Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Soup Kitchen

Every fall, my husband and I open what we have come to call “The Soup Kitchen.” It started out as just making a few extra quarts, okay nine or so, of favorite soups and taking them to friends who were sick, or busy, or just in need of some comfort food.

This past fall, the Soup Kitchen adopted a very busy friend who tends to burn the candle at both ends, and another friend who, at 60, is going through an unpleasant divorce and a battle with prostate cancer. He is winning and currently cancer-free.

The success of the Soup Kitchen has been overwhelming. Over time, we even started getting requests for certain soups that were favorites. I also had to impose the Tupperware law; you must return your empty, clean containers or “No soup for you!”

With the arrival of the holidays, we decided the best way to celebrate would be to open up the Soup Kitchen to all. Last count, we have around 20 people showing up at some time Christmas Eve to join us for a warm bowl of holiday cheer.

The following is the most requested Soup Kitchen recipe. One I have guarded carefully, okay, well, I couldn’t give it out as I lost the recipe I created and have had to recreate it. It feeds a lot of people. Don’t worry, it freezes well, and it’s so good, you’ll want to have a lot of it. This is the first recipe I thought of when I started Taute Cuisine and logging recipes to hand down to my daughter.

Wedding Soup
Looking for this recipe? It will be part of an upcoming book with Ali at Cleaner Plate Club.

Enjoy. Wishing you all the comfort and joy of the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Martha-free Christmas

Warning, the following will expose the truth about me. I am just into food and not actually a Domestic Goddess. It's all about the food, the hell with matching placemats.

I have to admit that I am suffering Christmas guilt. This comes from years of being raised by a woman who makes Martha Stewart look laid back. Each of the first day-after-Thanksgivings meant a complete makeover of the entire house right down to color-coordinated hand towels, soap and candles in each bathroom. The packages were matching with perfect hand-made bows, the Christmas tree had its own theme, the stockings weren’t just hung by the chimney with care, they were most likely dry-cleaned and pressed as well. In short, The Perfect Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, the formal dinner was served using the 150-year-old china and eggshell-thin crystal. After serving, waiting-on and clearing the table for our guests (family), it was time to handwash heirlooms for a couple hours. I'd had more relaxing evenings working as a banquet server at country club.

This is not a tradition that has slowed with time, either. Only now, as my sister and I have homes and families of our own, it has just spread. Last weekend, we decorated cookies at my sister’s house. While my child was pouring all the sprinkles out onto the table and randomly licking every third finished cookie, my sister and her entire family whipped out individual pastry bags to precisely decorate each cookie (even the ones that my child licked). Upstairs in the “wrapping area” was laid out matching paper, cloth ribbon, coordinated jingle bells, and a hot glue gun — not tape — for assembly. Yet, my sister is the least artistic of the group.

Sadly, I used to rank right up in the Holiday Domestic Goddess realm. I had a grouping of three Christmas trees. My stocking hangers matched my tree ornaments. I created lavish bows. One year, I even had color copies made of family photos to use as gift tags, each a special memory. And the food, oh the food. I spent an entire week preparing New Year’s appetizers.

But all that is no more.

While I hear “Martha’s” voice in my head chastising me, “WHAT?! You’re tree is not up yet? I am coming over NOW!” my poor tree sits outside, unassembled and undecorated. Yeah, I think, I'll be sure to get right on that decorating thing in my 15-minutes of free time each day before I keel over exhausted.

Our gifts will be wrapped in unmatched paper; skiing Santas, sledding snowmen, or dogs and cats dressed in elf suits. IF I have an extra moment, there is non-coordinating "curly ribbon" or a pre-made bow from Target to slap on top.

My husband put green flood lights on the garage as the extent of our outdoor extravaganza. An attempt so pitiful, our neighbors and friends snuck over to put lights on our front bushes. We have a mass of friends coming over, and the house is still bare. I am a Fa-La-La-La-Failure.

I wonder, as I sit here, recovering from the stomach flu and a cold, how I am going to handle full-time work, full-time mom, and full-time Domestic Goddess status in the less than a week left. And then, I realized. It doesn’t matter. Come this holiday, the soup will be on, the door will be open. I will worry about whether there is enough good food and good wine, if we get my child’s gift put together on time, and keeping her off a sprinkle-induced sugar rush. Beyond that, I will just enjoy my family and friends being happy, well and together.

That’s really all that matters, isn’t it? Although, that hot glue gun looked like a good time ...

Holidays in "The Kitchen"

What's cookin' in the kitchen for Christmas ... well, with a toddler running around, our first bout of the season with stomach flu and head colds, not much. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas kind of exploded in a few places around the house, but that's about it.

