Soupe de la Semaine: Turkish Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup -or- Közlenmiş Kırmızı Biberli ve Domatesli Çorba [Gluten-Free and Vegan]

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I was tempted to call it the "Istanbowl." Shame on me.

I was tempted to call it the “Istanbowl.” Shame on me.

Yeah, the title is a mouthful. Happily, though, so is the soup.

I didn’t sample this when I visited Istanbul back in the ’80s, but I think I have some general sense of the Turkish flavour palate, and since this dish is reputed to be much like chicken soup is in America (which is to say that there are a quadzillion variations), this should be on pretty safe ground. I consulted with my Turkish pal Nil ex post facto (sending her the picture you see above), and she confirmed that I was in the ball park, and that I had nailed the spelling. HI’d hte to give y’all a recipe for Turkish Roasted Red Bat Turd Soup thanks to a typo.

Many recipes call for bulgur wheat as the thickening agent and starchy backbone, but I opted for quinoa, since it’s gluten-free and generally considered safe for celiac patients, depending on whose article you read. If that’s not an issue for you, help yourself to bulgur wheat, rice, or even Israeli couscous (which is actually a pasta) in its stead. The smokiness comes not only from the roasted peppers, but also from the fire-roasted tomatoes and the pimentón de la Vera (or smoked paprika). You may add a pinch of smoked salt to finish before serving if you wish. Lots of bass notes to be had here. You can always add the zest of 1/2 lemon or a teaspoon (5 ml) of vinegar if you feel it needs to be brightened up, but I don’t think you’ll need it, as the acid in the tomatoes should balance it nicely. Some recipes also call for cornstarch as a thickening agent; I would deploy a tablespoon / 10 g of potato starch in a slurry if I thought it needed it. You be the judge.

The biggest downside of this soup is that it requires some time to bring together, unless you happen already to have roasted red peppers (not the marinated kind) and cooked quinoa in your fridge. In that case, it’s a snap. But it will take somewhere between 30-40 minutes-ish to cook the quinoa, and maybe 35 minutes to groom your peppers to soup-readiness. Your patience and dedication will be rewarded!

INGREDIENTS

    3 red bell peppers, halved, de-seeded, and roasted, with skins removed
    3/4 cup / 135 g dry quinoa, cooked (use package instructions) [will yield 2 1/4 cups / 415 g]
    2 tablespoons / 30 ml olive oil
    1 onion, diced
    3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
    2 tablespoons / 5 g sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (or red pepper paste or tomato paste)
    1 teaspoon / 2.5 g smoked paprika (I prefer Spanish pimentón de la Vera, and I used picante/hot rather than dulce/sweet)
    1/2 teaspoon / 1.5 g red pepper flakes, to taste
    1 teaspoon / 2.5 g dried mint (maybe double that if using fresh)
    28 oz. / 793 g can fire-roasted tomatoes (or 10-12 fresh tomatoes, roasted and chopped)
    8 oz. / 227 g tomato sauce
    4 cups / 950 ml vegetable broth
    Salt & coarsely ground black pepper
    OPTIONAL: 1 tablespoon / 10 g potato starch for thickening
    OPTIONAL: Fresh mint for garnish
    OPTIONAL: Sour cream (or vegan alternative) as garnish
Simmerin' away.

Simmerin’ away.

DIRECTIONS

Roast the peppers: Turn on broiler. Spread peppers on an aluminum foil lined cookie sheet, skin side up, in a single layer (you may need to repeat this step to roast all your peppers). Place cookie sheet about 3″ / 8 cm below broiler element. Roast until peppers are blackened across the top, around 10-15 minutes.

Transfer roasted peppers to a medium-sized bowl and cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam for 15 minutes minimum. Using your fingers, peel off the charred top layer of skin and discard. Give peeled pepper slices a rough chop, small enough to fit easily on a soup spoon, because they will not be puréed. Return to steaming bowl and reserve, along with any juices they shed, for later.

Cook the quinoa according to instructions on the label. I find that the stove-top method, while longer, produces superior results to the microwave method. YMMV. Set aside cooked quinoa for later use.

Cook the soup: In a 3½ quart or larger Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, warm olive oil and onion on fairly low heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened and turning translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the roasted peppers (with any liquid they’ve thrown off), sun-dried tomatoes (or tomato or pepper paste), and garlic; cook a further 3-4 minutes until garlic is slightly less aggressive. Add smoked paprika/pimentón de la Vera, pepper flakes, amd mint; cook for about 30 seconds to release aromas. Add the can of tomatoes, the tomato sauce, vegetable broth, and cooked quinoa. Cook over medium heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. After the first 5 minutes or so, add salt and pepper to taste, but not too heavily; you will adjust the seasonings just before serving. Taste periodically along the way (clean spoons each time!). If you think the consistency is too thin, whisk in 1 tablespoon / 10 g of potato starch with a little of the soup broth in a bowl, and add to the pot. Soup should thicken noticeably within five minutes. Taste at 30 minute mark, adjust seasonings (and thickness, if necessary), and allow to thicken if need be. Remove from heat and ladle into bowls. Garnish with mint sprigs and/or sour cream (or vegan alternative) if so desired. Serves 6 to 8 as an opening course, 4 as a main.

Soupe de la Semaine: Celeriac, Fennel, & Apple Chowder (Gluten-Free and Vegan)

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Chowdah!

Chowdah!

