Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Potage Santé aka Green Soup

When you are used to cooking for two and are suddenly left to your own devices, funny things start to happen. Namely, your meals suffer. I inherited from my mother the proclivity to--when left to eat alone--combine leftovers of different and discordant flavors in the same bowl, at odd times of the day or night, and to eat them while doing a crossword puzzle. It's not a lack of interest in the preparation, or in the flavor of the food, but rather a tendency to fall into a time warp of concentration and work from which we suddenly awaken, and, ravenous, go for ease of access and the simple need to fuel. The crossword puzzle is a way to somewhat absentmindedly reboot the brain. It's that or solitaire. So while my sweetheart is scaling cliffs in Yosemite I have found myself, at 5pm or late at night, eating a "dinner" comprised of things in my fridge that can only be summed up by calling them "orts." Yup. It's been that good.

Yesterday we had the first rainy day in Sonoma in months. The sky was a smudge against the bleached hills, and while it never poured, a steady drizzle made it just cold enough to let it settle in the bones. In that damp afternoon, I went to the garden, picked a bunch of kale and uncovered startlingly red potatoes, gleaming like garnets in the black loam.
I was going to cook. I would not eat popcorn and pieces of turkey rolled around mustard and slices of avocado then dipped in hummus. I was going to prepare a delicious, nourishing meal and eat it at dinner time. I was going to make green soup.

Green soup is something my dad makes, and it is something his mother made. She called it Potage Santé, which means Health Soup. Hers always included sorrel, which is a delicious, lemony weed that grows wild and is a great detoxifier and general tonic. It's hard to find in groceries stores or markets so dad and I have both adapted the recipe, using whatever greens we can get. This is a soup for all seasons though I associate it with inclement weather: a rainy summer night, blizzards, sunless spring days and the first frosts of autumn. Each green soup is slightly different from the last--depending on the season, the mood, the vegetables at hand--but it is always green, always with the backbone of some kind of allium and a potato to thicken, and best accompanied by crusty bread warmed in the oven, and a couple of good cheeses.

Our sorrel hasn't emerged yet so I used kale from the garden, some cauliflower that needed a home, and, just to make it extra green, the last of a bag of frozen peas. I had no onion but young garlic worked just as well.
While this soup is a great home for the ends of vegetables it is also one which is vastly improved by the quality of the ingredients you put into it. It's a great neutral pallet for any array of herbs and spices but if your vegetables have come straight out of healthy ground or fresh from a farmer's market, you won't need more than salt and pepper.

The soup took me about an hour and a half to prep, cook, puree and reheat. At 7pm I closed my computer, poured a glass of wine, turned on some music, and sat down to a real meal by myself. It truly was health soup. Never underestimate the joy of cooking for one.

Green Soup
serves 4-6
4-5 cups chicken or vegetable stock or water
1 medium sized leek, sliced & washed
about 2 cups chopped celery and/or carrots
12-16 oz potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cups dark leafy greens of choice, roughly chopped
2 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

optional add-ins
fresh or frozen peas
dandelion greens
collard greens or swiss chard
broccoli or cauliflower
sour cream, heavy cream or plain yogurt to top
chopped fresh herbs to top
red pepper flakes to top
edible flowers to top

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil and melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the leek and sauté, stirring, for about one minute. Reduce heat to medium and add the celery and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and the leek is translucent. 

Add the potatoes (and broccoli if you are using it), stir, and then pour in the stock. The liquid should cover the vegetables. If it doesn't, add more stock or water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cooking until a fork goes easily through the potatoes. About 10-15 minutes. When the potatoes are cooked but not too soft, stir in the greens. You may need to add a bit more liquid at this point. Once the greens are wilted, remove the pot from heat and let cool about 10 minutes.

Working in batches, ladle the soup into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Pour the pureed soup into a bowl. If you are serving right away, pour the pureed soup back into the pot and heat at medium-low heat. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. You may want to thin the soup with more stock or water at this point as well. If you plan to eat the soup later, let it cool after pureeing and then store in the refrigerator until ready to eat.

When the soup is hot, ladle into bowls and top however you choose. This time I used wild mustard flowers from the bed in front of our house. Crusty bread for dredging the empty bowl is highly recommended.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Roasted Cauliflower with Salsa Verde

