Parsnip and Apple Soup

Apple and Parsnip SoupIt’s been a very cold winter so far in Chicago this year.

Today’s high temperature is only 2 F and earlier this month we tied the all-time Chicago low record temperature of -16 F. That’s really cold for around here, although it sounds like it’s bad everywhere this winter (even Australia, where they are having a deadly heat wave!).

It hasn’t been so bad for me because I work (mostly) out of the house. So far, it’s only cost me one car battery.

Max the Dog

Poor Maxie hates winter in Chicago

But I really feel bad for our dogs, especially Max. Normally, Bud, Max and I walk at least a mile each day. We all look forward to it and It burns a surprising amount of energy in them.

When it gets colder than 20 F or so, it’s simply too cold for the dogs, especially for Max, who has a thinner coat and is shivering by the time we make it to the corner. And when they don’t get to walk and are stuck in the house all day, they get really charged up. Bud has been particularly naughty lately.

One benefit of this cold weather is that it makes hot soup such an appealing option for dinner. This winter, Sandi and I have been featuring soup/salad/homemade bread one night per week since before Thanksgiving.

I’ve really enjoyed making traditional favorites such as split pea and mushroom barley (we’ve been eating vegetarian since last April, so this is our replacement for the old standby beef barley), and experimenting with new soups, such as this wonderful Apple and Parsnip Soup that I found on the truly amazing VegHotPot blog.

What I love about this soup is it’s unusually complex flavor. It’s similar to a vichyssoise but with an apple and a couple of parsnips added. Yet because parsnips have such an interesting flavor — both sweet and slightly tangy, even smoky — that this soup really makes you sit up and take notice.

Parsnips are one of the most interesting — and often overlooked — of the winter root vegetables. They actually were used as a sweetener in Europe before sugar cane and sugar beets were introduced there. And they were the primary starchy vegetable in the US until they were overshadowed by potatoes after the Irish emigration in the 19th Century. Roasted parsnips continue to be a traditional holiday dish in many families.

This recipe is vegan, although I added a swirl of sour cream for the photo. Stay warm, everybody. Spring is coming, I promise!

Parsnip and Apple Soup

1 Large Onion

1 Large Leek

2 Garlic Cloves

1 tsp Ground Cumin

1 tsp Dried Thyme

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

2 Parsnips, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice

1 Potato, peeled and cut into medium dice

1 Large Apple, any sweet kind, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice

4-1/2 cups Water

4 tsp Organic Vegetable Base

Better Than Bouillon

I’ve been using this organic vegetable base.

Olive Oil for sauteing

1. It’s important to prepare the all the fruit and vegetables before you start cooking because the high sugar content in the onion, parsnip, garlic and apple can cause them to cook quickly and the caramelization can cause the soup to darken.

2. Put a soup pot over a medium flame. When hot, add a drizzle of olive oil and let it heat up for minute then add the onion, leek,  garlic, cumin and thyme. Saute for around 4 to 5 minutes on a low/medium heat until they soften then season with salt and pepper. Add the parsnip and potato and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t brown.

3. Add the apple, water and vegetable base, bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer and cook over a low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Puree the soup using either an immersion blender or by blending batches in a blender until the soup is smooth.

Like most soups, this one will taste even better the second day, once the flavors have had a chance to get to spend some time together in the refrigerator.

You can garnish this soup with a crusty spicy crouton, a sprinkle of sliced chives or scallion, or a swirl of sour cream or creme fraiche from a squeeze bottle.

 

 

Meat Free Mondays – Two Vegan Soups

I’ve been running into veganism around every corner lately.

 

Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Corn chowder (left) and Vegan split pea (right)

Veganism is like vegetarianism except even more restrictive because not only can you not eat meat, but you can’t eat dairy products either. The benefits are  supposed to be include better health, including not only prevention of disease but the reversal of many serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

These benefits are explained in a documentary called “Forks Over Knives”, which was recommended by Somer, the excellent blogger who writes VedgedOut. She suffered from ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition that caused her considerable pain. The treatment resulted in substantial weight gain, severe acne and other health issues.

When she went on an entirely vegetable-based diet, however, not only did her symptoms go away, but her condition reversed itself. Now she’s a marathon runner and you can read her inspiring story here.

