Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Winter Squash Soup

I know there are a plethora of things one can do with squash. It adds a layer of interest to a potato gratin, can be made into a sweet cheesecake or custard, and is a great filling for ravioli. Depending on the variety of squash, the sweetness, moisture/texture and flavour all suit different uses. I generally find that acorn and butternut are best for eating when whole pieces are desired but I don't have to be too fussy as any will suffice for soup. Care needs to be taken however, to reduce the moisture in squash for pasta filling (it sticks and spatters if the heat is too high). Pick a drier tending squash variety if you can. For me, they work better (I like to pipe my ravioli filling).

This gorgeous blue grey gem was destined for the oven and then, the soup pot.

Simply roasted, had I more than just enough for soup, it might have got eaten straight from the oven. Along with red onions to toss into a warm salad, it would be quite lovely. Versatile squash releases wonderful flavours when allowed to caramelise and these are complemented by any array of herbs and even a little sweet heat, if you're that way inclined (caramelisation can and will balance a little chipotle pepper quite nicely).

For soup, I like to roast a few cloves of garlic and season the squash with the ubiquitous salt and pepper. A little maple syrup helps things along if you've got some on hand. Just be sure to add this toward the end of the roasting so that things don't burn before the squash is softened and the natural sugars have been coaxed out.

All soups need a flavour base and sweating down any or all of a mix of onions, celery, carrot, leeks, and the heartier herbs or spices is how I start nearly ever soup I make. I like the flavour of rosemary in more substantial soups so in goes a few soft tips along with bacon, celery, leek, onion and garlic.

This mixture, even with a liberal amount of olive oil, will start to brown a little and form flavoursome bits on the bottom of the pan. Deglazing with various liquids: stock, wine, and beer is something I love experimenting with. Since the meal was to be served with beer (St. Bruno - a local interpretation of a flemish brown sur lie) and since I was sampling it while cooking.. I used a bit of that for deglazing. It added a fantastic savoury note even with all the other roasted flavours going on.

The other place where brown bits are crucial to include are from the squash roasting tray. A bit of stock (or more beer) helps to free these tasty morsels as well. As soon as the squash is out of the oven and before the pan has time to cool (possibly cementing your flavour to the pan..) I give it a good splash of liquid and scraping down with a wooden spoon.

With a softened flavour base and the squash, complete with roasted bits, all that is left to do is to purée the soup with enough stock (chicken or vegetable) to taste. Season well, perhaps a quick grate of fresh nutmeg if you like, add a few drops of olive oil, and top with a wonderful bit of melted cheese on toast. I like nutty gruyére on a whole wheat baguette.

Another easy as dinner and great to make ahead because, like most soups, it tastes better the next day.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Broccoli soup

The garden is full of broccoli. It seems to be flourishing with cooler weather and this makes me feel like something a little more warming than the broccoli dishes of summer.

So, when I was thinking about what to do with this latest harvest, a creamy broccoli soup was definitely in order. It gets a nice thick texture from the russet potatoes and blended broccoli stalks. The option to add waxy potatoes (that maintain their shape in liquid) along with the broccoli florets later in the cooking process, makes for an even heartier, chunky and creamy combination.

For 4 servings:

Olive oil
1 large white onion - diced medium fine
1 large leek - cleaned of dirt and sliced
2-3 cloves garlic - smashed (roasted garlic is also nice)
1 medium green capsicum - diced
4 celery stalks - roughly chopped
4 large potatoes - a mix of waxy and mealy potatoes if available, diced
white wine
1 kg fresh broccoli - stalks trimmed, sliced and florettes separate
1500mL stock (beef, chicken or vegetable)
2 good handfuls grated cheese - gruyére, cheddar..
250ml full cream milk
1 Tablespoon flour
more olive oil

Heat a heavy bottomed casserole and, in a liberal amount of olive oil, sauté the onion, leek, garlic, capsicum, celery, the trimmed broccoli stems and half the potatoes (the mealy ones) with gentle seasoning (s&p). You don't have to be terribly particular about the slicing and dicing as everything will get blended in the end but do try to keep it relatively uncomplicated, complicating matters only enough to allow for even cooking times.

Keep this mixture moving as the potatoes might stick as they begin to break down. When everything is soft and fragrant, add a splash of wine to remove any possible stuck bits, scrape them up and add approximately half the stock.