It would seem that the most likely derivation of the word chowder comes from the French chaudière, meaning “boiler” (and is also an archaic French word for cauldron or kettle, from the Latin calderia). The Brits, though, not wanting to be left out of the linguistic fun, claim that the word springs from their jowter, or fishmonger. To be sure, many of the best known chowders do contain fish, but this one is a vegetable and fruit chowder that’ll stick to your ribs on a chilly night.

The original recipe was published in the excellent Cook’s Illustrated All Time Best Soups volume, and this variation was also influenced by a post on the terrific Big Girls, Small Kitchen blog and Ina Garten’s recipe for Celery Root and Apple Purée (which is very much like this soup without the vegetable broth).

I took two significant detours: I omitted the heavy cream (thus keeping the soup vegan), and substituted potato starch for wheat flour (which makes it gluten-free). Trust me, you won’t miss the cream a bit; if you process in a Vita-Mix, it will be plenty creamy, but even if you just use an immersion blender the soup will emerge a tiny bit more rustic, while still maintaining that silky mouthfeel.

When it comes to the wine, you don’t really need to use a $38 bottle of Roche 2014 Carneros Chardonnay French Oak Reserve, but damn, it was good (and you only need half a cup (or 120ml).

Special note for celiac patients: Be extra-sure that your vegetable broth is free of wheat or barley or malt products. These often show up in commercial vegetable broths and broth bases.

INGREDIENTS

    2 tablespoons / 30g Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks (or unsalted butter, for non-Vegan version)
    1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    1 fennel bulb, halved, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus 1 tablespoon minced fronds
    Salt and pepper
    6 garlic cloves, minced
    2 teaspoons / 1.6g minced fresh thyme (or 3/4 teaspoon / .75g dried)
    2 tablespoons / 20g potato starch
    1/2 cup / 120ml dry white wine
    5 1/2 cups / 1.3 liters vegetable broth
    1 celeriac (also known as celery root) (14 ounces / 400g), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    12 ounces / 350g red potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    zest of 1 lemon or orange
    1 bay leaf
Soup on the boil.

Soup on the boil.

DIRECTIONS

Put butter, onion, fennel, and a couple of pinches of salt in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and thyme, cook for 30 seconds to a minute until fragrant. Raise heat to high and add potato starch, stirring continuously, and cook for another 2 minutes or so. Add the wine to deglaze the pot, making sure to scrape up all the bits on the bottom; let most of the wine boil off.

Stir in the vegetable broth, celeriac, potatoes, and apples. Add bay leaf and zest your citrus over the pot. Bring to a boil and then back the heat off to a high simmer. Cover pot and cook for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are all tender.

Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf. Process 2/3 soup in batches; if you are using a blender or Vita-Mix, making sure to cover feed tube loosely with tea towel (do not plug it up, because steam needs to escape). Return processed soup to pot. [Alternatively, use an immersion blender to process soup, making sure to leave at least 1/3 chunky.] Season with salt and pepper to taste, and ladle into bowls. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Torta or Tarta de Santiago (or maybe not)

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On the road to Santiago... specifically, Triacastela.

On the road to Santiago… specifically, Triacastela.

In May of 2015, my bride and I took a journey along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Catholic pilgrim route (more specifically, we traveled along a portion of the so-called Camino Francés, which is one of a number of Camino routes that all end up in Santiago de Compostela, Spain). It’s an excellent thing to do, as evidenced by the motion picture The Way, and by the still-incomplete blog chronicling our trip, Two Roads to Santiago.

Complexo Xacobeo. Food, lodging, taxi, you name it, you got it.

Complexo Xacobeo. Food, lodging, taxi, you name it, you got it.

Triacastela is a small (pop. 721) town in the province of Lugo, in the Galician region of Spain; it’s about 135 km east of Santiago de Compostela. It got its name from three castles that once stood there (though none of them do now). We stayed there the evening of 24 May, Bob Dylan’s birthday, apropos of nothing. After disgorging our luggage, we wandered into the center of town for dinner, and had an excellent meal at the Complexo Xacobeo.

We didn't have just wine and water, but it was a good start.

We didn’t have just wine and water, but it was a good start.

At dinner’s close, the bride and I had a minor disagreement that would change my life — our lives — for the better. I wanted a cool, refreshing ice cream for dessert, and she preferred to try a local delicacy called tarta de Santiago (in Spanish, anyway; in the local Gallego, it was torta de Santiago). It’s an almond cake whose recipe will follow later in this post.

I like almonds and I like sugar, but most almond confections have generally left me unimpressed; marzipan actually engages my gag reflex. But the bride had walked 20-odd kilometres that day over steep terrain, so she won. Wow, am I glad she did. It was so delicious that I dedicated the balance of our time in Spain to sampling as many versions of it as I could reasonably consume, and no fewer than eight bakers’ interpretations of the ancient recipe passed my lips.

1835? 1838? Galicia? Elsewhere? You decide.

1835? 1838? Galicia? Elsewhere? You decide.

How ancient is the recipe? It certainly goes back as far as the Cuaderno de confitería, which was compiled by Luis Bartolomé de Leyba circa 1838. It’s actually based upon this publication that the tarta/torta obtained its Indicación Geográfica Protegida, which protects its status and authenticity the same way that Champagne does for certain French sparkling wines and Parmigiano Reggiano does for certain Italian regional cheeses. That’s all good as far as it goes, but Spanish culinary historian Jorge Guitián discovered that the Cuaderno de confiteria was largely a rehash of recipes that had previously been published elsewhere, including one cookbook, Art Cozinha, that was published in Lisbon in 1752, not to mention Juan de la Mata’s Arte de Repostería, published in 1747. One source sets its first publication date at 1577, as “torta real,” claiming it was brought to Spain by the Moors. And on top of that, some culinary historians have suggested that the recipe came originally from Sephardic Jews settled in the area, and its original use was as a Passover cake, as it’s unleavened.

