Easter Lamb Stew

Easter provided the perfect opportunity to work lamb stew into my year of soups. Hsing-ay does not like lamb so I only make it once or twice a year. But I adore lamb and especially like tender braised lamb that falls apart with a fork. I’m not entirely sure how lamb makes sense for Easter. Easter celebrates the risen Christ who is known as “the lamb of God”. So, we eat dead lamb meat for the party. Hugh? But this tradition offers the perfect excuse for me to cook lamb.

I recently snuck lamb chops into my own birthday meal. We collected 16 bones with scraps of fat and meat. I added lamb neck bones procured from a local organic farmer and roasted it all for 45 minutes. There was a turkey back near the expiration date in the fridge so that went in as well. I hoped that turkey would complement the stock and not obliterate the delicate flavor of lamb. I  made a rich and fatty stock in the pressure cooker several days in advance of my stew. The stock was good but I am curious how it would have turned out if I had double the amount of lamb bones and removed the turkey back.

My Dad was one of the dinner guests for our Easter feast. As he gets older he regresses more and more into the “meat and potatoes” American cliche. Oh well – I’ll work with that. I planned to spruce up the stew with a rich liquid base and roasted root vegetables (instead of cooking them in the stew). I began with generous amounts of butter to sauté onions, garlic, and carrots. Tomato paste, cinnamon, cayenne, and a few tablespoons of flour were added after the onions were caramelized. The stock had to be spooned in because it had solidified into jelly (an excellent sign!). I also added a cup of red wine and simmered this mix for 30 minutes and used a stick blender to get things as smooth and thick as possible. The flavor was rich and complex.

I purchased a sizable roast of lamb at Costco and cut it into large chunks which were heavily browned in the oven. The meat and liquid cooked on high pressure for 45-minutes followed by 20-minutes of natural depressurizing. The pressure cooker is my new favorite method for braising meat. Everything becomes uniformly tender, nothing burns to the bottom of the pot, and supposedly the flavors and moisture remain locked in the pot. This method is consistent and a great braise can be accomplished in one hour

I roasted large pieces of carrots and potatoes and caramelized pearl onions in butter. The flavor and color of roasted vegetables made a nice change from my typical stews. I put these pieces on top of the stew so their roasted char was on display. Chopped parsley offered a nice green and the final dishes looked magazine ready. The rich liquid was the star of the dish and everything came out as desired.

Carrot, ginger, and cashews

The family came over for Easter dinner and I needed a vegetarian option. If tradition dictates lamb for easter then carrots seemed the right choice for the non-meat eaters (get it? – carrots and bunnies). Carrot soup is simple and foolproof. It only requires carrots to taste vibrant with a bright orange color. Peel and chop a few carrots, cover in water, boil for 20-minutes, and blend. America’s Test Kitchen recommends not using any broth as it is not needed and competes with the carrots. With a stick blender everything stays in one pot.

Simple carrot soup is fine but I wanted to create something fancier. My sister could not partake in the rich lamb stew and carrot soup would be her meal. Ginger and cashews are my favorite complements to carrots for a pureed soup. I began sautéing chopped shallots in butter. I added a bit of garlic and a healthy dose of chopped ginger. After the shallots began to caramelize I poured in the water, chopped carrots, cashews, and a touch of cinnamon. I let it simmer for 20-25 minutes and went in with the stick blender. My instinct kept me from adding too much water. I worried about a runny or less hearty soup. I found it simply too thick to work the stick blender effectively. I was conservative and had to keep adding water to make a consistency runnier than baby food. I could have added a good bit more water if the soup were designed as a starter.

I made the soup a day in advance hoping that the flavors would meld. I also had little time to cook on Easter. I served the soup with a garnish of chopped parsley for color. The soup tasted good but the ginger pushed the boundaries of balance and I wish I had a bit more cashews. While finishing the soup I looked longingly at my fine mesh chinois hanging on the wall. Carrots, ginger, and chopped cashews all have a good amount of roughage. Carrot soup is not far from baby food and I thought a fine straining would create a luxuriously smooth finish.