The film is available on Netflix and, while it’s not most professional-looking documentary I’ve ever seen, its message is powerful and effective. It documents a number of case studies in which people who faced serious, even fatal, health conditions literally had their lives saved by veganism.

Still, I struggle with the concept of being a vegan. I could probably live without meat if I had to — Sandi and I rarely eat anything other than chicken and ground turkey anyway — but it’s the dairy, especially cheese, that I would miss.

For example, I can’t imagine a life without pizza, which I could eat seven days per week (something I occasionally would do back when I was still single).

Still, the concept fascinates me, so much so that when we found ourselves Wicker Park — a hip, young neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side last week — we tried a vegan restaurant called Native Foods Cafe. It apparently is a small chain with a handful of stores in California, Chicago and a few other places.

I was not expecting the food to be as delicious as it was. The atmosphere was great, the people who worked there were gracious and seemed very happy, and the place was bustling.

When I returned home, I found a blog written by the amazing Becky at VegHotPot, who wrote a roundup of her best vegan recipes that she wrote about during vegan awareness month last month, all of which looked and sounded wonderful.

Then, a few days later, my older brother announced he was switching to a vegetable-based diet for health reasons. It’s like all the planets are aligning at the same time.

So while we’re not committing to 100% veganism, we’re going to try to incorporate more vegan dishes into our diet and see how it goes, starting with these two vegan soups.

Both were super easy to  make and very delicious, so much so that I didn’t even mind having soup for dinner two nights in a row.

So I’ve ordered a bunch of vegan ingredients that I couldn’t find at my local groceries from an online store and will be preparing a number of vegan dishes in the coming weeks, including a pizza made with vegan mozzarella “cheese”. Obviously, I will let you know how they turn out.

In the meantime, here are recipes for meat-free smoky split pea soup (which is adapted from one I found on Vedged Out’s blog) and a really great vegan corn chowder. Enjoy!

Smoky Vegan Split Pea Soup

1 Red Onion, small dice

4 Carrots, peeled and small dice

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 Russet Potato, peeled and medium dice

1 tsp Dried Thyme

1 tsp Dried Oregano

8 cups Vegetable Stock

1 TBS Liquid Smoke

1 lb Green Split Peas

2 Bay Leaves

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 tsp Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Dash Cayenne Pepper

1. Put a soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onion, potato and carrot and sautee until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 second.

2. Add the remaining ingrediets and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the peas absorb all of the liquid, about 40 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve.

The split peas continue to absorb moisture, making the soup even thicker the next day. If you prefer a smoother soup, you can use an immersion blender or let the soup cool and blend in a food processor or blender. This soup also can be made in a crock pot. Just let it cook on low until the moisture is absorbed, about 4 to 6 hours.

Incidentally, Liquid Smoke is an all-natural product that is 100% vegan.

Chunky Vegan Corn Chowder

2 TBS EVOO

1 Onion, diced

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

2 cups Vegetable Stock

6 Red Potatoes, diced

1 cup Baby Carrots, chopped

2 15.25-oz cans Whole Kernel Corn

1-1/2 cups Soy Milk

1 TBS Garlic Powder

2 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 cup Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup Soy Milk

1. Place soup pot over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots and potatoes and cook until onions translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add all remaining ingredients except 1/2 cup soy milk and flour. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour and the remaining soy milk. Increase heat so soup returns to a boil, then whisk flour mixture into the soup and cook until soup is thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for great vegan recipes. If you have any, can you please share them with me? I’ll do the same. Thanks!

Meat Free Mondays – Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

It’s that pumpkin time of year!

Every autumn, there’s a three or four week period where pumpkins are everywhere and in everything, from our spiced lattes to our breads and bagels.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

This year there must have been a bumper crop, because pumpkins are cheaper than I’ve ever seen them. Yesterday, I paid $2.98 for an enormous pumpkin the size of a basketball, which I quickly chopped in half, seeded and roasted off for its delicious and versatile meat.

In this vegetarian recipe, I used pumpkin as a thickening agent for a pretty traditional lentil soup. Lentils are are a type of bean — also known as a pulse – that are in the legume family.

Lentils are a staple of many vegetarian diets because vegetarians and vegans don’t eat animal protein, so they must supplement their diet with plenty of protein-rich lentils.