A stick blender is useful here to purée the broccoli stems and other vegetables right in the pot or the mixture can be processed in a blender. If using a blender (or either for that matter) be careful as this is quite warm, hold the blender cover with a teatowel to avoid getting spattered in soup, hot or otherwise.

When at your desired consistency, return the soup to the casserole. Now is also a good time to add a wee bundle of your favourite herbs. I opt for a simple sprig of fresh thyme and a bay leaf that can be removed before the serving. Add remaining stock, remaining potatoes, bring to the boil, then lower to a simmer. Depending on the size of the broccoli (I keep everything bite-sized) , I add the florets when the potatoes are nearly cooked but they could be added together. When all vegetables are cooked to your liking, remove from heat (remove herbs, if using) and stir in the pre-mixed cheese, milk and flour. Check seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Ladle into bowls and apply a drizzle of your best olive oil. I used La Selvotta Olio Extravergine Monovarietale Nebbio on this occasion. The I-77 Monovarietale is also excellent. If you've got a local oil, all the better to accompany your local produce.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

in the woods...

Foraging for mushrooms is a favourite pastime of my father-in-law and I am more than happy to 'tag' along. Among younger family members, being asked to go along is like being invited to high tea with the Queen. Even on those occasions, where it can get a bit chaotic, it is a relaxing and still fulfilling wander even if the mushrooms elude our knives and baskets.

Where do mushrooms hide?

Well, this wee puffball and friends like to grow in the vicinity of these moss covered trees. There were several good sized ones in the area and, unfortunately, a few that were a little past their prime. That's ok, there are still a few trips left in the season and hopefully there will be more treasures waiting for us amidst the fallen leaves of the damp cool forest floor.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Tomato consommé and tequila

If you've been watching Jamie at Home, be it for inspiration for your garden's bounty or your next market visit, you know that he's finally getting to relax a bit. With his budding green thumb, he's been paying homage to all the usual suspects: tomatoes, courgettes, lettuce, onions, beans, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and a Jamie favourite, chilles.

In the tomato episode, Jamie made a beautful chilled consommé. Fresh basil, vinegar, vodka, horseradish, and garlic added to well seasoned tomatoes blended and filtered through muslin to a serene paleness. Coloured with a slice of beetroot, it was pretty too. I look forward to trying this soon but, my Mexican flavour tendencies (and a good bit of ready to consume cilantro) made for an easy adaptation.

Basically, it's a jazzed up version of pico di gallo. To a base of dark heirloom tomatoes, I added onion, cilantro, a little finely diced chilli, lime juice, s&p, a smashed clove of garlic, and, instead of vodka, a shot of nice tequila. I let the mixture set for the tomatoes to release all their juices and for the flavours to mingle. Then, no egg white fining required, a quick whiz with a stick blender and into a cloth to drain.. this zesty scented mixture was getting my appetite going already.

Although not that glorious beetroot borrowed pink, it wasn't a completely unappetising colour. I'll definitely try the beetroot trick at some point but for now, a few wee floating cilantro flowers lend their delicate beauty.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Profumo di basilico

The scent of basil reminds me of a great many things. It's heady aroma is a comfort whether it is wafting out of a slow simmering sauce, released from the torn leaves in salads and small stems tucked into jars for the stewed tomatoes, or in this classic, pesto.

Now I won't get political here, it isn't my place. This isn't a southern dish nor is this version autentico by a long shot. If you are a devout purist when it comes to your basil sauce, don your green cape and have a look here.
Nevertheless, I've got basil aplenty and the means to make a fragrant coating for some hearty Rustichella d'Abruzzo linguine. By 'means', I'm referring to a mortar and pestle.

In these days of flash kitchen gadgetry, I love the fact that I can still use this age old technique to pound, grind and pulverise away the days frustrations and get something tasty as a result. I also prefer this method because, even though it is a bit violent, it seems a more gentler process somehow. Using a mortar and pestle (the latter, preferably wooden) doesn't over work, or worse, liquefy the pesto. Again, perhaps not authentic, sometimes a bit of texture isn't a bad thing.

Before the frost claims the last basil of summer, I'm going to make hay (well, pesto) while the sun shines. Or at least as long as there are still tender leaves remaining from the second planting of basil (most of it ended up in sauce). I'll also be bringing in a pot for the winter as it isn't a favourite dried or from the freezer and although I'm not an advocate (I have frozen pesto, omitting the garlic only to add it fresh at the time of preparation for serving), I wouldn't freeze it but for short periods of time. This sauce is simply at it's peak when the ingredients are fresh.

