SWEET’NING UP THE CHILI – BUT NOT TOO MUCH: PUMPKIN/SWEET POTATO CHILI WITH BEANS & CHICKEN

At home, we ate our pumpkin chili with melted cheddar cheese atop!

It’s that time of year again- food, food, food. The holidays aren’t just about gifting and – for church, synagogue, mosque and temple goers – celebrating a holy event. They’re about gathering together of family and friends, enjoying each other’s company. And that means, “Feed ’em!” But this also entails remembering that not everyone lives in the best of circumstances, especially in these tough economic times. We may struggle to keep up with the bills and pay for transportation to work or the grocery store and other basics, but not everyone has a job to go to or even enough to eat. So it’s important to somehow “pay it forward” (as that movie so poignantly advised). Today’s recipe, in honor of all holidays from Thanksgiving through the end of December, is the chili recipe I created for daughter Kristen’s workplace chili & bake sale / raffle & silent auction – an event that raises money for charity.

Last year was the first year I contributed a large batch of chili for the sale, and this year I decided to bake as well. Cheesey Cornbread (with extra cheese) to go with the chili and Cardamon Risotto Cookies (a twist on my regular Risotto Cookies, with sugar-cinnamon also replacing the frosting). Then, at the last minute (several hours before we were to deliver food to the office), I decided to throw in some Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins (bananas too ripe for me to eat on cereal – I like ’em when there’s a little green left on the peel!). The muffin recipe will follow in another blog entry.

A busy, delicious two days (well, you didn’t think I was going to whip up all that good stuff and not indulge myself?!), and a lucky time too. After the sale was over, Kris called. I thought she was simply letting me know how much they’d brought in. This year’s proceeds are being split between the local food pantry and agencies providing aid to New York City and Long Island victims of Hurricane Sandy. After Kristen told me they’d raised well over $5,000 (eventual total was $5,700), I was about to hang up when she called out, “Wait! You won one of the raffle baskets!”

Not only did I win a raffle basket, it was The One I’d hoped to get, if I won anything at all (which I wasn’t expecting). The huge plastic container included a 19” television and a ROKU with 6-month subscription to Netflix. We already enjoy Netflix so that’s a nice credit on our account, but I was thrilled to acquire a small TV for my downstairs office/artroom (for when it is finally remodeled, which Bill promises will happen after Christmas, although other work on upstairs might take precedence). It won’t be anything fancy but homey enough for me! Oh yeah—the theme of the basket was “Holiday Movie Night” and the box was also packed with things like a warm (red) throw, peppermint cocoa mix, a Santa mug, a dark & white chocolate peppermint bark candy bar, and microwave popcorn. (The candy bar did not last long. I love peppermint bark.)

In addition to such good fortune, I was pleased to hear that all of my chili disappeared into the mouths of many of my daughter’s co-workers. Kris said there were plenty of positive remarks. Apparently, several of them are interested in seeing the recipe on Kitchen Cauldron when posted. One woman made a point of approaching Kristen afterward to say it was the best chili she’d ever tasted! I have to agree with that statement because I think it’s the best chili recipe I’ve ever conjured up. Bill and I enjoyed it immensely at dinner that night.

Here’s hoping you give it a try and really like it too. Don’t be put off by what looks like a long list of ingredients. Once the peeling and chopping is done, it’s mostly about getting the stuff into the pot and simmering. Really easy, as chili generally tends to be.

PUMPKIN/SWEET POTATO CHILI (WITH BEANS AND CHICKEN)
Yield: Depending upon quantity of beans & if including chicken, makes 8-10 quarts of chili

Ingredients

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 or 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ½” to ¾” pieces (optional, especially if you’re a vegetarian)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 medium-to-large onions, peeled and chopped (large or small pieces, whatever your taste)
  • 3 celery stalks, peeled and chopped (including leaves, if any on stalk)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small pieces
  • 6 peppers (I used 2 yellow and 4 green), seeded and chopped
  • salt & pepper to sprinkle over veggies
  • 4 or 5 garlic cloves, peeled and diced (I had roasted some, so I used the paste from those cloves)
  • 1 29-oz. can pumpkin purée (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
  • 2 14.5 oz. cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
  • 4 cups vegetable stock, plus 4 cups chicken stock (or use any combo of these stocks, or just one type; homemade preferred by not required)
  • 3-4 tablespoons chili powder (more if you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 generous teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon mace (optional, but I would always use it; if you don’t have it, could increase nutmeg)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional; I meant to add this & forgot!)
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • a few sprinkles dried marjoram (optional- not required if you don’t have on hand)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt (I used combo of table salt and sea salt)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 4 to 6 cans beans – I used dark red kidney, black, great northern, aduki and pink beans, as well as chickpeas
  • additional salt and pepper, if desired
  • possibility: more stock (or water) or some tomato paste, if a thinner or thicker chili is desired

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Place sweet potatoes in an oven-friendly dish or pan, dab with the butter and sprinkle with dried parsley. Bake until fork slips through chunks but they aren’t likely to disintegrate after additional cooking in chili sauce. I use a spatula to turn once in a while. (I also cover with aluminum foil for first 15 minutes or so, then remove so they get a bit browned.) This should take perhaps 30-40 minutes but begin checking earlier. Remove from oven and set aside until ready to add to chili. NOTE: this can be done the day before, if you like.
  2. In a large stock pot, heat the oil plus butter on medium level. Add chicken and sautée just to lightly brown (don’t worry if completely cooked through). (About 4-5 minutes.)
  3. Add onion, celery, carrot and peppers. Spinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Sautée for about 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add garlic to pot, sautéing for another minute (be careful – garlic easily burns).
  5. Stir in pumpkin purée, tomatoes and tomato sauce, combining well.
  6. Stir in chicken and/or vegetable stock.
  7. Add chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace (if using), clove, cardamom (if using), parsley, marjoram (if using), salt and pepper.
  8. Simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour.
  9. In the meantime, drain and rinse the canned beans.
  10. After the contents of the stock pot has simmered for the suggested time, stir beans into chili. Bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for another 20 to 30 minutes.
  11. Add roasted sweet potatoes. Simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes.
  12. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper, if desired.

Serve with cornbread on the side or some excellent artisan bread. Nice with shredded cheddar cheese atop, or a dab of sour cream.

In my experience, chili tastes even better as a leftover. Like any tomato-based dish, the flavor deepens as it sits in the fridge. It also freezes really well. Make some for a crowd, and reserve some for you and yours too!

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EASY, CHEESEY (IN THE BEST WAY) CORNBREAD

When I decided to serve cornbread with the Lentil Soup (see previous post), I’d forgotten that a recipe for it had been included in The Homemade Pantry, the book From Scratch Club was reading and cooking/baking its way through. Didn’t even look in the book before clamoring through my cabinets to see if I had cornmeal. And I didn’t feel like putzing through a bunch of cookbooks to find a recipe I could either make “as is,” or play around with to my own taste. It isn’t that I’ve never made the stuff before, just that previous cornbread has either been from a boxed mix or the recipe I made it from didn’t thrill me enough to get it written down.

It turned out there were two cornmeal possibilities amidst my baking goods: ol’ reliable Quaker yellow cornmeal and a more authentic-looking stone-ground type with a Native American profile on the front of the package (reminiscent of the fact that the only time I ever heard of cornbread as a child and throughout teen years was when certain Indian tribes were discussed during history lessons, usually around Thanksgiving!). Since the Quaker package sported an upcoming expiration date in December 2012, my more frugal persona took over (maybe that’s the other kind of cheesey surfacing, as in the cheapest, but not always the most delicious, way ). I wasn’t about to toss out still-good ingredients, even if the alternative was probably “better for you,” maybe tastier and perhaps the result of more organic farming methods. Didn’t want to know all that. Just wanted to get on with baking.

Of course, perhaps I should feel guilty for… for not feeling guilty about using the “better” cornmeal. After all, modern technology has taken what was/is a sacred food for many of the world’s inhabitants (and former inhabitants) and bastardized it into chemically-enhanced products solely to give it longer shelf-life and thus allow industry to make larger profits. “Longer shelf life” does not equal “more nutritious” and sometimes it does equal “not-so-good-for-you.” Whole civilizations once built their spiritualities around goddesses worshipped because human beings believed these other-worldly beings somehow controlled crops, shepherding in a rich harvest that could nourish their families through the long, hard winter (or conversely causing drought, disease and other disasters which invited starvation and death).

Corn Mother is a big deal in the Americas to Native Americans. She’s found in various forms in indigenous faiths throughout the two continents. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003) tells us, “The Quiche Mayas of Guatemala and the Navajo believed that the first humans were created from corn. The Mayas, Incans, Aztecs, and nearly every American Indian tribe ate corn and incorporated it into their religious beliefs and rituals. The corn mother was perhaps the most widely worshipped deity in the pre-Colmbian Americas. As a symbol of life, fertility, eternity, and resurrection, corn was a sacred gift of the Mother Goddess.” Corn was one of the Americas’ gifts to the world. It may not be called sacred by the millions it feeds today, but it sure can help to fill a growling belly.

Cunningham notes that many people still view corn as sacred and believe that  to waste it is to cause poverty. He compares it to the way Asians feel about wasting rice. [Here’s my “out” – out of the guilt: however processed Quaker’s cornmeal might be (and I don’t know the extent of it and don’t want to bad-mouth the company), it’s still a corn product that shouldn’t be wasted. This is perhaps today’s alternative to my mother’s directive to “Eat—there are starving children in China.”]

Quaker’s recipe, on the back of the fat cylinder in which their product comes, was called “Easy” but it also looked like it was trying to be lo-cal or lo-fat or both, which is fine so long as there would be plenty of flavor. Reading through the ingredients, however, I wasn’t exactly hopeful about mouth-watering taste; so naturally I fooled around with it. Here are the changes I made (I think I’m remembering them all, but be aware that I only scribbled down what I did do, not how it was different from the Q-recipe):

  • Decreased amount of flour.
  • Increased amount of cornmeal.
  • Used same amount of sugar, but half was evaporated cane juice sugar and half was light brown sugar (I used no standard granulated sugar, which I think was inferred for use in the Q-recipe although they didn’t actually say what kind of sugar to use.).
  • Substituted buttermilk for skim milk.
  • Lightly beat the egg before adding to mixture.
  • Added cheese for flavoring (it all melts into recipe).
  • Added nutmeg.