Lentils also are one of the oldest of all known foods, having been part of the human diet since at least the Neolithic periiod. They were one of the first foods that humans grew themselves, rather than gathered in the wild, with archeological evidence showing that they were eaten 9,500 to 13,000 years ago.

What I like about lentils are their versatility and their flavor. They make excellent cold salads, can be added to other dishes to contribute density, and can be mashed up, combined with other vegetables and be used as a veggie burger. They also can be served as a side dish, and, as seen here, they make delicious, hearty soups.

Lentils come in a variety of colors, including brown, red and green. Their flavor is sort of like a combination of kidney beans and peas. They have a meaty texture to them when cooked.

Unlike other dried beans, lentils don’t have to cook forever before they are done. Just simmer them in liquid for about 45 minutes and they are ready to eat. Dried lentils should be cooked in a 4:1 liquid ratio. So if you are cooking one cup of lentils, you should use 4 cups of water or other liquid.

Lentil and Pumpkin Soup

1  cup Dried Lentils

15.5 oz can Vegetable Stock

2 cups Water

1TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Carrots, peeled and chopped

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

1/2 tsp Smoked Paprika

10 oz can Diced Tomatoes

1 Bay Leaf

1-1/2 cups Cooked Pumpkin

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 oz Queso Fresco (for garnish)

1. Fill a soup pot with water and add lentils. Stir them around to clean them, discarding any beans that float to surface. Drain and set aside.

2.Place the pot over a medium fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrots. Stir and cook until softened, about two minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add lentils, paprika, vegetable stock, water and bay leaf. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook about 30 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, replace cover and cook until lentils are soft, about another 15 to 20 minutes. Add enough pumpkin to thicken the soup to desired consistency, season to taste with S&P and continue cooking just until pumpkin is heated through, about five minutes.

4. Remove bay leaf, ladle into bowls, garnish with queso fresco and serve.

I actually cooked my lentil and pumpkin soup in my new crock pot, combining all the ingredients — except the tomatoes and pumpkin — and cooking on low for 8 hours. I just threw the tomatoes for the last hour and thickened it with the pumpkin at the end. It turned out wonderful.

A programming note: For those who have been wondering why there have been long absences in this blog recently, there are two reasons: 1.) My freelance writing business has picked up substantially (yay!) and 2.) Sandi and I spent a long, relaxing weekend on Siesta Key, Florida, with my family earlier this month.

I’m  glad to be back in the saddle, however, and promise to try to be more consistent with my blog writing. Thanks for your patience.

 

Chicken and Biscuits

When I was growing up, there occasionally would appear in my family’s cupboard a product called Chicken in a Biscuit.

These were crackers that tasted like chicken. I think my dad liked them. Even as a very young child, I knew that something about this just wasn’t right. Crackers aren’t supposed to taste like meat!

Chicken in a Biscuit crackers frighten me in some primal way, even though I now know they simply have a little chicken base mixed into the cracker dough. Still, I do enjoy the flavors of chicken and biscuits. And with yet another hurricane heading for poor, embattled New Orleans, I felt it was a good time to make some comfort food.

I debated whether to make fresh biscuits for this dish, or simply used the kind that comes in a tube. I’m still a little cautious about my own biscuits, scones and other quick breads, seeing as how I thought they nearly killed me once.

In the end, I opted for the store-bought variety due to time constraints. I’m glad I did because these biscuits were more like puff pastry, with layer upon layer of butter dough.

This is a very simple and old-fashioned dish. The innovation I added was to cook the biscuits right on top of the chicken stew, sort of like a chicken pot pie. Given the biscuits’ puff pastry-like qualities, it essentially was chicken pot pie.

Only I forgot to add the frozen peas that I bought. Oh, well. Something to make it better next time.

Chicken and Biscuits

1/2 lb Cooked Chicken, pulled from bone and chopped (I used leftovers from BBQ Chicken I made the night before)

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 White Onion, medium dice

2 Carrots, peeled and medium dice

2 Celery Stalks, medium dice

14oz can Chicken Broth

4 TBS All-Purpose Flour

1 TBS Chicken Base

1 cup Frozen Peas, thawed (which I bought but forgot to add!)

1 tube Buttery Biscuits (makes 8 biscuits)

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1. Put an oven-safe pot over a medium heat. I used my Dutch Oven. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, celery and carrot. I threw in a diced green bell pepper from our garden because we are up to our ears in them, but they aren’t usually a part of this recipe. Stir around, cover and cook until onions are translucent, about five minutes. Stir in chicken, cover and cook another minute or two to heat the chicken through.