The last time I broke out my chinois was for asparagus soup. The straining process was difficult, stressful, and nearly derailed me from the rest of the meal. So I wimped out and opted to serve the carrot soup without straining. I envy the skill and time afforded professional restaurant cooks. Every demonstration of a chinois on television moves with blazing speed and unfazed muscular chefs. The liquid is poured into the strainer and extensive pumping motion forces the liquid through the mesh. A fine mesh requires a longer straining process. The asparagus soup took four times longer than expected and wore out my arms. I don’t think home cooks can develop quick skills without thousands of hours in the kitchen. Musicians share the same level of craft and expert proficiency that can only be earned through time and repetition. I appreciate the refined touch of a concert pianist. For Hsing-ay, my wife, this training began at age three and she easily logged six practice hours a day by high school. Who knows when she passed the 10,000 hour milestone but it was likely long before her years at Juilliard. Her touch and accuracy are superb.

I wish I had one or two extra lifetimes to develop a professional level skill for my hobbies. Refinement and consistency often allude my cooking efforts. Sometimes things turn out great and sometimes not. Even dishes I have made 20 or more times might be off. Perhaps it takes 200 attempts before excellent results are guaranteed. I can rest at peace knowing that no one I cook for is paying me for food!

Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice

Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice soup inspired my passion for soup. I’ve made big pots of this soup a few dozen times and I don’t remember if I ever started with a recipe or just a picture. This is comfort food and my daughter’s favorite soup. It works for a crowd and I always use my 20-quart heavy bottom soup pot. It freezes well and leftovers taste even better.

Lundberg’s wild rice blend makes a great side dish. The mix of grains has a crunchy and soft texture and the color is more interesting than white or brown rice. As rice goes, it is expensive, but worth it. It also works great in a soup. The crunchier or sturdier grains retain their bite so that the rice does not dissolve into an asian porridge. The starch from the grains also naturally thickens the soup and enhances with earthy flavors.

My approach follows the traditional steps for a vegetable soup. A mirepoix of sweet onions, carrots, and celery are sautéed in butter and olive oil. Butter brings out the sweetness of the onions and olive oil helps prevent burning. Right before adding the liquid I throw in a handful of chopped garlic and stir just enough to open the flavors but not burn. Then I add a generous portion of homemade chicken stock and bring it all to a boil. I stir in the rice and let it simmer an hour which is just enough to cook the rice. So far this is all traditional. I also include minced ginger and hot Italian sausage (browned as crumbles). These items give a hint of spice which I always find adds depth of flavor. The soup is still far from spicy but these additions are good.

The chicken is cooked the night before. I buy chicken breasts on the bone and bake them till just cooked through. I shred the white meat after it has cooled and take all of the bones for the stock. Once the rice has cooked for an hour, I pour in my bowl of shredded chicken and heat throughout. Lastly I include either whole milk or heavy cream. Heavy whipping cream is more luxurious and ratchets up the level of “comfort” in the soup. Whole milk works fine and I use it when I have milk in the fridge already opened. Everything gets returned to an almost boil and the soup is done. I typically don’t include a roux for thickening. The rice and heartiness of the soup result in my desired texture. Many recipes do include flour for thickening and that is a good option. A good roux creates a smooth texture.

This was cooked for a recent gathering of faculty friends. They brought their families and we had 30 people in the house. Soup is my favorite way to feed a big group. I put out a few loaves of good bread, cheese, crackers, beer, wine, and apple juice. 2-3 big pots of soup are placed on the counter and everyone helps themselves over the course of 2-3 hours. It’s nice to have a few options to try.  Soups can be made ahead and generally won’t ruin if simmered for extra time.

One of my regrets in life is that we don’t socialize more with faculty friends. Life is perpetually full and it is common that a whole semester drifts by without attending one nice off campus gathering of faculty. This is a shame. One of the greatest benefits of working in academia is that you are surrounded by brilliant and interesting people. Everyone has eclectic interests ready for hours of wonderful conversation. And faculty love to sit around and talk to each other. Include food and alcohol and you’ve got a great party!

Peanut Butter Stew

My approach to making peanut butter stew reflects how I most love to cook. I begin with a bit of reading/research to understand a variety of approaches. I chew on the possibilities for a couple of days – often with the same intensity I use to chew on the form of a composition. I decide on several variations and don’t use a recipe. It is satisfying to have a good understanding of the structure of the recipe and then make it my own.