Because of their generous and welcoming nature, I’m inclined to give the Gallegos a mulligan on this one. Whether or not the tarta de Santiago actually originated in Galicia, it flourished there, and they have embraced it as part of their cultural and culinary heritage. One thing is for certain: the habit of dusting the top of the cake with powdered sugar, save for a stencil of a cruz Xacobeo (Saint James’ cross) dates to 1924, when José Mora Soto, a baker in Santiago de Compostela, decorated his cakes with the mark to distinguish his from competitors’. In the intervening 90+ years, the tradition has been almost universally embraced.

The ancestral home of the modern tarta.

The ancestral home of the modern tarta.

His bakery, rechristened Pastelería Mercedes Mora (for his granddaughter, pictured below), still makes the cakes today.

The real deal.

The real deal.

Good as they may be, it’s inconvenient to travel to Santiago de Compostela every time you care to have one of these cakes. So here’s a step-by-step version of the shockingly simple recipe.

The finished item.

The finished item.

TARTA DE SANTIAGO

Ingredients

• 250 grams / 2.5 cups of almond flour (I use ½ blanched and ½ unblanched)
• 250 grams / 1.25 cups of sugar, preferably superfine/baker’s sugar
• 6 eggs
• Zest of two citrus fruits (lemon is traditional)
• Powdered sugar to sprinkle on the top
• 1 chunk of unsalted butter to spread on the springform pan
• You can use a variety of essences to give the cake a nice aroma, such as brandy, cinnamon, etc.
• 1 round detachable mold/springform pan / 22 to 25 cm or 9 to 10 in. diameter
• Lemon juice or other liquid for moistening top of cake
• a paper (or plastic) St. James cross for stencil

Two different almond flours are optional.

Two different almond flours are optional.

Batter will be fairly loose when you pour it into the pan; don't worry.

Batter will be fairly loose when you pour it into the pan; don’t worry.

Out of the oven and ready for stenciling.  I use a spray bottle to apply the liquid, but a dish and pastry brush works fine too.

Out of the oven and ready for stenciling. I use a spray bottle to apply the liquid, but a dish and pastry brush works fine too.

Preparation

• Preheat the oven to 175º C (350º F)
• In a large bowl, combine the sugar, almond flour, and lemon zest or other essence. Mix ingredients well with a fork.
• In separate bowl, mix eggs with fork until blended.
• Add the eggs and mix well with a spoon or rubber spatula, but do not whisk, only make sure all the ingredients are moistened.
• Spread the butter on the mold (or spray with PAM) and pour the mix in it.
• Bake at 175º C (350º F) for 40-45 minutes until the surface is toasted and golden; when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, it’s done.
• When the cake is done, remove from the oven and let it cool before unmolding.
• When the cake has cooled, place the paper/plastic cross on top of the surface, moisten the entire top of the cake (including the stencil) with citrus juice or other liquid (brandy, etc.), then sprinkle powdered sugar evenly over the entire surface, using a mesh strainer.
• Remove the stencil carefully, as to avoid dropping sugar from the stencil onto the cake.

Maybe not quite Mora, but pretty darn close and a whole lot easier.

Maybe not quite Mora, but pretty darn close and a whole lot easier.

We Be Jammin’ (Specifically, Strawberry Balsamic Jam with Black Pepper)

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Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Ah, the joys of ADHD. I had planned on making a strawberry-cherry pie, then strawberry-rhubarb tarts, but when the steam had settled, my two pounds of luscious Driscoll strawberries found their way into a jam. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of strawberry jam, because it tends to be both a little sweet and a little insipid for my taste, but I came across several recipes for a strawberry balsamic jam, and then the vision of serving it with an aged white Canadian Cheddar kicked in — no, wait; goat cheese! or maybe a stinky Roquefort! (see what I mean about the ADHD?) — so I committed to making a small batch.

Six ingredients. Six. No added pectin. Comparatively speaking, a fair amount of work for six four-ounce (118 ml) jars, but highly satisfying, especially when you give them away as gifts to a grateful palate (even if it’s your own).

STRAWBERRY BALSAMIC JAM (makes six 4 oz./118 ml jars)
Ingredients
2 lb./1 kg fresh strawberries
3 tbsp/45 ml lemon juice (fresh-squeezed, if you can get it)
1.5 cups/300 g granulated white sugar
4 tbsp/60 ml balsamic vinegar
1 tsp/5 g sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 tsp/1-2 g freshly ground black pepper

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Rinse and hull strawberries. Place in a bowl with sugar and let sit for at least 1-2 hours (or overnight, if it’s convenient), mashing the strawberries after about 10-20 minutes.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Meanwhile, prepare jars and lids (which is to say, throw them in boiling water for a minimum of 10 minutes). [You have the option of making this a refrigerator jam if you don’t care to do the whole home canning thing; strictly up to you. I chose to preserve the preserve in the traditional manner. Otherwise, be sure to use it up within about 10 days.]

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

Place the strawberry and sugar slurry in a non-reactive saucepan, add the lemon juice, and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until jam is at the jell stage, stirring frequently and watching at least semi-observantly. [For me, this was about 45 minutes, but your pan and stove may bring about a different result, timewise; one of the recipes I read said you could get there in 30 minutes.] Add the balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper the last five minutes of cooking, stirring continuously. Remove the pan from heat.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Pour jam into hot, prepared jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Refrigerate immediately or seal and process jars for 10 minutes in a water bath canner. If processing in water bath, remove and let jars sit for 24 hours, ensuring a good seal. Remove bands and store for up to one year… if you think you can wait that long before finishing it all off.

