Soupe de la Semaine: Vegan Hot and Sour Soup

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M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

It all started with a bag marked Dried Black Fungus (Whole).

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Okay, I’m a geek. I admit it. Some people go to the beach, others go to art museums. I go to ethnic and foreign grocery stores. I’m happy to wax poetic about my experience at Carrefour in Galicia, but this one was much closer to home. It’s a market called LAX-C, and while it’s nowhere near LAX (a/k/a Los Angeles International Airport), it (like the airport) encompasses several of Los Angeles’ communities quite vibrantly. While strolling the aisles, I saw this bag of dried black fungus and just had to have it. Somebody out there clearly used this stuff, so it wouldn’t kill me, I figured. Into the shopping cart it went. I could figure out later what it really was and how it might be used.

When I got home, I discovered that it was nothing more exotic than dried wood ear mushrooms. I felt like kind of a naïf, but as luck would have it, I knew exactly how they might be deployed in a recipe.

I’ve been eating hot and sour soup for as long as I’ve been dining at Chinese restaurants, which is more than half a century. And yet, I never tried to make it myself until last night. Idiot me. Wow, this is simple. If you can operate a spoon, a knife, a pot, and a flame, you can do this. And if you have a cold, as I did when I made it, this soup beats the living tar out of chicken soup in terms of restorative powers.

NOTE: It’s easy to convert this soup to the trad non-vegan version, too. First, substitute chicken stock for vegetable stock. Then, add some shredded cooked chicken (or shredded cooked pork) at the same time you add the mushrooms, and right at the very end, beat a couple of eggs in a small bowl, and drizzle them into the soup as you stir it (that keeps them from lumping up).

If you want to keep this gluten-free, use tamari sauce rather than soy, and have a care if you are buying commercial vegetable broth that it doesn’t contain any grains that have gluten. Chances are, if it’s gluten-free, it will say so somewhere on the package.

INGREDIENTS

    2.5 oz. / 70 g package dried Chinese fungi, such as wood ears or cloud ears
    6 oz. / 170 g sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms
    8 oz. / 225 g canned bamboo shoots, sliced
    1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
    1 tablespoon / 20 g red chile paste, such as sambal oelek
    1/4 cup / 60 ml soy sauce (or tamari sauce if you want to keep it gluten free)
    1/4 cup / 60 ml rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon / 6 g salt
    1.5 teaspoons / 3 g ground white pepper
    1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 ml sesame oil
    8 cups / 1.89 liters vegetable stock
    8 oz. / 225 g firm tofu, drained and sliced in 1/2-inch cubes
    2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch mixed with 1/4 cup / 60 ml water (you may also use cornstarch)
    4-6 green onions, chopped, for garnish
Soaking your fungi.

Soaking your fungi.

DIRECTIONS

Place the dried fungus into a bowl and cover with 4 cups / 1 liter boiling water. They should soften in about 20 minutes to half an hour. Squeeze them out into the bowl and place them on a chopping board. Reserve the liquid (it goes in the pot later).

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Slice up the fungus into spoon-size bits. You will find that the “stem” (pictured above) is particularly tough, so cut it out and discard it. It may be white, or it may not, but you will be able to tell with your fingers that it’s not been rehydrated. (It was only the very center of those two mushrooms that I tossed; there was still a fair amount of useable fungus.)

Strain the remaining juice into a heavy soup pot or dutch oven (don’t want any mushroom grit). I had 3 cups / 700 ml mushroom water, so the remaining 5 cups / 1.1 liters of liquid came from vegetable stock, and I put that on a fairly high heat to bring it to a boil. You can add the mushrooms (both kinds) at this time.

Drain the sliced bamboo shoots and slice to matchstick width (I cut mine in thirds lengthwise), and add to broth. Grate the ginger into the pot (a microplane works well for this if you have one), or grate over cutting board with box grater and add to pot.

Add chili paste, soy/tamari sauce, sesame oil, salt, and rice vinegar to soup. Stir. Add white pepper 1/2 tsp. / 1 g at a time, and taste; I like it hot, but you may want to stop at 1 tsp. 2 g if you are not a heat freak. If soup is boiling, back it off to a simmer. At the 15 minute mark of so, add the drained and cubed tofu.

