Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Meatless Mondays: Potato-Leek Soup, Two Ways

Apologies for the silence and for the day-late Meatless Monday post. (Meatless Tuesday isn't quite as mellifluous.) I've had my head in a (figurative) flowerpot, pretending that our new senator is not a Republican who once posed naked for Cosmo. Well, that and other things, but between the special election and the Supreme Court and my flooded basement, the flowerpot is looking more appealing every day.

Anyway. As promised, now that the new year is well upon us, I am writing about soup for all who are still feeling abstemious and slightly regretful about overloading on fancy food full of sugar and fat over the holidays. Potato leek soup is about as simple as it gets. I tend to make it every fall, especially when it's the end of farmer's market season and I start to feel like "oh no, the season's almost over, I must buy extra vegetables while they're here," and I inevitably end up with lots of leeks and lots of potatoes (since, of course, it's the end of the season and there's not a huge variety.) But that makes this soup equally appropriate for January because even in New England, you can still find decent leeks and potatoes, and that's basically all you need. Plus, there aren't many soups more comforting than potato-leek, and it seems like we could all use some comforting this month.

Recently when I made this, I was all ready to devote some time to the soup and make stock for it, figuring that a soup with so few ingredients in it would need a hearty stock. But Deborah Madison disagreed. In her recipe for Potato-leek soup in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, she specifically says to use water, just water. Well, who am I to question Deborah Madison on the question of stock vs. water? And besides, it saved me some chopping time.

More recently, I decided to branch out and make the variation in Deborah Madison's soup cookbook, Leek and Scallion soup, with potato gnocchi. This one has fewer potatoes in the soup itself but makes up for the lack by the addition of potato gnocchi at the end.

I'm including both recipes because each soup has its own pleasures. The plain potato leek soup is earthy and simple, with the clear flavors of the potatoes and the leeks fully resonant. The second soup is a bit more elegant, with a tang from the wine; with fewer potatoes, the flavor of the leeks and scallions also stands out more sharply. This is a soup you could serve for company, if you needed a simple starter.

Either way, they both encompass the qualities of simplicity, virtue and deliciousness, all fine qualities in soup, of course, and what all of us could use as January staggers to a close.

Creamed Leek and Potato Soup
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

3 large or 6 medium leeks, white parts only, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds potatoes (Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold or boiling recommended), scrubbed well and thinly sliced
1-2 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper

Milk or water to thin the soup, if needed

Light cream or half and half (optional)

Melt butter in a wide soup pot, then add the leeks and potatoes and cook over low heat, covered for 10 minutes.

Add 7 cups water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are soft to the point of falling apart, about 35 minutes.

Press a few against the side of the pan to break them up and give the soup body.

If needed, thin the soup with milk and heat through.

Taste for salt, season for pepper and serve.

I like to go the extra step and put the soup through a food mill. (I don't use an immersion blender for this one, as the potatoes get gummy pretty quickly.) Then, if you're feeling a bit decadent (or even if you're not), add 1/4-1/2 cup of cream or half and half. Serve with finely chopped chives and parsley. (Chilled, it's vichyssoise.)

Leek and Scallion Soup, with potato gnocchi
Adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
4 cups chopped and rinsed leeks (white part only) (5-6 leeks)
1 celery rib, peeled and chopped
1 russet potato, peeled and finely diced
sea salt/fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups water

1 pkg. potato gnocchi (found in the frozen food dept.--I found mine at Whole Foods.)

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup finely slivered scallion including an inch or two of the greens

Saute the leeks, potato, and celery with about a tsp. of salt until the leeks have softened.

Add the wine and cook until the wine is almost all gone.

Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 min.

Add some pepper. Puree a cup of the soup and return to the pot. (Because there was only one potato in this, I risked using the immersion blender and pureed the whole batch, roughly.) If feeling decadent, you can add whole milk or half and half. (I did and did not regret it.)

Meanwhile, cook the gnocchi in salted water, 4-5 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.

Saute the slivered scallion in the butter until just wilted.

Stir the scallions into the soup.

Add a few gnocchi to each bowl when you serve the soup.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Maine Shrimp reminder

Last year, I didn't discover Maine shrimp until March, near the end of the season. I wrote about using them in a Thai-style coconut milk soup.

But the Maine shrimp season actually starts in December or early January, which I suddenly remembered a few days ago as I passed the fish counter at Whole Foods and saw a large heap of plump pink Maine shrimp in front of me. Maine shrimp are cheap ($5/pound at Whole Foods, not on sale, and probably cheaper other places and definitely cheaper if you're in Maine) and tasty and vaguely local, at least if you live in New England. And in January, when there's not much else even vaguely local to be had, that counts for something. (This may be changing. There's now a new winter farmer's market in Northampton every Saturday, and yesterday, there was a special Winter fare market with farmers from all over this area held at a local high school. It was so crowded that people were practically fighting over the carrots, and by the time I got there, halfway through, everything green had already been bought up--I guess there's a pretty serious communal craving for fresh vegetables in the midst of a January freeze!)