2. Add flour and chicken base to the chicken/vegetable mixture. Stir around until the flour begins to brown a little, about two minutes, then hit it with the chicken stock. Stir, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes, stirrring once or twice. The stock will thicken during this time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. Place uncooked biscuits directly on top of chicken mixture then put the entire pot, uncovered, in the oven and cook until biscuits are browned on top, about 25 minutes.

To serve, remove or two of the biscuits to get at the chicken stew, ladle some of the chicken mixture into a bowl and then cap with the biscuits.

This chicken and biscuits is so much better than a box of crackers!

Seafood Fridays – Crawfish Etouffee

Do you believe in love at first bite?

I can recall the exact moment when I fell in love with this dish. That’s because it was the same moment that I fell in love with the city and culture of New Orleans.

It was June, 1987. My girlfriend at the time and I had just made the long drive from Chicago to New Orleans for a week-long vacation. After getting settled in our hotel, we wandered the French Quarter for the first time.

I had never been to Europe (still haven’t, in fact), so the narrow, European-style streets filled with colorfully painted buildings with elaborate wrought-iron balconies billowing with the summer’s first flowers was like something out of a dream.

Hungry from our trip, we ended up at the Cafe Royale, where we were seated on the second-floor balcony overlooking the carnival-like atmosphere on Royale Street below us.

Even though I had never eaten crawfish before, I ordered the crawfish etouffee because it was the house specialty and because it just felt right. I was rewarded for my adventurousness with a bowl of one of the most amazing things I had ever eaten. Dark brown, slightly nutty and creamy, sweet deliciousness.

I distinctly remember taking my first bite of that wonderful stew, looking out over the Vieux Carre and thinking, “I love this. All of it.” It was one of those moments of perfect happiness that the late Spalding Gray used to talk about in his monologues.

This particular recipe doesn’t come close to approximating that first intoxicating bowl of crawfish etouffee. In fact, I substituted shrimp because the only crawfish I could find were whole, pre-cooked ones and that wouldn’t work. Chopped small, the shrimp were a good substitute and the flavor of this etouffee was close enough to transport me back to that moment in time.

This recipe also features another New Orleans tradition, Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, also known as simply “Tony’s”. In fact, I adapted this recipe from one on their website. I’ve mentioned Tony’s in the past because it is a good, versatile seasoning for everything from soups to meats to seafood or even barbeque.

Crawfish Etouffee

4 TBS Unsalted butter

1 lb Raw crawfish tails (or shrimp)

3 TBS Tony’s

1 White onion, medium dice

1/2 Green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

2 cloves Garlic, crushed

1 tsp Corn starch

1 cup Water

1 Green Onion, sliced

Brown rice, cooked

1. Melt butter in sauce pan. Meanwhile, toss the crawfish with the Tony’s then saute in the butter for 3 minutes. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In the same pot, add the onions, peppers and garlic and saute 10 minutes. Return the crawfish to the pot.

3. Dissolve the corn starch into the water then pour into the pot. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmmer, then cook gently for 20 minutes. Season with black pepper — you won’t need any more salt due to Tony’s being pretty salty — and serve over brown rice, garnished with scallions.

I served my etouffee with jalapeno cornbread, changing the recipe slightly by substituting whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour. It had very little impact on the flavor but added more nutritional value.

Has a dish you’ve eaten ever made you fall in love with a particular city? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

As the weather begins to get warmer, I begin a desperate effort to make just a few more crock pot recipes before it’s time to put it away for the season.

There’s really nothing preventing me from using the crock pot during the summer months, but it just doesn’t feel right. It would be like buying a snow shovel in July.

My crock pot is great for the winter, but it’s even better during these in between times, when the temperature is warming, yet still crisp enough to send a chill down your neck.

It’s precisely these kinds of days when a warm soup slowly stewing in the crock pot brings the most comfort. Mix up a batch of jalapeno cornbread just before dinner is served and you have the perfect dinner for a cool mid-Spring evening.

Like most crock pot recipes, this soup is extremely economical. Of course, beans and the produce cost next to nothing, but in this soup I used ham scraps leftover from a long ago meal that have been waiting patiently in the freezer for precisely this moment.

