Mirepoix Soup

Winter seems to have passed us by altogether this year. After a couple of weeks of snow and ice in early November, it’s been pretty much spring ever since. Everything is budding and blooming and greening up earlier than I’ve ever seen it. But today, after several sunny days in a row, was overcast, which put me in a mood for soup.

Inspired by a recipe from Food 52 for Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup, I decided to clean out the last of the hardy veggies from my fridge and counter tops. I had all I needed for mirepoix, plus a few potatoes and some garlic, and that right there is a fine soup base. Add an outrageous amount of butter and soon all will be right with the world.

chopped-veggies

Mirepoix Soup

Ingredients
1 stick butter
3-4 c each onion, carrots, celery and potatoes, cut in 1/2″ dice
6-8 garlic cloves (or to taste), thinly sliced
4 c mushroom or chicken stock (I use Better Than Bouillon)
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 Tbs Tarragon Pepper Blend
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Preparation
  1. Melt the butter in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, carrots, celery, potatoes and garlic and stir well to coat.
  3. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook about 10 minutes.
  4. Add stock, herbs, salt and bay leaves and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove bay leaves and blend to desired level of smoothness with a stick blender.
  6. Just before serving, stir in 1 tsp of any kind of flavored vinegar you like, such as tarragon, golden balsamic, sherry, or apple cider. It only takes a little to add a tremendous depth of flavor.

A bowl or two of that warmed me up nicely, and I shared the rest with my neighbors who are in various stages of a winter cold.

The sun is expected to come out again tomorrow, so I can go back to thinking about washing the car and mowing the lawn.

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Food overload

The trash gets picked up on Wednesdays in my neighborhood, so this morning I wheeled my big tote to the curb loaded down with heavy, dripping bags of rotting food from my own refrigerator. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and may Demeter have mercy on my soul. It was a very bad week for wasting food in my house.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

I let my Bountiful Baskets get away from me, faithfully picking one up every week for three weeks in a row even though I still had produce piled all over my counters from the weeks before. I gave some of it to my neighbors and I did prep a lot of it into usable ingredients so I would have them available for cooking … but somehow the cooking part just didn’t come together before things started turning slimy and spotty. Which reminds me why I’ve always been leery of fresh food: It just doesn’t last that long. Not long enough, anyway, for me to 1) figure out how to use it and 2) get motivated to do so.

When I told a friend once that I like to cook, her first question was, “don’t you end up wasting a lot of food because you live alone?” I thought it was an odd query because why would my living alone make any difference? No, I told her, I am pretty good about using what I buy. And I always have been, for the most part. But every so often, my ambitions get ahead of my appetite, and much waste results.

I recently learned that food waste decomposing in landfills is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a likely contributor to climate change. I don’t want to participate in that slow-motion catastrophe any more than I absolutely have to (and unfortunately, we all have to), so I’m thinking about getting a composter for my kitchen scraps. Maybe one like this, which is off the ground to keep the dogs from scrounging through it.

compost-bin

Tumbling Composter from Home Depot.

For all the peels, pits, rinds, seeds, soft spots, and other food scraps that I put in the garbage every week, this just might make a difference.

My fridge is now cleared of all but a few hardy veggies with long shelf lives, and my counters are mostly visible again—although I do still have a big jicama bulb and several pounds of blue potatoes from my basket that I am not sure yet what to do with. I didn’t get a basket this week, and won’t get one next week. I’m waiting to go grocery shopping until the last egg, the last carrot, the last drop of milk, and the last piece of bread are all gone. And then I’m going to be more careful about how I stock my kitchen.

food-dont-waste-it

This World War II-era propaganda poster is still good advice today.

 

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

I got several plump zucchini in my CSA basket this week and, as some of you know, I cannot abide squash of any kind. I considered whether to give them away or throw them away before deciding to get some use out of them, so I used them for knife practice. I julienned them, then brunoised them. I focused on keeping my fingers away from the blade (100% success), making uniform pieces (eh, not so much, but I’m getting better), and increasing my working speed (really no success at all there; I’m a plodder, but at least I never cut myself).

Once the zucchini were all so nicely (if not perfectly uniformly) diced, I thought that I ought to do something with them. If that something involved butter and garlic, I was pretty sure I would be able to eat it and like it. So I made this, which is the first recipe I have ever created and written, all by myself, from scratch, start to finish.