I toyed with the idea of adding chives and/or parsley (have done this with cornbread before and liked it). Didn’t do it this time, but it’s always an option (as it could be for you!) – went with addition of nutmeg instead.

Here’s the recipe. If and when you decide to make it, think about this: Patricia Telesco’s A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook (Llewellyn Publications, 1994) lists corn’s “Magical Associations” as “Life of the Land, cycles and eternity.” I don’t think the term “eternity” on this list is meant to encompass living forever on this planet in our current bodies, but there is something eternal about our being. Scientists have determined that there is no new energy in the Universe. Our bodies decompose and become (or more accurately, remain) One with All that exists. I am content with corn symbolizing this eternal cycling and re-cycling. Sure feels sacred to me.

(MAYBE SACRED) CORNBREAD
Yield: I get 16 “slices” of cornbread, but you might like smaller or larger portions!

Ingredients

  • butter to grease the baking pan
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • ¼ cup sugar (I split this up between evaporated sugar cane juice and light brown sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (I used iodized table salt)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup olive oil or vegetable oil (I only had olive oil; ran out of canola)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup shredded cheddar or mixture of parmesan/asiago cheeses
  • a couple of dashes of fresh-ground nutmeg, to taste

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Generously grease an 8”x 8” or 9”x 9” baking pan (I used a square one) with butter.
  3. Combine dry ingredients – flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt – in a large bowl. Whisk together well.
  4. Combine buttermilk, oil, and egg together in another bowl, whisking until mixed.
  5. Add liquid mixture to dry mix; combine with a few strokes of a wooden spoon or spatula.
  6. Fold the cheese(s) into the mixture, and sprinkle nutmeg (if using) over it as well.
  7. Give mixture a last few stirs (do not over-stir) and then pour into prepared pan.
  8. Bake until cornbread is lightly browned and pulling away from side of the pan. A cake tester or butter knife should come out clean when inserted into its center.
  9. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting into slices.

I like it when it’s still warm and I can slice it horizontally to insert a skinny pat of butter, which immediately melts to add to the yumminess. Ahhhhh…

LENTIL SOUP – EARTHY RECIPE, UNDER A WATER SIGN!

According to Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003), lentils – a major staple in many diets around the world – possess the “energy” of Peace. Their element is water (and how would we eat them if we couldn’t cook them in liquid?), despite what I’d describe as an earthy taste, and their “planet” is the Moon (water… tides… get it?). Cunningham says to “eat it for peace.” I envision a whole day designated for making peace in the world, with everyone slurping lentil soup as part of the overall symbolism. On a full stomach, who can make war?

Peace wasn’t what I had in mind, however, when I made a large batch of it recently. It was about the next couple recipes to cover for From Scratch Club on GoodReads. Part of the assignment for FSC was to make another recipe from The Homemade Pantry, selecting from either Chapter 5 (or “Aisle” 5, as author Alana Chernila calls it), which covers Soups, or from Chapter/Aisle 6, entitled “Baking Needs & Mixes.” I made the soup from Aisle 5, then opted for Alana’s Yellow Cake in the following chapter (also made Corn Bread to go with Lentil Soup but not from this cookbook, although quite similar). Today’s post covers how I prepared the Lentil Soup, based on the book’s instructions but with my own revisions.

Dad (right) w/Uncle Champ & cousin Marge

Bill loves lentil soup. I enjoy it and especially like that lentils don’t take a long time to cook! Growing up, however, I don’t remember these tiny “beans” ever being present in our household. It was the 50s and 60s, and convenience foods were big in this country, especially soup-wise (think: Campbell’s).

Mom & Dad (Dolly & George), circa 1969

In our household if homemade soups were conjured up, Dad usually created them. And he had only two in his repertoire: Vegetable Beef and Manhattan Clam Chowder. In truth, they were the same concoction, except the first one got the beef and the flavor it created when the meat chunks were browned, and the chowder included clams (usually Little Necks). Otherwise, pretty much the same vegetables and spices. You’d think that our father’s taking over some cooking once in a while would be a gift to Mom, and she did appreciate it. Until it got to clean-up. It seems that Dad’s short stint as a cook in the army during the war made him prone to producing very large batches of soup, resulting in lots of clean-up detail (which he was perhaps used to leaving to other soldiers to handle). Mom always seemed to be the one handling clean-up in our flat’s tiny kitchen, a space not equipped with “instant” hot water. She had to be sure to light a flame under the gas water tank early on, so she’d have enough hot water to wash all the dishes!

If I need another reason to like lentils, it’s their awesome nutrition profile. 100 Best Health Foods (Love Food, an imprint of Paragon Books, 2009), a book that details health benefits of some foods determined to be best for our bodies and overall well-being, lists their major nutrient levels and further emphasizes that lentils are especially rich in fiber, have a high iron content, and contain plant chemicals to help alleviate PMS symptoms (wish I’d known that a couple decades ago) and aid in bone health. Their high zinc content also boosts the immune system. We’re talking a food that, from ancient times, has nourished the human race (almost 2,000 years before Christ was born, the Egyptians apparently traded lentils for the prized cedars of Lebanon!).

But few people want to be told how good something is for them (try it on a kid—see how far it’ll get you toward convincing them to eat broccoli or Brussels sprouts…). We want to know it tastes good. And this recipe is delicious – hot, earthy mouthfuls of flavor.

Note about this recipe: I adjusted things like:

  • salt (ran out of unsalted butter; used low-sodium soy sauce instead of regular soy)
  • didn’t have white onions on hand (used red)
  • chopped celery instead of minced
  • delayed when to add lentils (used dried red lentils instead of raw green or French lentils, which cook faster and would disintegrate if added early)
  • added parsnip and extra potatoes
  • added a mix of some herbs (some dried, some frozen from pots on my deck this summer).

EARTHY LENTIL SOUP
(with thanks to Alana Chernila for original recipe from which this is derived)
Yield: 8-10 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter (as noted above, I used salted butter; if using unsalted, adjust for difference)
  • 1 cup chopped onion (white onion ok, but I had milder red ones!)
  • ½ teaspoon fine-ground sea salt (table salt ok), plus more if desired
  • 1 cup peeled, chopped celery (if celery has leaves, use them too!)
  • 1 cup peeled, chopped carrots
  • 1 medium-to-large parsnip, chopped
  • 3 cups dried red lentils
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 2 cups peeled and chopped potatoes
  • 7 to 10 cups chicken or vegetable stock (homemade preferred but not required) or water, or any combo of stock and water
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
  • 1½ tablespoons light brown sugar (yup! who’da thought?!)
  • 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce (according to Alana, tamari is ok too)
  • up to 2 or 3 tablespoons of a combo of parsley, thyme, marjoram and/or oregano (Alana’s recipe calls for most of these [marjoram is my add-on] as garnish; I included them as actual last-minute additions to soup; some of these were frozen from my summer potted herbs, others were dried – all are optional but add nice flavor )

Process

  1. Melt butter in large soup pot over medium heat.
  2. Add onion to butter; sauté for one minute or until shiny.
  3. Add salt, garlic, celery, parsnip and carrots to pan. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, or until aromatic and shiny.
  4. Add bay leaf, potatoes and about 7 cups of stock to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour.
  5. Stir lentils into pot. Bring to boil again, return to medium-low and cover. Check as it cooks, making sure it does not become too thick or dry; if it does, add more stock or water (I wound up using all 9 cups of stock plus a bit of filtered water). Cook for about another 45 minutes.
  6. Add pepper, brown sugar and soy sauce. Remove bay leaf. Cook for about another 10 to15 minutes.
  7. Add combo of herbs, if using. Simmer an additional 5 to 10 minutes if needed (check doneness of lentils and potatoes to gauge this).
  8. Adjust for salt and pepper, then serve!

NOURISHMENT FOR WOMAN’S SOUL: WHITE BEAN SOUP & CREATIVITY

Well, maybe not just a woman’s soul. I first concocted this soup for Bill & me (but then I have to say my hubby is an “honorary” WomanWorder, given all his support for my work/play with women writers over the years, which I think indicates he balances his masculine and feminine energies pretty well). In fact, the food-pictures in this post were taken back then – and not the same day it was made either, but of a microwave-warmed, next-day portion. I made it again for the WomanWords workshop at Still Point last weekend, on June 2nd. It turned out to be perfect “soup weather” since it was in the 60s, and the predicted shower or two passed through during our day of creativity, remembrance and honoring of connections to-and-through the International Women’s Writing Guild.

Over the last several years, I’ve pondered creating my own version of Tuscan white bean soup. It looked and sounded so soothing! I clipped copies of white bean soup recipes from magazines, stuck tiny post-it notes onto cookbook pages with potential source-recipes, and created a mental file of possibilities somewhere in the mush of my aging brain. It was perhaps six or seven weeks ago that I finally attempted it, with delish success, although I’m not sure how Tuscan it turned out to be. Perhaps its T-factor exists in my desire to conjure up a batch of soup with simple ingredients and an easy process. You know – rustic. Or in the types of beans… or the use of garlic and parsley (so Italian)… or maybe it doesn’t matter. It just IS. 

The first version that Bill and I enjoyed back in mid-April, a bit of Eden on the tongue (minus the forbidden fruit, plus the paradise), passed our lips thick-textured and full of flavor. A few days before the workshop, the potful I wound up freezing to bring to Still Point also was thick and rich, with an added herb (marjoram) and some pre-cooked chicken that were not ingredients in the first round! Packing the large cooler for my weekend (I had opted to bring my own food for the extra days I’d registered to stay in my little cabin), I also included a small container of homemade chicken stock to add to the soup while it simmered during the morning portion of our daylong session. I planned to use SP’s slowcooker for warm-up. Unfortunately the ceramic portion of that appliance was partially cracked, which meant “not such a good idea.” The alternative, using the stovetop, almost resulted in burning the soup as it simmered while we participated in storytelling in the other room in Welcoming House. It was sticking to the pan when I finally got out to the kitchen to stir again! Adding a bit more liquid helped, although it thinned the soup out.

