Pure and Simple: Spiced Carrot Soup

carrot puree

As a kid I was a peanut butter purist.  No fluff, banana or jam was allowed in a ten-foot radius of my habitual brown-bag sandwich.  Just chunky peanut butter and bread, period.

farmers market carrotsIt’s not that I didn’t like fluff or bananas or jam. In fact, I had never even tried any of the above (and have actually to this day never had fluff, come to think of it). But I figured that my world was just fine with plain old peanut butter, thank you very much.  Why mess with what works?

And until this week, I felt the same way about beautifully simple pureed carrot soup; sweet and fresh and flavored with a bit of onion and some sea salt, and not much else. But here’s the thing… if I never messed with what works, would I really have anything to write about?  Of course not.  And I can remember the day when I finally tasted the marriage of my beloved, slightly grainy, Smuckers chunky peanut butter and bright, sweet, Bonne Maman apricot jam (yes, Bonne Maman – my mom has long been a jam snob, thank goodness). The sticky jam cut right through the rich peanut butter, elevating the savory, salty roasted flavor of my dietary staple.  And the slick texture of the jam made the little chunks in my Smuckers all that much more appealing. 

Sometimes, even that which is pure and simple and beautiful can be improved. (Yes, peanut butter sandwiches are beautiful).

spiced carrot soupAnd while a plain old carrot soup can be quite lovely, especially when you have particularly sweet carrots, the garam masala here is like the jam to my peanut butter.  To think what I’ve been missing all these years of basic carrot soup!  The hint of heat and the up-front aromatic warmth of the spices make the carrots seem brighter and sweeter than they could possibly be on their own.  Especially considering that I made this soup with the dregs of the vegetable drawer.  I don’t even know how long those poor carrots had been lurking in there!

soup recipeI made the soup as a last-ditch effort to avoid wasting all of those lovely carrots, which seem to come in mountainous piles from Farmer Greg, who I swear sneaks extra carrots into my CSA basket when I’m not looking. I planned to make the soup and freeze it for a someday lunch (it does freeze well, just don’t add the yogurt until serving).  But a quick little taste and I went wild.  First I licked the ladle.  Then I moved on to run my finger along the edge of the blender, sucking off the silky orange puree.  By the time I got to the pot itself, I gave up and grabbed a bowl.  Not that I feel guilty… there’s nothing to feel guilty about here!  You gotta love a recipe that takes just 20 minutes to prepare and is jam-packed with nutrition. But it doesn’t taste like it took 20 minutes.  And it doesn’t taste like it’s healthy.  In fact, it tastes downright indulgent, especially if you swirl in the greek yogurt, making the whole bowl lusciously creamy.

healthy carrot soup

Spiced Carrot Soup

Serves 4

1 small onion, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin

3 cups peeled chopped carrots

3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup Greek yogurt, for serving

Saute the onion in the oil in a  stock pot over medium heat for about 2 minutes.  Add the spices and continue to cook, stirring every so often, for about 5 minutes more.  Add the carrots and broth and bring to a simmer.  Cook uncovered until carrots are very tender, about 15 minutes.  Puree the soup in batches and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve with a dollop of yogurt, and some fresh herbs if desired.

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Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Comments (35)  
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A Taste of Summer: My Mom’s Littleneck Clams

beer-steamed clams

Summer foods make me feel like a kid.  Corn on the cob, grilled lobster, ice cream sandwiches, and of course my mom’s awesome beer-steamed littleneck clams.  Clams might not be typical kid food, but in our house they were.  When we were young, we would crowd around the patio table, dripping in our swimsuits, poking each other with our forks, fighting to get to the big bowl of clams and the little cups of butter. 

littleneck clamsActually, that’s pretty much still what we do.  A little less elbowing, but the scene is the same.  The steaming bowl of clams is fragrant enough to draw a crowd to the table.  But over the years I’ve gotten sneaky, and by offering to ‘help’ I invariably get to steal a sweet little clam directly from the pot.  Shhh…. don’t tell.

Mom always serves the littlenecks with plenty of butter for dipping, as well as a bowl of the cooking broth for anyone who prefers to swish their clams in the fragrant liquid.  And a big loaf of warm crusty bread is a must, because there is nothing better than a hunk of bread dipped in the broth.

quahogs steamed in beerWhen choosing clams, smaller is generally better.  Most fish markets will label smaller hard-shelled clams as littlenecks, but don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t see them. Hard-shelled littleneck clams are tender and sweet, however, the larger clams tend to be a bit tough.  Hard-shelled clams, also called quahogs, are abundant along the shore here in New England, but that doesn’t mean they are cheap (unless you head out clamming for yourself, of course).  The good news is that they are rich and just a few clams per person is plenty for an appetizer.  Especially when followed by grilled swordfish and caprese salad and strawberry shortcake (yeah, my parents rock).