I have a lot of books about food. I have books about nutrition, books about the socio-political implications of food, collections of essays about food, books of poetry about food, musings from MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David, and slim vintage manuals that sit on my shelf to serve as art rather than instruction. I have cookbooks that are dog-eared, food-splattered and marked up the way any well loved, good cookbook should be, and I have beautiful cookbooks from which I have never made a recipe but which I find in my lap on a regular basis for inspiration.
Nigel Slater's book Tender, falls into the latter category. It is a thick, 618 page, beautiful beast of a book centered around the vegetables the author loves and grows in his backyard in London. The book is heavy on text and when pictures do appear they are simultaneously lush and cold, inviting and a bit austere, rich in hue but suggestive of a damp grey just outside the border of the page, evocative of London itself. I love Slater's narrative tone which is conversational, at times equally poetic and snarky, and always confident. He breaks the book into chapters by vegetable, gives a brief introduction, discusses the vegetable "in the kitchen" and "in the garden" and then gives general suggestions for flavors that work well together. Finally there is a picture or two and a few recipes showing how these flavor combinations might manifest.
Whenever I tire of how I am preparing a vegetable I turn to Tender for some new suggestion of a spice or preparation I haven't thought of. We have a lot of cauliflower in our garden right now. I have made "rice" with it. I have made soup with it. I've thrown it into salads and stir fries and dipped it in hummus. I ate it every couple of days for weeks and finally got sick of the stuff, wished it gone, and felt as Slater does that "Sometimes I think it wouldn't bother me if I never saw one again." Still, the dense heads of crinkly florets continue to thrive outside--some white, some an almost pale purple. I opened to Slater's chapter on the brassica about which he says, "Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities." I have to agree. It can be borderline dull when mistreated and sublimely subtle given the right circumstances. Among his recipes for cheese or bechamel-smothered cauliflower, I found a simple dish of fried cauliflower with salsa verde. With plans to grill lamb chops that night it seemed the perfect first recipe to test from the book. We have a small kitchen with poor ventilation so I opted to roast the cauliflower at high heat until just tender. I collected the herbs from our backyard, chopped some garlic and 10 minutes later had a bowl of piquant, emerald colored sauce that is not only delicious on cauliflower but also on lamb, on salmon, on chicken, on roasted potatoes, mixed into quinoa......you get the idea.
Roasted Cauliflower with Salsa Verde
adapted from Tender by Nigel Slater
serves 4

1 head of cauliflower
olive oil
1 or 2 lemons
a big handful each of basil, mint & parsley
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T dijon mustard
2 T capers, rinsed

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Trim the cauliflower of its stem and outer leaves then pull apart or cut into florets. Place on a sheet tray and drizzle with olive oil. I like to go light on the oil so that the cauliflower crisps rather than sogs. Sprinkle with salt and maybe a little smoked paprika if you have it handy. Roast until just tender but not limp. About 20 minutes.

While the cauliflower is cooking prepare the salsa verde.

Chope the herbs finely but don't worry about uniformity. They should be thin but, as Slater says, "not so small they look like tea leaves." Place in a medium sized bowl and add the garlic, mustard and capers. Stir with a fork and then, while stirring, slowly add enough olive oil to bring the mixture to a dressing or sauce-like consistency. About 6 tablespoons. 

Add the juice of one lemon, a pinch of salt and a lot of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning and lemon juice and herb ratio as needed. It should taste salty, zesty, bright, garlicky and all around delicious.

Remove the cauliflower from the oven and serve immediately, smothered in salsa verde.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Coconut Rose Pudding

For the past three days I have been craving something that I have never made and never even tasted. Coconut pudding. Where the notion for such a thing came from I have no idea. But here I am, craving something sweet and cold, refreshing but creamy, the kind of dessert that takes two bites to get off the spoon. Comfort food.

With the ever growing popularity of coconut water it has become pretty easy to get access to the stuff. As with most trends, once it catches on there are people who become purists, which, as far as I can tell, in the case of coconut water, means getting it raw, or better yet, straight out of a green coconut. In this case, the purists are right. Many of the boxed and canned coconut waters taste too sweet, too processed, like the flavor of coconut instead of the thing itself. If you live somewhere with a good Asian market or close to a Whole Foods, you can easily get your hands on a young Thai coconut. It's worth the dicey work with a cleaver just to get at that fresh, almost effervescent, incomparable water.
Once you've refreshed yourself with the water you're left with silky coconut meat which bears little resemblance to the chalky flesh you find in the drier, brown-husked variety. This is slippery and almost gelatinous to the touch but dense when you sink your teeth in and delicate in taste.
Traditional pudding involves cream and milk and actual cooking. Maybe it's the hot weather, maybe it's the past weeks of a sprint-paced life, maybe it's as simple as missing someone I love who now is gone. Whatever the reason, I really needed this pudding to be simple, no-frills, easy to make and comforting to eat. I recently read that the Sanskrit word for coconut palm means "tree that gives all that is necessary for living." Eating this, barefoot in my dusty backyard, a thin slice of moon rising in the twilight, and not a sound but the crickets and my spoon against the bowl, I just might have to agree.

Coconut Rose Pudding
serves 4
2 young Thai green coconuts
1/2 cup coconut water reserved from the coconuts
1 t raw honey or other sweetener
2 t rose water

Lie one of the coconuts on its side. Carefully and with confidence, use a cleaver or other very sharp butcher knife to cut off the top of the shell. Do your best not to lose too much of the coconut water inside. 

Once you've cracked the nut, pour the water into a cup or jar and repeat with the second coconut. Drink some of the water. It's delicious.

Wielding the cleaver again, split the coconut in half from top to bottom so you may more easily access the meat. Using a spoon, scoop the meat from the shell and place it in a high speed blender. 

Add the honey, rose water, and about 1/2 a cup of the reserved coconut water and blend until smooth. Chill in the fridge for at least a couple hours so the pudding thickens.*

Top with a sprinkle of cinnamon, cocoa powder, some chopped pistachios or just enjoy as is. 

*I put one small bowl in the freezer just for fun and ended up with a sorbet-like consistency which was very nice.

Note: This can be made vegan by replacing the honey with stevia or coconut nectar. Stevia will also make this a cleanse-friendly sweet.