Mandala window, Welcoming House, Still Point

None of the above hindered consumption, however, since every bit of the white bean soup disappeared before lunchtime was over and we returned to the room with the mandala-shaped window, to write and share our stories. We needed it, this group of women writers, because we were together for a purpose. A “heart-y” soup is good for the creative  soul.

HEALING-THE-HEART-AND-SOUL WHITE BEAN SOUP
Yields between 6 to 10 servings, depending upon amount of liquid added & if cook chooses to add additional beans and/or chicken.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 2 to 3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 to 3 celery stalks (with leaves, if they’re also attached), peeled and chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
  • 4 to 5 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred; if not, then try to purchase low or no sodium stock) – possibly a little more, if needed
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled, chopped
  • 3 15-ounce cans cannellini or great northern beans (cannellini preferred; a combo is good too)
  • 1 small can garbanzo (chickpea) beans (optional)
  • 2 sprigs dried rosemary springs (perhaps 1 tablespoons’ worth)
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or equivalent in sprigs of dried thyme)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (or 1 tablespoon dried parsley)
  • 1 teaspoon marjoram (optional – I added this to the batch made for the workshop & loved it)
  • 1 to 1½ cups cooked chicken, chopped up small (perhaps ½ inch) – this is optional; I added the chicken the second time I made the soup.
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Optional stir-ins and/or toppings: Light or heavy cream – a small amount to stir in if some dairy richness is desired; Greek yogurt or sour cream – a dab as topping; chopped fresh or dried parsley – a sprinkle atop; choice of croutons as topping.

Process

  1. In a large stockpot, sauté the carrots, onion and celery in the oil and butter for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Lightly season with salt and pepper after about a minute.
  2. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for about another minute, being careful not to burn it.
  3. Add the chicken stock and water. Bring to a boil.
  4. Add potatoes and return to a boil. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender.
  5. Add beans, rosemary, thyme, parsley and marjoram (if using). Simmer another 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Remove pot from stove. Removed herb sprigs from the mixture (which will by now be devoid of most of its leaves).
  7. Using your immersion blender (or a counter top blender, food processor or hand masher), purée the mix to your preferred eating consistency. If the mixture seems too thick, add a little more water or chicken stock.
  8. Return pot to heat and add the chicken (if using), simmering for another 10 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through.
  9. If adding dairy, stir in (start with a small amounts, such as a couple teaspoons – not much is needed!). IF FREEZING THE SOUP, DO NOT ADD DAIRY. WAIT UNTIL THE DATE CHOSEN TO SERVE IT, HEAT IT WELL, THEN ADD CREAM.
  10. Serve with whichever optional toppings desired, or with good bread and a salad!

Slow-Cooker Squash and Sweet Potato Soup (Sneakin’ in Those Sweet Tubers!)

 
If you were at the Women Writers and Artists Matrix Weekend in Saratoga Springs, NY earlier this month – specifically, at Amejo’s house on Saturday night for the “Women, Wine & Cheese Reception” – then you might’ve been waiting for this post, for this recipe. It was a big hit that night, devoured even before a few latecomers arrived at Amejo’s home! Of course, I forgot to take any pictures, being busy being social and all. I decided, however, to whip a batch again last week, but not just for the camera. Bill hadn’t gotten a taste (I took every last drop off to the event with me!), and it’s such a good way for me to sneak a bit of sweet potato into his diet. Yay! for that beta-carotene and all the other nutrition it provides. And the “magic” too, which I’ll get to later. (Incidentally, if you’re new to this blog and don’t know about The Terrible Three, or the only three vegetables my hubby loathes, you might want to check out the 12/11/11 post covering our delicious experiences at internationally-famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, NY.)

Marilyn at WWAM Weekend, with an International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) SisterWriter.

The chicken stock mentioned in my previous post turned out to be the best I’ve ever conjured up. Which might not seem like much to say, since I think I’ve only made it from scratch once, perhaps a year or two ago for a batch of chicken soup – except that this version made a huge difference in not only this soup but also in the couple applications I managed to dream up for it since. So I’m sold on going homemade as much as possible, especially for soup. In fact, there’s a pot of stock simmering on the cooktop upstairs now, its intoxicating aroma wafting its way downstairs as I type. I expect to split this batch between the freezer and cooking up a pot of White Bean Soup (with Chicken) for the WomanWords workshop this weekend with Alice Orr at Still Point.

Our recent hot weather is supposed to break, and the mid-60s temp expected for Saturday is just fine for soup. Stock done today; soup-making sometime tomorrow, in between packing to leave early for Still Point on Friday (picking up Alice at Saratoga train station before settling in at SP!). Oh yeah, I’m also going to Leslie’s this afternoon to do art and then on to grocery-shop for the weekend. Yikes! What a schedule… but I do intend to finish and post this blog before all this is accomplished.
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Before providing the recipe, how about a little of the food’s magic? This blog is dubbed, after all, Kitchen Cauldron. and I do like to bring it (the magic) into some posts, exploring ancient beliefs about a food along with some nutritional facts. If a witch is one who practices alchemy, who transforms one simple item into another of greater value (think: lead into gold as the metaphor goes, or more to the point for KC, basic food items into nutritious and delicious delights), then that must be me. Further, if a witch is one who takes experiences and thoughts and transforms them into words, why then I also qualify as one!

Squash, this soup’s main ingredient, has been around a long time so there’s plenty of lore. According to my handy Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003), it’s been in the Americas since at least 4,000 B.C.E. It was so sacred to the Hopi that they even created one of their spiritual (Kachina) dolls topped with a head of squash and wearing squash blossom necklaces. This vegetable, in any form (butternut, zucchini, etc.), inspires spirituality. If someone maintains s/he doesn’t like squash, then serve that person zucchini bread! Cunningham says squash can “increase awareness of the non-physical reality around us,” and he also lists it among foods that are “generally used for promoting courage, protection, aggression, sex and health.” In The Kitchen Witch Companion: Simple and Sublime Culinary Magic by Patricia Telesco (Citadel Press, 2005), the author writes in the intro to a recipe titled Multi-Tasking Squash, “Squash comes in a huge variety of colors and sizes, and some of these can grow to exceed 240 pounds and produce hundreds of seeds. These characteristics provide this vegetable with the symbolic value of slow, steady development that leads to substantial rewards.” Hmmm. Got a big project you’re working on? Maybe this is just the soup to enhance your ability to ace it!

I think I’ve gotten into pumpkin and sweet potato symbolism before, but quickly:

  • For sweet potatoes, those orange-hued tubers, think love and sex, the ability to excite desire (it goes both ways though – giving love, receiving love). In fact, Patricia Telesco’s A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook, (Llewellyn Publications, 1994), lists as the sweet potato’s “Magical Association” the following: “Well founded, gentle love.”
  • For pumpkin (more orange!), think healing and money symbols – the fruitfulness of the earth inspires this; and pumpkins have been known to symbolize Mother Goddess. (To enhance its ability to attract money, it’s said that one should serve it with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg – no wonder pumpkin pie is so popular!)

Then there are the potatoes in the soup. Earth element, since they come from it, they’re known for protective qualities and for promoting compassion (now, don’t they sound like Mother Earth sorts of attributes?). The Spaniards brought the first potatoes to Europe in 1534, where they claimed the veggie could cure impotency. This led to the value of spuds jumping outrageously high – in some cases, sales amounted to the equivalent of $1,000 in today’s U.S. dollars! Of course, this did lead to a problem when potatoes were declared “unholy” in some parts of the world (I believe Scotland was the first) and their consumption was banned. Cunningham suggests that one might make the potato’s effects stronger by adding onions, chives, dill weed, rosemary and/or parsley, but I’d add one bit of advice: Don’t throw out your Viagra either.

Garlic cloves also possess protection and health qualities. In fact, in ancient times, garlic was touted as a cure for insanity. And Roman soldiers consumed it believing that it afforded them courage on the battlefield. There’s one stipulation here, however, with garlic: don’t bother with anything like bottled, canned or dried. Allegedly, it’s only the fresh stuff that works.

It seems all the ingredients in the chicken broth are aimed at good health and well-being (Jewish mothers knew what they were talking about!), especially the chicken that played a major part in producing it. As for the spices added to this Squash and Sweet Potato Soup, they offer magical benefits too: black pepper promotes cleansing, purification, protection and banishing; salt also symbolizes cleansing and purification, with grounding thrown in; bay leaf enhances psychic powers, strength and health; sage adds possibilities for purification and wisdom; and parsley brings good for luck and protection from accidents. (In addition to other sources previously mentioned, I consulted Cait Johnson’s Witch in the Kitchen: Magical Cooking for All Seasons [Destiny Books, 2001] on the spices.)

I can’t forget to mention a few utensils you might be utilizing as you produce your soup, for the tools of the trade are not to be overlooked as part of the magic. Telesco provides a “Magical Association” for several of these. For instance, she lists a blender as being associated with “Mingling with others, stirring up energy.” Not a bad association, and plenty valid if you’re going to share your soup with others. I also assume this  works for a food processor and an immersion blender as well (and even a hand masher). She lists “Knife” as magically connected with “Cutting away, sharpness of mind, separation.” A fork might symbolize “Piercing, penetrating, perception.” I found nothing about slow-cookers, by the way, but I tend to think they’re about patience and the wisdom of taking care of oneself (as the cook, I think of an occasional slow-cooker meal as a rest period for me, at least once everything’s prepped and in the pot, then left to cook for hours during which I might write, read and otherwise own my own time!).

Cunningham says cups and bowls are related to the element of water and are therefore “entirely receptive.” They possess loving energies. He tells us that earlier cultures connected rounded pots and bowls with the Great Mother – a concept that was pretty much universal. Goddess energy. Rounded pots and bowls, like the earth. The association of witches with an iron pot, the cauldron used throughout Europe for cooking, derives from Shakespeare’s “three witches” scene in Macbeth. The old Bard’s witches weren’t doing anything at all unusual in using a cauldron for “brewing” – what was weird was what the women were cooking up (including their ingredients)! Today’s Wiccans, Cunningham states, honor the cauldron as a symbol of the Mother Goddess.

