) (double if making tortilla strips)
    2 medium garlic cloves, minced
    1 medium red onion, chopped
    1 teaspoon / 2.5g ground cumin
    1 teaspoon / 2.5g smoked paprika (I prefer Spanish pimentón de la Vera, and I used picante/hot rather than dulce/sweet)
    3 tablespoons / 50g tomato paste (or 8 oz. / 227g tomato sauce)
    1 tablespoon / 10g potato starch
    4-6 cups / 950ml-1.4l vegetable broth; start with smaller amount, adjusting for consistency as desired
    2 bay leaves
    1/2 cup /120ml half and half (or 100ml cashew cream + 20ml coconut oil for vegan version)
    2 tablespoons / 30ml dry sherry
    2 tablespoons / 5.3g minced fresh cilantro
    salt and pepper, to taste

Garnish (optional)

    3 corn tortillas, sliced into thin, 2-inch long strips, fried in oil until crispy

INSTRUCTIONS

For the Cilantro Cream:
Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until serving.

For the Crispy Tortilla Strips:
Cut tortillas into strips about 2″ (5cm) long and 1/4″ (2/3cm) wide. Warm 1 tablespoon / 15ml olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add tortilla strips and salt. Stir to coat the strips with the oil, and fry until both sides are golden and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to cool. NOTE: If you are making the vegan version, be sure no lard was used in the tortilla manufacture! Corn tortillas are gluten-free, if you are concerned about that.

Peppers pre-peeling.

Peppers pre-peeling.


Post-peeling pepper perfection.

Post-peeling pepper perfection.

For the Soup:
Roast the peppers: Spread peppers on an aluminum foil lined cookie sheet, skin side up, in a single layer (you may need to repeat this step several times to roast all your peppers). Place cookie sheet about 3″ below broiler element. Roast until peppers are blackened across the top, around 10 minutes.

Transfer roasted peppers to a medium-sized bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam for 15 minutes. Using your fingers, peel off the charred top layer of skin and discard. Take peeled pepper slices and give them a rough chop (they will be puréed later, so no need to be fussy about it).

Cook the soup: In a 3½ quart or larger Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, warm olive oil and minced garlic on fairly low heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the garlic gets a little foamy and sticky, about 6-7 minutes. Increase heat to medium, add onions and sauté until softened and turning translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the cumin and smoked paprika/pimentón de la Vera and cook for about 30 seconds to release aromas. Add the potato starch (or flour) and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add the tomato paste (or sauce) and gradually whisk in the stock, stirring to prevent lumps. Add the peeled red/orange/yellow peppers and stir. Bring the soup to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Once your soup is done cooking, remove it from heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes.

Blend the soup: Transfer soup to a blender or Vita-Mix (do NOT fill it over halfway, unless you wish to decorate your walls and person with hot soup); drape a kitchen towel over the blender (so the escaping steam doesn’t build up or burn your hands) and process in batches. Transfer puréed soup to another pot and continue until all of the soup is blended. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to blend the soup in the pot. Blend until the mixture is smooth and creamy. If soup is too thick, add vegetable stock to achieve desired consistency.

Transfer soup back to cooking pot and rewarm gently on the stove; add the half & half (or vegan substitute), dry sherry, and chopped cilantro. Divide soup into individual bowls, and drizzle in cilantro cream. Top with crispy tortilla strips (optional) and serve.

Soupe de la Semaine: Pasilla, Potato, & Garlic Soup — Vegan-style

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I’ve got a beef (no pun intended) with the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Much like MTV, they drifted away from their original vision and began offering a schedule filled with fake drama and connerie that has precious little to do with anything that happens in a kitchen, professional or amateur. People being tasked to make dishes with ingredients like licorice, chicory, hickory, foie gras, and lima beans. The self-appointed Mayor of Flavourtown swanning around the country, sunglasses dangling ridiculously off the back of his bleach-tipped head like an errant swath of toilet paper attached to a shoe. And the content-free talking-head programs where workaday foodstuffs such as pretzels and cupcakes are routinely characterized by the multiple hosts as amazing. Look: if you can be amazed by a pretzel, your kidney is going to rocket out of your dorsal abdomen when you see the northern lights or the Eiffel Tower. Also, any native English speaker who modifies the word “unique” deserves to be banished to an asteroid outside the Van Allen Belt. So I’ve pretty much gone cold turkey (albeit heirloom breed, free-range, and antibiotic-free) on them.

But when one network closes, another one opens. I discovered that one of my local PBS station’s digital sub-channels features programming from a sort of network-within-a-network: Create TV. It’s excellent, and filled with cooking friends both old and new. Julia Child. Andreas Viestad (of New Scandinavian Cooking). Rick Bayless. Steven Raichlen. Hubert Keller. And the timeless Jacques Pépin.

