Winter’s last gasp (I hope)

Being gooled again by the pink blossoms and daffodils into thinking it’s spring makes the 30-degree weather we have now that much worse. It will be gone soon, but in the meantime this soup can brighten your outlook. North Carolina is the nation’s No. 1 producer of sweet potatoes – now, don’t say you didn’t learn anything today. The cold weather brought this soup back into my cooking lineup. You know how you forget about recipes sometimes – I’d forgotten how good this one is, and that it’s such a crowd pleaser. Make it vegetarian by substituting water for the chicken broth. You can peel and boil the sweet potatoes, but I prefer to roast them because roasting deepens the flavor – and you can do that part a day ahead.

Spiced Sweet Potato Soup

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, olive oil or ghee

1 cup chopped onions

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala or curry powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 pounds sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed

3 cups chicken broth or water

1 (5.46-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk

Salt to taste

Juice of 1/2 of a fresh lime

Chopped toasted pecans

Put a large pot on medium heat and add the butter, olive oil or ghee. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they are brown, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garam masala or curry powder, cinnamon and garlic, and cook for about 10 seconds.

Add the cooked sweet potatoes and chicken broth or water. Remove the pot from the heat and use a stick blender to puree until smooth. (Alternatively, cool down the mixture and pour carefully into a blender to puree, then return it to the pot.) Return the pot to medium heat, stir in the coconut milk and heat until it is steaming hot. Taste, then add salt, and stir in the lime juice. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes. When serving, garnish each bowl with chopped pecans.

Inspiration and memory

A smart editor once told me: “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.” That’s what I’m going to do today, from one of the best, Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis. After reading her column today – which, as a food writer, I can say is absolutely true about the never-ending search for the new – I thought about how I recharge and what I would relive. Here are a few, with thanks to Kathi.

– The first time I ate a soft-shell crab, which was the beginning of a lifelong affair. It looked like the inspiration for a ’50s drive-in movie, “Invasion of the Giant Crunchy Spiders.” I had to be persuaded that ALL of the crustacean was edible in this state. Oh, the little legs, how crispy; the center, how moist…. It was truly a new thing.

– Driving around Normandy with The Hub. We armed ourselves with an extremely poor map, minimal French, a Swiss Army knife and a baguette from the corner baker, and set out from Bayeux for two things: cheese and Calvados, an apple brandy. We stopped at a roadside stand for the most sensually fragrant melon I’d ever experienced, then roamed, mostly lost, through the rolling hills that reminded me of Piedmont North Carolina, where I grew up. We found cheese and ate it with the knife while sitting on the trunk of the rental car, with the baguette and lovely melon.  We ended the day tasting Calvados and its aperitif sister, Pommeau.

– Walking through the backyard vegetable garden with my father when I was knee high, watching him pull two green onions from the red clay, brush them off on his pants leg, cut off the roots with a super-sharp pocket knife, and hand me one. We ate them on the spot, in the sun. Truly fresh vegetables don’t need a lot of messing with.

What’s your list?

A tome from Tomatoman

IMG_0369If you truly love tomatoes, good tomatoes, you eventually have to grow tomatoes. Because no matter how good one you buy might be, it won’t be as good as one you pick from your backyard minutes before eating it, when its skin is warm from the sun and its flesh so juicy that it covers you in red when you bite in.

Luckily for tomato lovers, “Tomatoman” Craig LeHouillier of Raleigh has finally produced his long-awaited book, “Epic Tomatoes: How To Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” (Storey Publishing, $19.95).

When I met Craig years ago, he couldn’t park his car in his garage or driveway because both will filled with plants and seeds. Although at that time he was a chemist at Glaxo, his true passion was heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms – those tomatoes that taste like Daddy’s did, with names and stories worthy of a novel – were dying out in some cases, hard to find in others. Craig decided to save them and popularize them. And he is credited with bringing back the Cherokee Purple, a tomato many connoisseurs consider the Perfect Tomato. He also fed the hunger of area tomato lovers for several years by organizing Tomatopalooza, a free-for-all tasting extravaganza.

A few years ago, Craig went full-time into tomatoes, focusing on a project to create dwarf versions of the often tall and unwieldy heirlooms, allowing container gardeners to enjoy their flavor and variety. He hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants during the summer; find out more by following him at @nctomatoman.

At a signing for the book recently at Quail Ridge Books, the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange called Craig “a national treasure.” It’s not an exaggeration.

“Epic Tomatoes” is one of those books that gardeners love to get in February when a high of 29 is predicted. It has gorgeous photos and clear instructions that should help those who have never tried growing tomatoes from seed through the process. There are even a few recipes, including a roasted tomato sauce that I’d like to try….but not until July.


Canning Week

Relish….a lot of relish. My friend Brenda and I get together every year for Relishmania. We give most of it as

vegetable relish

vegetable relish

gifts and her family has been known to have relish fights. On the way over, she found out he’s in hot water (hotter than the canning kettle) because her mother discovered he’d been holding out on her. He hid his gift relish for his own use.