That’s more than enough magic for one post, except that I must state my best take on all of this. Yes, it’s a bit of kitchen alchemy – as I defined it earlier. And there’s lots of magic in food, in the ways it can nourish us, give us strength, make us happy, bring people together and much more. There’s magic in food like there’s magic in everything, and intention is its best enhancer. Having just read the newly revised (to add artwork) Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan, illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin Press, 2011), it feels right to believe that setting some of the simple intentions that Pollan suggests also sets the stage for Magic to happen (like, “#2, Don’t Eat Anything Your Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food, or #19, Eat Only Foods That Have Been Cooked by Humans, or #64, Try to Spend as Much Time Enjoying the Meal as It Took to Prepare It, or #74,Don’t Get Your Fuel from the Same Place Your Car Does. Following through on even a few of them might make you a Witch – whether you think so or not!

And now for my latest Witch’s Brew~~

SLOW-COOKER SQUASH AND SWEET POTATO SOUP
Yields enough for a small crowd (10 to 20, if they keep it to cups instead of bowls!)

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, peeled & chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove (or 2 small), peeled & diced
  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about ¾” cubes)
  • 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cubed
  • 1 14-to-16-ounce can of pumpkin puree (however it’s packaged, but NOT pumpkin pie mix); if you’re into using fresh pumpkin, go for it (I haven’t gone there yet…)
  • 2 medium potatoes (or equivalent in leftover mashed potatoes)
  • 2 large bay leaves (or 3 small)
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sage
  • 4 cups chicken stock (homemade preferred, but if not available then use a low or no sodium brand)
  • salt & pepper to your personal taste (but at least a teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper!)
  • options for serving: light cream (to stir in); Greek yogurt, sour cream, parsley and/or croutons (for toppings)

Process

  1. In a large frying pan, sauté the onion and sweet potato for about two to three minutes.
  2. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for another minute or two. Watch carefully, stir as necessary, being sure that the garlic doesn’t burn (if it burns, you’ll have to start over… no “fix” for burned garlic taste!).
  3. Remove frying pan from heat and set aside.
  4. Add the butternut squash and potatoes to the bottom of the slow-cooker.
  5. Spread pumpkin puree over squash and potatoes.
  6. Top contents of slow-cooker with the sautéed contents of the frying pan.
  7. Sprinkle the bay leaf and dried herbs (thyme, parsley & sage) over everything, as well as salt and pepper (you can season further with s&p, if needed, although it’s best to wait until after the soup has cooked fully).
  8. Pour the four cups of chicken broth over the contents of the slow-cooker.
  9. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours. Test at 3½ hours for doneness (potatoes and butternut squash must be well done, enough for a fork to easily pierce). Stir and replace top to cook for added time, if necessary.
  10. When contents are done, removed bay leaves.
  11. Using an immersions blender (or food processor, stand blender or by hand with a masher), puree the mixture to the texture you enjoy most (I like it thick and chunky!).
  12. If it’s thicker than you prefer, feel free to add either more chicken stock or water, a little at a time, stirring in between. (If you plan to add light cream before serving, allow for that extra liquid – although you probably won’t stir in more than ¼ to ½ cup of the dairy if you truly want to savor the vegetables!)
  13. Freeze or serve with options listed above (light cream, to stir in; Greek yogurt, sour cream, parsley and/or croutons, for toppings).

 

How to Get Rave Reviews: Start with Homemade (Chicken, or other) Stock

I started this blogpost last night, first drafting the recipe and then deciding the lead-in (narrative) part would have to wait until today. Since I was scheduled to attend a workshop at East Line Books in Clifton Park, NY this morning on Food and Travel Writing, led by Alison Stein Wellner, I knew it would be later in the day that I’d get back to it. I am now glad it happened that way. As I’d hoped, the info-packed session “pumped me up” again for writing. Not only the foodblog, but for other food-related literature as well. And maybe, just maybe, I might find myself returning to a get-published (as in other-than-self-published) frame of mind.

It’s been a long time since potential acceptance by magazines and journals held any allure for me. I simply want to write. And cook. And do art. And spend time with family and good friends. Alison, however, through one of her short writing exercises, managed to tease out of me an idea for a series of articles that I not only want to write but feel compelled to share with anyone who’ll listen/read. Seeking publication in a relevant magazine might be the best way to do that.

One simple question from Alison, “What fascinates you about food and travel?” – with ensuing suggestions about possible directions our pens might take us in from there – set everyone in the room scribbling. Her best advice: “Write about what fascinates you,” because to do otherwise means you’ll begin to hate it. It will become as much drudgery as any of the worst 9-to-5 jobs you’ve ever held.

This “new” topic fascinates me. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with blog readers right now. It requires nurturing, planning and lots of time (and work) to come to fruition. (If I had time, I’d be signed up for Alison’s workshop at the Capital Region Arts Center next weekend, June 2nd. She’ll be covering The Business of Freelance Writing!)

In the meantime, now that I’ve worked up your curiosity, how about a return to Chicken Stock?
++++++++++

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months, you’ve probably noticed that I mention the use of boxed stocks in cooking up batches of my soups (and I do love making soup!). I’ve discovered a couple brands that I like. They’re not high in sodium (some sodium-free), plus they’re pretty tasty. So I wasn’t necessarily gung-ho for stirring up a pot o’ the homemade stuff. But reading a relatively new, food-related book changed my mind.

Here’s what I wrote about An Everlasting Meal in my “journal” of books I’ve read (yes, I have a list of every book I’ve read, i.e., completely finished, since 1995; had to do it since I found I couldn’t remember which I’d read and sometimes would begin to read something, only to realize I’d read it a year or two before!):

Adler, Tamar. AN EVERLASTING MEAL: COOKING WITH ECONOMY AND GRACE. Scribner, 2011. Essays on food. Beginning with “How to Boil Water,” Adler caught me up in her beautiful prose. Which often reads like poetry. How about the title of the next chapter, “How to Teach an Egg to Fly”? In which she says to the reader, “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.” There are recipes too but not always in a real recipe format. She wants her readers to learn what to do with foods without need of a cookbook. She wants us to love food; not waste it; share it with others because it’s about nourishment and, thus, relationships. A truly wonderful book. Highly recommended, whether you like to cook or not.

A small part of Adler’s desire not to waste the gifts of the earth includes saving the ends, peels and odd chunks of aromatics, as well as bones of fish and fowl and animals, for stocks that add gusto to future meals. I now freeze many of these bits of leftovers and otherwise not usable veggies (except maybe in compost), later to stew up the most delicious stock! Below is the chicken one (to be followed by a future post, with pictures, for a soup that was a mega-hit at the Women Writers and Artists Matrix Weekend in Saratoga earlier this month), but it’s not the only stock I’ve created since reading this exquisite book.

After serving a seldom-seen dinner on our table (lamb), I managed to find time to toss the bones, aromatics and water into a pot, then strain and freeze the results. Last week, I made one of my hubby’s favorite meals, Braised Stew Beef (it makes its own gravy) over noodles. Instead of cooking it down with water added to the extra-large frying pan, I poured in one of the thawed containers of lamb stock. Rave reviews ensued.

You too could get rave reviews. Not from the New York Times food critic, but from someone whose opinion matters more to you. Start with homemade stock.

MARILYN’S HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Yields one really, really large stockpot full of delicious liquid!

Prelude to Ingredients: Collect & freeze, over a few weeks or a month, the following –

  • Chicken bones, with any amount of meat still stuck to them (or none at all)
  • Ends cut away from onions, shallots, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic (and maybe more, depending upon your own taste and judgment)
  • Onion, carrot, celery and garlic peelings, pieces and leaves

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil, with a dab of butter added
  • 2 carrots, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 2 small celery stalks, unpeeled, cut into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 1 to 2 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 3 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • all of “Prelude” ingredients listed above – minimum of a 1 gallon zip-lock bag of the veggies; plus at least bones equivalent to 2 chickens, whether chicken parts or whole birds (it’s good to include some bones with bits of dark meat on them, for good flavor)
  • a few grape (or cherry) tomatoes (but only if you have them and wish to include them), halved
  • water to cover all ingredients, and then some… (filtered water is better than tap water, especially if you’re on public water that’s chemically treated – but it’s not required)
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt (or kosher, if preferred; but you can use table salt, just not the whole 2 teaspoons in the latter case)
  • 3 or 4 small sprigs of dried thyme
  • 2 small sprigs of dried rosemary
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried parsley
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest (optional, but a nice touch)

Process:

  1. Sauté the carrots, celery and onion in the oil/butter for about 2 minutes – in a large stockpot. (I lightly salt these at this time too.)
  2. Add garlic to pan; continue to sauté for about a minute more (do not burn the garlic or you’ll have to start over!).
  3. Add the rest of the vegetable items (peels, ends, etc.), along with the grape (or cherry) tomatoes, if using, and the batch of chicken bones. Cover with water – enough to bring it to at least three inches over the ingredients.
  4. Toss in peppercorns, salt, thyme, rosemary, parsley and lemon zest (if using).
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  6. Allow to simmer for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours. You’ll want water to reduce gradually as flavor intensifies.
  7. When the stock meets your own taste-bud test, turn off the heat and let sit for a bit.
  8. After about 20 minutes, strain through a sieve and distribute stock amongst containers in which to freeze – perhaps retaining some to make soup immediately, or use for braising a chicken or other dish.
  9. When cool enough (it’s wise to sit containers in ice bath to get it there- much safer, foodwise), place in freezer for future use. Make sure you’ve marked containers (with labels) with info about what’s in it and date it was frozen!

Sorry – didn’t think to take a picture of the strained stock. Besides, I’m sure all my readers have an idea of what that looks like! Stay tuned, however, for the next post – in which this stock helps to transform butternut squash, pumpkin puree and sweet potato into a thick, savory soup that you’ll want to inhale (it’s that good).

Guest Blogger: Alice Orr and her “Sauce of Life”

I’m proud to introduce my first Guest Blogger to KitchenCauldron: Alice Orr, a writer friend I met many years ago, probably at my very first summer conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild, attended in 1995. Only in more recent years have Alice and I begun to connect on deeper levels, and our foodie interests seem to enhance that friendship. It’s only natural that my very first Guest Blog should be written by Alice.