I’ve never visited Africa and have only eaten at Etheopian restaurants. I don’t know anything about African cuisine and have never had an African peanut (or peanut butter) stew. But I love peanuts when they are well balanced with complimentary flavors. The idea of a thick peanut butter stew is appealing and is high on the list of soups I brainstormed for this yearlong experiment.

I watched a handful of YouTube videos featuring African women walking through the steps of a traditional stew. Many of the recipes came from Ghana. The common traits include a foundation of onion, tomatoes, and tomatoes paste that is simmered and then blended smooth. The peanut butter might be folded in directly or sautéed and then mixed into the broth. Potatoes, carrots, and chicken pieces (with bone) were all common elements. Additions including bay leaves, garlic, and ginger were less common.

I wanted to create a hearty stew and planned to make a thick sauce and then include chickpeas, peanuts, and stewed beef. Inspired by Thai satay peanut sauce, I also planned to include ginger, soy sauce, and honey. I started with a foundation of sautéed onions, garlic, ginger, and a big red jalapeño (I wanted a hint of heat). A generous portion of tomato paste attempted to make up for the tomatoes I forgot to buy at the store. All of the recipes I watched on YouTube used water instead of broth. I chose a homemade chicken stock because the gelatinous nature of the stock would increase the thickness of the soup and add flavor. After a 20-minute simmer I used a stick blender to create a smooth sauce. Then I stirred in generous portions of peanut butter. One moment I was convinced I had gone to far and fished out a big dollop. Peanut butter is great but I worried too much would overpower the other flavors.

I browned pot roast beef in the oven and finished in the pressure cooker (my new favorite way to cook stewed beef). It was perfectly tender but still held together in large pieces. I stir fried a couple handfuls of peanuts in my wok. Several years ago we installed a fancy cooktop with 23,000 BTU open burners which are about as hot as you can get without voiding your insurance plan in a domestic kitchen. Our friend Randy cut a special grate so a traditional round wok could sit low and close to the flame. The thin carbon steal should have direct contact with high flame to create intense heat. I guesstimate my wok can reach temperatures of 600F. Restaurant woks can get much hotter but my set up is more than enough to enjoy traditional wok cooking. Peanuts work well in the wok. They quickly get a bit of char and the flavor blossoms. Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade peanut butter involves sautéing the peanuts in a wok before blending. The chickpeas, peanuts, and beef were added at the end with just enough time to heat through. I chopped up green onions to use as a garnish and to add color contrast in an otherwise one color dish.

A friend came over for lunch and brought local bread. The stew served as a great stand alone meal. It was hearty, balanced, and rich. The beef and peanut butter were a great combination – though not as good as peanut butter and chocolate. Vegetables would have made a more complete meal but I liked the simplicity of peanuts and beef. The chickpeas were unnecessary.

Spanish Garlic Soup

Last night we served Spanish garlic soup. Nearly every European country has a version of peasant garlic soup descending from centuries of home cooking. Garlic is cheap, abundant, and offers strong flavor. Most recipes include stale bread which thickens the soup and provides texture. A variety of spices and herbs can be included and raw eggs or aioli create a smooth finish. This is a soup that can help clean out leftovers.

Garlic is a special ingredient. It can cure a cold or turn away vampires. Its raw bite will kill an entire meal but the sweet smell of roasting is better than fresh baked cookies. It is a chore to peal, chop, or grate; and it can burn easily. I add chopped garlic to almost every soup that begins with sautéing onions – always right before I pour in the broth to prevent burning.

Soup Blog-0011How you cook the garlic is the biggest variation in garlic soup. I tried one recipe two years ago that involved slowly sautéing the garlic, simmering, blending, and thickening with dry roasted bread. The soup turned too thick and could have substituted for cement. The overwhelming flavor could only be tolerated in small quantities as food force-fed a sick person. A second attempt with proper portions (less garlic and bread) would likely succeed but I was turned off and never again attempted this approach.