Boiling, but not mad.

Boiling, but not mad.

[Thanks to my pal Susan Park for the suggestion of adding the salt; it cuts the sweetness nicely, and plays well with both the strawberries and the vinegar. And thanks to my cousin Sheryl for the gorgeous cutting board that served as a tray for the jars.]

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Blood Orange Olive Oil Honey Cake

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At $20 USD, how could I resist?

At $20 USD, how could I resist?

All right. I admit it. I’m a sucker for odd Bundt pans and other cake pans with funny shapes. And when I saw this one on Amazon for twenty bucks, I just had to have it. Had to. It’s like certain women (like the one to whom I’m married) and shoes. The sooner you learn to stop resisting — I’m speaking from personal experience here — the happier your life will be. That said, I’m not interested in becoming the Imelda Marcos of goofy baking tins, so my rule is that if I buy it, I have to use it. After I make 20 cakes in this pan, the price of the bakeware will have added a mere eight bits to the cake’s cost.

As luck would have it, the Internets this evening (24 September in lovely California) yielded a plethora of honey cake recipes, given that sundown marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, and some version of honey cake is a staple of the holiday in many households. While I myself cannot number myself a member of the tribe, many of my dearest friends are, and their cuisine has been a mitzvah in my life.

The main recipe I improvised from can be found at epicurious.com, though I made a couple of modifications that I believe enhanced it significantly. First, instead of using any old vegetable oil, I used Stonehouse extra-virgin blood orange olive oil. Oranges and honey take to one another like Marilyn Monroe’s arm and an elbow-length satin glove. I wasn’t keen on adding a coffee flavour to the mix, but I needed the additional moisture, so I substituted some French vanilla coconut milk “creamer” instead (think orange + vanilla = creamsicle). And I used some stupidly expensive (and largely unavailable) ingredients, such as Manuka honey that a friend hand-carried over from New Zealand (and which sells in America for about $20 USD for a 12 oz. / 350 ml jar), and Green Spot single pot still Irish whiskey, of which only about 500 cases are made per year, making it the Pappy van Winkle of Irish whiskey. I’m sure some of my friends would happly clout me upside the head with a 4×4 for using such an extraordinary spirit in baking, and they might be right. But the batter was excellent, and it was only two tablespoons / 30 ml of the whiskey.

19 little mini-cakes of goodness.

19 little mini-cakes of goodness.

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Blood Orange Olive Oil Honey Cake

Ingredients
• 1 3/4 cups / 225 g. Cup4Cup gluten-free flour (or all-purpose flour, if you’re OK with gluten)
• 1 teaspoon / 2.6 g. ground cinnamon
• 3/4 teaspoon / 4 mg. baking soda
• 3/4 teaspoon / 6 g. salt
• 1/2 teaspoon / 2 g. baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon / 1 g. ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon / .75 g. ground cloves
• 1 cup / 237 ml honey (I used Manuka honey that a friend had brought from New Zealand)
• 2/3 cup / 158 ml blood orange olive oil (available from Stonehouse Olive Oil Company)
• 1/2 cup / 125 ml So Delicious French Vanilla coconut milk “creamer” (or freshly brewed strong coffee, cooled)
• 2 large eggs (I used duck eggs, because I had some)
• 1/4 cup / 60 g. packed brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons / 30 ml whiskey or bourbon (I used Green Spot Irish Whiskey)

Preparation
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat to 350˚F / 175˚C. Spray pan with Baker’s Joy, PAM cooking spray with flour, or oil pan well and dust with flour, knocking out excess.
Whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, baking powder, ginger, and cloves in a small bowl. Whisk together honey, oil, and coconut milk in another bowl until well combined.
Beat together eggs and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, then add honey mixture and whiskey and mix until blended, about 1 minute. Add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Finish mixing batter with a rubber spatula, scraping bottom of bowl.
Pour batter into Nordic Ware honeycomb pan or loaf pan (batter will be thin) and bake 30 minutes. Cover top loosely with foil or parchment and continue to bake until cake begins to pull away from sides of pan and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes more. Cool on a rack 1 hour.
Invert rack over pan and invert cake onto rack. Turn cake right side up and cool completely.
Baker’s note: • Cake keeps, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or in an airtight container, at room temperature 1 week. As if you’ll be able to keep from devouring it for that long. Seriously.

NOTE: When I first posted this, I had some truly wacky cup-to-gram (or -ml) conversions, which I have since revised. [Some of them were computational errors, some mere typos.] I presume my astute audience would have correctly divined that 225 mg. of flour wouldn’t have made a very large cake in the best of scenarios, and given the amounts of the other ingredients, it would have been overwhelmed by, um, just about everything else. Because I am in America, I foolishly tend to continue to use cup/tablespoon/etc. measurements, and while the metric equivalent is printed on my measuring spoons, it’s not printed on my measuring cups. I should probably just measure the stuff on my fabulous kitchen scale, which is bilingual both in metric and the ridiculous and outdated Olde English measurements. Sorry about that.

Fig Onion Rosemary, um… It’s a Jam! It’s a Conserve! It’s a Very Thick Sauce!

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Destemed figs await being destiny.

It’s figgy! It’s oniony! It’s rosemary-y! It’s… Supercondiment!