Alice also gifts us with a bonus – a writing prompt following the recipe! Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer (and I have to say that you’re wrong if you believe that’s the case because we’re all storytellers), her suggested tale-telling/memoir-writing exercise is Food for Thought. Which brings me to another innovation for KC: if you write something, perhaps you might like to share it with KC readers? That happens to be what KitchenCauldron’s “Food for Thought – Getting Literary” Page is all about (see righthand column). If you write a short piece from Alice’s prompt (preferably up to 500 words, but no longer than 700), you can submit it via e-mail it to me at wmnwords@nycap.rr.com and I’ll consider adding it to that page (or subsequent pages, if I decide to create a “Volume 2”). Hey—if there’s a recipe with it, maybe you too might become a KC Guest Blogger!

But back to Alice Orr.

I first realized that Alice was somewhat of a foodie while she was still living on Vashon Island, in the state of Washington. I can’t recall whether it was during her bout with cancer (mentioned below in her story-intro to the recipe) or just afterward, but I have a strong memory of an e-mail in which she bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t find any place in her area that made good meatballs; and she didn’t have a decent recipe for them either. Having moved to Washington from New York City years before, she was somewhat spoiled by the tasty convenience of many an authentic Italian restaurant within walking, subway or taxi range, including a few in formerly Italian-immigrant sections of the city. I know this is not the reason she and her husband once again reside in The Big Apple, but I’m sure it has to be the “icing on the cake” regarding their return to her home state and beloved NYC. Or should I say, “the meatball in the sauce”?

This recipe, however, isn’t about the meatball(s). It’s about where the meatballs usually wind up, in the sauce, although this version is marinara. Connected with the recipe are special childhood and other memories, including the source of the recipe – a hometown restaurant. Alice has made it her own, as most foodies do. She says, “I feel okay calling this Alice’s sauce because I have added my tweaks to the original. They are part of the story too. For example, I picked up the paste sauté trick from an actor named Charlie a long time ago. It adds a depth of flavor and aroma that makes me and my kitchen smile.” She advises reader-cooks to “Feel free to add your tweaks – and your stories – also. Stories make kitchen life as rich as this sauce and then some. So be sure to spin your yarns as you stir your pots.”

Without further ado (and saving Alice Orr’s short “bio” for the end of the blog), please enjoy – and hopefully cook up – a  potful of…

The Sauce of Life
by Alice Orr

I dedicate this to my Grandma – Alice Jane Rowland Boudiette – because she gave me my first Warm Kitchen Memories.

Grandma cooked on a cast iron stove so massive it had to be cut apart with a blowtorch to get it out of her house after she passed away when I was seven years and three days old. A circle of heat radiated around that stove the same way a circle of tranquility radiated around my grandmother. I basked in both through many frigid Northern New York winter days.

I would sit at the small wooden table between the kitchen window and the door to the storm porch at the back of Grandma’s house on West Main Street in Watertown NY. The storm porch was where I stopped to knock the frequent blizzards off my buckled rubber boots before going inside. It was lined with cupboards stocked to overflowing during August canning season with Mason jars of peaches and pears – corn and tomatoes – jams and jellies – chili sauce and pickles.

To be honest I do not remember Grandma’s cooking anywhere near as clearly as I remember what it felt like to be with her. Not just safe and accepted but at the center of the essence of safety and acceptance where I was simply Ali Bette, and that was plenty enough to be. I have no doubt that the reason I find calmness in cooking and peace in preparing meals hearkens back to the heart of my Grandma, at the heart of her house, which was always her warm kitchen.

Twenty-some years after Grandma was gone, I inhabited another warm kitchen. I had been married by then and had become a mom, only to be unmarried again and become a single mom. My friend Gayle was in the same boat and our boat was floundering financially. We shared a house and pooled our resources, but that pool was pretty shallow and our grocery budget suffered accordingly.

We had a big battered cooking pot with a lid that bounced to a clattery rhythm when the contents boiled. This pot was residence for the three main staples of our diet – potatoes for mashing, macaroni for cheese and spaghetti for sauce. Our kitchen on Moffett Street, also in Watertown, had its own small table near the window. The top was covered in off-white Formica with a pattern of gray wavy lines.

Our kids sat there every morning before school, each with a different brand of breakfast cereal in their bowls. They ate fast and slopped cereal and milk onto the tabletop. Gayle and I were also hurrying to make it to work and had little time for cleanup. We came home most nights to a mosaic of cereal flakes and shapes glued so tight to the Formica that they had to be soaked in soapy water, then pried loose with a spatula before supper could be served.

The greatest gift Gayle and I gave our children and each other back then was our ability to laugh amidst the hurrying and our lack of money and, of course, the mess on the tabletop. That laughter is at the heart of my Warm Kitchen Memories from that time when the hands-down kids’ favorite among our battered pot meals was Spaghetti with Sauce.

One particular Italian restaurant in Watertown was renowned for its sauce. Canali’s sat oddly off the main road which rose above it as an overpass. My family could not afford to go out to eat much when I was young. Cooking and eating happened at home. The same situation prevailed for Gayle and me. When I finally did get to Canali’s for a meal, their Spaghetti with Meatballs embedded itself in my taste memory forever. The sauce especially took my taste buds by surprise – subtle and full-flavored, with just the right amount of garlic.

Alice's former home on Vashon Island

I had never experienced sauce like that before and would not again until Cousin Robin reappeared in my life. We hadn’t seen each other since we were kids in Watertown. He was a towhead back then, a few years older than I with a big personality like so many of us in the Boudiette clan. His presence had not shrunk when my bout with cancer brought him to my house in Washington State a couple of years ago.

His robust frame filled our large dark green chair near the living room window. I languished nearby on my couch-turned-recuperation-bed. I could tell he loved to talk and let him do that. Robin is a raconteur with a memory for detail. His stories of our family washed over and through me as I drifted on the pleasant flow of his Texas-Oklahoma transplant drawl. Then he said two sentences that brought me to full attention.

“Do you remember Canali’s Restaurant in Watertown? I have their sauce recipe.”

He went on to unwind a tale of wheedling the recipe out of a chef there. I can easily imagine Robin wheedling anything out of anybody. On the other hand, he is a yarnspinner and I understand that the facts of a yarn are often embellished in the spinning. Nonetheless I was happy when a few weeks later he e-mailed me the recipe. I was amazed by the simplicity of the ingredients and cooking method, but the preponderance of canned components made me skeptical about Cousin Robin’s claims. I needed to test this out.

Vashon Island kitchen

I was feeling better by then – well on my way to the positive verdict my oncologist would soon bestow on me. I was ready to return to the warm circle of my own kitchen at the heart of our yellow farmhouse at the heart of Vashon Island. I was also eager to feel the reassurance I knew I would find there, where my wooden spoons – worn smooth by years of mixing – waited for me to pick them up again and mix some more.

I did not yet have the strength for anything requiring lengthy preparation. Cousin Robin’s recipe would be perfect and the ingredients were so basic I had them on hand. I pulled out my favorite sauce pot – a flame red Le Creuset with stove stains on the bottom – and began opening cans. Soon after, I was stirring with my long-handled wooden spoon while rich aroma wafted through the house that must have missed the comfort smell of cooking as much as I did.

I held off on the tasting. I looked forward to a happy surprise and dreaded disappointment at the same time. Finally I gave the thick darkish red sauce one more stir scraping in all of the bits from the bottom. Then I lifted the spoon to my lips. My taste buds leapt with delight just as they had back in Watertown at a booth in Canali’s Restaurant many years before.

Memory and longing collided in that moment at the very center of my being – from Grandma through Gayle to my Vashon Island kitchen – and I was profoundly grateful to be alive and present for the collision. Plus this was the best sauce I had ever made in my life.

ALICE’S SAUCE OF LIFE
Yields one large pot of marinara sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons of minced garlic (from a jar is fine)
  • Two 6-ounce cans tomato paste
  • Two 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
  • One 23.5 or 26.5-ounce can or jar of meatless spaghetti sauce, preferably tomato-basil
  • 2 tomato paste cans of water
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 medium size bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt. (Kosher salt tastes best but is bad for the blood pressure, so I don’t use it.)
  • Sprinkles of cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Sprinkles of allspice, not more than ¼ teaspoon
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Fresh parsley and chives, snipped into the pan (optional)

Process

  1. Heat olive oil to sizzling in bottom of sauce pan. Add garlic and stir until aroma begins to escape.
  2. Add tomato paste to pan, blend into oil and garlic and stir constantly until paste begins to brown and smells delectable.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend together well.
  4. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat until the sauce is simmering at a comfortable bubble.
  5. Simmer for two hours, stirring every fifteen minutes. Be careful not to let the sauce stick to the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat and stir more frequently if that begins to happen.
  6. Allow sauce to sit for a while or refrigerate overnight before serving so the flavors can come into true harmony with one another. Or – if you are in a huge hurry – serve it straight off. It will be delicious any way your time may dictate.

An Exercise for the Storyteller in You

Warm up as spring approaches by writing about an experience we have all had in some form or other. In my writing workshops, I do not usually specify what the mood of a piece should be. But this time I am going to ask you to make the mood of what you write WARM.

Write your own Warm Kitchen Memory scene. Something that has happened to you at some time in your life in a kitchen. Something you remember with warmth and fondness.

Do your best to make this scene come alive. The people who were there. What was said. What was done. And especially the feelings. Your feelings as you experienced this scene.

The first scene that comes to your mind and memory is probably the best one to write. It can come from your past or from this morning. There are no right or wrong choices.

Start by calming and centering yourself with some long deep breaths. Then – just write. Do not worry about how you write – just write – from the center of yourself and that Warm Kitchen.

If you have any questions about how to do this or if you would like to share the results please do not hesitate to email me at aliceorrseminars@gmail.com.

In the meantime – Keep on Stirring Pots and Spinning Yarns, Whatever May Occur.

Alice Orr has spent her career life as a publishing professional –
literary agent, book editor, published author.
In her workshops she teaches writers
how to give their writing work and their writer selves agent-editor appeal.
At her blog http://publishingsensefromaliceorr.blogspot.com,
Alice shares practical tips and pragmatic advice for writers
who want to be published or better published.
At her website http://www.aliceorrseminars.net/, she shares herself.

Tomato Soup, with secret ingredient revealed

Have I mentioned that I love soup? I mean, I LOVE soup.