Most recipes either call for sautéing the garlic before simmering in broth, or roasting. America’s Test Kitchen suggested a slow simmer in an abundance of olive oil and a cup of broth. This is done after smashing the heads with a cleaver while trapped in a ziplock bag. The smashing helps release the flavor and 30-minutes of simmering completes the task. The paper skins stay in the mash since the whole broth will be strained before serving. In another pot I simmered more homemade chicken broth, Spanish paprika, fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves. The recipe also calls for two parmesan cheese rinds. Mario Batali, the recently disgraced but brilliant Italian chef, teaches to save all parmesan cheese rinds for future soups. Freeze them, like bones, and throw them in a simmering pot. The cheese is so hardened by the time it works down to a rind that it remains in tact despite a long simmer. The added flavor is a good addition to many soups.

My chosen recipe then calls for combining the mash and broth, straining, and adding fresh grated parmesan, salt and pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste. You then temper a couple of beaten eggs with some of the soup and whisk the mixture into the entire broth. This creates a luxuriously smooth texture and adds a bit of body. Do not bring the soup back to a boil which might cause the eggs to curdle. This is not garlic and egg drop soup! I added a generous dollop of homemade roasted garlic aioli.

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I skipped the traditional crusty bread because I failed to plan ahead with appropriately stale bread and I wanted the soup to be a lite starter. I served braised beef cooked in chicken stock, red wine, and Spanish paprika. The remaining aioli accompanied a platter of roasted asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and pearl onions. Braised beef with roasted vegetables is a good rustic style Sunday night family meal.

The soup was fine but lacked the WOW factor of great garlic flavor. I should have roasted the garlic and used six heads instead of four. I also wonder about using a stick blender with the roasted garlic before straining. That process might achieve the rich and sweet roasted flavor I craved. The soup also had a strong kick of heat that turned Kaela off after one bite. It worked for me but I need discipline to add spice slowly with regular tasting.

We will travel throughout Spain in May and I am eager to try a few Spanish garlic soups while there. My efforts yesterday are akin to reading the Shakespeare play before seeing it live. With a proper education in Spain, I hope that future efforts will produce better results and this soup will become a confident regular in my repertoire.

Chicken Potpie

Homemade chicken pot pie should be spectacular. A creamy stew of chicken and perfectly cooked vegetables is surrounded by a beautiful pie crust. The interior is bubbling hot when served, and steam pours out with the first bite. The liquid is a thick combination of homemade stock and a heavy roux (butter and flour). Peas, potatoes, and carrots are traditional vegetables and can be combined with a variety of fresh herbs. This is serious comfort food.

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In modern America the potpie comes mostly from the freezer. The inclusion of vegetables makes it “fit” as a stand alone meal in many kitchens and I remember eating it twice a month growing up. My mother had a small arsenal of frozen meals that rotated on days when putting something in the oven for an hour was all the time she had for dinner. The meal was meekly tolerated by us children and I routinely picked out the vegetables first, then ate the chicken, and finished with the crust (eating bad to good). It is hard to imagine the energy I put into strange childhood eating rituals. Then I witness my daughter inventing new procedures that she carries out with the same focused intensity. So this is either a common practice or something in my DNA.

There is no single history of the dough covered meat pie. Early examples are found in ancient Greece and more modern manifestations show up in Elizabethan England. Many one-pot meals evolved in various cultures as they solved common problems. This is a meal that stretches a bit of meat, accommodates a variety of vegetables, and is filling. The interior is a hearty chicken stew and so I included this dish in my year of soups (and stews).

I suspect that many restaurants serve “artisanal” potpies. There is a long running trend to take blasé home cooked food or even peasant food and serve it in a glorified state. I have never ordered a potpie in a restaurant and my inclusion of this dish in my blog is an attempt to rectify my experience of the frozen potpie – with it’s mushy vegetables, bland sauce, and dull color.

When tackling a new recipe I read through a variety of cookbooks and internet recipes to get a broad survey of approaches. Cooks Illustrated articulates the common challenges – keep the stew thick, the colors bright, the vegetables perfectly cooked, and the pie crust a beautiful golden brown. They recommend poaching the chicken in a homemade stock with cooking wine to maintain flavor and keep the chicken from drying out. Ina Garten uses a roux with large amounts of butter and flour, and a bit of heavy cream – this insures a thick sauce. Other recipes prescribe introducing the vegetables at different times so they are just right when served. I combined the best ideas and added my own touches. I fried up some bacon pieces and then used the bacon grease to heavily caramelize pearl onions. I also included fresh parsley which keeps a bright green and does not wilt in stews like cilantro. I also added a touch of cayenne, some cardamom, and cinnamon. I used a homemade turkey stock because I had one handy.