When it comes to a project like this, seems to me there’s only two ways to go: 1) You can make just enough for yourself, and let’s face it, a little goes a fairly long way, or 2) If you’re going to bother with it at all, you may as well make a bunch, and share it with friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. After all, you’re committing the same amount of time in either case, and in the latter mode, you can share the wealth. Sure, your cost of ingredients doubles, but by a back-of-the-napkin calculation, that came to about $12 in this case, less if you use red onion rather than Vidalia sweet onions, a cheaper wine, and can find a better deal on fresh figs than Whole Foods‘, all of which are well within pretty much everyone’s reach.

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.  (Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.
(Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

I’m going to say this up front, because food safety is paramount: THIS MUST BE REFRIGERATED. You can’t really preserve it in a standard water bath as you do other jams, because the pH isn’t low enough (or, put another way, the acidity isn’t high enough) to guarantee that our old pal Clostridium botulinum won’t rush in and ruin the day. The spore that causes botulism — and turns actresses of a certain age into Stepford Wife-looking creatures — is given a perfect home to reproduce in a fairly low-acid foodstuff that has been canned in an anaerobic (air-free) environment. You could get around this by adding a healthy dose of lemon or lime juice (or citric acid powder), but that would muck about with the flavour in a way that I wasn’t aiming for, personally. That said, if you do want to adjust the recipe and can it in the trad fashion, I’d recommend getting a pack of pH test strips and make sure you have the acidity at a pH lower than 4. Then the nasty little beastie is banished from the kingdom.

Now that I’ve frightened you, let me say that this is the same advice you’d get for canning meat, or asparagus, or mushrooms, or wax beans, or pretty much any veg that isn’t a tomato (and yes, I know a tomato is technically a fruit).

If, on the other hand, you have a pressure cooker/canner, you could do this no worries, so long as you get the canning temp above 240° F/115.6° C for a specific period (there are online guides), and it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to treat it the same way you do pretty much everything else: put it in the fridge, and use it within 10 days or so. [Since it isn’t going to be in an anaerobic environment, botulism isn’t an issue, but as you well know, nothing in the fridge keeps forever… except that box of baking soda that doesn’t really absorb the odors the way it’s advertised to do.]

On to the good stuff.

This jam/conserve/very thick sauce is most excellent when served with stinky cheese, or as a glaze/condiment for a pork tenderloin, chops, or chicken. [Of course, since it’s vegan, it’s also good with crackers and flatbreads, not to mention garden burgers.] I tried to keep the sugar content as low as practicable, favouring the umami as much as possible.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

FIG ONION ROSEMARY JAM/CONSERVE/VERY THICK SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:

45ml (3 tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil
3 large Vidalia sweet onions, sliced (about 1kg) (any onion can be substituted here)
5g + 1.25g (1 tsp. + 1/4 tsp.) sea salt or kosher salt
15g + 250g (1 tbsp. + 1 cup) turbinado sugar (white sugar works also)
1.25kg (2.75 lbs.) fresh Kadota figs (or whatever variety is convenient)
30ml (2 tbsp.) fig balsamic vinegar (or other balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar)
500ml (2 cups) red wine (2/3 of a standard bottle)*
15g (1 tbsp.) fresh rosemary, finely chopped

DIRECTIONS:

[Mise en place notes: Slice the onions and set then aside in a bowl; wash and destem the figs, then cut them in half (north/south) and set aside in a separate bowl. Chop the rosemary and set it aside. You can measure out your other moist and dry ingredients at this time if you want to, but nothing here is so time-sensitive that it’s really necessary.]

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

Heat pan on high and add the olive oil; when oil begins to shimmer, add the sliced onions, 5g/1 tsp. salt, 15g/1 tbsp. sugar, and stir briskly, to coat onions with the oil and mix in the salt and sugar. Reduce heat to medium high and allow onions to caramelize, about 20 to 30 minutes. [Note: If you haven’t done this before, it’s a little tricky. Stir them too often, and they don’t brown up. Stir them too infrequently, and they can burn. Don’t freak out if a couple of the onions look overdone; not a big deal. Timing is approximate depending on the amount of onions, your pan, and the heat of your cooktop.]

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

When the onions are browned, add the balsamic vinegar and wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape any brown bits off of the bottom of the pan. Add figs and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing the figs against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon to break them up. Add the remaining turbinado sugar and salt (to taste) and simmer for an additional 20 minutes. If jam/conserve/very thick sauce gets too thick, add more liquid (either wine or water) as needed until the desired consistency is reached.

Jam, condiment, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Jam, conserve, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Allow to cool until it is safe to handle, then spoon into clean jars and refrigerate. Makes approximately 1.5 liters/just over 6 cups. Should be just fine for at least 7-10 days.

Fancier than it needs to be?

Fancier than it needs to be?

* A note on wine: I used Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, a blend of 28% Zinfandel, 27% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petite Sirah, 3% Grenache, and 2% Petit Verdot. Why? I’d like to tell you that I did because it was the perfect match for the Brix (sweetness) level of the figs, but in fact it was around, I wasn’t particularly interested in drinking it at the time, and it wasn’t so expensive that I’d feel bad about having used it for making jam/conserve/very thick sauce. Any dry red will do; I may try a Pinot Noir or some other wine for the next batch, just to see how that works. You’ve probably heard this before, but you should avoid using any wine in cooking that you wouldn’t drink. So-called “cooking wines” are about as appetizing as Drāno®.

ADDENDUM:
I gave away a pint of the you-know-what to my pal Lisa Jane Persky, who is an actress, writer, artist, and a damn fine cook in her own right; here’s the chop she made with it. Nice.