Why? In most cases, it’s relatively easy to make. Often quick too, with any time-consuming aspect almost always turning out to be the prepping of vegetables – rinsing, peeling, chopping, maybe rinsing again. Sometimes it’s great for using up leftovers. And a simple way to pack in all those “colors of the rainbow” in foods that we’re told aid us in providing adequate nutrition for our bodies. Soup is comfort food, good for the soul (however you might define that word, whether mystical or creative or both). Hot soup warms the innards; cold soup makes a hot, humid summer day seem less oppressive.

So I was going to visit my Aunt Pat earlier this week (see KC post of November 25, 2011, if you missed it, to learn a little about her), and I’d promised to bring soup for lunch again. She was providing the sandwich filling. I would stop for a good bread and a variety of potential toppings for the soup.

Uncle Doug, in naval uniform

There was a purpose to this visit this time around, aside from the usual checking in with a special relative. I would be interviewing her about Uncle Doug, her deceased husband, one of my mother’s older brothers, for a short write-up about his service during World War 2. My husband has nominated him to be honored at an Albany County “Honor a Vet” ceremony (a monthly event), and the “bio” is a prerequisite to scheduling him for one of the slots this summer. Given the fact that my uncle served on the USS Intrepid during a good part of his wartime experience, Bill thought he was an excellent candidate for this. Anyone who spent WW2 time on the Intrepid – known as “indestructible” since the aircraft carrier survived five kamikaze attacks – did a tough stint.

Uncle Doug & Aunt Pat, 1961

I remember that, as kids, all of the cousins loved it when Uncle Doug would pull out his Intrepid “souvenirs” to show us. Since my immediate family lived in a flat across the hall from Aunt Pat and Uncle Doug, we felt privileged to be able to peruse his “logbook” from the ship (no, not like the captain’s logbook!). It was like thumbing through a high school yearbook, examining all the pictures, except that this was serious stuff. These men had helped to “save the Free World” and many of the men in those photos hadn’t survived to enjoy the victory. They’d died for us. Of course, our chests would puff out with pride because our uncle – the soft-spoken, everyday guy across the hall who loved to fish and sometimes hung out at Leo’s Tavern – was there, and he lived to tell about it. Except, like many a war veteran, he didn’t talk about it much, not even with his wife. Still, he’d point out where he stood in a formal photograph of the crew; and then he might pull out the huge silk Japanese flag he’d brought home, with its gigantic red rising sun, and allow us to run our fingers over its smooth surface.

In the early 1990s, when our daughter Kristen was a student at School of Visual Arts in New York City, we made a point of touring the USS Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on a weekend while visiting her. Our kids too had perused Uncle Doug’s Intrepid book by then, and Kris was definitely gung-ho about making it to the museum. It was awesome for my mother, Bill, Kristen and me to be walking the same deck that Uncle Doug must’ve trod thousands of times, to see where he would’ve eaten and slept, to imagine what life must’ve been like in those crowded quarters for sailors in mortal danger on a daily basis. I felt bad that Aunt Pat had never been able to get to NYC to see it (she still hasn’t – and it’s a lot of walking, so I’m not sure she could at this point). I felt proud that my uncle had been a crew member on the Intrepid.

Kristen & Mom (Dolly) on deck at the Intrepid Museum

Since she and Uncle Doug never had any children, Aunt Pat has passed on many of those “souvenirs” to nieces and nephews. Originally, I had the Intrepid’s “logbook” but I gave it to my brother George’s son, Matt, who is a history professor at a local community college (in fact, he focused on military history in college, having taken many of his undergraduate credits, and I think his Master’s, at Oxford, Kings College, in the UK). Aunt Pat gave Matt a few other wartime items as well. During our interview, I learned that cousin Doug got the Rising Sun flag. It’s like the disbursement of goods after the war’s over with – however, our generation didn’t bring about the victory; we merely inherited the great gifts hard-won by generations before us: years of freedom, ever hopeful for a brighter future.

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Maybe I should call this Victory Soup, or Intrepid Soup. Intrepid after all, does claim amongst its synonyms (according to Rodale’s The Synonym Finder) the words bold, undaunted, dashing, audacious, daring. It’s #1 synonym is fearless, and I could say I had to put aside fear as I experimented with this batch of tomato soup. For one thing, I’d promised soup, hadn’t made it ahead and frozen any, and then we were away for most of the weekend. I hadn’t checked cabinets for supplies beforehand and, when we returned home on Sunday night, I was too tired to cook anything anyway. I waited until morning to decide what to do….

Not lots of fresh veggies in the fridge. An inspection of the appropriate drawer, however, revealed three skinny carrots, lots of onions, about half a bunch of celery, and several vegetables that didn’t interest me for this project (actually a couple of the latter found their way into the garbage, a little overdue for trashing). On the counter in the garlic keeper, I found I still had garlic. No boxed chicken stock though. I nixed the beef and went for the vegetable stock. OK, the basics to start a soup – what next?

I thought I’d make pumpkin soup, minus the hollowed-out pumpkins used as bowls (see December 12, 2011 KC blogpost). Several cans of organic pumpkin stared down at me from the top shelf of the cabinet. Unfortunately, checking another shelf for the one sweet potato I knew was there, safely ensconced in a paper bag, I decided it wasn’t in great shape (it too met the garbage). I like texture in my soup, which sweet potato supplies, plus it adds a nice flavor twist. No sweet potato – no pumpkin soup.

My next thought was, I could stop at that terrific little café next to the Spectrum Theater, not far from Aunt Pat’s, and buy some soup. Well, nope. I’m just vain enough to want to bring my aunt homemade stuff, my homemade not a restaurant’s, no matter how good theirs might be. Then I thought, Ah, how about semi-homemade, like Sandra-What’s-Her-Name on Food Network? I noted that I had a couple cans of Wolfgang Puck’s organic tomato basil soup, purchased recently on sale, so I grabbed them, placing them on the counter.

Carrots, onions, celery, garlic. Butter and olive oil to sauté them in. Hmm, I grabbed 2 cans of organic diced tomatoes, plus a larger box of Italian-import tomatoes (diced also) I’d bought on a whim. I hadn’t made tomato soup in a while and now I was getting excited. Sea salt, fresh ground pepper, a bit of dried basil. Oh yeah—the fresh parsley in that drawer was still good-to-go! How about a touch of nutmeg? I was on a roll.

I opened the refrigerator door again, pulled open the drawer to the right of the vegetable drawer, where I usually store fruit. Tomatoes are fruit, despite having been labeled otherwise by governments, markets and more over the years. Voilà! Grape tomatoes! And one lonely, beautiful blood orange. Somewhere in my brain a few sparks were flying – I knew I’d seen recipes that combined tomatoes and oranges before, especially in soups. Yup the secret ingredient! Orange, plus I’d roast the cherry tomatoes and add them after the basic soup was puréed.

Would Aunt Pat like this soup? I knew she liked tomato soup (usually out of a can), so I was counting on it. With time constraints (it was about 7 a.m. and I was expected by 1 p.m. – and it wasn’t just the soup that had to get done), I didn’t bother writing down ingredients or how I prepared it. That wasn’t all I didn’t bother with—or forgot to do. Later, I brought along my camera to take pictures but forgot all about it as we chatted and slurped away (pictures with this post come from the portion I kept at home for Bill and me to finish off – which we did, deliciously!).

I don’t feel at all guilty when I tell you that the bold-tasting, yummy soup recipe below constitutes, in a few instances, an approximation of what went into Marilyn the Soup Lady’s latest creation. That’s the way soup happens, in my opinion. You’ll go your own way, as Fleetwood Mac might say – do what you will with this recipe. Oh – you’ll probably have noticed that I didn’t wind up using the canned soup. Ol’ Wolfgang is back up on the shelf, ready for a semi-homemade day some other time.

By the way, both Aunt Pat and I enjoyed two helpings, along with olive-oil-and-rosemary bread slathered with the egg salad she’d prepared.

AUDACIOUS TOMATO-WITH-BLOOD-ORANGE SOUP
Yields from 12 to 16 servings, depending upon size of servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 small onion, skins removed, diced
  • 3 carrots (only 2 if they’re large and thick), peeled and diced
  • 2 or 3 celery stalks, ribs pared off, diced
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, skins removed, diced almost to a mince
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 to 2 cups vegetable stock or broth (chicken stock will do just as well)
  • 55-60 ounces of canned or boxed (not fresh), diced tomatoes, low or no-salt added
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (can substitute with 1 tablespoon dried parsley)
  • zest of one blood orange (any other kind of orange would also work)
  • juice of ½ of one blood orange (eat the other half! it’s sweeter than most oranges; if can’t find blood oranges, use any kind of orange)
  • grape tomatoes, halved (I had about 18-20 of them; use more if you like)
  • a pinch or two of nutmeg and/or cinnamon (optional – and I think I even used a pinch of ground cardamom too!)
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Optional toppings: sour cream, crème fraiche or Greek yogurt; croutons or other crunchy topping (I had tortilla strips) for contrasting texture

Process:

  1. Melt the butter in the olive oil in a large pot (I used my Dutch oven).
  2. Sauté onion, carrot and celery for about 3 minutes, salting and peppering lightly when first added to pot.
  3. Add the garlic to the onion mixture. Sauté for an additional minute or so, taking care not to burn the garlic.
  4. Add a cup of the vegetable broth and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  5. Add the diced tomatoes, including all juice from the can or box. Simmer for about 20-25 minutes, when all the vegetables should be thoroughly cooked and tender.
  6. While the tomato mixture simmers, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (400 if your oven runs cooler).
  7. Spread the halved grape tomatoes out on a small, low-rimmed pan. Sprinkle or mist them with olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with some of the dried parsley and sea salt.
  8. Roast the tomatoes for about 10 to 15 minutes, until they soften and perhaps begin to brown a bit in places (I turn them over once, shifting them around). Remove and set aside on a trivet or wire rack when done.
  9. Once tomato mixture has sufficiently simmered, stir in the orange zest and juice, basil, and parsley.
  10. Using an immersion blender (the easiest method), food processor or standard blender, purée the mixture to the texture you prefer (I like it to actually have some texture, not be totally smooth).
  11. If the soup is too “soupy” for your taste at this point, simply simmer it for a while longer. If thicker than you’d like it, carefully stir in more vegetable broth, a little at a time; simmer for a another 10 minutes or so just to blend the flavor in.
  12. Add the roasted cherry tomatoes.
  13. Stir in the nutmeg, cinnamon and/or cardamom, if using.
  14. Salt and pepper, to taste.
  15. Scoop into bowls and add optional toppings, if you desire them.