It was Pépin’s show that inspired me to make this soup; his version is potato-free and employs sour cream (I wanted to make mine vegan). I also wanted to tone down the heat a bit, and give it some more body. As it turned out, I had half a dozen Yukon Gold potatoes lying around, and they filled the bill nicely. But to add an extra bass note, I roasted them first. I should also offer up a hat-tip to the Kevin Is Cooking blog, whose Roasted Pasilla Chile and Potato Soup with Shredded Chicken recipe also inspired me.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts, don’t blanch at the concept of the soup using a whole head of garlic. (Don’t skimp, either.) Because the garlic is added initially as whole cloves, it’s not overwhelming (even though it is puréed later). Which reminds me: if you are using pre-minced garlic or garlic paste, dial it back… A LOT.

Ingredients

8 large dried Pasilla chile peppers, rehydrated (Ancho or Guajillo peppers may be substituted if necessary)
8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock or water
6 medium-to-large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3 lbs. / 1.5 kg)
2 large yellow onions, diced (about 4 cups / 600g)
1 head garlic (approximately 20-25 whole cloves)
2 + 2 tablespoons / 30ml + 30ml oil (I used garlic-infused olive oil)
1 large can (28-ounce / 793g) diced tomatoes — fire-roasted if you can get them
1 tablespoon / 3g dried oregano leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, if desired, for garnish
Vegan sour cream substitute, if desired, for garnish
Fried tortilla strips or crumbled tortilla chips, optional (check to see that they are made without lard if you are cooking for vegans)
1 sunny side up egg per bowl, optional (this invalidates the vegan-ness, so have a care)

Onion family reunion.

Onion family reunion.

Preparation

1. Soak dried Pasilla chile peppers in vegetable broth for approximately two hours. When they are rehydrated, remove them from broth, seed them and chop them roughly. Set aside. Be sure to reserve soaking broth.

2. Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Wash and dice potatoes into 1″ / 2.5cm cubes (you may peel them if you prefer, but it is not necessary). Place cubed potatoes into plastic bag with 2 tbsp / 30ml oil), and shake to coat. Dump potatoes out on a cookie tray and spread out into a single layer (you can line the pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper for easier cleanup). Salt lightly. Roast for 45-60 minutes, until nicely browned. [If you wish, you can turn them over midway through the roasting process, but it’s not strictly necessary.]

3. Peel garlic and dice onions. [No need to be too fancy here, since it’s all getting puréed later.] Place in large pot or Dutch oven with the remaining two tablespoons / 30ml of oil, and cook over medium heat until onions are translucent, approximately 5-7 minutes.

4. Strain in the reserved vegetable stock (this will catch any remaining seeds from the Pasilla soaking), and add chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, oregano, plus a little salt and pepper to taste (be frugal; you can always add some more later).

5. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat, cover partially, and cook at a simmer for 60 minutes (or longer, if you have the time). Process soup with immersion blender, food processor, or Vita-Mix. [Be very careful when you purée hot soup — leave room for steam to get out (I cover the feed tube loosely with a dish towel), and if using an immersion (stick) blender, be careful when it exits the surface of the soup, so as to avoid coating both chef and walls.] Adjust spices as necessary and serve.

Before the blend.

Before the blend.

You can call me Al. Albóndigas.

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Believe it or not, the red colour comes mostly from the chorizo, not the tomatoes.

Believe it or not, the red colour comes mostly from the chorizo, not the tomatoes.

One inevitable responsibility after Thanksgiving dinner is the disposal of the turkey carcass. Picked clean for sandwiches and goodness knows what all else — tamales? sliders? pot pie? — there’s still a significant heap of bones and attached bits that deserve a better resting place than the rubbish bin.

Around our house, we generally made turkey and vegetable soup, but it just seemed too… turkey-ish. By the time we’d gotten down to the carcass, believe me, most of the members of our household were all done with turkey. This year, I decided to make some simple turkey stock (something on the order of four liters, as it turned out, because I wasn’t patient enough to let it condense into what Julia Child called a “semi-demi-glace”). But not for turkey soup. No. I figured it would make an excellent base for one of my favourite Mexican dishes, sopa de albóndigas (meatball soup).

While this soup is decidedly Mexican, its roots go back to the times that Arabs ruled Spain. The word “albóndigas” is derived from the Arabic word for hazelnut, “al-bunduq,” because the meatballs of the era were about the size and shape of said nuts. Their preparation was described in one of the great cookbooks of its day (its day being the 13th century), Kitab al- tabikh fi Maghrib wa al-Andalus (An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook). Not too surprisingly, the meatballs emigrated to the New World with the conquistadores (along with smallpox and syphilis, albeit with a happier outcome for the locals). The use of mint in this recipe is almost certainly a descendant from a Middle Eastern predecessor, given the region’s historic proclivity for employing the herb as a seasoning for meats.