This is not chow-chow. I have never liked chow-chow dating all the way back to when my mother made it, and I think it’s because of the cabbage that’s traditionally in it. I like kimchi just fine, and the hotter the better. But something about the cabbage in chow-chow just turns me off. Our relish is tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, bell peppers, just a hint of hot peppers, and a sweet-sour liquid.

As we considered our post-relish lunch, an unexpected call came in: A neighbor is overloaded with figs. Figs are my treasure. Fig jam my canning grail. I finally found a spot in my shady yard that’s is, I hope, sunny enough for the fig I planted there to bear fruit, but that answer will come. For now, I still must depend on the kindness of semi-strangers.

Figs are now in the canning plan, along with the original Friday adventure: My friend Linda and watermelon-lemongrass jelly.

Oy vey, Brussels sprouts

I am convinced that my friend Brenda is a reincarnated Jewish grandmother. When she invited The Hub and me for dinner recently, she spread out enough food for 20 and was concerned that we barely made a dent in it all.

She cooked Brussels sprouts in a way that I’d never seen before – and I’ve seen some sprouts; I love them. She cooked them with a combination of broiling and steaming  that resulted in Brussels sprouts that were tender and not overcooked, just “al dente.” Of course, she just throws things together (like all good reincarnated Jewish grandmothers) and didn’t have a recipe, but I re-created the dish from her description.

It was also my first time using grapeseed oil, and I like its nutty flavor. Brenda used it just because someone gave it to her and she wanted to use it. It has a higher smoke point than olive oil and that may help in this recipe, too.

The only big caution I have is to watch the vegetables carefully, and shake or stir often to avoid burning. Because Brenda’s sprouts didn’t have a single toasted leaf.

The Reincarnated Jewish Grandmother’s Brussels Sprouts

About 1 pound of Brussels sprouts

Half of a red onion

Grapeseed oil

Salt and pepper

Cut the Brussels sprouts into halves or quarters, whatever makes all the pieces close to the same size. Thinly slice the red onion. Put both in a shallow roasting pan and toss with a liberal amount of oil. Place under the oven broiler and cook, tossing or stirring frequently, for 3 or 4 minutes, until you start to see them possibly brown. But don’t let them brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in a heatproof bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. The vegetables will steam to tenderness. Let them sit as long as you like – this dish is good at room temperature as well as hot – but they will need to sit for at least 20 minutes.

Pizza night

roasted squash and onion pizza

No matter how many onions I use from the basket in my pantry, the CSA refills them. Now begins the deluge of squash, too. Tonight, I chopped up a bunch of both, tossed them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted them at 425 degrees until the whole lot was caramelized. They became a vegetable pizza.

Some dough, a thin layer of tomato sauce (I hate pizzas that are floating in tomato sauce), the roasties and some vegan cheese for the Dairy-Allergic Hub. The man had missed his pizza before I found a decent vegan cheese, poor thing. I pleased my dairy desires with a side salad of tender tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Yes, I ate cheese right in front of The Hub. Sometimes, I’ve just gotta.

Don’t bug me about corn

It was well over 100 degrees here in Raleigh on Saturday. But it was also corn season. Nothing stands in the

fresh corn and black bean salad

way of corn season. My neighbor Tom and I dragged about 25 ears to the patio for shucking prior to freezing. It wasn’t yet hot enough to turn the sweet corn into popcorn, but it was getting there. However, you don’t want to do this in the house, unless you enjoy picking corn silks and shreds of green shucks out of everything in a 30-foot radius.

It’s near the beginning of corn time here, and the corn will likely be a little less expensive when we hit the high season. But the biggest advantage of early corn – besides that it’s here now and irresistible – is that it’s mostly worm free. No dealing with the green crawlies and the mess they make as they chew through what rightly is mine. I don’t like to share with bugs.

Another reason for confining shucking to the yard is that stripping kernels from the cobs will make enough of a mess. I’ve found splatted kernels on light fixtures and the coffeepot before, when the carnage was over. Tom freezes corn both on the cob and off. I prefer it off the cob, because that’s more versatile. When it’s 40 degrees and raining – as it will be in not that many months – the summer corn can bring sun into chowders, corn puddings and muffins.

If you plan to freeze corn, you should blanch it first. This means plunging the whole ears into boiling water for no more than a minute or so. Then drop the ears into a large bowl of iced water, to stop the cooking as quickly as possible. Then use a sharp knife (I don’t bother with corn-shucking gadgets and neither does Tom) to strip off the kernels. I packed them into one-pint freezer bags, because I find that’s a good amount for recipes for The Hub and me. Need more? Just thaw out more bags. Be sure to squeeze out all the air you can when packing the bags.

I ended up with a short bag – not really enough to freeze. That I turned into a salad for lunch. With the corn already shucked, I threw together the salad in 30 minutes, then chilled it for about an hour. This would be good rolled in a tortilla with some feta, too.