I was tempted to add some light cream to the soup, but the flavors were so perfect it seemed almost sacrilegious to think of it. As mentioned above, my aunt and I indulged in two helpings each. And we tried it with both crème fraische and sour cream. Delectable and comforting both ways!

“MEN LOVE THIS,” LAURA SAID: ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGES & VEGETABLES; plus, what to do with the leftovers…

For this blogpost, I’m heading right for the food-witchy stuff – but not like you’d think. I’m not getting into the symbolism, at least not right away. I wanted to honor a special woman, a dear friend and former co-worker who’s always with me even though she passed away years ago. She was a “foodie” before the term was fashionable in this country. And what has this to do with witchy-ness? Well, as I was contemplating how to introduce the recipe, I remembered that I’d written the following short essay a couple years ago, although I couldn’t have told you the specifics of its content before re-visiting it today…  and, wow, this was before KitchenCauldron was even a flash in my brain:

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Laura

     “My kids say I must be a witch.” My dark-haired coworker grinned at me as we enjoyed a rare lunch away from the office. I already knew this would take some time because Laura Kurner was the slowest diner with whom I’d ever noshed. She savored every bite, often listing aloud ingredients detected in a particularly delicious dish. Now it sounded like some intriguing talk could delay us further.

     “Why is that?” I asked, expecting to hear about rebellious reactions to parental discipline.

     “Well, I seem to know things, they think, before other people do. Probably just women’s intuition.”

     It’s been over forty years since that conversation and well over two decades since cancer took my friend from this earth, yet I still ponder its content. I’ve come to believe that, at least for me, Laura’s witchy aura translates into a metaphor of a cauldron: cauldron equals cookware, and everything connected with kitchen activities.

     Laura and I sat across from each other at one of my first permanent state jobs – she, the widowed mother of three older children; me, the college dropout not sure where life would take me. Close to my mother’s age, she couldn’t be more different than Mom. This short-haired, big-hipped woman (“better for child-bearing” she boasted) possessed the most infectious laugh I’d ever heard, and I heard it often. But this wasn’t the only difference.

     Mom’s cooking was good basic stuff (she got raves over her creamy mashed potatoes and everyone loved Dolly’s rendition of her Polish mother-in-law’s stuffed cabbage). But Laura’s culinary craft felt magical to me. My mother’s repertoire of spices pretty much encompassed things like salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic salt, factory-mixed poultry seasoning and sometimes cinnamon and nutmeg. Laura, on the other hand, uttered exotic terms like tarragon, rosemary and cilantro. Since she was Italian, basil, oregano and olive oil also rated high on her list of essentials. “You have to try out the spices,” she’d tell me. “Taste them, let your tongue get acquainted.” Then, I was assured, I’d begin to know them, understand which ones enhanced which foods.

     One late fall afternoon Laura, another coworker and I were enjoying an after-work drink at a local piano bar half-a-block from my new apartment. Glancing out the window, I noticed two guys crossing Washington Avenue, headed toward The Lamp Post. “That’s Dave,” I said, pointing to the straight-haired one on the left, no-hipped with a slight swagger. Both Laura and Nancy knew I still had a crush on Dave, who’d dated me once or twice. “And the other guy, the curly-haired one with freckles, is Sam, real name Bill.” Sam and Dave were best friends.

     Staring out the window as the two approached, Laura squinted her eyes at these two young men she’d never met but had heard snippets about for months. Before they came through the front door, she turned to me and said, “Forget that Dave. He’s a little arrogant. Marry the other one. Sam.” She proceeded to tell me to invite him to dinner that night and dictated the entire menu: Italian sausage, peppers, onions, potatoes. “Men love this meal,” she instructed. “Wine is good,” she said, “but you probably don’t want to sleep with him this time. Let him wonder…”

     A couple years later, upon returning from our honeymoon, one of our first visits as a married couple to someone’s home was to Laura’s in Coxsackie, NY. While we chatted away about what we’d seen and done on Cape Cod and how the new apartment was shaping up, Laura created a scrumptious feast. Our spur-of-the-moment arrival didn’t phase her a bit. She pulled a small roast from the freezer and introduced us to the pressure cooker (this was before microwaves graced 95% of American kitchens). In what seemed like no time, we were chowing down and offering up compliment after compliment.

     I treasure the few recipes I have from Laura, although I’ve never had courage enough to try a pressure cooker. More important than actual recipes, however, was another gift. Her kitchen was a place of joy, of adventure. I will never be a gourmet chef or master baker but, thanks to Good Witch Laura, I know things. My newly renovated kitchen boasts a whole cabinet of spices, and I know how to use them. And if there’s one I’m not sure about adding, I consult my shelves of cookbooks… or I can taste them, get to know them intimately, add them to my cauldron of kitchen spells.
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Just last year, while reading a novel titled Feeding Christine by Barbara Chepaitis (Bantam Books, 2000), I learned about an Italian “Witch of the Epiphany” named La Befana – and of course I had to research her further. At the time, I was creating what I called “Goddess Journal Entries” and sharing them with several friends via e-mail. I knew Befana would show up as an entry because I was intrigued. The internet offered much info, including a site eminating from Abruzzo, Italy – where Befana is quite “real” to the children who might receive her gifts on the eve of the Epiphany in early January.

Through my searches, I discovered that artist/writer Tomie dePaola wrote a children’s book called The Legend of Old Befana (Voyager Books, Harcourt Inc., 1980), and I ordered it from Amazon.com (then I ordered a couple more, for the grandnieces for Christmas). In it, as La Befana finally gets ready to seek out the Christ child (having earlier turned down an invitation to travel with the Three Wise Men because she was too busy sweeping – according to other sources I found, she sweeps in the new year). She decides to bake cookies to take along as a gift for the new babe.

Of course there’s more to the story, but perhaps you’ll buy dePaola’s book or take it out of the library (under the pretense of wanting to read it to a child, of course). My point here is that the legend of Befana joins both Pagan and Christian traditions. In fact, in some places in Italy both Santa Claus and La Befana appear at the same festivals. And always there are cookies. But when he’s not “on the road” delivering gifts on December 24th, maybe Befana roasts him some sausages with vegetables, á la Laura Kurner, insisting that he partake of “What Men Love” before he turns to “What Everybody Loves,” which would be the sweets.

ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGE AND VEGETABLES, LAURA’S WAY
Serves 4 to 6 or, in our case, serves 2, with great leftovers for a couple days, a couple ways

Ingredients

  • 5 to 8 good Italian sausages, depending upon how many you think you’ll consume (I prefer sweet sausages, but the hot stuff might be your preference)
  • dried spices:
    1 tablespoon parsley
    1 tablespoon basil
    1 teaspoon oregano
    dash of salt (optional)
  • 3 to 4 medium potatoes, skins on, cut into chunks about 1½ to 2 inches in size, soaked in water for about 15-20 minutes (while you’re getting the other veggies prepped!)
  • 1 basket of baby bella mushrooms, about 20 to 25 small ’shrooms (you can use white button mushroom variety, but bellas have so much more flavor!)
  • 3 to 4 bell peppers, various colors (red, yellow, orange, green), seeded, cut into large chunks (each of my 3 peppers were cut into 3 section)
  • 3 to 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into long pieces approximately the same in size
  • 2 large onions, skins removed, cut in half vertically, then each half cut into 3 large chunks
  • 1 zucchini, halved horizontally, then halved the other “horizontal” way as well; then cut each segment into lengths about 3 inches or so long.
  • olive oil: 1- 2 tablespoons to coat the pan; about 2 or 3 tablespoons to drizzle over vegetables before going into oven (I drizzle straight from the bottle)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped (optional, but a plus)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (optional, but a plus)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Brush a small amount of olive oil over the entire inside-bottom of a large roasting pan.
  3. Place the sausage in the pan, spread apart to allow for vegetables to surround them.
  4. Add the dry spices and salt, if using it, to a large zip-lock plastic bag and shake them to mix.
  5. Drain water from potatoes and put them into the zip-lock bag, zipping it shut. Shake the potatoes until spices appear to have “stuck” to all chunks, at least to some degree.
  6. Distribute potatoes around the sausages in the roasting pan.
  7. Distribute peppers, carrots and onions throughout the roasting pan.
  8. At this point, you can choose to add the zucchini as well, although you have the option of waiting for about half-an-hour before doing so since they might soften beyond your taste preference if put in at the start of roasting time. (I add them at the beginning because I’m always afraid I’ll forget to put them in later!)
  9. Drizzle olive oil lightly over everything in the pan.
  10. If there’s any spice left in that zip-lock bag, top veggies with it. Then sprinkle the freshly chopped parsley and basil atop of it all.
  11. Roast until sausage is cooked thoroughly and fork pokes easily into potatoes. (This usually takes about an hour-and-a-quarter to an hour-and-a-half.)  A couple times during the process, open oven and stir sausage and vegetables around, to promote even cooking.
  12. Great served with applesauce on the side. And maybe Italian bread.

NEXT DAY:   Heat it up in the microwave, slicing sausage so it warms up thoroughly at about the same rate as the veggies.

DAY AFTER THAT (if there’s still some left):  We had no sausages left, but plenty of vegetables; so I decided to make a frittata with them (then figured I’d add some diced-up Polish ham too). Diced veggies up a bit smaller in some cases (like the potatoes), warmed them for about 10 minutes over medium heat in a large pan while prepping egg mixture. Beat up 6 eggs, adding dried parsley and a little pepper, as well as about a tablespoon of half-n-half. Poured it over warmed vegetables and let it cook for no more than a minute. Then put entire ovenproof pan into a PRE-HEATED (to 350 degrees) oven for about 15 minutes. Opened up oven, topped frittata with cheddar cheese slices, and closed oven for another minute or two – until cheese melted. Removed from oven and allowed to sit – while I took pictures! Served with sliced cantaloupe melon and blueberries, with a touch of raw sugar. And whatever “bread” on hand to toast (for us, I had one plain bagel and some rye). Incidentally, it tasted great with a little sour cream on top.

Split Pea and Ham Soup – So Delish Even I Liked It!

