Minestrone

Minestrone

Minestrone is a classic Italian vegetable soup. What’s nice about minestrone is that there is no set recipe for it, except to use whatever vegetables you have on hand, which is my favorite way to make a soup. Often it contains beans and pasta, which when combined are an economical and efficient source of protein. Sometimes it’s more luxuriously embellished with meat. In this recipe I have the requisite beans but no pasta and no meat. Any embellishment comes from the chunk of Pecorino cheese I like to add for extra flavor and body. Finally, when I make a minestrone, I try to cut all of the vegetables in uniform dice. For some reason, I think this makes the soup taste better, perhaps because it’s easier to get a little bite of everything in each spoonful.

Minestrone
Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 carrots, cut in 1/4 inch pieces
1 celery rib, cut in 1/4 inch dice
1 small rutabaga, peeled, cut in 1/4 inch dice
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, fronds removed, cut in 1/4 inch dice
1 small zucchini, cut in 1/4 inch dice
6 cups chicken stock
1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 2-inch chunk of rind from Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
1 15-ounce can cannellini or northern beans, drained
2-3 large Swiss chard leaves, ribs and stems removed, coarsely chopped
Grated Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano cheese for garnish
Fresh Italian parsley leaves for garnish

Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until beginning to soften, 2 minutes. Add carrots, celery, rutabaga, fennel and zucchini. Sauté until vegetables brighten in color and soften slightly, 3 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, salt and pepper. If soup is too chunky, add more stock to desired consistency. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer and submerge cheese in soup. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, 2o minutes. Add beans and simmer an additional 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add chard and simmer until  chard is wilted, 2 minutes. Ladle into warm bowls. Garnish with grated cheese and parsley.

Braised Chicken in White Wine

Braised Chicken in White Wine

~ Braised Chicken in White Wine with Carrots, Mushrooms and Thyme ~

On the first day of the new year I make a stew. There are many reasons why I do this. Stews and braises are healthy and fortifying, a comforting antidote to holiday menus and festivities. Stews are reflective, incorporating humble ingredients with heat and time, yielding deeply flavorful results. Stews comfort and nourish us, while warming us on a cold winter day. This year I received a beautiful French oven for a gift, so I have another reason to make a delicious stew today.

Braised Chicken in White Wine

The chicken skin remains exposed while the chicken braises to maintain the color and crispness of its skin. Serves 4.

4 large chicken breast halves, with skin and ribs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 pound white or cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/2-inch thick
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine
2 to 3 cups chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Season the chicken breasts all over with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in an ovenproof pot or deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, in batches. Cook until the skin is brown and crispy, 4 to 5 minutes, then turn the chicken and cook 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining chicken.

Drain off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pot and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the leeks to the pot and saute over medium heat, about 1 minute. Add the carrots, mushrooms and garlic. Saute over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften and brighten in color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the white wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits in pan. Add the bay leaf and thyme. Return the chicken to the pot and nestle, skin-side up, into the vegetables. Pour in enough chicken stock, without splashing the skin, to nearly cover the chicken but not submerge it. The skin should remain exposed. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover pot and transfer to oven. Bake until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes. Serve in bowls with rice, farro or couscous.

Pork (or Boar) Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Pork (or Boar) Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

I prepared this stew with boar meat, because boar reminds me of autumn in Europe when it’s the season of la chasse – or hunting season.  Like most game, boar is lean and has a slightly gamey flavor. It benefits from slow cooking and pairs well with powerful aromatics such as juniper, winter fruit and spirits, such as Calvados and Armagnac. If you cannot find boar meat, pork is a good substitute.

Pork (or Boar) Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Serves 6

20 prunes, pitted
3/4 cup Armagnac brandy
3 pounds pork or boar shoulder, excess fat trimmed, meat cut into 2-inch chunks
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bottle full-bodied red wine
2 bay leaves
1 bouquet garni: 4 juniper berries, 3 rosemary sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs, and a handful of parsley leaves wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with a kitchen string

1. Combine the prunes and Armagnac in a bowl and let stand at least 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
3. Season the pork on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or oven-proof pot with a lid. Add the pork in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining pork.
4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon pork fat from the pan. Add the bacon and sauté until its fat renders. Add the carrots and onion and sauté until the onions soften and the carrots are crisp tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Return the pork and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the prunes and Armagnac, the wine, bay leaves, bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and transfer to the oven. Cook until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
5. Remove the stew from the oven, discard the bay leaves and bouquet garni, and taste for seasoning. Serve warm with mashed potatoes or polenta.
(The stew may be prepared up to two days in advance. Warm over low heat or in a 300 F. oven before serving.) 