In a separate bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch with 1/4 cup / 60 ml cold water to make a slurry. Transfer slurry to pot, stirring soup with whisk as you do to prevent clumps from forming. Cook a further 10 minutes and allow to thicken. Add chopped green onions and serve. Serves 4-6.

NOTE: The process can be speeded up dramatically if you do your mise en place ahead of time. Basically, you need to have the mushrooms and the bamboo shoots in the hot broth for about 10 minutes to sofeten them up, and you need a further few minutes to allow the potato starch slurry to thicken the soup. If you use a cornstarch slurry to thicken the broth, it needs a little time to cook off the pasty taste. That’s why I like potato starch.

Also, the “hot” is coming from the white pepper and the “sour” is coming from the vinegar, so those are the two variables you’ll want to control most carefully to achieve the balance you want. You may want to add each of those a bit at a time, tasting as you go.

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.

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: 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.

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.

Soupe de la Semaine: Sweet & Sour Cabbage Soup — Vegan-style

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sweet-and-sour-cabbage-soup

As you might have guessed from the headline, I’m going to try to post a soup recipe every week. We’ll see how that goes. But if I am to hold the throne of “Le Roi de Potage,” awarded me in Paris a few years back (another story for another time), it’s time to step up.

They say it never rains in southern California, but that’s not quite true. This evening was one of those rare and welcomed occasions, and soup is the ideal antidote for a dark and stormy night. As I trawled the Internets, looking for something to suit my fancy, I unearthed a couple of Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup recipes, which I melded to make this one. The first was modified from the NY Times by ofallytasty.com, who adapted it from The National. The second came from cookforyourlife.org, who wisely noted that the pimentón helps to make up for the smokiness that ham would ordinarily bring to this soup in its non-vegan state. Alternatively (or even better, additionally), you could finish it with a tiny pinch of smoked salt (I heartily recommend Hepp’s 7-Fire Smoked Sea Salt — it’s not cheap, but a little goes quite some distance, and it’s sooooo good). Some of the recipes I read called for an immersion blender to purée a portion of the soup, but I found it unnecessary. Dealer’s choice.

Idiot me, I didn’t measure how much the recipe made, but it will easily serve 10-12 as an opener and 6 as a main, especially if augmented with a baguette.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons / 30ml neutral oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
2 teaspoons / 4g caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
1 large can (28-ounce / 793g) diced tomatoes — fire-roasted if you can get them
1 fairly large cabbage, cored and shredded (approximately 2.5 lbs / 1.1 kg)
8 cups / 1.8 liters vegetable stock or water
4 tablespoons / 50g brown sugar
2-3 teaspoons / 4-6g smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera is preferred if you can get it)
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 tablespoons (45-60ml) fresh lemon juice or vinegar (apple cider vinegar is what I used, but white wine vinegar would be fine)
Pinch of smoked salt for finishing, optional
Sour cream or vegan sour cream substitute, if desired, for garnish
Baguettes or rolls to serve alongside, optional

Preparation

1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the caraway seeds and cook for 1 more minute.

2. Add the diced tomatoes (along with their juice), the stock (or water), and the bay leaves. Cook for about 10 minutes or so, to warm the liquid.

3. Add the shredded cabbage, brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour (but two is better, especially if you want your cabbage a little less crunchy).

4. Stir in vinegar or lemon juice right before serving (start with 2 tbsp. stir, and add more to taste), then cook for about 1-2 minutes to allow flavours to blend; serve with a baguette. If desired, sour cream or vegan sour cream substitute may be dolloped on top, and a tiny(!) pinch of smoked salt may be added per portion for finishing.

NOTE: When reheating, add a small amount of your acid (lemon or vinegar) to refresh taste.

Celebrating Celeriac with a Superb Soup [Vegan]

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Celeriac, before and after a trim.

Celeriac, before and after a trim.

If there is an uglier vegetable on the planet Earth than celeriac (Apium graveolens variety rapaceum), I have yet to find it. Fortunately, much as beauty is only skin deep, in the case of this magnificent and underappreciated vegetable, so is ugly.

While celeriac itself doesn’t grow very deep — maybe six inches or so beneath the surface of your average garden plot — its roots in food history are deep indeed. In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a component of Calypso’s garden, albeit in the Greek it is referred to as selinon. In one passage, Hermes admires the environs of Calypso’s cave, festooned with grapes, violets, and wild celery before stepping inside to beseech her to let Odysseus go and finish his journey back to Ithaca. But that’s another, much longer, story.

