For Only a Soupçon of Effort

As I write this, it is currently 30° here in Rockville, Maryland. We had our first snow of the season today, just a scattering that fluttered down, most melting upon hitting the ground, but some managing to stick and cling to the naked tree branches in my yard. When I took my dog out for a walk before lunch it was bitterly cold, even wearing a coat, scarf, and gloves. After lunch, my daughter and I bundled up and headed out to attend the matinee performance of a play being performed by a local community theatre organization. By the time the play was over and we walked out to the car, the snow was gone and the temperatures had risen, but it was still a damp, miserable night out.

While it isn’t the kind of winters common in Minnesota or Colorado or Alaska or even Pittsburgh, when our version of winter settles upon us and confirms that it is here to stay a while, the first thing I think about is soup. 1255267055-soup_quoteIt’s no wonder, since I have great soup genes coming from both parts of my unique heritage. The Cajuns are known all over the world for their gumbo, but I also grew up with oyster stew, shrimp and corn soup, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, red bean soup, and many other hot, steaming bowlfuls of yumminess. My mother didn’t learn much cooking from her Scottish parents but she made a delicious beef vegetable soup, along with all the other Cajun recipes.

My own soup making began with the homemade chicken noodle soup I learned to make from my daughters’ day care provider in the early 1990s. It is still a family favorite today. However, my break-through in soup making came in 2002 when my family moved overseas for two years. While living outside of Brussels, Belgium, we only had two English-speaking television channels so our TV watching was greatly limited.

soup-quoteEvery afternoon, however, while waiting for my daughters to get off of the school bus, on BBC Two was a cooking game show hosted at the time by British chef Ainsley Harriott. Two celebrity chefs were each given a budget bag of ingredients chosen by audience members and from the contents, along with access to a well-stocked pantry of staples, the chefs had to prepare several dishes. Almost daily, without fail, one or both of the chefs would start with a soup. It is from watching Ready Steady Cook every day that I learned the basics of soup making. With just a few ingredients and thirty minutes, you can make a healthy and delicious pot of soup to stave off the winter humdrums and warm up your family.

To make a good pot of soup, it is important to build layers of flavors, one step at a time. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add your protein. This can be a few links of sausages, a few boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, some thinly sliced flank steak or cubes of stew meat. Season the protein with salt and pepper and toss until the pieces are evenly browned on all sides. Remove the meat and drain off any fat that remains in the pot. This is your first layer of flavor.

Layer two is the aromatics. Peel and thinly slice an onion. It doesn’t matter whether it is a red, white, or yellow onion. It can also be a well-washed and thinly sliced leek or a few diced shallots. Add a bit more oil to the same pot used to cook your protein and sauté your onion until it softens. Season the pot with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you like. I always add garlic powder (sorry, Julia Child), crushed red pepper flakes (just a pinch because my family has sensitive palates), and Herbes de Provence. This is your second layer of flavor.

When the onion is softened, add in other vegetables such as sliced celery, carrots, frozen peas, fresh or frozen green beans, red or green bell peppers, diced tomatoes, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley. To add richness, you can add a few tablespoons of tomato paste but be sure you sauté the tomato paste for several minutes to tamper the acidic punch it will bring to the pot.

Now it is time for adding the liquid, the ingredient that turns it into a soup. If you have homemade stock, you are in the bonus land. But, you can use chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or broth from a can or carton, or you can use bouillon cubes and boiling water to create your own. Be sure to taste your store-bought stock or broth though so you can adjust your seasonings accordingly. Some are very salty and will necessitate you reducing the amount of salt you use when seasoning the protein and vegetables for your soup. You can use plain water, however, your finished product will have less flavor, which can be adjusted by adding other seasonings.

At this point, for a heartier soup, you can add a starch such as a handful of small pasta or uncooked rice; a can of beans, drained and rinsed; a handful of frozen or canned corn kernels; or a few potatoes, that have been washed, peeled, and cubed. Return your protein to the pot, give it a good stir, cover the pot and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. In that short period of time, the vegetables will soften and all of the flavors will meld together into a delicious, belly-warming one pot meal.

Before serving, taste and adjust your seasonings. You can add a dash of cream or milk if you want a creamier soup. You can remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and puree them in the blender or food processor before returning them to the pot. You can thicken it with a bit of cornstarch mixed with cold water and added slowly to the pot. Or, you can serve it as is, with a green salad and some good, crusty bread and butter.