Mushroom Barley Soup with Miso and Kale

Mushroom Barley Soup with Miso and Kale

If you are anticipating a holiday food hangover this season, then take note of this recipe. Mushroom Barley Soup with Miso and Kale is the perfect antidote to excess. Not only does it put to use any left over turkey stock you may have, this healthy, economical soup is loaded with vegetables and high fiber barley. Handfuls of nutrient-rich kale are added to the soup in the end, so there is just enough time to wilt the leaves without overcooking. The extra ingredient to this wholesome soup is a spoonful of red miso paste, which adds depth and that elusive umami quality which keeps you coming back for more. Luckily, this is one meal you can indulge in seconds without feeling guilty.

Mushroom Barley Soup with Miso and Kale

Chicken stock may easily be substituted for turkey stock. Serves 4-6.

Olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
Salt
8 ounces sliced assorted mushrooms, such shitake, cremini, cepes
2 large carrots, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup barley
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
8 cups chicken or turkey stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups kale leaves, tough stems removed, leaves shredded
1 tablespoon red miso paste

Heat oil in a medium sized stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and 1 teaspoon salt; sauté 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and carrots; sauté 3 minutes. Add barley and thyme and stir to coat. Add stock, bay leaf  and pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until barley is tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in kale. Simmer until kale turns bright green and wilts, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the miso. Taste For seasoning. Serve garnished with fresh thyme.

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

~ Comfort in a bowl: Braised short ribs, celery root and red wine –

Rich meaty stews fortified with wine are the kitchen’s answer to wet and frosty weather. Simmered over hours, sometimes even days, the aromas of beef, wine and spice mix and mingle, concocting delicious aromas that fill the kitchen and soothe the soul. It draws us in to its embrace, tantalized by the warmth and promise of the meal to come. We are hungry yet content in the knowledge that the wait will be well worth it.

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Cold weather stews coincide with an abundance of of root vegetables and sturdy tubers, stalwart allies in the fall and winter season. Celery root is the secret ingredient in this recipe, adding depth to the stock with mellow celery notes. Serves 6-8.

5 pounds short ribs
Salt
Pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 cup diced celeriac (celery root) in 1/4 inch pieces
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1/3 cup whiskey
3 cups red wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried coriander
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Salt and pepper the short ribs. If you have time, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight before proceeding. (Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before browning.)
Preheat oven to 325 F. Heat oil over medium high heat. Add short ribs in batches without overcrowding. Brown well on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate. Repeat with remaining short ribs. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pot. Add onion, carrot, celery, celeriac and garlic. Cook, stirring up any brown bits in the pan, until vegetables begin to soften, 3 minutes. Carefully add whiskey. Bring to a boil and cook until whiskey has nearly evaporated. Add wine, stock, tomato paste, bay leaves, coriander, brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Return the ribs to the pot with any collected juices. Bring to a boil. Cover pan and place in oven. Bake until the short ribs are very tender, about 3 hours. Remove from oven. Cool; refrigerate overnight.
One hour before serving, remove short ribs from refrigerator. Remove collected fat on surface of the stock. The stock will be congealed. Heat over low heat to liquify. Remove the short ribs and vegetables with a slotted spoon.* Separate the meat from the bones and discard the  bones. Bring stock to a boil and cook over medium-high heat until sauce has reduced by half. Return beef and vegetables to the stock and heat through.

*Note: If you wish to fancify the stew, remove only the beef from the reheated stock. Boil the stock with vegetables until reduced. Strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve, pressing down on solids to extract as much flavor as possible. Return beef to strained stock and discard solids.
Sauté additional carrots and rutabaga in olive oil until crisp tender. Add to the stew along with blanched and peeled pearl onions. Simmer until all the vegetables are cooked through.

