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Dinner Party Gluten Free Index Soups Vegetarian

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

[one_half][S]mall details often tell you a lot. For instance, you can usually tell someone’s really into clothes by checking out their accessories. Shoes, socks, belt, watch. Someone who doesn’t care will figure, No one’s looking at my socks. On the other hand, are they kinda funky? Like in a cool way, not an odiferous way? Yeah. Didn’t happen by accident. You kind of have to go out of your way to buy funky socks. That’s someone who’s not capable of letting it slide. Same goes for food. When I’m at a restaurant, I know the kitchen is totally geeked out when they send out an absolute killer soup or salad. Doesn’t happen all that often, actually. Sure, if you’re going high end and paying at least eighty bucks for your meal—it better be good. But what about a more casual spot, like a neighborhood restaurant, or a bistro? How many lentil soups have you had where you honestly thought, This is the bomb… ? Whenever that happens (and for me, that was perhaps once), I’m really excited about the rest of the meal, because I know that kitchen’s too proud to send out another fucking chunky, flavorless lentil soup with carrots.

Given my opinion of soup-as-window-to-a-kitchen’s-soul, perhaps it was a bit ambitious for me to decide, on the day of my (already overly ambitious) dinner party, to add english pea soup to the menu. I had originally bought the peas for a salad, but was concerned that most of the peas would simply accumulate at the bottom of the bowl and then be eaten separately from the greens, or not eaten at all. Then I remembered this cool post on Eatfoo about making a consommé out of pea shells. I wanted to try that, so I decided to wing it with a soup recipe and see how things went. Had I ever made soup before? Of course not. OK, my first post was about soup. But I think Korean soups are a different animal. I mean, to my knowledge, no one makes creamy, pureed soups in Korea. If so, those people have not immigrated here and served said soup to me.

At some point that day, I had what I thought was a pretty good soup. Then I thought, You can never add too much sour cream. Apparently you can. Just barely. I had to make a judgement call as to whether it was OK to send the course out. It didn’t taste awful—it was just out of balance. I hadn’t bought enough peas, so the flavor kind of disappeared in all that sour cream. I went back and forth about this, but ended up serving it. Here it is—this pale, pathetic-looking thing:

Reactions were decidedly mixed. Marc says he liked it. Bernadette ate the whole thing, but didn’t comment. I knew I would get an honest opinion from Naya, their nine-year-old son. Eh. It’s so-so. Thanks, kid. That’s actually the answer I needed, but understandably did not get from the grown-ups. But I knew there was a great soup in there. I tasted a glimpse of it during prep, and I felt certain I would have to go back and try it again.

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The week after my dinner party, I was on a mission to find more peas. I knew they wouldn’t have any at my local grocery, so I turned to  The Mission Bay Farmers’ Market, which has been a welcome addition to our culinary wasteland of a campus. It’s small and doesn’t have the most exotic ingredients, but does have reliably good produce. I make it a point to stop by every Wednesday to take a break from endless meetings and benchwork. What I found weren’t the prettiest shells I’d ever seen, but the peas themselves were fresh, and still a bit sweet. This time I bought 4 lbs, to make certain that I wouldn’t run out.

Last spring at around this time, Erin made the Zuni Cafe’s Pasta alla Carbonara, and was excited to have found fresh english peas for the occasion. A couple things stood out to me about that experience: (1) In this context, the fresh peas tasted pretty much the same as frozen peas. (2) For a one-and-a-half-year-old, Esme was pretty good at shelling peas, and seemed to really enjoy doing it. She’s always been a busy kid. I try to allow my daughter to “help” me cook whenever I can. She insists on pouring the dry oatmeal into her bowl before I microwave it, wants to have her hand on the measuring cup as I add water, etc. I thought she would get a kick out of helping shell peas again, despite likely not remembering the work she did last year. So I let her have at it.

At first, she was shelling like a champ. She’d sometimes miss the peas in the corner of the pod, but went about her work at an impressive clip. She particularly liked throwing the empty shells into the large mixing bowl, where I had been collecting them. So much so, that she eventually just started throwing intact pods in there. I had to gently distract her, so that I could go back, fish out the good ones (which was not trivial), and finish the job.