Anyway, my inaugural Maine shrimp dish this year was risotto. I loosely followed this risotto recipe, although I made the shrimp stock more like this one posted at the Beyond Salmon blog. We ate it sitting in front of the fire, and it was a fine dinner for a freezing January night--warm and filling and tasty.

And since I now know that Maine shrimp will be around for a few more months, I'm already pondering the possibilities. The Thai soup is definitely on the agenda, but I'm planning to explore some other options as well. I'll report back when I have a winner. In the meantime, stay warm!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Deborah Madison's Lentil Minestrone

The lowly lentil is in the news this week. Yesterday, Mark Bittman devoted his Minimalist column in the NY Times to legumes and beans and has a number of interesting looking recipes. Today, the Atlantic food section offers another paean to the lentil as well as a recipe for "tasty lentils" (that do, in fact, sound pretty tasty). Even before the media attention, I was thinking of lentils anyway because I'm happily eating my way through a large pot of Deborah Madison's lentil minestrone.

I've written before about my general love for Deborah Madison (see here), but I think she's a especially a genius when it comes to soup. Her soup cookbook, Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, is a standby in my kitchen year round, though it's especially useful in the winter. The lentil minestrone is in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which also has an extensive and helpful section on making soup. Madison's soup recipes may have more steps or be slightly more time consuming than others, but the payoff is in the layers of flavor. The lentil minestrone, for example, is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Its humble ingredients--carrots, celery, onions, tomato paste, lentils--belie how delicious the final concoction is.

It's a perfect dish for January--it's filling and full of things that are good for you. (Lentils! Chard! ) But, it's also delicious. You can eat it happily and maintain your New Year's resolutions at the same time. Like most lentil soups, it gets better with time.

A few notes:

This soup is made even better by the inclusion of a Parmesan rind, added when you add the lentils and the water. (This soup has enough depth that it's fine with water, if you don't have any vegetable stock on hand and don't have the time (or inclination) to make any.)

While Deborah Madison has you cook the greens separately, I usually don't. I rinse the chard and chop it ahead of time, then just add it to the soup while the pasta is cooking. It doesn't stay bright green, admittedly, but when you're eating the soup over several days anyway, the chard will not stay bright green no matter what, so you might as well save a step here.

I do always keep the pasta separate and then add it when re-heating. Otherwise, the pasta will drink up all the liquid, and you'll have soup with rather bloated pieces of pasta and no liquid left.

I usually just use dried thyme with the bay leaves, and I don't always include the parsley branches (though I do include the chopped parsley).

I don't have any mushroom soy sauce in the house so have never added it to this soup. While I think adding regular soy sauce would be fine, I sometimes put in a dash of red wine vinegar instead, which adds a nice flavor.

If you leave your bowl on the table too long, watch out, as it might attract the attention of an otherwise carnivorous creature who might stick a tongue out for a tentative taste . . . (In this photo, I think Chaya is actually coming back for more--he already knew he liked it, as the previous night he'd licked my bowl clean, a privilege usually reserved for cereal, yogurt and ice cream. The cat is definitely on to something!)

Lentil Minestrone
Adapted from
Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Add the cooked pasta and greens just before serving so that they retain their color and texture. And, don't forget the

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra virgin to finish
2 cups onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste (The Italian tomato paste in a tube is perfect here.)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, diced
1 cup diced celery or celery root
1 cup French green lentils, rinsed
Aromatics: 2 bay leaves, 8 parsley branches, 6 thyme sprigs
1 piece Parmesan rind (optional)
9 cups water or vegetable stock
Mushroom soy sauce to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch greens—mustard, broccoli rabe, chard, or spinach (I almost always use chard.)
2 cups cooked small pasta (I usually use shells or pipette)
Thin shavings of Parmesan

Heat the oil in a wide soup pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, parsley, celery, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.

Add the lentils, aromatics, Parmesan rind (if using) and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Taste for salt and season with pepper. If it needs more depth, add mushroom soy sauce to taste, starting with 1 tablespoon. (The soup may seem bland at this point, but the flavors will come together when the soup is finished.) Remove the aromatics.

Boil the greens in salted water until they're tender and bright green, then chop them coarsely. (Or, add the chopped greens to the soup while the pasta is cooking.)

Just before serving, add the greens and the pasta to the soup and heat through. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled into each bowl, a generous grind of pepper, and the Parmesan.