Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetarian (but not Vegan) Avgolemono

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Yakko digs Greek soup.

Yakko digs Greek soup.

One of the very first Greek dishes I can remember tasting (long before I ever visited Greece) was a deli-style version of this soup. This version recreates it fairly well (except for the chicken pieces), presuming my taste memory is accurate. The big plus here is that it can be made in a little more than half an hour, and requires practically no prep.

Avgolemono is the Greek compound word for “egg” and “lemon,” and doesn’t necessarily refer to the soup (an egg-lemon sauce that shares the name is used widely with pork, chicken, and grape leaf dishes). That said, avgolemono is often called the “national soup of Greece,” even though research seems to indicate that it likely originated in Portugal or Spain, quite probably among the Sephardic Jewish popuation. [It’s probable that they were also responsible for the original Tarta de Santiago, whose picture adorns the top of this blog.]

A couple of notes. I happen to like the version thickened with potato starch in the winter, when I’m serving it hot. In the summer, I tend to serve it chilled, and without the extra thickener. No need to be too fussy about any of the amounts here; the recipe is easily halved, and you can use less or more orzo or lemon depending on your taste. I recently added the lemon zest and white pepper to the mix, and I find they both give the soup a subtle boost. The beauty part about the orzo (as opposed to rice, which is used in some recipes) is not only that it’s a great way to use up excess cooked pasta if you have it, but since dry orzo only takes 7-9 minutes to rehydrate, you don’t have to cook it separately. If you have leftover cooked rice, you can easily substitute it for the orzo. [Dry rice will take 40 minutes or so to reconstitute.]

Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen named Orrington Farms’ Chicken Flavored Vegan Broth Base & Seasoning as the best commercial starter for vegetable broth, and the latter published a recipe for making your own base. The downside of most store-bought vegetable stocks is that they’re sodium bombs, and many of them just don’t taste very good. The lemon in this recipe does a decent job of masking their weaknesses, but the better a veggie broth you use for a starter, the better the finished product will turn out.

Former White House Communications Director and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos makes a similar, if slightly more complicated, version if you want to watch an ordinary home cook in action.

Ingredients

8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock
4 cups / 800g cooked orzo (or 2 cups / 400g dry)
6 eggs, whisked
2/3 cup / 160ml lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. / 12g potato starch (optional)
2 sprigs of fresh dill, chopped (optional)
white pepper to taste (optional)

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Preparation

1. Heat vegetable stock and chopped dill (if you’re using it) in large pot or Dutch oven, to just below boiling. Add dried or cooked orzo when stock is warmed. DO NOT allow this to come to a boil, or it will curdle when you add the egg and lemon mixture, below.

2. While stock is heating, whisk eggs and lemon juice in a separate bowl.

3. Temper egg-lemon mixture by drizzling in 2 cups / 500ml warm stock while whisking continuously. Transfer tempered egg-lemon mixture back to soup pot.

4. if thickening with potato starch, place 1 tbsp. / 12 g in the bowl in which you tempered the eggs. Gradually whisk in a ladle of liquid from soup pot until you have a slurry free of lumps. Transfer slurry to soup pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep orzo from sticking to the pot. Soup will thicken noticeably, enough to coat spoon.

5. Zest lemon over soup pot just before serving, and stir to incorporate. Whisk in white pepper to taste (if desired), and ladle soup into mugs or small bowls, making sure to get plenty of orzo. Garnish with dill if desired.

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.