In ancient times, and for much of their early history, both celery and celeriac were regarded more as medicines than as foodstuffs. Pliny the Elder claimed that the so-called helioselinon was “possessed of peculiar virtues against the bites of spiders.” He also suggested that it could be used to revive sick fish. But by the 17th century, it was being cultivated in France, and by the 18th, it was being used in England for soups and broths.

Fast forward to today: soups and broths! For your consideration, here’s a soup that contains not just one, but two of the planet’s least photogenic vegetables (the latter being parsnips), along with a little ginger (no beauty contest winner itself), some onion, tarragon, and lemon thyme.

CELERIAC AND PARSNIP VELOUTÉ WITH GINGER AND LEMON THYME

Ingredients
48 oz./1.42 litres vegetable broth
2 large celeriac roots, peeled and roughly cubed
3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 tsp./1.2g dried tarragon (it’s what I had at the time; fresh is good too, but use less)
4 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 carrot, cut into “coins” (optional)

Before you get all huffy, this is not technically a velouté, inasmuch as it is not thickened with a roux and cream, but it resembles one in texture. If you just want to call it soup, you have my blessing.

Cleaning the celeriac is best done with a very sharp knife, and it may be treated the same way you would strip off the rough outer skin of a pineapple; ideally, you’ll get off all the brown bits underneath the skin, but don’t make yourself crazy (or whittle the vegetable down to half its original size) getting there. Chopping the peeled celeriac is a bit of a chore, and may require rocking your knife back and forth a bit to get through the dense root. Alternatively, you can use a cleaver, if you have one. The parsnips should be scraped with a vegetable peeler, much like carrots, then chopped. As for the ginger, I started with a segment that was about the size of my thumb and scraped off the peel with a spoon before mincing it as finely as my admittedly mediocre knife skills would permit.

Once the prep is completed, making the soup is a snap; basically, you just dump all the ingredients into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and back it off to a simmer for about an hour to soften up the veggies and give the flavours a chance to blend. Then remove the thyme sprigs (which will have shed their leaves), and transfer the soup, in batches, to a food processor, blender, or Vita-Mix. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT clamp down the lid on your food processor/blender in such a way that steam cannot easily escape, or you will run the risk of both scalding yourself and decorating your walls with hot soup. I leave the top plug out of my Vita-Mix’s “Action Dome” and drape a tea towel over the opening to allow steam, but not solids, to egress.] Alternatively, the soup can be processed in situ with an immersion blender. Process until smooth.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all -- well, almost all -- roots.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all — well, almost all — roots.

You might note that salt is not a component of the ingredients list, and that’s because the vegetable broth I used (I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any vegetable stock of my own lying around) contained 570mg of sodium, presumably in the form of sodium chloride, which was plenty salty for my taste. Your taste (and your broth) may vary.

To finish the soup off, I sliced a small carrot on a hand-held mandoline, arranged the carrot “coins” into a small “flower,” and sprinkled a few leftover thyme leaves on top. I might drizzle a few drops of olive oil on it as well next time, but it’s by no means necessary. Serves 6-8 (easily!) as an opening course.

Lovely Little Lentils, BBQ- (and Vegan-) Style

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Unlike, say, in Ireland, the orange and the green go very well together here.

Unlike, say, in Ireland, the orange and the green go together very well here.

Much as I once was with beets (which is to say not a fan), The Bride used to be with lentils. I’ve long loved these little legumes, probably had my first infatuation with them as dal in the street food stalls of Mumbai (which was Bombay when I was there), and I brought it home with me. Sadly, it was not shared. Red, orange, green, yellow; I tried making all sorts of lentils for my then-girlfriend (now The Bride) in all sorts of ways, and to no avail. She said they all had an unpleasant aftertaste, and I figured that it must be some genetic thing, like people who find that cilantro has a “soapy” taste.

One evening, we were dining at a now-shuttered, much-missed restaurant, Zax in Brentwood, when they served lentils cooked in duck confit, and I ordered same, prepared to eat them all myself, if necessary. To my way of thinking, one could probably cook the contents of an ashtray in duck confit, and it would be at the least palatable. [I might be stretching the truth a w-e-e bit there.] Long story short, she had them and loved them. Yay! At first I thought that some chemical compound in the confit might have bound itself to whatever was triggering her (thankfully absent) aftertaste. But I also asked the waiter to query the chef (former Top Chef runner-up Brooke Williamson) on whether they had done anything special to prepare the lentils (other than the confit, of course): blanched them first, soaked them in brine overnight, something that I hadn’t thought to do. The answer: “No, nothing at all.” But she did mention that they had used Le Puy lentils.