Farro, Kale and Butternut Squash Soup

~ Farro, Kale and Butternut Squash Soup with Parmigiano ~

Autumn in a bowl sums up this nourishing soup. Sweet butternut squash and sturdy kale team up with farro, an ancient Italian wheat grain, known as spelt in English. Farro is a hulled wheat, which means it retains its husk during harvest. The husk serves as a protective cloak, preserving nutrients and protecting the kernel from insects and pollutants, which permits the grower to avoid pesticides. Rich in protein, fiber and B vitamins, farro has a satisfying nutty flavor which adds heft with health to soups and stews. The final touch in this warming soup is a chunk of Parmesan cheese, which is nestled into the simmering stock, breaking down and releasing umami flavor while thickening the soup.

Farro, Kale and Butternut Squash Soup

Either curly green or lacinato kale may be used for the soup. Remove tough ribs from leaves before chopping.

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup semi-pearled farro
6 cups chicken stock, plus additional stock as necessary
2 cups cubed butternut squash
1 (15-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
1 (2-inch) chunk of rind of Parmesan cheese
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 cups coarsely chopped green kale leaves
Finely grated Parmesan cheese for garnsih

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the farro and stir to coat.
2. Add the chicken stock, squash, tomatoes, cheese chunk, bay leaf, thyme, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the squash is tender and farro is cooked, about 30 minutes. (Add more stock to desired consistency if soup is too thick.) Taste for seasoning and add more salt if desired.
3. Stir in the kale leaves and simmer until the kale brightens in color and wilts, 1 to 2 minutes. Discard Parmesan rind and the bay leaf. Ladle the soup into bowls and pass the cheese for sprinkling over the soup.

Moroccan Lamb Stew and a recipe for Ras el Hanout

Moroccan Lamb Stew and a recipe for Ras el Hanout

Still fixated on warming stews, I recently prepared this lamb stew which not only has heat but the heady aroma of exotic spice. Its secret ingredient is ras el hanout. Ras el hanout is a north African spice blend which may include upwards of 50 spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, clove, turmeric and cayenne. The name, translated, means head of the shop, meaning the best on offer. Like many spice blends, there is no one way to make it, and variations exist from home to home, merchant to merchant.

At first, I made a version of this stew without the addition of ras el hanout, and it was very good. When I added ras el hanout to the recipe, the stew was excellent. You can find ras el hanout in the spice section of your supermarket or specialty stores. If you cannot locate it, then I encourage you to try to make your own version – it’s easy to do.

Moroccan Lamb Stew with Chickpeas and Figs

The lamb is coated and marinated in a spice paste. As the meat browns in the pot, the spices will also brown and cook, adding a rich flavor and color to the stew.

Serves 6-8.

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground paprika
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 – 3 pounds lamb shoulder or leg, cut in 2 inch chunks
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 – 14 ounce can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
2 cups chicken stock
12 dried Calimyrna or Turkish figs, halved
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ras el hanout (recipe below)
1 – 14 ounce can chickpeas, drained
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Harissa or red chili paste
Fresh cilantro sprigs

Combine 1/4 cup olive oil, coriander, cumin, paprika, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl. Mix to form a paste. Place lamb in a large bowl. Rub paste all over lamb. Let sit at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate covered up to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 325 F. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or oven proof pot with lid over medium-high heat. Add lamb in batches and brown on all sides, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Transfer lamb to a plate or bowl.
Add onion and carrot to the same pot. Saute, stirring up the brown bits, for 2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and continue to saute 1 minute. Add tomatoes, chicken stock, figs, cinnamon stick, ras el hanout, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper.  Return lamb and any collected juices to the pot, submerging it in the stock. (Add additional chicken stock to cover, if necessary.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover pot. Transfer to oven and bake until lamb is falling apart tender, about 2 hours.
Transfer pot to stove. Remove lamb and vegetables with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl. Bring stock to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil uncovered until sauce is reduced by about half and thickened, skimming fat.  Stir in chickpeas. Taste to check for seasoning. If necessary add a tablespoon of brown sugar to the stock. Return lamb and vegetables to pot. (May be prepared up to 24 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate. To serve, skim any collected fat from surface. Rewarm over medium-low heat or in a 325 F. oven.)
Serve with prepared couscous. Pass bowls of harissa and fresh cilantro around the table as condiments.

Ras El Hanout
adapted from The Food of Morocco by Tess Mallos

Be sure to use very fresh spices, or grind the whole dried spices.

3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 teaspoons ground coriander
3 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

Combine all the spices together. Store in a glass jar in a cool, dark place.
(Recipe may be halved.)