Mmmmmm.

Mmmmmm.

ADDENDUM #2:
The other week, I attended a food festival at which restaurateur/radio host/generally cool individual Evan Kleiman was speaking about preserving tomatoes, and she said that (given the comparatively high pH of some newer varieties of tomato), she sometimes adds straight citric acid (which can be purchased either online or at many fine markets) to acidify the solution rather than adding lemon or some other citrus juice. The reason is that, while citric acid will make your jam/conserve/really thick sauce lower in pH (and hence, more sour-tasting), it won’t introduce any new flavour. You can buy pH strips or litmus paper to check to see if its pH is below 4. Alternatively, as noted above, you can pressure can the conserve/jam/really thick sauce. Or just stick it in the fridge. You’ll probably go through it faster than you thought.

Vegan Tomato-Dill Soup

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It's soup!

It’s soup!

Despite the widely-held belief that “it never rains in southern California,” it does, albeit not often enough. Tonight, for instance, was a prime example of the occasionally intemperate nature of SoCal weather; a much-needed downpour, most of which would wind up in storm drains on a quick trip to the Pacific Ocean, rather than into the aquifers and reservoirs that could make the best use of it. Rain, for me, signals an opportunity to make soup, which matches inclement weather the way pearls go with Sophia Loren’s exquisite neck.

In my youth, tomato soup meant a can of Campbell’s, made famous by Andy Warhol. My late and much beloved mom used to prepare it in high style, diluting it with milk rather than water for an instant “cream of tomato” concoction, which remained the gold standard for tomato soup in my estimation until well into my adulthood. One weekend in my thirties, though, on a trip to Lake Tahoe, I tasted freshly prepared tomato soup for the first time, and it was nothing short of revelatory. I’ve been spoiled ever since.

INGREDIENTS:

2 tbsp.olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. Cup4Cup gluten-free flour
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz.) San Marzano diced tomatoes
4 tbsp. stemmed and chopped fresh dill + 4 fronds for garnish
28 oz. vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if the vegan version isn’t sufficiently compelling)
1 bay leaf
salt
ground black pepper
dollop of cashew cream (for vegan version) or sour cream or yogurt (non-vegan version)

The humble onion.

The humble onion.

DIRECTIONS:
First, heat the olive oil in a soup pot, then add the diced onion at medium heat. Sweat the onion, allowing it to release its liquids, but don’t brown it. Add the Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, and stir, making sure to break up any lumps that might ensue (a whisk is good at doing this). Add the garlic and cook for about two minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the tomatoes, broth (a simple way to measure this is to fill up the empty tomato can), chopped fresh dill, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.

Adding the flour.

Adding the flour.

Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, but you needn’t be particularly fussy about the timing; it’s just enough to let the flavours blend.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

From here, you have a couple of options. 1) Allow the soup to cool overnight in the refrigerator, and serve it the following day as a rustic cold soup, garnished with a dill sprig (and remember to remove the bay leaf!).

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

2) Alternatively, you can remove the bay leaf, toss it in the food processor and purée it. Be sure to work in small batches, and DON’T plug the feeding tube unless you’d like your kitchen walls redecorated with a fine spray of tomato soup. [The steam needs somewhere to go; best bet is to drape a kitchen towel LOOSELY over the top of the feeding tube.]

You can add a delightfully silky texture by stirring a dollop of cashew cream into each bowl (or cup). Garnish with a dill sprig, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Shepherdless Pie — or — Don’t Kvetch About Guvech

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Gyuvech: It's not only the container... it's what's inside.

Gyuvech: It’s not only the container… it’s what’s inside.


One-paragraph history and etymology lesson rolled into one: In Bulgaria (and throughout the Balkans), meat and vegetable casseroles are often made in beautifully decorated earthenware pots known by a staggering variety of names, including guvech, gyuvech, đuveč, ѓувеч, гювеч, ђувеч, and others. The word has become not only synonymous, but indeed coterminous, with the meal prepared within it. [In that sense, it’s kind of the opposite of the word restaurant, which, back in the mid-18th century, was the name of a bouillon, later morphing into its modern definition of where that bouillon is served (when bouillon is served there at all, rarely the case these days).] By the time the word reached Turkey, it had become güveç, which more or less transliterates into guvech or guvetch, which is how we know it in North America.

Just like my great-grandma didn't used to make. But someone else's did.

Just like my great-grandma didn’t used to make. But someone else’s did.

As with any casserole/stew/hotchpotch, there are something approaching an infinite number of recipes for guvetch, but I’m quite fond of this meatless commercial variety, produced in Bulgaria by Konex Foods and marketed In America by Indo-European Foods under the label ZerGüt. It may be my favourite guvetch because it’s the only kind I’ve ever had (which is true), but it’s quite delicious on its own terms. According to a spokesperson for Konex, the commercial recipe is derived from one handed down by one of the company founder’s ancestors. The vegetarian guvetch they market (pictured above) is a simple mélange of aubergines, peppers, potatoes, carrots, water, sunflower oil, green beans, tomato paste, peas, salt, okra, onion, sugar, and parsley, with no preservatives, artificial flavours, or colours. At 250 calories per 19 oz. bottle, it’s easy on the diet, too.

A potful of potatoes.

A potful of potatoes.

Flash forward to earlier this evening. I’d had a hankering for shepherd’s pie, but there wasn’t any ground lamb to hand, and I decided to take a whack at a vegan version.

