Archive for January 2011

Soul Satisfying Soup

January 22, 2011

Walking up the stairs to my kitchen yesterday, the aromas wafting downward from the soup pot filled me with a sudden “all’s right with the world” feeling. How does chicken soup do that?

We’d had a large and spicy Indian lunch, and I wanted a light supper, light but not bland.  Full of good things but not too filling.  Something easy on the waistline and the blood sugar, but nothing insipid. Something warm and warming for a drizzly evening in January. Chicken and vegetable soup popped right into my mind, although as we all know it can be a supremely boring dish.  I vowed to make one that wasn’t, and this one isn’t.  It’s not full of flavor fireworks or exotic ingredients, but it’s really, really good.

The stock’s the thing.  I always have a gallon ziplock bag of chicken bones in the freezer, and anytime we eat any sort of chicken I stuff the bones into the bag until it’s full, then I make stock. But I realize that a bag of bones is not for everyone, so you are allowed to cheat!  And here’s how.

Chicken and Vegetable Soup with Meyer Lemon

1 rotisserie chicken
1 quart chicken broth, homemade or bought
1 large leek
2 stalks celery, with leaves
1 large bulb fennel, with fronds
1 small zucchini
6 oz green beans
8 shiitake mushrooms
8 new or fingerling potatoes
2 T butter
1 Meyer lemon
salt and pepper
water as needed

Start by pulling all of the meat off the rotisserie chicken.  Do this with your fingers – it’s easier if the chicken is a bit warm. Put the meat in a bowl and refrigerate.  Put all the chicken bones  and part of the chicken skin in a 6 quart stockpot with the chicken broth, the green portion of the leek, the celery, the shiitake stems, and the fennel stalks and fronds. There’s no need to chop up these vegetables, jut set them atop the bones and add water to the pot until the bones are covered and the vegetables float.  Cover the pot, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, and simmer for about 2 hours.  You can definitely let it go longer, but 2 hours is the minimum here.  Have a peek from time to time and add a little water if necessary to keep the bones covered.

While the broth is simmering, dice the white and light green portion of the leek, dice the fennel bulb, and dice the zucchini. Trim the green beans and cut them into small bite-sized pieces. Cut up the meat from at least half the chicken, more if you wish, into small bite-sized pieces. Slice the shiitake caps.

When the broth is done simmering pour it through a fine strainer into a large bowl, then return the strained broth to the stockpot. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring the stock to a boil.

Drop in the little potatoes, reduce the heat to medium, and boil gently for 10 minutes. Add the shiitake slices, green beans, and diced leek, fennel, and zucchini, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until all the vegetables are just tender.  Add the cut up chicken and simmer until heated through, allowing the flavors to blend but avoiding overcooking the chicken.  Just before serving add the butter and swirl until it melts. Squeeze in the juice of the Meyer lemon. Taste again for salt and pepper and serve.

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Sudden Snow

January 12, 2011

‘Tis the season, and a more on-the-ball person would have turned off this fountain before it froze, but I’m glad I didn’t, since my slackness provided us with this perfect image of wintry beauty. Today every state in the country has some snow, with the single exception of Florida, so unless you live down there yourself, snow is probably old hat to you by now.  But I continue to love it like a kid, especially when I don’t have to drive in it. And since I’ve been sentenced to three more weeks with my arm in a sling and won’t be driving any time soon, I’m free to thrill as each flake falls.

And fall they did, a profusion of those huge floaty flakes that you can catch on the tip of your tongue,

which, should you be planning to eat outdoors, is probably all you’re going to get, the dining table being out of commission for anything but ice cream.

The rain chain became a snow chain, however briefly, because before we’d had time to make even the most miniature of snowmen

the sound of water running, rain falling, and snow melting washed through the house. This lovely snow sculpture lasted only a few minutes and was gone, as well as the rest of the snow on the railing, comme si de rien n’était, as if nothing at all had happened.

But of course something had happened: I got to feel like a child again for a few hours, scuffing my way through the snow on my way to adulthood.

The Cake Of Kings

January 5, 2011

I just noticed that dozens of people have come to French Letters today by searching on galette des rois, or the king’s cake. I thought that new readers would enjoy reading about this delicious tradition, which will be celebrated tomorrow all over France.  Here’ the post I wrote in honor of the day in 2008.