Le Puy lentils, much like Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, may only be produced in a specified region, according to national law (and international custom, even though some disreputable sparkling wine producers call their product “Champagne” and some non-Italian cheeses claim – falsely – to be Parmigiano-Reggiano). They’re grown on the mountain plateau around the French town of Le Puy en Velay in the Haute-Loire region, whose climate and volcanic soil impart a particular flavor to the humble legume. In fact, they were the first French foodstuff, apart from wine and cheese, to be awarded the famous “Appellation d’ Origine Contrôlée” designation of quality and assurance of origin.

Above and beyond their terroir, Le Puy lentils are their own species (Lens esculenta puyensis), as distinct from other lentil species as a tasty Portobello mushroom is from the poisonous California Agaricus. Le Puy lentils tend to be comparatively expensive in America (generally $7 – $10 USD per pound/half kilo, though domestically grown versions may go for a little less), but they’re tasty, and The Bride likes them, so what’s a few extra bucks? That said, this recipe can be made with virtually any variety of lentil. Have a care, though; some varieties cook much more quickly, and some don’t hold their shape, turning somewhat mushy (though still tasty).

The original recipe from which this one was inspired came from an excellent cookbook by Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine, In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World. It chronicles two twenty-somethings on a tight budget trying to make tasty and inexpensive meals in their tiny kitchens. It’s a great starter cookbook for someone who’s getting their first apartment, but it also has some recipes that really resonated with me as well (I encountered it as part of a piece I wrote for the LA Review of Books a couple of years ago). I haven’t changed it much, although this version makes a double batch and adds kale, because California law requires kale to be an ingredient in every vegetarian recipe (just kidding, but it almost seems true).

If they don't say "Le Puy," they're just not for me.

If they don’t say “Le Puy,” then they’re just not for me.

BARBECUE LENTILS WITH SWEET POTATO AND KALE
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 cup / 200 g Le Puy lentils
4 teaspoons / 20 ml olive oil
2-3 teaspoons / 11-17 g salt
4 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 2 whole
1 onion, diced
1 small sweet potato or yam, diced
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon / .75 – 1.5 g dried chipotle pepper powder (or cayenne pepper)
1/8 teaspoon / .4 g ground ginger
1/2 cup / 120 ml ketchup
2 teaspoons / 10 ml Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons / 60 g brown sugar
2/3 cup / 160 ml balsamic vinegar
dash or two Worcestershire sauce (optional, leave it out for Vegan version)
1 small bunch kale, shredded

Maybe 6-8 stalks; not a whole lot. Probably 3 cups when chopped.

Maybe 6-8 stalks; not a whole lot. Probably about 2-3 cups when chopped, maybe a little less.

Bring the lentils to a boil with 3 cups (or 700 ml) of water and the two whole garlic cloves. Simmer 30-35 minutes, uncovered, until lentils are soft but still hold their shape. Toward the end of cooking, add 1 teaspoon (5.5 g) salt.

Wash kale, pat dry and shred, removing stems. (If you wish to include chopped stems in the finished dish, you’ll add them at the same time the lentils are added; otherwise, you can discard them.) Set shredded kale aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and minced garlic and sauté until soft and slightly brown. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until softened, about 5-8 minutes. Stir in the chipotle pepper and ginger, coating the vegetables, then add the ketchup, mustard, sugar, vinegar, and remaining 1-2 teaspoons (5.5 – 11 g) of salt (taste after adding the first teaspoon!), and bring to a simmer. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water, and add them and about 1 cup of cooking water to the pan. [This is also where you add the chopped kale stems, if you are using them.] Simmer until the sauce coats the lentils and is fairly well thickened. Taste for seasoning, adding Worcestershire sauce and sugar or vinegar if necessary. Somewhere around 15-30 minutes prior to serving, stir in the shredded kale, making sure to coat it all; give it time to soften to desired consistency, then serve.

FUN LENTIL FACT: The words “lens” and “lentil” both share the same Latin root, and it’s because a biconvex lens (like the one in your eye or a typical magnifying glass) is shaped like a you-know-what.

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.