Corn and Black Bean Salad

2 cups fresh corn kernels

2 cups canned black beans, rinsed off and well drained

1 small onion, chopped

1 sweet banana pepper, chopped

1 small tomato, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

Salt and black pepper to taste

About 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

In a large bowl, toss together the corn, black beans, onion, banana pepper and tomato. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, chili powder, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat them all. Stir in the cilantro. Refrigerate for at least an hour to let the flavors come together.

‘Fridge feast

sort of salad nicoise

A refrigerator full of vegetables from the CSA and the farmers market. A weekend out of town looming. Heat.

The result, dinner inspired by salad nicoise, but with some additions. I started with small gold-fleshed potatoes, boiled, and green beans, steamed just until bright green and broken into pieces. Two ears of corn, boiled for just a minute and stripped. I added about a cup of cannellini beans, canned ones, rinsed to remove some salt and drained. And a can of tuna packed in olive oil. Yes, it’s oil. But it tastes so much better than the other stuff. Sorry, Charlie.

I made a classic vinaigrette of olive oil, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and lemon juice, with some garlic powder. I put more salt and pepper in the dressing than I would for a tossed salad, because all those vegetables would need seasoning.

I tossed the beauties in a pasta bowl with a good soak of the dressing, then tossed in about a cup of halved cherry tomatoes. The salad went into the refrigerator to chill for a couple of hours. When we got ready to eat, I threw in some capers. I’ll take capers over olives anytime.

Some bread on the side, and we were pretty happy eaters. If I’d only found a way to work in the kale…


Wok Wednesday No. 1

I signed up for Wok Wednesdays in the hope of overcoming my issues with the cooking implement. Things did not get off to a reassuring start. My new 14-inch carbon-steel wok was, as the directions said, “coated with a food-grade clear protective layer at the factory before shipment.” This had to be removed. Thirty minutes and three SOS pads later, I was grateful I hadn’t bought the mani on Saturday, just the pedi. Is polyurethane “food grade”? Because that’s what appeared to be on my wok.

After eliminating the last bits of the stuff with the aid of C-4 (ha, ha, just kidding, TSA), I consulted our Wok Wednesdays bible, “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Young’s seasoning instructions – stir-frying sliced ginger and scallions for about 15 minutes and rubbing them all over the wok – were a breeze.

Our first recipe was a simple one: Stir-Fried Garlic Spinach. it was just, well, garlic and spinach (with vegetable oil, salt and a little sugar). I wondered what the big deal could be. I’ve made sauteed spinach and garlic hundreds of times in conventional frying pans. Honestly, it was different. The deep wok holds copious amounts of fluffy greens more easily than a saute pan. The greens didn’t collect liquid, like they do when I use a saucepan, probably because the wok can get super-hot very quickly. It got hot fast even on my electric range. And it took longer to wash the greens (I threw in some swiss chard, too) than it did to cook them.

Since the wok was there, after cooking the greens I cooked some diced tofu, onions and Japanese turnips in soy sauce, sesame oil and sherry. Frequent visitors here know that I am also attempting to embrace the bean curd. Cooking it in the wok gave it the crispy outside texture I’d been looking for.

Tiptoe through the tofu

I’m trying to learn to love tofu. People tell me all the time that it doesn’t have any taste, that it absorbs the flavor of whatever you put on it. But I think it does have a taste, and it’s sort of weedy-beany. I also am turned off by the spongy texture and the way it sort of shreds.

I’m attempting to embrace the curd as part of a plan to work more vegetarian meals into the home eats. No, I have no plans to give up burgers, soft-shell crabs or deep-fried turkey. This is a guilt-lessening strategy. Complicating matters is The Hub. His dairy allergy means that I can’t add cheese as a protein option, and he dislikes most beans. That leaves eggs and tofu.

The cause was helped considerably when I discovered packages of super-firm tofu already cut up into cubes – just drain and toss in. For stir-frys, I have marinated the cubes in a combination of soy sauce, lemon juice and garlic. This time, I added them right out of the package to a vegetable curry. Making curry easy and quick depends on finding good spice blends which add flavor without a lot of work. I used a blend called Vietnamese Sweet Lemon Curry that I got at Savory Spice Shop. It contains sugar, lemongrass, coriander and other spices.

Veg Curry with Tofu

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon dried aleppo pepper (optional, makes it hotter)

6 cups assorted chopped vegetables (I used peeled sweet potatoes, sliced bell pepper and zucchini)

1 (15-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juice

1 package extra-firm tofu cubes

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

3 heaping teaspoons Vietnamese Sweet Lemon Curry

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the onion until it’s golden. Add the garlic, ginger and aleppo pepper, cook briefly. Add the vegetables, tomatoes, tofu, coconut milk and 1 can of water or a bit more to make a not-too-thick consistency. Stir in the curry, turmeric and salt. Partially cover and simmer 20-30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve over rice.