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Today, in honor of the Epiphany holiday, everyone in France is eating galette des rois, the cake of the three kings.   And as far as I can tell every website about French food has a picture of the galettes in their entire uncut glory, complete with the crown that comes tucked into each bakery box and a mention of the little charm that’s hidden inside the cake.  I’ll readily admit that the charm, still called the fève from the days when it was just a dried bean, and the crown that goes to the person who finds the fève in her slice, are both important.  But isn’t it really all about the filling?

So here you see it, a cut galette with a frangipane filling, one of the most delicious flavors in the kingdom of pâtisserie.  It’s an almond-based pastry cream with, in the case of this galette from the bakery next door, much more almond than cream, and a great hit of bitter almond oil.  Our  fève is a little ceramic king, resembling a monkey king perhaps a bit more than one of the magi, but still, a real king.  This was breakfast for the four of us, one of whom was a cat whose taste for almonds is as yet undeveloped, another was a king without a country.  So naturally, just naturally, the crown went to me.

And then later I got another, much more fun, honor.  We were invited to some friends’ house for a proper galette des rois evening, and there were eight of us and two different kinds of cake.  Traditionally the youngest child gets under the table while a parent cuts the cake, and it’s the kid who decides,without seeing the cake, who will get each slice.  That way there’s supposed to be no favoritism on the part of the cake-cutter in determining whose slice will contain the fève and thus who will wear the crown.  Totally unexpectedly I was the youngest person at the table, admittedly not by much, but enough for me to get under there and have a good look at the shoes and socks of the other guests while deciding which slice went to whom and whether I should bite anyone’s ankles.  Not to imply that I lead a boring life, but that was one of my most fun moments recently.  Chances to get down on the floor and under the table in the middle of a party are fairly rare at my age, and I enjoyed it to the fullest.

And although I didn’t get the fève in either of my slices of cake, we had an uproariously good time together, our Dutch hosts, one other American, two Brits, and a Swiss, all rollicking our way through a French holiday.  Most of the time we spoke our version of French in deference to the non-Anglophones among us, and we happily corrected each other’s grammar and augmented our collective vocabulary.

And on that front my monkey king husband gets the prize for managing to introduce the word “yockstrap” into the conversation.  No one knew the word in French and two people didn’t know it in English, not that it was actually English.  Because he was wearing a crown at the time, we didn’t put him under the table as penance, but several of us were seen to wipe our streaming eyes as the explanations and analogies flew like feathers, tickling us all to the quick.

That Ol’ Pot Likker

January 3, 2011

In the pantheon of lucky foods to start the new year off right, I’d have to say that collard greens, which are supposed to bring wealth and will undoubtedly bring health, are my favorite.  I know that leafy greens can be intimidating, so here’s a little how-to to get your year off on the right foot.  This is not so much a recipe as a concept, but it follows closely in the footsteps of cooks all over the South, and you can feel free to make it as is or to add your own personal touches without compromising your luck.

First off, get yourself a pile of collards (I used 3 pounds) and a couple of good meaty ham hocks. Put the ham hocks in a 6 quart pan and cover them with water, then boil them for an hour while you are preparing the greens.  You want the ham to be starting to fall off the bone before you add the greens.  Now, wash the collards,

and laying each leaf out flat, one at a time, remove the center ribs with a sharp knife.  Those ribs are tough and I just toss them, but if you have chickens or pigs to feed, I’m sure they’ll be glad to help you recycle the stalks.

Now take all of the leaf halves and stack them evenly one atop the other.

Working from the long side, roll the pile of leaves up into a tight bundle,

then slice across the bundle, creating a chiffonade of the leaves.  I like to give one final slice in the other direction too, so that the threads of greens aren’t so long that they’ll hang from your teeth in snarky strings.

When you’re done wielding the knife you should have a neat and lovely pile of greens ready for the pot.  Check your ham hocks.  If the meat isn’t yet ready to start falling from the bone, go make a list of all the lucky things you are hoping for this year. When the meat is very tender add the greens all at once, add a teaspoon of salt, cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and simmer the whole thing for 30-40 minutes.  When it’s done the greens should be very tender, and the meat even more so.  Taste for salt, and serve.

Be sure each bowl contains not only meat and greens but also a generous scoop of the juices, known as pot likker.  Lots of people would say that the likker is the best bit of all, and far be it from me to disagree: I love the stuff. Douse your bowl with some vinegary hot sauce to taste, it should be tangy and spicy. If you like cornbread, it’s the traditional way to mop and sop up all the likker.  Me, I put the bowl right to my lips and slurp it delicately down.  And there you have a succulent bowl full of health and wealth and good luck all around.  Happy New Year to you, and don’t forget to eat your vegetables!