SHEPHERDLESS PIE

Ingredients
2 large Russet potatoes
4 smallish yams (about a pound or so)
3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tsp salt
1 jar ZerGüt guvetch

Directions
Set a pot of salted water on to boil. Peel potatoes and yams; cook in boiling water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain. Return to pot and mash with almond milk and salt; set aside to cool slightly.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Divide guvetch evenly into six ramekins. Microwave on high for about 2 minutes to warm.

Microwave me, baby!

Microwave me, baby!

Here’s where I got silly. The simple thing to do would have been to spoon the mashed yam-and-potato mixture on top, fluffing it with a fork to create those peaks that would brown underneath the broiler (about 8 minutes, and rotate the tray at 4 minutes). Instead, I pulled out a pastry bag and a star tip, and piped the potatoes in over the guvetch. Totally unnecessary, totally fun.

Sack o' spuds.

Sack o’ spuds.

If you decide to do it that way, work in a circular motion from the edge toward the center, finishing with a little peak on top.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Place the ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet. Eight minutes under the broiler (or you can use a kitchen torch, if you wanna get fancy about it). Rotate the pan at four minutes, and have a care, because some broilers are more efficient than the one in my sixty-year-old O’Keefe & Merritt.

Good to go, after they've cooled a tad.

Good to go, after they’ve cooled a tad.

Allow the ramekins to cool sufficiently that you can handle them — albeit gingerly — with your bare hands. Serve while warm. Makes six.

[NOTE: Bottled guvetch is available at markets that cater to an Eastern European clientele, but it can also be purchased online. The big issue here is the shipping cost, which makes it kinda prohibitive to buy a single jar. If you are willing to purchase a six-pack, you can bring your cost down to about $6.50-$8 per jar (depending on where you live), which is about twice what you’ll pay for it in an ethnic market. It can be ordered online from Salonika Imports in Pittsburgh, so the closer you are to them, the less you’ll pay to have it shipped. Alternatively, you could chop and heat your own vegetable mélange; Google “guvech recipe” for ideas, or just go for it as the vegetable bin provides and the spirit moves.]

Potatoes au Gratin sans Fromage (Vegan-style)

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It's plane to see.

It’s plane to see.

We’ve been doing Meatless Mondays around the pad for years now, and that frequently means one of several standbys, often involving potatoes. [What can I say, I’m Irish.] My original intent had been to take a whack at Chef Thomas Keller’s Potato Pavé recipe, but time and energy conspired against me, so I opted for Potatoes au Gratin. As luck would have it, The Bride and I dined a few days ago at Crossroads, an excellent vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, and that inspired me to retool the cheese-oozing, cream-dripping, diet-busting fave of my youth.

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a fan of ersatz food products (diet sodas largely excepted). I’d much rather have a beautifully grilled portobello mushroom served like a burger than any sort of the Frankenmeats that often try to pass themselves off as beef patties. As a consequence, my first order of business was to strike off most of the over-the-counter vegan cheese substitutes available, as they more often taste like Firma-Grip paste with a side of FD&C Yellow No. 6 than anything resembling fromage. What I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, though, was the creamy, viscous, umami-laden mouthfeel of the real deal. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Gotta give some props here to Tori Avey’s blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, which published a recipe for Dairy-Free Saffron Scalloped Potatoes that launched me in the right direction. Basically, there are two parts to the recipe: The potatoes and onions, and the sauce. Here’s a list of ingredients:

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DAIRY-FREE, GLUTEN-FREE, VEGAN POTATOES AU GRATIN

For the Sauce:
2 tbsp non-hydrogenated butter substitute (I used Earth Balance)
3 1/2 tbsp flour (I used Cup4Cup gluten-free flour)
1 can (13.5 or 15 oz) coconut milk* — NOT THE NON-FAT OR LOW-FAT VERSION!
1 cup Almond Breeze almond milk, unsweetened
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp finely minced garlic (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)
½ tsp tamari sauce (gluten-free soy sauce)
1 ½ tsp mustard powder
¼ tsp Piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika or cayenne powder)
1 tsp celery flakes or parsley flakes (optional)

For the Taters:
4-5 lbs Russet potatoes (you could use Yukon Gold as well, but Russets are way cheaper)
1 large onion
several dashes paprika for colour and presentation, optional

You have a couple of choices here (more if you are not acting as your own sous chef, which I was). Either make the sauce first (which I did), or slice the potatoes and onions first. If you are slicing the veggies first, please feel free to skip ahead. [Do remember to put your potato slices in a bowl of cold water to keep them from going brown while you’re working on other stuff.]

Making the Sauce:

Making the roux.

Roux the day.

Melt the butter substitute (or margarine, even if it’s not called that) over medium heat in a saucepan or pot, and whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring more or less constantly to make a roux. Let it brown a bit, maybe two minutes or so, and then begin adding the coconut milk, about 1/3 of a can at a time. [The full fat variety of coconut milk will probably have a big fatty plug at the top of the can; this is a good thing. Smooth it as you whisk.] Then add the almond milk and spices, continuing to whisk all the while (nothing says “M-m-m-m, tasty!” quite like a thumbnail-sized lump of mustard powder in your finished dish). The reason I used tamari rather than regular soy sauce was to keep the recipe gluten-free; if you don’t care about that, your basic Kikkoman will work just fine. All that need be done from here on is to keep it at a simmer; it only has to be warm (and liquid) enough to pour over the potatoes. Cover it (to keep it from reducing) and turn the heat down low while you focus on the next task: preparing the potatoes.

Preparing the Vegetables:

Spud ends.

Spud ends.