Rotini Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Ingredients
2 Tbs olive or avocado oil
1 Tbs butter
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 medium zucchini, diced (about 4-5 cups)
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 2-3 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 oz rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions
1/2 c basil pesto
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c fresh basil chiffonade
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high for 5 minutes. Add oil and butter and heat until butter foams.
  2. Add minced garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant but not browned.
  3. Add diced zucchini and onion, stirring well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every several minutes and lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to brown. You can keep cooking it until it’s dark brown and fully caramelized, or stop when it’s just partially browned. Up to you.
  4. Boil the pasta to your preferred softness. Scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water before draining. Drain the pasta and place in a large warmed serving dish.
  5. Add the zucchini-onion mixture, pesto, Parmesan and basil to the pasta and stir to combine. Add reserved pasta water as needed to loosen the mixture.

I topped this with some small shrimp, which I sautéed in butter for a few minutes and sprinkled with garlic salt while cooking. I poured the leftover butter in the pan into the bowl of pasta before serving, which gave it a nice, glossy finish.

I thought it tasted absolutely amazing—if you cook zucchini long enough, it essentially disappears, and that is fine by me!

Edible bounty

I recently signed up to join a produce-buying cooperative called Bountiful Baskets, which operates in most states. I’m not exactly sure what their structure is, but it seems to work: they buy produce at rock-bottom prices and allow people to make a contribution each week in exchange for a (ahem) healthy portion of that produce.

Eager to pick up my first basket, I headed out into the frosty dawn this morning to a slightly seedy industrial section of town not far from my house, down a street along the railroad tracks that I’ve never traveled in my more than six years of living here. As I approached the facility from which the food would be distributed, I noted several cars parked along the road, filled with individuals and families, engines running to ward off the single-digit chill. I turned around and found myself a place to park, and waited. Before too long, an invisible signal apparently came from somewhere, because as if on cue, engines switched off and car doors opened all up and down the street. I didn’t know what the protocol was, so I just followed the lady in front of me through the ice-clogged parking lot and took my place in line. We waited 15 shivering minutes or so before finally the door swung open and a volunteer cheerfully called “come on in!”

The line began to move slowly forward, and I took the time to look around behind me. The crowd had grown considerably, stretching out the better part of a city block. Everyone carried a handful of reusable grocery bags and the occasional laundry basket. I was amazed to see how popular this service is in a small town in the frozen heart of winter.

After a few minutes, I got my turn to go inside and found an industrial shop turned into an enormous temporary pantry. Rows and rows of white plastic baskets filled with fruits and vegetables were set out neatly over every inch of free floor space. I initialed next to my name on the list, showed my printed order confirmation email, and was directed to pick up two of the baskets—one of fruits, the other of veggies. I quickly transferred everything into my reusable bags and was on my way in minutes. Quite a pleasant experience, all in all, despite the wait in the cold.

I got my bags home and unpacked them with great anticipation of meals to be made! Here is what I received:

bountiful-basket

  • 2 English cucumbers
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 2 bunches of red radishes
  • 1 bunch of baby asparagus
  • A 1-lb plastic bag of carrots, plus 3 unattached stragglers
  • 11 red potatoes
  • 3 huge Jonagold apples
  • 7 Fuji apples
  • 6 navel oranges
  • 2 Asian pears
  • 1 personal-size watermelon
  • 9 exceedingly green bananas

I don’t know how many pounds that all adds up to, but probably around 15, and the total price for the lot of it was only $15. So I think I made out like a bandit! I have already devoured an orange, some of the watermelon, and a couple of carrots. I gifted the asparagus, some green onions, a few potatoes and two bananas to my neighbor Sue, who teased me that I turned her down when she offered to go halves with me on one of these baskets several months ago because “you were in your butter phase then.” Well, I guess I’m in my veggie phase now, and looking forward to making some great meals from all this bounty!

Oh, also, I want to mention that the impetus for my interest in fresh produce and recently intensified interest in cooking is this presentation by food activist and author Michael Pollan.

I am currently reading his latest book, Cooked, and am finding it fascinating. Highly recommended.

 

Vegging out

I am not a vegetarian nor was meant to be, but vegetables are a dieter’s best friend, and can be amazingly satisfying when properly prepared.

favorite-vegetable-is-pudding

Tonight I made Cauliflower Chowder from Damn Delicious, which was (mostly) all about the vegetables. Even with the addition of flour and milk AND topped with bacon bits, it was still only 4 Weight Watchers points per serving.

cauliflower-chowder

You can get the official recipe by clicking on the image or the link above, but here is how I made it.