This one’s especially for Pat Gilmore, who now lives in California but resided in Windsor, Ontario (Canada) when I first met her at an IWWG (International Women’s Writing Guild) “Remember the Magic” summer conference in 1995. We were “suite mates” in the dorm and took the same playwriting class every day of that magical week at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Upon reading a mention of my making this soup – either in an e-mail or on this blog – Pat wrote that she was looking forward to the post about split pea soup because it’s one of her favorites. She’s not particularly into cooking but loves reading my blog “stories.” Perhaps, however, this recipe might tempt her into her kitchen, a bag of split peas in hand.

If you’re wondering why I’d be crazy enough to include the words, “…Even I Liked It” in the title of a foodblog post, I’d be willing to admit it doesn’t exactly sound like an invitation to try this recipe. Not until you realize – as I am now telling you – that I never liked pea soup. So for me to say Even I Liked It is a big deal.

"Memory's Garden (Losing Ground)" Artist Trading Card by MariLyn; original photo of Mom by Kristen Day

Granted, I did not have a lot of exposure to pea soup, with or without ham, growing up. Mom didn’t make it, nor did she buy it in cans (if it was even available canned in the 50s and 60s at all?). In fact, thinking back I don’t believe any “from scratch” soups were made in our house other than the beef-vegetable soup Dad made on occasion (which was also his clam chowder, minus the clams, plus the beef). I don’t think our chicken soup was ever created from real foods; it always seemed to come in care of the Campbell Soup Company, mushy noodles and all.

My first taste of pea soup (and I believe it included ham) was delivered to our house in the late 80s, after I’d had surgery and was on leave from work for six weeks. A co-worker (she was a parole officer who worked down the hall, not in Counsel’s Office with me), who happened to live only a few blocks away from us, was kind enough to make a batch of the stuff and drive it over to our home. This was when I learned that my husband l-o-v-e-s split pea soup. Slurping my first taste, I decided it was okay but nothing I’d indulge in often. I ate a small bowl and left the rest for Bill to finish off over the next couple of days. I much preferred the raisin bran muffins Jean (the P.O.) had gifted us with a few days beforehand, indicating that the fiber was much needed “to get the system going again” after the surgery, a tactful suggestion!

Late last year (sometime in December?), I sighted a small bag of split peas in a local supermarket and – for some unfathomable reason – decided it might be nice to try making split pea soup as a nice surprise for Bill. Perhaps it was one of Bob’s Red Mill products, a favorite source of flours and grains for me. I don’t remember. Whatever the product name, I noticed an easy-sounding recipe on the back of the package so I threw the bag into my shopping cart, carried it home with the rest of the groceries and stored it in a cabinet on the shelf partially designated for soups and broths – where it sat for at least a couple of months. That’s the nice thing about dried grains: they can do that, wait for the cook to get re-inspired… or to simply realize they have to DO something with that bag of beans because otherwise it will keep making her feel guilty that she spent that money and it’s still freakin’ sitting there, staring at her every time she opens the cabinet!

I’m afraid the latter explanation was my kick-in-the-butt to do something with those split peas. That, plus the fact that I’d finally baked the small ham up I’d bought a few weeks earlier, serving it with sauerkraut (with caraway seeds and brown sugar), buttered carrots and baked potato – and the leftover ham was now calling to me too (geez, food ganging up on me – a losing battle?). What to do with it, other than slipping bits of ham into an omelet? That bag of green split peas stared out at me as I opened the cabinet, and that was that.

I glanced at the recipe on the back of the bag, noted what I liked about it, and then headed straight to my best soup reference (already mentioned a few times on this blog), A Celebration of Soups by Robert Ackart. Sure enough, with several adjustments (including deleting a ham bone from the list of ingredients), I created the soup pictured in this post, recipe below. Topped with a bit of sour cream and a few large croutons, I discovered that I could, in fact, love split pea soup with ham. So much so that I enjoyed leftovers the next day even more.

Before gifting readers with the recipe, how about some witchy/goddessy info about its main ingredient? Flecked, perhaps, with a bit of nutrition. And even a bit of food history. (You can skip this part if it bores you, or if you really want the basics of making the soup, like now!)

Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (2003 edition, Llewellyn Publications) lists the “Energies” of the pea as Love. Cunningham states that peas have always been sacred to the Mother Goddess and that, during the Inquisition, peas were thought to be standard food of “Witches.” (Let’s get this straight: those who were hung, drowned or burned at the stake as witches during The Burning Times, i.e., especially Middle Ages, were generally women who followed the old ways of healing and may have owned their own property, both of which were frowned upon by the increasingly powerful and patriarchal Church; and they were often accused out of fear, ignorance, greed or just plain envy.) Under “Magical Uses,” Cunningham suggests cooking peas with basil, coriander, dill or marjoram – and visualizing the dish as “a powerful love attractant” while doing so. Then, of course, you must eat them.

Something was missing from the above, I thought, as I researched the “magical” aspects of peas. They’re green, so surely there must be some association with money, abundance. After all, the roots of magic are partly in visualizing what you wish for, and color plays a huge part in that. I started Googling and found “Peas” listed in an “Herb Grimoire” at a site called The Magickal Cat and, yup, under the “Magickal Uses” column it reads, “Money and Love.” I imagine one might even burn a green candle while supping on pea soup, just to strengthen the desire and plea for money or abundance (in all areas, perhaps, such as creativity, friendships, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that one never asks for something from the Universe at the expense of someone else’s safety or happiness. “Whatsoever you send out into the Universe returns to you threefold.” (Just as Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Send out evil, expect it to return to you in a really unhealthy dose. (I know this is hard to believe when you see the bad guys screwing up the world, or your little section of it, but I continue to hope it’s true.)

My next stop on the pea-research tour was another book on my shelf: 100 Best Health Foods: The Ultimate Superfoods for Healthy Living Including 100 Nutritious Recipes (Love Food, an imprint of Paragon Books Ltd, 2009). I’m not so naïve as to be unaware that the “Top 100” (or “Top 50” or “Top AnyNumber”) of healthiest foods changes as more scientific research uncovers evidence of different nutrients and what they do for the body when ingested. In fact, it’s being found that whether or not you cook them, and what you eat along with them, also affects its impact on your health. But this book specifically lists nutrients and their potential effects upon this poor l’il ol’ bod of mine – so I like it. Here’s a little of what it has to offer re Peas, which incidentally is listed as #34 amongst the 100:

  • Very high in both lutein and zeaxanthin content, which translates to helping protect eyes against macular degeneration
  • Rich source of Vitamin C, fiber, and protein, also helpful for the eyes
  • Rich in carotenes (benefits the eyes as well)
  • B Vitamins helpful toward protection against osteoporosis and possibly against strokes
  • For vegetarians, helpful as a source of protein (which, for meat-eaters, would be easily acquired through meat and poultry consumption)
  • Fiber also helps to lower “bad” cholesterol and might help prevent heart disease
  • Frozen peas often contain more Vitamin C and other nutrients than fresh peas (even those still in their pods) because they’re usually frozen within hours of harvesting, whereas the “fresh” ones could be several days old.

The page containing the above info, I noticed, is opposite one headed “Chilled Pea Soup.” I’m wondering what the chances are that, since I’ve acquired a taste for the hot dish, ingredients listed on that page might find its way into my “cauldron” on some over-warm summer day.

One last shot before the recipe:

When I trekked upstairs to the kitchen to grab a book to check out health benefits of peas, I pulled down The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz (Adams Media, 2010). Witchy-wizardy enough to merit a glance, I figured. No mention of “Peas” in the index but then there was “Pease Pudding,” supposedly inspired by a passage out of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Could it be… Yes! Made with either yellow or green split peas!

Bill happened to be coming through the door from the garage as I walked downstairs with the book and I couldn’t resist asking him, “Do you remember the nursery rhyme that went, Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old?” Of course, he did. “Well,” I continued, “ it says in here [pointing to the cover of the book] that the rhyme “was inspired by pease pudding (which used to be called pease pottage in the Middle Ages) or pease porridge.” It’s an old dish that’s still consumed today, alongside bacon or sausages (possibly roast beef or chicken too). Bill said he wouldn’t mind trying it someday, although I have a feeling that the promise of the addition of bacon or sausages to the meal made the menu item sound infinitely more appealing to him!

SPLIT PEA AND HAM SOUP, MARILYN’S VERSION
Yield: 12-14 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 cups split green peas
  • 1 medium-size carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large rib celery, chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 8 cups vegetable or chicken broth, or water (broth is my preference)
  • a “dash” of Worcestershire sauce (no more than 1 teaspoon)
  • leftover ham, chopped – 1 cup, more or less (some to be added before pureeing, bulk added afterward)
  • sea salt or kosher salt
  • fresh-ground pepper
  • milk or light cream (latter is my preference), to taste (usually not more than a few tablespoonsful)
  • sour cream or Greek yogurt for topping (optional)
  • croutons for topping (optional)

Process

  1. In the bottom of a soup kettle, sauté: carrot, celery and onion – for about 2 minutes, salting lightly. Add a dash of pepper too, if you like.
  2. Add split peas, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, broth (or water, if using that – or a combo of broth and water), and the “dash” of Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Bring liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer mixture (covered) until the peas are tender.
  4. About 30 minutes before the peas are expected to become tender, heat up the ham a bit, to avoid adding cold meat to the soup mix. (I stir-fried mine in a minimal amount of oil, to give it a bit of added flavor.)
  5. When the peas are tender, remove the bay leaves from the soup kettle.
  6. Add a small portion of the ham, reserving the largest portion to add to the kettle after the mixture has been puréed.
  7. With an immersion blender (or food processor or blender), purée the soup mixture to your desired texture (I like mine a little lumpy).
  8. Stir in the reserved portion of chopped ham.
  9. Add light cream (or milk, if you prefer – or leave it without dairy, if you like it that way) and heat for a couple minutes more.
  10. Adjust seasonings (more salt? pepper?).
  11. Serve with a dab of sour cream or Greek yogurt, topped with your favorite croutons (both of which are optional).

And here is where I offer my apology: given its “witchy” energies, shouldn’t I have posted this a couple of days ago, on Valentine’s Day? Well, I’m sending this out with Love anyway – may all of you always receive it in abundance!

"Magic Happens," Artist Trading Card by MariLyn