Far as I’ve been able to discover, there are two general schools of thought on sopa de albóndigas. One holds that it’s primarily a tomato-based soup, and the broth ought to be more or less jam-packed with tomato-y goodness and coloured fire engine red (PMS 199); the other is that tomatoes play a role, but not the lead. I opted for the latter. After all, I’d gone to some trouble to make the turkey stock, and I didn’t want it completely buried in the mix. The soup ultimately turned out a rich red colour, but that was thanks to the chorizo, not the tomatoes (as you can see in the picture below, when it was just the veggies and stock).

ALBÓNDIGAS SOUP

Carrots, planed on the mini-mandoline. I then cut the "coins" in half.

Carrots, planed on the mini-mandoline. I then cut the “coins” in half.


Ingredients
Broth
12 cups/3 liters turkey stock (or chicken, or vegetable, or beef)
2 carrots, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
1 (14 ounce/411 g) can diced tomatoes (these were fire roasted)
1 (7 ounce/198 g) can diced green chiles, drained
1 cup/150 g cooked rice
2 teaspoons/2 g dried oregano
2 teaspoons/2 g ground cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
1 to 3 tablespoons/15-45 ml sauce from a can of Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, to taste
1 seeded Chipotle chile in adobo sauce, optional
Sea salt and pepper to taste (smoked salt works well in this)

Here’s a trick for the rice; just cook 1 cup/180 g of dried rice (I used Brown Jasmine), put 2/3 of it in the soup and reserve 1/3 for the meatballs.

[A NOTE ABOUT CHILES: If you’re seeding Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, wear gloves. Even the sauce is pretty hot, and if you touch your face… well, you won’t do it a second time. For the uninitiated, add the adobo sauce a tablespoon at a time, stir the broth, taste, and decide if you want to add more. If you dump it all in at once, good on you, you brave soul, but remember that this is a bell that can’t be unrung. Also, if you don’t have Chipotles in adobo sauce handy, you can get Chipotle pepper powder; use 1-3 teaspoons/1-3 g, tasting as you go.]

Broth and veggies. Mmmm.

Broth and veggies. Mmmm.

Making the broth is super easy; basically, you just dump it all into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and then back it off to a simmer. I let mine simmer for a couple of hours, because I started making it one evening after dinner. [In fact, I put the broth in the refrigerator overnight and finished the soup the following day.] If, however, you are doing a same-day soup, allow it to simmer for about an hour, so you can soften up the celery and onions and carrots, and give the flavours a chance to blend.

Meatballs (makes about 50 small meatballs)
1 lb/.5 kg lean ground beef
1 lb/.5 kg chorizo sausage, casing removed (not the fully cooked kind)
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup/70 g cooked rice
2 garlic cloves, minced
5-10 mint leaves, chopped
1/2 cup/25 g cilantro leaf, chopped
1/2 teaspoon/3 g salt
1/4 teaspoon/.5 g freshly ground black pepper

Full disclosure: I had about 100 g of turkey bits that I ran through a food processor and added to the meatballs. It’s not part of the “official” recipe, but it did taste good.

Mint and garlic get all muddled up.

Mint and garlic get all muddled up.

Some people say to make the meatballs first, but there’s really no need; getting the broth together and letting it simmer will afford you more than enough time to make them. The only trick to assembling the meatballs is that you should mash the garlic and the chopped mint into a sort of paste; otherwise, it’s just a matter of mixing it all up and rolling little meatballs (albóndigas) to about 1″/2.5 cm each. Heat up the broth to a low boil and lower the albóndigas — gently — into the broth. Let the meatballs cook at that temp for 5 minutes, then back the heat off, and simmer a further 20 minutes. Remember, at this point, your chief aim is to cook the meatballs through. That’s why smaller is better.

Tiny little soldiers of meat, preparing to parachute into -- quite literally -- the soup.

Tiny little soldiers of meat, preparing to parachute into — quite literally — the soup.

You can serve it straight, or if you want to get extra fancy, you can make corn tortilla ribbons for garnish. Just quarter small corn tortillas, stack the quarters, then slice the edges into ribbons. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan, dump the ribbons inthe pan and stir until slightly browned. Remove them to a paper towel to drain and crisp up. Sprinkle over soup.

With the fried corn tortilla strips; these were spinach corn tortillas, for colour primarily.

With the fried corn tortilla strips; these were spinach corn tortillas, for colour primarily.