You also could use a leftover ham bone or a smoked ham hock. Or simply leave the ham out altogether for a delightful vegetarian dinner soup.

I used Cannellini beans because they are a little larger than Great Northerns and I think they give the soup a little more substance.

If you haven’t used it before, escarole is a type of rough lettuce, kind of like a mix between green leaf lettuce and kale. I don’t generally make a salad out of it on its own because it has a little too much texture, but it is perfect for fortifying other salad greens or throwing into a soup like this one.

Escarole adds an iron-rich flavor that is similar to spinach but not as strong.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 Medium white onion, diced

2 Carrots, peeled and diced

2 Celery stalks, leaves included, diced

8 oz Ham, small dice

2  cans Cannellini beans, drained

1/2 head Escarole lettuce, rough chop

16 oz Low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tsp Dried thyme

1 tsp Dried basil

1 clove Garlic, crushed

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrot and celery. This combination of vegetables is called a mirepoix (MEER-eh-pwah) and is the basis for many soup recipes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes, then add ham and saute another two minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute, then add to crock pot.

2. Add to crock pot the beans, thyme, basil and stock. Set dial to low and cook for about seven hours. During the final hour of cooking, stir in the escarole. Continue cooking on low for another hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

This very basic soup recipe can be transformed into any number of variations by adding or substituting different types of beans, proteins, seasonings and even greens.

You can even add pastas, such as elbow macaroni or orzo, and a little crushed tomato if you want to make a  more traditional Italian soup.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Roasted Vegetable Soup

Coming up with daily specials and fresh soups is one of the jobs restaurant chefs have to do every day.

Ideally, chefs will tour local produce markets, reach out to their meat vendors and fishmongers and try to find the products that are at their peak of freshness that particular day.

But on most days, busy chefs barely have time to tour the walk-in refrigerators and try to come up with something interesting that they can prepare with the products they already have on hand.

This roasted vegetable soup is a good fall-back recipe I make frequently because you can use pretty much any kind of root vegetable or squash and it will turn out pretty well.

In this dish, I used butternut squash and carrots, but you could easily substitute acorn or carnival squash for the butternut. And you can substitute parsnips, rutabaga or turnip for the carrots.

Or you could use any combination of these vegetables, just as long as they are thoroughly roasted.

Typically, people associate a roasted squash and root vegetable soup with winter because at that time of year, these are the best vegetables availalble, and because people perceive it is a denser, heavier soup.

But high quality carrots and squash are in the markets all year long and the soup they produce is not at all heavy, and in fact is surprisingly light, if prepared correctly.

The key is to include the right amount of vegetable stock — or whatever kind of liquid you are using — and not to load it up at the end with heavy cream or butter. In this recipe, I left out the traditional last step — adding the dairy product — because I wanted to keep it light due to the warmer weather.

But if you did want to give the soup it’s traditional silky feel, you could substitute fat free half-and-half for the heavy cream and the soup would be lush without being heavyl.

I paired it with some garlic breadsticks I made by modifying this amazing pizza dough recipe I’ve been making a lot lately. In the last step, instead of rolling the dough out into a pizza crust, separate it into eight peices and roll them out into thin logs, brush them with garlic butter and sprinkle with coarse salt before baking.

Roasted Vegetable Soup

1 Butternut squash, cut in half, seeds and fibers removed

4 or 5 Carrots, peeled and rough chop

1 White onion, julienned

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups Low-sodium vegetable stock

Sea Salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Spray baking sheet with pan spray. Spray both sides of squash with pan spray and lay face down on baking sheet. Toss carrots in a little oil and place on same baking sheet. Cook for 50 to 60 minutes or until squash is soft to the touch. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

2. Put soup pot over medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, cover and cook until onions are soft and starting to brown, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.  Remove squash from skins, then add squash, carrots and vegetable stock and bring to boil, then reduce to simmer and let cook about 20 minutes, just to get the flavors to mix together.

3. Transfer mixture to food processor (or blender) and puree until evenly mixed. Be careful with the hot liquid so you don’t burn yourself. Return to pot, simmer anohter five minutes or so, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

4. If you want, you can finish the soup by whisking in about 1/4 cup fat free half and half. In a restaurant environment, I would use heavy cream plus a generous pat of butter to make the soup extra silky.

What soups do you like to make when the weather gets warmer? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!