Ingredients
4 slices bacon
2 Tbs unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced (about 2 cups)
2 carrots, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
2 stalks celery, diced (about 1 cup)
1/4 c all-purpose flour (I used Wondra)
4 c chicken broth
1 c whole milk
1 head cauliflower, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Fry bacon in a large skillet until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate; set aside. When cooled, chop into 1/4-inch bits.
  3. Break up cauliflower into uniform small florets and spray or toss with olive oil. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with foil or a Silpat mat and roast for 30 minutes or to desired degree of crispiness (I roasted mine just until there was some color on the bottoms).
  4. Melt butter in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in roasted cauliflower and bay leaf. Cook, stirring occasionally, another 5 minutes.
  5. Stir in flour and cook until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add chicken broth and milk, and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened, about 3-4 minutes. (The original recipe says to “whisk” the liquids in gradually, but I couldn’t figure out how to whisk such a dense and chunky mixture and it didn’t seem to make a big difference.)
  6. Bring soup to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove bay leaf.
  7. Before serving, dip out 3-4 cups of soup and purée it in a food processor or blender. Return purée to the pot and stir thoroughly.
  8. Serve garnished with chopped bacon.

To lighten this up, you could leave out the flour and milk (and the bacon, too, of course, even though it is soooo good) and simply purée a larger percentage of the mixture to add thickness. Either way, this is a wonderful recipe, really a keeper.

I had two helpings for dinner and was stuffed to the gills. I sent the rest over to my neighbors and told them it was my best ever and that I wouldn’t be sharing it with them if I didn’t like them so much because it was just that good. In fact, I said, “if you don’t like it, just give it back to me so I can eat it.”

David texted me a little while later, “Awesome.” I texted back, “I know, right?!”

 

Trying new things

My weight loss journey has entered the hard phase, where nothing is going as I would like for it to, particularly the number on the scale. I’ve been actively, even somewhat feverishly, experimenting over the past several weeks with different foods and eating schedules and so forth to try to find a way that I can both lose weight and be happy.

I know what doesn’t make me happy:

  • Feeling hungry, ever, even for a short period of time. I get very cranky.
  • Eating “diet” food, such as fat-free and sugar-free foods that SHOULD contain fat and/or sugar (milk, cheese, salad dressing, etc.).
  • Eating high-carb, high-sugar foods, such as cookies, which give me tachycardia for an hour and a fuzzy head all day.

I also have learned, through trial and mostly error, a few things that are helpful.

  • Rice is a really diet-busting food, for me. So is pasta. Both cause nearly instant weight gain, and neither delivers any real satisfaction.
  • Exercise, even the low-intensity little bit that I do, is essential. Neither the dogs nor I have benefited from skipping our walks.
  • Eating meals while I’m fixing them, standing at the stove or counter, is not really in my best interests.
  • I can’t control what I don’t track, and careful measuring works better than guessing every time.
  • Three substantial and balanced meals a day eaten at regular intervals works better for me than several small meals and snacks scattered haphazardly around the clock.
  • Trying to think of something to eat at the end of the day and then having to cook it when I’m hungry leads to bad choices (see first bullet point in list above). Prepping a variety of healthy foods in large quantities at the start of the week makes it easy to put together a good meal quickly.

In addition to trying to find the right balance of when and where and how much to eat, there is the fundamental question of WHAT to eat. I am seeking the Holy Grail of healthy, simple, inexpensive food that tastes fantastic and is good for me (meaning, won’t bust my diet). So far, I have found two recipes that show tremendous promise, and am actively seeking new ones as well as developing my own.

First, chia seeds. These are kind of a trendy thing now, and I’m not usually a fan of trends, but now I’ve tried them and I think they are actually really great. They look like poppy seeds, and have the quality of creating their own gelatin when wet. A one-ounce (28 gram) serving of chia seeds (about 2 tablespoons) contains 139 calories, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams of dietary fiber, 5 milligrams of sodium, 18% of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 27% phosphorus and 30% manganese. Whether they’ll help you lose weight is still an open question, but they make a delicious and filling small meal or snack. You can get them in most supermarkets, sometimes in the bulk food section.

chia-pudding

Coconut Mango Chia Pudding from The Peach Kitchen.

There are a thousand variations on the basic chia pudding recipe, all of which can be found on Pinterest, I’m sure. My recipe is very simple:

1/2 c milk (you can use regular, 2%, skim, almond, coconut or soy; I use almond)
2 Tbs chia seeds
1 Tbs agave syrup (or sweetener of your choice)
1 tsp unsweetened coconut

Mix well and refrigerate overnight in a covered container. Serve topped with any fresh fruit.

You’ll be picking the seeds out of your teeth for an hour and the slick texture can take some getting used to, but I really like this recipe, which tastes great both before and after the pudding “sets.” You can, of course, adapt it with any ingredients you like. My version adds up to 5 Weight Watcher points.