picnic RI clams 

Mom’s Little Neck Clams

Serves 4 as an appetizer

1/2 cup roughly chopped onion

3 stalks celery, cut in 1 inch pieces

2 teaspoons butter

12 ounces lager

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 pounds little neck clams, rinsed

1/2 cup melted butter, for serving

1 loaf crusty bread, for serving

In a large, deep saucepan, saute the onion and celery in butter over medium-low heat until soft, about 15 minutes.  Add the beer, bay leaf, thyme, and peppercorns and bring to a simmer.  Add the clams, cover, and cook just until the clams open, about 8 minutes.  Discard any unopened clams. Spoon the clams into a large bowl.  Fill small bowls with remaining beer broth and melted butter.  Serve clams with broth and butter for dipping, and with bread for sopping up the juices. 

littleneck clam shells

Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 6:55 pm  Comments (40)  
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An Unexpected Recipe: Garlic Pepper Pasta with Fresh Herbs

linguine with garlic pepper sauce

I have two kinds of cookbooks on my shelf: the ones I use (few), and the ones I don’t (many).  Oh sure, I look at them all, admiring the pretty pictures, imagining fantasy dinner parties.  But when I’m looking for real inspiration, I have a few standbys.  The Joy of Cooking, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Paris Sweets and my signed copy of Simply Ming are my go-to favorites. Eclectic certainly, but this covers all the bases.  Classic basics, healthy staples, quality desserts, and creative, unexpected flavors.

fresh herbsFlipping through Simply Ming a few weeks ago, looking for inspiration for the bok choy in my CSA share, I found Black Pepper Garlic Sauce.  After a wonderful stir-fry, loosely based on Simply Ming’s Melted Black Pepper and Garlic Napa Cabbage, I still had a full cup of the sauce leftover.  You see, this fantastically inventive cookbook is based around a series of condiments.  Chef Ming Tsai creates lovely fusion dishes with these sauces and salsas and sambals.  And best of all, in the margins, he offers even more simple suggestions.  Of course, all of these condiment recipes make very big batches. The idea is that you can keep them in the fridge for a week or two, making the actual preparation of final dishes really quick and easy.  Hence the extra cup of sauce.

I ruled out the Black Pepper Garlic Lobster from Ming Tsai’s restaurant Blue Ginger because of Jeff’s seafood allergy, but there in the margin was an intriguing suggestion: pasta.  Simply toss the sauce with pasta.  Now that’s my kind of weeknight meal – easy, fast, and flavorful.

garlic and scallionsWith the herb plants on my windowsill exploding with fragrant leaves, I decided to doctor up my quick pasta dish.  And the flavors of the purple basil and parsley were wonderfully fresh with the sweet garlic and tangy pepper.  I’ve since reworked the sauce just a bit, making just enough for a pound of pasta, and changing up the proportions a little.  The Asian fish sauce may sound a bit off-putting here, but trust me, it is the secret to making this sauce special – don’t skip it.  It lends just a very faint flavor of the sea, a bit like linguine with clam sauce (but no clams).  Actually, adding in a few steamed littleneck clams might not be a bad idea… that is, unless your husband is allergic to shellfish.  And in case you find ourself with extra sauce, it makes a wonderful warm potato salad too.

Garlic Pepper Pasta with Fresh Herbs

Sauce adapted from Simply Ming by Ming Tsai and Arthur Boehm

Serves 6

1 pound linguine

3 tablespoons roughly chopped garlic

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon fish sauce

3 tablespoons softened butter

1 cup chopped fresh spinach

1/2 cup chopped fresh purple basil (or regular basil)

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.  Meanwhile, saute the garlic and scallion in oil over medium heat for two minutes.  Add the pepper, wine, stock, lemon juice, and fish sauce.  Simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Transfer the garlic mixture to a blender and whir until smooth.  Add the butter and blend well to combine completely.  Return the sauce to the pan over low heat.  Add the drained pasta, spinach, basil and parsley and toss all to combine well and wilt the greens and herbs. Sprinkle with cheese and serve hot.

garlic black pepper pasta

My Grandmother’s Chocolate Zucchini Loaf

zucchni bread

Nannie (my grandmother) made the most wonderful chocolate zucchini loaf.  Sort of a bread, sort of a cake, it’s the perfect afternoon snack. I love the unlikely combination of chocolate and zucchini, and the hint of cinnamon and cloves here makes this recipe so very comforting. And given that the season for overflowing kitchen gardens is almost upon us, I decided to share this decadent recipe with the Dedham Transcript for the June “Cozy, Delicious” article – which you can read here.

recipe card for chocolate zucchini breadAs a kid, I could devour slice after big, thick slice of this rich, fragrant quick bread.  But as an adult I have come to realize that one thin slice carries with it more than enough butter and sugar for an afternoon snack.  I’ve always thought that a bread chock full of bright and healthy summer squash should be healthy. And more than once I’ve convinced myself that since it contains veggies, I can have just one more morsel. But the reality is that Nannie’s recipe, despite it’s reliance on diced zucchini, shows her generation’s characteristic adoration of butter. 

