Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Hungry Reader's Peanut Soup

Lately, I've acquired a pretty full collection of books by John Thorne. The obsession started with Simple Cooking, which I thought was exquisitely written. I remember writing Thorne, and receiving a very kind note back from him. I picked up a few more of his books from Amazon, and while Simple Cooking remains my favourite, I've enjoyed picking through the others too.

The thing about Thorne that appeals to me (other than his lucid writing) is that he seems to cook the way I do. When he wants to make a recipe, he looks up every variation of that recipe he can find in his collection of cookbooks, and then he makes up his own version. It's the cooking of someone who loves to read and research, but who doesn't have the will or the discipline to follow directions.

This is a preface to my peanut soup, a recipe with quite a few inspirations, but no real source. I've been craving an African-style peanut soup for a few weeks now, and every now and then would take a book off my shelf and find yet another version of it. Most of the ones I know basically use leeks and some peanut butter at the end, but I wanted something more, something richer. I wanted this:

The technique for this is pretty simple, one I use for all pureed soups. I gently fried three chopped onions, an inch of ginger (peeled and chopped), and almost half a head of garlic (peeled and roughly chopped). Then I put in three celery stalks (my advice? use just two), a large sweet potato (cubed), and five or so carrots (scrubbed and chopped). Then, because I thought all that richness would need a bit of spicy counterpoint, I seeded and chopped two jalapenos and threw those in too.

To make it hearty, I poured in enough beef broth to cover the vegetables, a cup of tomato juice, and two tablespoons of peanut butter. After cooking the veggies to softness, I pureed the soup with an immersion blender, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and mixed in a can of coconut milk.

The result was rich and satisfying, with just enough of a hint of peanutiness. I do think I put in a bit too much celery, but the flavour blended in by the second day. The first day I served the soup with roasted pumpkin seeds and a bit of sliced scallion. When I served what was left as a New Year's Day breakfast (nobody present had energy for much else), I tossed some sunchoke slices in olive oil and sea salt and roasted them for 10 min at 400 degrees F. (I was inspired by the garnish for this walnut soup recipe), and added them to the other garnishes. As I expected, the nuttiness of the roasted sunchokes was just as good on peanut soup as it was on walnut soup.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dry-fruit cookies (Fursecuri - variation)

In the last post I wrote about roasting squash while I made raisin cookies. But although I had most of the ingredients in the house, I didn't have everything, and I was working from a different recipe than the one I posted here. The recipe I used, also from my grandmother Nadia, is more precise but makes about double the amount, that is, a truly impressive quantity of cookies. Make this full quantity only if you intend to give away boxes of the things!

The base recipe goes like this:

Cream 375 g of butter with 375 g of powdered sugar. Mix in six eggs, one by one, then 375 g of flour one tablespoon at a time. Add the grated rind of one orange, a pinch of salt, and finally, 375 g of raisins that have been soaked in rum.

On a cookie sheet (not buttered), place about half a teaspoon of dough for each cookie at 10 cm intervals, and cook at 350 degrees F for 7-8 minutes.

Pretty simple! Except I didn't really have enough raisins, so I substituted a mix of raisins, dried cranberries, blueberries, and cherries. I also didn't have any rum, so I soaked the dried fruits in a mix of madeira and tuica (Romanian plum brandy) for a good long while. And just to make sure the flavour would be rich, I doubled the amount of orange peel.

The result? Massive quantities of cookies, for one. They were also a bit darker, because of the madeira, but still very flavourful. In fact, having different kinds of dried fruit added a little variety to the taste. I encourage you to play with this recipe. Use whatever dried fruit you have, the liquor you soak them in, maybe even vary the kind of citrus peel you use!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Environmentalist's Squash Soup

Last week, in a hazy, happy holiday mood, I decided to make fursecuri cu stafide. I made a haphazard but tasty variation of my previous recipe (will post soon), and I worked with a different set of measurements -- one that yielded a much larger amount. The only problem was that while mixing the batter doesn't take very long at all, baking all of these cookies, even with four cookie sheets at my disposal, took the better part of two days.

It also occurred to me that quite a bit of oven energy was going to waste for these hours and hours of cookie baking. So I thought I could use the energy for two purposes, and roast some squash alongside the cookie baking. I cut two smallish butternut squashes in half, touched them up with a bit of olive oil, put them in a pan and loosely covered them with tinfoil. The oven was at 375 degrees F.

I probably left those squashes in there for at least an hour and a half, if not more. What came out was -- candy. I love to make squash soup, but I usually spice it heavily and just peel and boil the squash raw. Roasting, especially for a long time and at low heat, transformed butternut squash into a sweet bomb of squashy flavour. When I tasted this, I decided not to mess with it too much.

This was the easiest soup in the world to make: I took a good gop of butter, sauteed a couple of finely chopped onions in it over low heat, slowly, until they became sweet too. I added a few sliced garlic cloves (I would usually use a ton), and let them become translucent too. For the spices, I just put in a bit of ground ginger (probably around a teaspoon) and a dash of Ras el Hanout (mine is made according to the recipe in Ana Sortun's Spice), and fried them up with the onions. As the onions were becoming soft, I scraped off every last bit of squash from the skin, and threw it in there, finally adding just enough vegetable stock to cover. After twenty minutes of cooking, I pureed the soup with my immersion blender, probably one of the best kitchen purchases I've ever made. (I have a cheap little Proctor Silex that works like a charm for soups.) I seasoned with salt and white pepper, and added about half a cup of cream for the richness. It was Christmas, after all.

This was probably one of the simplest and most mouth-filling soups I've made. After all, I was also baking cookies all the while I made the soup! I'm a sucker for pureed soups made with Indian or Moroccan seasonings, but this one had such an intensity of flavour that it needed nothing but butter and cream to highlight it. And while I wouldn't usually spend two hours roasting squash just for a soup, in this case, the recipe was piggybacking onto my cookies. As you can imagine, it smelled good in my house that day.