307268037-soups-quotes-1If you were in search of a soup recipe and stumbled upon this essay, you may be disappointed. However, if you haven’t ever made soup before and you don’t want to be dependent upon a recipe to throw together a pot of soup with what you have on hand, then I hope this helps. If you have a specific soup you would like to make and need some ideas, reach out to me via the comment section below. I’d be glad to write up a more formal recipe and send it your way. In the words of one of my favorite chefs, Jacques Pepin, “Happy Cooking!”

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Comfort Food, or a Meal for Comfort?

GRITS socksI was born and raised in southeast Louisiana. I didn’t go far for college, only 100 miles, and after graduation I stayed in my college town until I moved to the Washington, DC, area in early 1988. Thus, for over thirty years, I ate, drank, and lived the life of a true member of “GRITS”, a “girl raised in the south”. (I didn’t come up with that clever acronym; it was on a pair of tennis socks I bought in a gift shop in the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, while on a business trip.)

I noticed the difference right away, virtually the first week after moving into my high-rise apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Each morning I would take the elevator downstairs to walk to work. Most mornings I would arrive at the elevator at the same time as another young woman, about my age, and as we left the apartment building she was always headed in the same direction as me. The first few days I smiled at her and waited awkwardly in silence to reach the lobby. After about a week, when we got in the elevator I introduced myself and commented that it looked like we were walking to work in the same direction. We made small talk until we reached the lobby and then she said, “Have a good day” and sped off ahead of me. I never saw her again, and I lived there for two and a half years!  Obviously she didn’t want to chat with me in the elevator each morning or walk with me into downtown Bethesda, so she altered her morning schedule to avoid me. In the inimitable words of Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”.

I experienced this same distant behavior frequently in my early years living in the DC area. Some people speculate that it is because of the transient nature of the area, with people coming to DC to work on Capitol Hill, with the military, or at NIH. Even if they stay in the area long-term, living in the immediate suburbs is expensive and stressful, so most people move farther out where they can afford to buy a house and start a family. Once my husband and I had a family of our own and our girls were in school, we found friends amongst the parents of their friends as well as from people we saw at Mass every Sunday. Little by little we made ourselves at home here, but still something was lacking.

Food is the main tool I have used to bridge the gap between my southern upbringing and my life as a transplanted “Yankee”. (I know that there are those of you who will say that Marylanders are not Yankees but one of my father’s first comments after being told we were expecting his first grandchild was, “Damn, a Yankee grandchild!”) At my first job in Bethesda, I became the go-to person for desserts. I would surreptitiously find out the favorite cake or pie of my co-workers and bring it in on their birthdays. Eventually, I had people making special requests: red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot cake with coconut-pecan frosting, Mississippi mud cake, Italian cream cake, Louisiana bread pudding with hard sauce, German chocolate cake, peanut butter fudge, chocolate pecan pie, mini-cheesecakes, triple fudge brownies—these are all tried and true favorites in my trusty three-ring binder of dessert recipes.

In the south we have a tradition of bringing a hot meal to a family whenever they are in need: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, recovering from surgery, moving into a new home, etc. Now, I know that this tradition is not exclusive to the south, and I myself have been the recipient of such kindness over the years here in Maryland. When we purchased our first home and moved in, the lady who was our home day care provider, almost like family to us, prepared a casserole of chicken cordon bleu for our first night in our new house. Yes, we ate it sitting on the floor gathered around the coffee table in the den, off of paper plates, surrounded by boxes and moving crates, but it was absolutely delicious and so appreciated. When I had the shingles in 2006, a good friend showed up at my door with a tray of Italian doughnuts: fried dough, piping hot and covered in sugar. If you haven’t experienced shingles (lucky you) you can’t even imagine how wonderful and comforting that tray of fried dough was—pure heaven. A year later, when my mom passed away, another dear friend dropped off a large container of her famous chicken salad with grapes, a platter of croissants, and a dessert. We had several great meals from that delivery, and while not strictly speaking a hot meal, one of the blessings of having a croissant stuffed with yummy chicken salad for dinner is that there are virtually no dishes to wash after.