So while I have a nostalgic connection to the original version, I couldn’t resist tinkering a bit with Nannie’s recipe.  And with some whole wheat flour and a bit of apple sauce, I managed to up the fiber content and reduce the fat and sugar.  And the best part is that the flavor is right on.  The texture may be ever so slightly less luxurious, but I actually have enjoyed this healthier chocolate zucchini bread all the more for its heartiness.  It makes a wonderful breakfast, and even works great as a muffin instead of a loaf (just be sure to reduce the baking time if you choose to make muffins – about 25-30 minutes will do).  

zucchini muffins

Healthier Chocolate Zucchini Loaf

Makes 2 loaves or 18 muffins

6 tablespoons butter, softened

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup apple sauce

1 egg

4 egg whites

½ cup fat-free buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups shredded zucchini (about 1 large)

3/4 cup chopped walnuts, divided (optional)

1/4 cup chopped dark chocolate or mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter, oil and sugar. Beat in the applesauce, egg, egg whites, buttermilk and vanilla. Sift together the flours, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt (Nannie was big on sifting – don’t skip this step). Add the flour mixture to the buttermilk mixture and beat just to combine. Fold in the zucchini and 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts, if using. Spread the batter into two greased loaf pans. Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with the remaining walnuts and the chocolate. Bake for 55-60 minutes. Cool completely before slicing and serving.

zucchini and bread

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (35)  
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Healthy Hash for Brunch

sausage has and fried egg

For the longest time I thought I didn’t like breakfast hash.  Greasy corned beef and squishy potatoes, what was to like?  And why waste the calories on a pile of mush when I could have a fluffy omelet or a big stack of blueberry pancakes?  But back when I was spending my days in the kitchen of a bed and breakfast, dozens of guests asked for corned beef hash.  With that much interest, I figured there had to be something to this ugly dish.  And after a few dozen tries, I figured out the trick: crispy potatoes.  For me, texture was key, and in addition to making the potatoes crisp, I opted to shred the corned beef by hand instead of pulverizing it in the food processor. Nicely browned potato bits, and rich, salty corned beef topped with perfect fried eggs made for a fantastic (and anything-but-mushy) breakfast.

chicken sausage with peppers and onionsOf course, crispy potatoes meant fried potatoes, and all of that corned beef brought with it loads of salt and fat. So while I occasionally served corned beef hash and eggs, I rarely ate it.  In fact, I haven’t had hash and eggs in years.  But last week I went out to brunch with my cousin Laurie and saw it on the menu.  Laurie and I shared a decadent crab cake, and a lovely order of potato pancakes with apples, but all week long I’ve been dreaming about that plate of hash and eggs. 

colored eggs rhode island red chickenMy usual hash included deep-fried potato bits and a big hunk of corned beef.  Starting the day with that much fat was not exactly appealing when I set out to make brunch this morning.  And I didn’t have a big old corned beef just hanging out in the fridge. So I decided to experiment.  And I love when an experiment works out!  Instead of frying the potatoes, I tossed them in a bit of oil and roasted them until brown and crisp.  And in place of the corned beef, I went for some red bell peppers and a link of Italian chicken sausage.  Topped off with an egg fried in just a bit of cooking spray, and it was not just lighter, but actually more flavorful than the typical corned beef version. Yum!

egg yolk and healthy breakfast hash

Italian Chicken Sausage Hash and Eggs

Serves 2

2 cups diced potatoes (skin on is fine)

2 teaspoons olive oil

cooking spray

1/4 cup diced onion

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

salt

1/4  teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 link (2-3 ounces) Italian chicken sausage, uncooked

2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Toss the potatoes with the oil and spread on a rimmed baking sheet greased prepared with cooking spray.  Roast until browned, about 20 minutes, turning once.  Meanwhile, saute the onion and pepper in cooking spray.  Add salt and herbs and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Squeeze the sausage from the casing into the pan, and break up with a spoon.  Cook until the sausage is browned. 

Coat a nonstick pan with cooking spray and heat over medium heat.  Crack two eggs into the pan and fry to desired doneness. Remove the potatoes from the oven and sprinkle with salt.  Toss the potatoes with the sausage mixture. Mound the hash on two plates and top each with a fried egg.

italian chicken sausage breakfast hash

Published in: on June 6, 2010 at 11:45 am  Comments (33)  
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