In my many years of pursuing home cooking I have never taken an interest in baking. The exactness, and focus on sweet dishes, does not match my temperament. I love homemade pizza dough and dream of someday picking up artisanal bread. But a piecrust far exceeds my skills or interest. My big “cheat” in my proudly homemade potpie is store bought puff pastry. I served  the stew in individual soup bowls and covered the top with an egg washed puff pastry. This is foolproof, reduces the total time the dish sits in the oven (which prevents the vegetables from overcooking), and looks amazing when finished. The puff of the pastry also makes up for the lack of dough under the dish. And that first dough-piercing bite is even more dramatic. I recommend this potpie hack. It removes the most complicated and stressful aspects of the dish. Puff pastry can be bought for $4.50 for two sheets in the frozen food section (near the frozen pies). Remember to thaw the dough for an hour before you need to use it.

The dish worked well. The stew tasted delicious and matched expectations. I kept things simple and served with it a few cheeses and a dessert of strawberries and gelato drizzled with a balsamic reduction. A glamorous salad with pear or apple would be a great prelude.

Mushroom, Barley, and Beef

The first few times I ever combined beef and barley in a soup I instinctively knew that it also needed mushrooms. Maybe they are linked through their earthiness or some preordained symbiotic cooking relationship. I don’t have a good or witty explanation – it is just a great combination. Add some beef and a good stock and you have one of the greatest winter comfort-food soups of western cookery. So the mushrooms called out to me, I shockingly went to the mushroom shelf in the store and bought half a pound. I cleaned, chopped, and sautéed in butter because thats what I had seen on Iron Chef. It worked and I’ve never looked back.

Remy, the unrealistically gifted chef rat from Ratatouille, has an early revelation about special flavor combinations that make good recipes exquisite. A few distinct flavors meld together in just the right fashion and the collective sum reaches new heights. This reminds me of how I describe good counterpoint when teaching – two or more independent lines that are each satisfying all on their own are combined in a special way to create something far better than their individual parts. Wow. Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, (Kellogg?)! And so it happened with mushrooms. Mushrooms sautéed in butter then added to a soup or stew give wonderful undercurrents of earthy goodness. It is an understated flavor that supports the bolder ingredients while creating depth. It also melds well with the addition of a variety of spices like cinnamon, cumin, and cloves. The texture, color, and shape of sautéed mushrooms also melt into the background of many soups and stews.

My daughter has now cultivated her own special disdain for mushrooms. My dad hates mushrooms, I hated mushrooms for decades, and now my daughter hates mushrooms. The sins of the father will be visited upon the child… Now I have an ironical problem – I want to cook with mushrooms in my soups and stews and my daughter will protest with as much strength as I ever mustered. I get sneaky. I chop them really fine, sauté them extra long so they shrink, and I let them disappear into my big soup pot. But I don’t like to lie to or even intentionally deceive my kid. I tell her there might be mushrooms in the soup, I can’t remember, but she surely won’t notice them. She buys into my weak explanation and now I can put mushrooms in soup whenever I like!

I recently made mushroom, barley, and beef soup for my in laws with a rich and concentrated beef bone broth combined with turkey broth. My father in law believes in the healing power of homemade bone broths and I wanted to impress him with something special. My broth was thick, gelatinous, and had a good bit of emulsified fat (I like to leave the fat in my stocks). I then sautéed the mushrooms and onions in good French butter for a long stretch and carefully deglazed the frying pan to capture every bit of flavor. I used a high end pot roast for the beef and cooked it in the pressure cooker after serious browning in the oven. It was a simple soup from beginning to end but I went the extra distance with each step to develop as much flavor as possible. I kept the beef in large chunks so I could put a couple pieces right in the middle of the bowl, and garnished with parsley. Writing this blog may lead to bias, but I think it was the best mushroom, barley, and beef soup I have ever made. In the words of Emeril Lagasse – BAM!