First, preheat your oven to 350ºF / 175 (actually 176.67)ºC

The potatoes (peeled or unpeeled, according to the chef’s whim) should be sliced to a thickness of about 1/8″ or so. More skilled craftsmen than I can perform this task handily with nothing more than a knife, but I use a mandoline (as you can see at the top of the post), and because I am a manly and foolhardy man, I use it without the safety guard. [THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED!] Should you find the safety guard oppressive, one alternative is to wear a steel mesh or Kevlar glove. But in the true Anthony Bourdain spirit of recklessness, well, I don’t do either of those things. That being said, not only is slicing off your fingertips or shaving your palm — a real possibility! — painful and disfiguring, it also invalidates the recipe’s claim to being vegan. (Blood, even accidentally spilled, is an animal product.) When all the potatoes are sliced (and put in a bowl of water to prevent their discolouring), repeat the process with the onion.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion's.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion’s.

Layer the potatoes and onions into a greased large baking dish or Dutch oven (I used a 5 qt. Le Creuset Braiser, which worked magnificently). First set down a layer of overlapping potato slices, then scatter some onions on it, then ladle some of the sauce over. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the dish is full (I had about 1/2 lb of sliced potatoes left, which I put in the fridge, and will roast or fry later). Sprinkle some paprika on the top, if you so desire.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Cover with foil (or put on the lid), and pop it into the oven for 60 minutes at the aforementioned 350ºF / 175ºC. By then, the potatoes should be soft and yield easily to a fork. Give them another 10 minutes in the oven uncovered, and finish them off with about 5 minutes under the broiler to brown the top (be watchful during this process, because it can go pretty fast, depending on the distance between the dish and the flame).

Remove from oven, and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes.

Brown is beautiful.

Brown is beautiful.

Coda: I realized (a little too late) that some diced green chiles would be a terrific addition to the sauce; I heated some up and spooned them over top, but it didn’t have quite the same effect. Also, you may want to add some salt (or allow your diners to) at the table, as it was a tiny bit shy on the NaCl for my taste. And a little fresh ground pepper is also nice.

*The full-fat variety of coconut milk runs about 700 calories a can, which is a not inconsiderable amount, but don’t be tempted by low- or non-fat substitutions, because they won’t provide the same mouthfeel. And when you consider how many fewer calories it has than cream (52 per ounce vs. 103), it’s totally worth the “splurge.” [Also, the almond milk is only 7.5 calories per ounce, and given that you’ve also left out all the cheese, there’s a pretty dramatic reduction in calories compared to the standard au gratin recipe.]

In Praise of a Very Fancy Blender

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First off, let me say from the outset that I’m not a “juice guy.” Sure, I’ve seen the infomercials and heard the testimonials and been subject to in-store demos, just like the rest of us. And I love juice; very few liquids on Earth bring me greater pleasure than a fresh-squeezed glass of blood orange juice. But I’m not persuaded that juice can rightly claim the curative powers that its disciples ascribe to it. So it wasn’t for that reason that I found myself on Craigslist, obsessing over finding my first VitaMix (or Vita-Mixer, as it was known then).

Last year, I had promised to make mushroom soup for a Thanksgiving gathering at our friends Rick and Lori’s house, and I knew that some of the attendees had dairy issues. Accordingly, I mused aloud on my FB page as to whether I should substitute almond milk, or cashew cream, or some sort of ersatz non-dairy sour cream substitute as a thickening agent, to give it a “creaminess” without using cream. My pal (and head chef at Papilles Bistro in Hollywood) Tim Carey commented, “I never use cream. Get yourself a VitaMix.” Okay. When you get advice from the guy who has made the best cauliflower soup you’ve ever had in your life, it makes sense to listen.

VitaMix products are expensive. No, really. They are. Very. Expensive. Then again, so are Maybachs, and for much the same reason. I’m pretty sure I could throw a handful of gravel in my Vita-Mixer and come out with a lovely powder, suitable for sprinkling over a fruit cocktail that found itself light in mineral content. The one that I bought — a Vita-Mixer 4000, used, for $200 — had been in service for over a decade and a half, and the guy who sold it did so only because he had been given a new one as a present. It’s a champ, the very one pictured at the top of this post. Easy to clean, easy to use (though I have twice made a pretty comical mess of the kitchen by failing to secure the so-called “Action Dome”). The original cookbook, which came as part of the purchase, claims that one can actually use the device to cook soup, due to the friction of its rotors against the canister’s contents. That may be so, but the idea of having to listen to this device at full throttle for half an hour is about as appealing as being subjected to an extra-innings Justin Bieber concert.

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I made a mushroom stock from water and leeks and carrots and parsley and garlic and dried and fresh mushrooms (dried oyster and black trumpet mushrooms, fresh Eryngii, Maitake, and Bunapi mushrooms), then I sautéed a bunch of fresh mushrooms (I think there were seven different varieties of fresh mushrooms in the soup) and some spices, combined the whole lot (mushrooms, homemade mushroom stock, a bit of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary and oregano, and some salt and pepper) in the Vita-Mixer and puréed like a crazy man.

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

[Incidentally, there are consequences to puréeing hot soup in a food processor whose lid has been too securely clamped; the steam forces the liquid out of the container at high pressure in directions hitherto unimagined at a velocity just barely less energetic than an Olympic gymnast’s free-form floor event. Live and learn.]

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The resulting soup — at least the part of it that I didn’t have to wipe off the cabinets, counters, and floor — was magnificent; creamy, hearty, aromatic. And I owe it all to the wonders of what might be the single most essential countertop kitchen device other than the toaster — the VitaMix[er].