The second great thing I’ve discovered is sofrito, which is a salsa-like flavor base used in Latin American cooking much the same way that mirepoix is used in French cooking. Everyone has a unique recipe and you can buy it bottled as well (Goya is one brand I’ve seen), but making it from scratch is a snap, especially when you have all the ingredients already prepped in the fridge.

cooked-sofrito

Cooked sofrito (unpuréed) from The Chef Within.

My recipe for this is pretty simple, too:

2-3 Tbs olive oil
8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
2 c white or yellow onion, diced
1 c green bell pepper, diced
8-10 peppadew peppers, roughly chopped
2 c tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

Sauté the garlic and onions in the oil over medium heat for a few minutes until onions are translucent before adding the rest of the ingredients. Cook, stirring, for about 5-7 more minutes until tomatoes soften and mixture turns orange. Season with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, or other seasonings to taste if you want to use it as-is, or leave the seasonings out altogether and use as a flavor base in other dishes.

Purée in food processor to desired level of smoothness. Makes about a quart.

I mix this stuff with rice and beans, put it on scrambled eggs, pour it over grilled chicken, even use it as a sandwich spread. I’ve made it with a bunch of cilantro added to the food processor (not cooked), and that was pretty good, too, but I don’t always have cilantro on hand and it’s still plenty good without it. The best part is, it’s all vegetables (which have no point value in WW) but it tastes fantastic! The fat content in a quarter-cup serving is hardly worth worrying about, and it’s a healthy fat anyway, so I don’t worry about it.

My guiding principle right now is that I want to eat what I like and like what I eat, every day, so having a recipe for a delicious, healthy, low-point snack, as well as a recipe for a delicious, healthy, versatile condiment that makes everything it touches taste better, has been very helpful to me in getting a handle on my eating plan so that I can, I hope, start turning things around. It’s been so frustrating to keep crossing and recrossing the same ground, never going beyond the familiar old boundaries and not (yet) able to make peace with my body so that I can finally lose this weight and keep it off.

i-have-not-failed

 

 

Beyond the recipe

My mother sent me a cooking course on DVD for Valentine’s Day (thanks, mom!), and I’ve now watched all 24 lessons and learned about everything from how to properly handle a chef’s knife to how to pair food and wine—there’s actually a method to that madness; who knew? I will have to watch the series again and reread the accompanying book before I am ready to actually make some of the featured meals, but already I have taken up a few tricks that are making my kitchen a happier place.

The first thing I’ve made from the lessons is tomato concassé, which is just a fancy name for peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes. So simple, right? I now keep a bowl of those all ready to go in the fridge to put on scrambled eggs, into soups and sauces, on top of salads, or into any number of other recipes. That’s an easy, delicious way to get more veggies.

Another is roasting vegetables, specifically red peppers. I roasted a batch of those tonight, along with a couple of jalapeños, a poblano, and some garlic cloves.

roasting

These go very well with the tomatoes in soups and sauces, and are also good on sandwiches. If you haven’t roasted peppers before, learn how to do it here. It’s a little bit time-consuming, but the results are so worth it. There’s no better way to add flavor to veggies without adding fat than by roasting.

Watching this cooking course, I notice that the chef never measures anything beyond “add a little” or “add a lot.” The recipes in the book provide a shopping list and detailed preparation instructions, but not a single measurement anywhere, just “proportions to taste.” Apparently the goal of the course is to get you to think beyond the recipe and understand not only your ingredients and what they bring to the dish, but also taste and flavor and seasoning and how to add and adjust those to balance them to satisfy your own palate.

I’ve always been a recipe follower (okay, most of the time), and am a little uneasy not knowing how much basil or chicken stock or pepper I “should” add to a dish. But what I’m learning is that my nose and my palate can tell me better than a recipe can how much is enough and what is good. After all, the dish only works if I like it, right? Besides, it’s very freeing to be able to choose what the dish will be this time, and maybe make it the same way or completely differently next time depending on how well (or badly) it turns out. Cooking is a bit of an art, but mostly it is a craft that entails mastering tools, from ingredients to gadgets, as well as techniques.

Watching this chef season every dish and sauce with, literally, fistfuls of course salt has been more than a little nauseating for me; his palate and mine would, I’m sure, have very different definitions of “properly seasoned.” When I was a real tiny kid, a teenage babysitter talked me into playing the “open your mouth and close your eyes” game. Trusting her as only a 3-year-old can, I expected something sweet, but instead she filled my mouth with table salt and would not allow me to spit it out. I guess I have her to thank for my preference for comparatively bland food to this day. 😛

At any rate, I look forward to trying the techniques shown in the course and finding my own way to cook using what I know about food and flavor to make terrific meals. Maybe I’ll even start writing my own recipes.


The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking, by Chef Bill Briwa of the Culinary Institute of America.