Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Hearty Tomato Bean Soup With Sausage

Reader, I made the most delicious soup last week. Now, I’ve been making soup quite often for the past couple of months. I once weakly complained about having to eat soup every day when I was a kid, but I really didn’t mind that at all. I love soup and would happily eat it daily for lunch and dinner, as long as I could have some nice bread and cheese on the side.

The soups I’ve been cooking lately are semi-vegetarian, pureed concoctions. These soups are new to me--creamy vegetable soups aren’t the soups I grew up with. No, soup at home was always a chunky and meaty affair. Now that I’m living on my own, soup-making more often involves chicken stock and a blender rather than marrow bones and beef chuck. But I am not giving up on the soups of my childhood. After a round of creamy tomato and butternut squash soups, I’m back to my all-time favorite: tomato bean soup, full of rich, satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs goodness. Don’t bother serving a crisp, green salad on the side. Offer some hearty, buttered bread instead, and watch your guests slurp this stuff until they are pink-faced and sated.

I wrote up a recipe last year, but I always toy around with the basic formula. This time I added some smoked kielbasa, with excellent results.

Method: Soak a cup of navy beans in 3-4 cups of water overnight. Place the beans in a pot with 4-5 cups of water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the beans are soft—60 to 90 minutes. Reserve a cup or two of the water.

Slice about ½ pound of sausage or kielbasa into rounds, heat some olive oil in a Dutch oven and saute the sausage until it is golden on both sides. I used Polish kielbasa from the Russian store, but you can use whatever sausage you like. Take the sausage out of the pot and set aside.

When the beans are close to done, heat up a little more olive oil in the Dutch oven and saute a large onion and two medium carrots until the onion is soft and golden. Add three minced garlic cloves and saute for a couple more minutes. Add the beans, two medium peeled, diced potatoes, a bay leaf and five cups of chicken stock.

Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. When the potatoes are nearly tender, add a 14-oz can of good, whole tomatoes. Break them up into chunks with a spoon. Stir in a little brown sugar (this depends on acidity of the tomatoes and personal taste—I like about a tablespoon of sugar); a tablespoon of sweet paprika; a pinch of hot red pepper flakes or a dried, hot chili pepper; and salt to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the sausage. Sprinkle with fresh parsley. If the soup is too thick the next day, add more stock or some bean cooking water.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Kasha

 Like many Russian kids, I grew up eating kasha. In the U.S., the word kasha refers to buckwheat, while in Russia, kasha means porridge, served hot, usually for breakfast. There's semolina kasha (cream of wheat), oatmeal kasha, millet kasha, rice kasha, and--why not?--buckwheat kasha, among others. In my family kasha was always made with milk, and eaten with a pat of butter and a handful of raisins.

I bet that Russian kids hate kasha as much as American children hate broccoli or brussels sprouts. Kasha is one of those foods that parents force on kids. I grew up hearing that you must eat a lot of kasha to be healthy and strong. Even now, when I have trouble opening a jar or something, my mom shakes her head and says that I haven't eaten enough kasha. Watery, bland kasha served in Soviet cafeterias also has something to do with the revulsion some people feel toward porridge.

Me, I've always liked kasha, especially oatmeal, cream of wheat and rice. Oatmeal and cream of wheat are self-explanatory; rice kasha is perhaps the Russian equivalent of rice pudding. Milk and rice are cooked together until the rice absorbs most of the milk; this kasha is eaten with a little butter and sugar. Undoubtedly I like kasha because my mom and grandmother made it well, with milk. Occasionally my mom will ask me, who is nearly American, why Americans do this or that. One of her more frequent questions is why do Americans make their hot cereal with water instead of milk? I don't know, Americans, why do you? Hot cereal made with milk is creamy comfort food; made with water, it's dour diet food. I confess that American rice pudding eaten cold is, too, a mystery. Why eat cold milky rice when it tastes so much better hot?

I don't eat kasha very often anymore--I hardly need to grow big and strong at this point. But every once in a while I get a craving for it. Here's a recipe for oatmeal, made mama's way.