For several years I made a large pan of lasagna to bring to friends. It seemed like the perfect meal: lasagna, garlic bread, and a salad. Now, I married an Italian and I love to eat at Italian restaurants, but otherwise I have no direct ties to that cuisine. I’m not even sure I like my lasagna so why was I cooking it for friends? Then, I switched to roasted Cornish hens on a bed of wild rice, a lovely meal, but surprisingly even people who love chicken are not a fan of the miniature gamy birds. Finally, it hit me—why not cook from my own roots? A pan of chicken jambalaya, a salad, and a baguette make a wonderful dinner, easy to transport and easy to reheat by the serving in the microwave. turkey and sausage gumboI recently took dinner to a friend who was recovering from surgery, offering a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, potato salad, rice for the gumbo, and triple fudge brownies for her kids.

fire king tulip mixing bowl

Fire King Tulip Mixing Bowl (set of three), vintage (mid-1950’s). Source for photograph: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/32228953556014519/

Although I am completely happy with my current gumbo recipe, my potato salad is still an issue. I mean, technically it’s fine—homemade and well-prepared—but, I am trying to recreate the potato salad of my childhood, so fine won’t cut it. My mom was the go-to person for potato salad, not only in my family, but in my entire hometown. She made it for family get-togethers at my aunt’s house. She was always assigned it when the sodality ladies in my hometown church parish prepared food for a funeral reception. My dad would peel the potatoes for her, a whole 10-pound bag at a time, using a paring knife, never a vegetable peeler. He had learned this in the Army he said, and there was very little potato on those long spirals of peel that would collect on the spread-out newspaper as he worked. French chefs are judged on the amount of potato left on the peel, and he would have passed that course with flying colors. After the potatoes were cubed and boiled, she would mix up her dressing (mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, some of the juice from the pickle relish jar, and vinegar) and pile it up in a white mixing bowl with tulips painted on the sides. I loved that bowl and always thought I would end up with it, but sadly Katrina got it instead.

I’ve tried many different recipes over the years. I’ve gone with every potato that can be purchased in a normal grocery store: russet potatoes, red potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, etc. For a while, I only made German potato salad with the theory that if I couldn’t get mine to taste like my mom’s, then I would go completely out of the box and make something so totally different that any comparison would be moot. My husband wasn’t a fan, and he is particularly sensitive to potato salad where the potatoes aren’t cooked just right. So, I just gave up. I stopped making potato salad altogether. I never order it when eating out because it often has chopped boiled eggs in it, and that is the one thing (other than lychee nuts) that I absolutely can’t eat. I’m not allergic or anything, I just don’t like eggs, unless of course they are beaten up into a cake or pie or pudding or something else yummy.

After my father’s funeral in May, we all went back to my brother Tommy’s house for a family meal. My brother John Roy brought potato salad. I had asked specifically that he not put boiled eggs in it, and he obliged even though he prefers it that way. I took one bite and I was instantly transported to my mother’s table. There it was right in front of me. I asked him for the recipe and he just laughed (this is common in Louisiana).” There is no recipe,” he said, “it’s just potato salad.”  But, as always, I persisted, and so he gave me the basics and I vowed to try again.

When I made the gumbo dinner for my friend in June, I tied on my favorite apron and tried again with a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes, per my brother’s instructions. Yes, it was better—closer to my mom’s but nowhere near as good as my brother’s. I had even texted him several times while shopping for the ingredients to be sure I had it in my mind correctly, but still no dice. So, I’m not there yet. The elusive potato salad quest continues.

Bringing food to a good friend in need is an old southern tradition that I dearly love, both on the giving and receiving ends. “Can I bring you dinner?” just rolls out of my mouth the minute a friend shares difficult news with me. What better way to bring comfort to a friend other than a delivery of comforting food, regardless of the cuisine, recipe, or technical quality of the dish? Having a hot meal or a sandwich stuffed with a delicious homemade chicken salad in your own home prepared with care by someone who loves you is more than just a relief after a difficult day; it’s a reminder that home follows us, wherever we go, whatever we go through. And, as Dorothy says at the end of that timeless classic, “There’s no place like home.”

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I’ve told you about mine; now it’s your turn! What’s your go-to comfort food or favorite meal to share? Comment below!

Here’s a few recipes to get you started in this ageless southern tradition!