I make small batches because that is what fits in the mortar. About 2 good handfuls of basil, using the smallish leaves.  All the leaves require at this point is a gentle rinse and to be left drying on a tea towel.

Pesto is also about garlic, but not too much, so a medium clove goes in the mortar first along with a pinch of sea salt (remember we'll be adding some lovely cheese in awhile so go easy). A couple of turns with the pestle and the garlic is a wet paste in no time. The basil goes in next and is worked until it is almost creamy in consistency. Then the pine nuts. Lightly toasted in a 180C oven and cooled first, you can crush them slightly (but make sure none are left whole) or grind them as fine as you like.  Again, I prefer a little texture rather than a pinenut paste. For a measure, I scoop some out of the bulk container by hand. What fits in my gargantuan mitt might be a bit more than yours, I'll guestimate about 50 grams.

The final ingredients, in your mortar (if it fits) or in a bowl, cheese (already finely grated), a nice olive oil (about 60mL of your best) and a little freshly squeezed lemon juice can be incorporated with some gentle stirring. This passive treatment prevents it from being overheated in a blender and from the basil becoming a puréed soup. The beauty is that it can be made coarse or creamy to anyone's preference.

A quick word about the cheese. I grind all Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino as I need them. It is better this way. I'll spare you my tirade about the benefits of fresh ground cheese (as opposed to the nastiness of pre-packaged, industrial ready-ground sawdust reeking of baby vomit), however, this is no place to use inferior cheese. Get an authentic Parmigiano and a good Pecorino, preferably Sardo (I love this pungent, tangy cheese and the bite it provides) but Pecorino Romano (although quite similar, I find it to be less complex) will do as well. I use 4 tablespoons or so, about a 50% mix of each which is easily adjusted to taste. Use more Parmigiano if you find the pecorino too salty.

I've picked a sturdy long pasta but something with a few grooves to pick up this wonderfully flavoured mixture would be ideal.  Trofie is traditional, but ridged penne, rigatoni, gemelli or other curly pasta will work. This makes a generous amount to dress a 500 gram package of dried pasta. Simply toss pesto with hot pasta, adjust the texture with a little starchy cooking water if needed and serve.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

le pesche

With anniversaries come parties, and with parties, pastries. While the ubiquitous amaretti make an appearance, a 50th wedding anniversary is the time for the less common (and the more time consuming treats) to front up for the occasion.

Cannoli, torrone and le pesche (peaches) are the coveted items on the sweet table, with peaches being a personal favourite. Not necessarily for the eating part, they are divine, don't get me wrong.. it is the making that is a process to behold.

The external shell of the pastry is a rich brioche-style bun that has to be hollowed out, dipped in a liqueured syrup and a little fine sugar before filling with a rich pastry custard. The halves of the peach are then matched up and the custard holds them together. After filling, a decorative piped peach blossom is added atop the finished pastry.

Getting together to make these, stir the torrone (for what seems like eternity), and fill the cannoli, is part of every major celebration. I am always amazed at what can get done in a day as our assembly line makes fairly quick work of it. Like doing the tomatoes, cleaning rapini, drying peppers and picking through the dried beans, I am always sorry it's over as much I am relieved to hang up the apron when the work is done. Unlike these other events, a 50th comes but once and I hope the others continue for many years to come.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Cinquanti anni fa..

Today is the anniversary of a wedding that took place in San Giorgio Morgeto, Calabria, 50 years ago.

It wasn't a wedding of today's proportions, rather a country wedding of the day, done simply (which was the same as properly). About 2 weeks prior, the Groom-to-be and the Father of the Bride went door to door, the groom was presented, stated his intentions and guests were invited personally.

On the day (10 am), the entire family and wedding party, groom included, walked from the Bride's home to the church. With people joining the procession as it passed their house.

I would like to know what they were thinking in these pictures and if they had any inkling of where life would take them. A nephew of the groom in attendance that day said he can recall nothing but the cookies (various amaretti, biscotti and pastries), picked up from the bakery that morning.

While I am learning to fathom what it might feel like to be 50 years old.. I've got a few years to go but it is not unimaginable, I am still incredulous at this couple who have been together 50 years as husband and wife.

Buon Cinquantesimo Anniversario! Tanti auguri!

Foto: Giacomo Zurzolo, S. Giorgio Morgeto (RC) 1957