Gerkylesovaia Kasha (Oatmeal)

Bring a cup of milk to a slow boil using medium-low heat. Add a pinch of salt and sugar, then slowly add 1/2 cup of oatmeal (rolled oats; not instant). Reduce the heat to low, and let the oatmeal simmer 10-15 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes. If the oatmeal is too thick, add a splash of milk. Eat with a little butter and a handful of dried fruit of your choice--I like cranberries and cherries.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Grated Pie

Grated pie, probably an invention of my late grandmother, is pie made of pastry dough that is frozen and then grated, instead of defrosted and rolled out. I hesitate to compare this dough to pâte brisée, since the recipe is completely unorthodox, but pastry crust is what it tastes like when baked. This is an admittedly odd recipe and technique, but it’s a longtime family favorite because it's easy and convenient. You can make the crust and freeze it, and when you have a hankering for some pie all you need is a pie pan, filling and a grater. I have yet to make this dough myself, but this recipe has always worked for my mom. I used one of her ready-made batches to bake a very good apple-pumpkin pie a couple of weeks ago.

For the crust: Beat together 3 eggs and 1 cup of sugar. Melt 2 sticks of butter; cool, add to eggs and sugar. Add 2 tablespoons of sour cream; mix well. Sift 2 cups of flour and 1/2 tsp. baking soda. Add the flour to the wet ingredients gradually, and knead until you form dough. Add more flour if the dough is too wet--about 1/2 cup should do it. Divide the dough into two rounds, wrap, and freeze.

For the filling: I sautéed four sliced, peeled and cored apples in some butter. When the apples were soft, I added a splash of Calvados, some sugar--1/3 cup, maybe?--a little nutmeg, ground cloves, cinnamon and ground ginger, and about a cup of canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling).

For the pie: You’ll need ½ crust recipe (one frozen round of dough). Butter a 9-inch pie pan. Grate the frozen dough until it covers the bottom of pan. Use your fingers to press on the dough so that it covers the entire pan and its sides. I used about ¾ of the dough round for this. Add the filling, spreading it evenly over the dough. Grate the remaining dough over the top. Use your fingers or a knife to fold the dough on the sides onto the filling. Bake at 350 for 40-50 minutes, until the crust on top is nicely golden. Let cool.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Middle Eastern Lentil Soup

I don't usually get excited about vegetarian lunch buffets, but I love the buffet at local Middle Eastern restaurant Casablanca. I've been to Casablanca for dinner, too, and it was fine, but the menu wasn't nearly as interesting as the lunch selections. Such as, for example, chunks of buttery braised cabbage with cumin and lemon juice. And veggie stew made with eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. and spicy yellow lentil soup.

Whenever I have lunch at Casablanca I vow to recreate all these dishes at home. (Much thanks to anyone who can point me to a good Middle Eastern cookbook or braised cabbage recipe.) Last week I made what I think was a surprisingly good imitation of Casablanca's lentil soup. I did use split peas and chicken stock instead of yellow lentils and vegetarian-friendly water/veggie stock, but the soup hardly suffered for it.

Soak 1 cup of split peas overnight. In a stock or soup pot, bring 4 cups of chicken stock to a simmer, then add the peas and cook until they're soft--about 30 minutes. Don't worry if the peas get mushy; you'll be pureeing the soup later on.

When the peas are close to being done, dice a large onion and a couple of carrots and sauté in olive oil until the onions are soft and golden--about 10 to 15 minutes. Add a heaping teaspoon of coriander and a heaping teaspoon of cumin to the vegetables, cook for another minute. Add the caramelized vegetables to the soup pot, along with a bay leaf, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt and cayenne to taste--I used 1/8-1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, which was plenty for me. Take the soup off the heat, remove the bay leaf and puree the soup in a blender or food processor in batches. Add more stock or a little water if it's too thick. Serve with wedges of lemon and squeeze lemon juice into the soup before eating. A dollop of plain yogurt wouldn’t be bad either.
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