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Ingredients for gumbo

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 bunch of green onions, green and white parts, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Meat (dark and white) from one whole chicken (see below)
  • 1 pound cooked andouille or smoked sausage, sliced into 1-inch disks
  • 3 quarts chicken stock or water (see below)
  • 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • garlic powder to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2-3 tsp of Lea & Perrin
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked long-grain rice, warmed
  • 1 bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf if possible), finely chopped
  • Filé powder (optional)

Ingredients for homemade chicken stock:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 large leek
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 large yellow onion

Directions for homemade chicken stock and chicken meat for gumbo:

  • Unwrap and rinse chicken, removing inner bag of chicken parts. Place whole chicken in large stock pot, including the neck from the inner bag. (Discard the rest of the chicken parts unless you want to fry up the chicken liver as a cook’s treat!)
  • In the stock pot with the chicken add
    • One large yellow onion, quartered (no need to peel)
    • Two large carrots (cleaned and scraped)
    • One large leek (sliced lengthwise almost to the root and rinsed carefully between the layers to get rid of dirt)
    • Two stalks of celery, rinsed clean, cut into halves
    • One head of garlic (no need to peel).
    • Fill pot with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for one hour or until chicken is completely cooked through to 165 degrees.
    • Remove chicken carefully and set aside to cool. Using a spider or strainer, remove the vegetables and set aside. These veggies will not be used in the gumbo but are still very tasty! (The head of garlic is delicious squeezed out and eaten on bread or mixed into mashed potatoes!)
    • Strain chicken stock and reserve for use in the gumbo. Freeze any unused stock for future use.
    • Strip all meat from chicken and tear or cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
    • In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat the andouille or sausage to remove excess fat. Drain on paper towels, and set aside with chicken meat.

Directions for gumbo:

  • While you are cooking the chicken and making the chicken stock, make a roux.
    • In a large saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, whisk together the oil and flour and cook, stirring constantly with whisk or wooden spoon, to make as dark a roux as you can without burning it. (The heat can be higher, but you must stir more assiduously to avoid burning it.) Be careful! A hot roux is as hot as caramel!
  • When the roux is medium-dark, reduce the heat to low and add the onion, bell pepper, green onions, garlic, and celery. Cook them in the roux until the onions are clear and have begun to brown a little, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  • Slowly add the chicken stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming from the roux. Add the chicken meat and sliced sausage to the pot, along with the salt, pepper, hot pepper sauce, bay leaves, Lea & Perrin sauce, and thyme.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce to low. Cook uncovered on low for about an hour. While it’s simmering, occasionally skim fat and foamy material from the surface.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer the gumbo, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 hours (it improves with time).
  • Remove and discard the bay leaves.
  • Check seasonings and adjust to taste.
  • Just before serving, add chopped parsley. Stir well and serve.
  • To serve, put about 1/2 cup of fluffy cooked rice in individual bowls and top with about 1 cup of the gumbo. Sprinkle with filé powder, if desired.

Gumbo recipe adapted from Washington Post food section, November 20, 2005, and from Blanchard/Songy family recipes.

Triple Fudge Brownies

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg. (4 oz.) BAKER’S Unsweetened Chocolate
  • ¾ cup unsalted sweet butter (1 and ½ sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (see note)
  • 1 tub of dark chocolate frosting

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large plastic or glass bowl, microwave chocolate squares and butter on high for 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.
  • Stir in the sugar, the pinch of kosher salt, and espresso powder. Mix well.
  • Add eggs and vanilla; mix well.
  • Add flour and chocolate chips; stir until well blended.
  • Spread into foil-lined 13x9x2 inch pan that has been greased (spray foil with Pam).
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs. Do not over-bake. Allow to partially cool.
  • Open tub of frosting and remove the foil inner lid. Be sure to get all of the foil off of the rim. Microwave for 10 seconds and stir. Microwave again for 10 seconds and stir again. You are looking for a pouring consistency.
  • Pour frosting on top of warm brownies and set aside. Cool completely in pan or refrigerate for frosting to “set”.
  • Lift out of pan onto cutting board. Cut into 24 squares (6×4 rows). Cover tightly and store at room temperature.

Ghirardelli'sNote: if you want the chocolate chips to melt into the brownie rather than stay whole, do not use Nestle’s Toll House brand as they are specially formulated to retain their shape even when baked. To have the chips melt more into the brownie, use Ghirardelli’s chips.

Brownie recipe adapted from the side of the Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate box: Baker’s One Bowl Brownies