Never fear, I'll get there. I'm good with deadlines. With a formal dinner, soup party for nearly 20 and a brunch less than a week away, I am going to have to be. Coughing all the way.

The good news is that Battle Orange has been won. To celebrate, a few of my favorite orange dishes will grace the table. The first is Carrot Souffle. I love this, you can find it on the Cooking Light web site. The other dish I first started working on with the Eat Local challenge, you can read more on that in the posts "Beeten into Submission," and "The Beet Goes On." I was looking for an option to green salads when fresh lettuces went out of season. And, the spinach contamination issue was still going on, so bagged lettuce was off the menu.

I know, many people are not beet fans. But this dish is different. These are not canned pickled beets. Besides, with a traditional table landscape of turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes, this dish is a veritable island of color in a sea of brown. Remember, Santa is watching. You should eat your vegetables.

Red, Gold and Orange Festive Salad
Looking for this recipe? It will be included in my upcoming book co-authored with Ali of Cleaner Plate Club!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Taute Cuisine 7: Indian-spiced meat pies

I spend over an hour each weekend in my pantry. It’s a strange place to spend one’s time, but then, it’s my own fault. You see, I started this game with my toddler called “What’s the Spice?” It basically involver her taking each little jar (and there are over 100 of them) out of the cabinet, hold it out to me, and demand, “Open!” I then open it, and we both smell the spice and I tell her what it is. Sometimes with the blends I close my eyes, inhale and try to guess what all the spices are in the mix.

We started this game at the spice store next to our farmer’s market. There they have hundreds of spices and blends with smelling jars placed in front of each. It’s amazing. It started out as fun and a way to expand my child’s taste since smell and taste are so connected, but then I remembered a handout I got in culinary school on the importance of sensory education in early childhood. While pre-school offers many sensory experiences, smell and taste are not exactly topping the agenda.

“Sure, the kiddos are going to see and learn colors and pictures at school, they are going to be presented with different textures to touch, tools to handle and music to make and listen to. But taste and smell? The only unique tastes on the menu at toddler school include things like Hot Dog Tacos, Tater Tot Casserole. And an occasional bite of crayon or paste. Both of which probably taste better than the casserole. As for smells, chances are the most exotic thing you are going to find there is coming from someone else’s diaper.”

(You can read the rest of this rant and a longer post on this theory — one of the tenets of the Montessori method — here in The Kitchen.)

Thus, here I sit, in my pantry smelling jar after jar, relearning each spice. Who would have guessed my little one would be my best teacher, too? Not only did I get a sensory refresher, but I also learned which spices she responds to most and what her favorites are. It makes it easier to cook dishes she will like.

The following recipe was drafted from a meat pie I saw in “Gourmet.” I modified the recipe a lot, and cut the saturated fat and the prep time by more than half, swapped out a healthier sweet potato for the white potato and used grass-fed, low-fat ground bison in place of the high-fat ground chuck and doubled the meat quantity. I also changed the spice profile from my little one’s less favorite curry to a mix of Garam Masala and Tandoori. She loved the end result.

Indian-spiced Beef Pies

1 lb ground bison
1 tablespoon Tamari soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (1 cup)
¾ tablespoon Garam Masala
¼ tablespoon Tandoori
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 (17 1/4-oz) packages frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Special equipment: parchment paper;

Heat olive oil in skillet over moderately high heat, add onion and sauté until transluscent. Add beef and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up beef into small pieces, until browned, and cooked through. Add soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

Add spices, water and sweet potato and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender. Stir in peas, then cool filling, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large baking sheets with parchment.

Roll out one sheet of dough into a 12-inch square on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin. Put half of filling on one side of dough, leaving a ½ inch border at edges. Brush edges lightly with egg and fold over gently stretching to cover filling completely. Gently press edges with tines of a fork to seal.

Repeat with other sheet of dough and remaining filling. Transfer pies to baking sheet. Brush tops of pastry lightly with egg and bake in upper third of oven, switching position of baking sheet to lower third of oven halfway through cooking, until pies are deep golden brown and puffed, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool pies to warm, about 10 minutes, or room temperature.

These can be made one day ahead and chilled, covered, or 1 week ahead and frozen, wrapped well. Bake frozen pies (do not thaw) an additional 5-10 minutes.

Pies can also be fully assembled and baked one day ahead, cooled and chilled. Reheat on a baking sheet in middle of a 350°F oven until filling is hot, about 15 minutes.