* * * * *

A worthwhile decision to make, though I didn’t see any mention of this in any of the recipes I read online, is whether to use your peas raw or cooked. To some extent, it depends on the freshness and age of the peas. If they are mostly on the small side and are tender, juicy, and sweet, I am very much in favor of using them raw. I like being able to highlight the more delicate flavors that elude us for 3/4 of the year. If the peas are more mature, large enough to fill most of the volume of the pod, or are at all starchy, you probably want to cook them. Either method will yield a fine soup, and a good portion of the flavor will come from your shell stock, which you can’t get from the frozen section. Cooking them accomplishes two things. First, it improves the yield of the recipe. Unless you have an extremely powerful blender, a purée of raw peas will leave behind a significant amount of pulp. This will accumulate in your strainer and less will make it into the soup. Secondly, cooking, even a little bit, tends to mellow out the flavors. Raw peas can be a bit grassy-tasting, but a quick blanch can take that edge off. A superficial benefit to cooking the peas is that (as long as you don’t overcook them) you can get more vibrant color. Something to keep in mind is that any amount of cooking begins to summon the richer, split-pea flavor that is for the most part absent from fresh snap peas, english peas, etc. The longer you cook, the bigger role that family of flavors will play, so it depends on what you want.

Let’s start with the consommé.

English pea shell consommé

about 4 lbs fresh english peas in the shell
water
kosher or sea salt

Make sure to pop a couple of the pods open at the market and taste the peas. They lose flavor rapidly after picking (and even more rapidly after being shelled). Ideally, you want peas that you would have been happy to eat raw. I’ve made this with young, immaculate shells as well as the slightly wizened shells pictured here. I couldn’t tell a big difference, so don’t be put off by discolored shells. Remove peas and reserve. (You may want to enlist a small child to help you with this.) Rinse shells thoroughly. Go through the spent casings and discard any obviously rotting or excessively dirty ones. If there are a lot of woody stems attached to the end of the pod, as there were here, I would go through with a pair of scissors and cut those off. For really young pods, this isn’t really necessary.

In a large stock pot, barely cover the cleaned and trimmed shells with water and bring to a boil, optionally adding about 1/2 tsp of salt. Immediately lower heat and simmer for 20 mins. Remove from heat and strain solids. At this point, the stock will be dilute and very lightly colored. Reduce at medium-low heat until the stock becomes golden and intensely flavored. For me, this happened at about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original volume. (You can mark the original level with a rubber band on the handle of a wooden spoon to track how much you’ve reduced the stock.) Periodically taste the stock and add salt, if desired. Be careful not to add too much at the beginning, since the stock will continue to become more concentrated. You can cook it down quite a bit more, if you want. In the Eatfoo post where I saw this recipe, David reduced the stock by 20-fold. Yowza!

Starting from 4 lbs of peas, this made 6 – 8 cups.

Incidentally, this consommé would be a fantastic vegetarian option to use as a stock for my kong namul guk recipe. For the soup itself, I consulted quite a few recipes, but ended up essentially adapting the Chilled Pea and Tarragon Soup from Bon Appétit.

English pea soup

about 1 lb of shelled english peas (I didn’t weigh them, but I think 4 lbs of pods yielded about 4 C of peas)
2 T butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt
4 C english pea shell consommé
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 T heavy cream
2 T sour cream
freshly cracked black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat butter until bubbles subside and sauté shallots at medium heat until tender, but not brown (about 3 mins). Add consommé and bring to a boil. Add peas and salt and boil until peas are bright and just tender (no more than 3 – 4 mins). Remove from heat and add to blender along with tarragon, both creams, and several turns of black pepper. Purée until smooth (do this in small batches if you have a small blender—safety first!) Correct seasoning and strain through a fine sieve or chinois. I prefer not to force the contents through the mesh, because then you end up forcing fibers through that you were trying to strain out on the first place. If it’s going too slowly, you can tap the sieve and/or use a spoon to stir and redistribute the unstrained fraction. I can’t resist eating the pulp, but you can also just throw it away. Allow soup to cool and serve chilled or at room temperature. If desired, garnish with fresh tarragon and some sour cream. If you use heavy cream, as I did for the top photo, it creates a “slick” on top of the soup, which you may or may not find disturbing.

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The Esme rating

Try as I might, I could not convince Esme to taste the soup. She may have had flashbacks to her first experiences with solid baby food. Puréed peas were the first thing that she absolutely hated. My mom got such a kick out of watching Esme grimace with disgust (and perhaps a sense of betrayal?) that she kept feeding it to her to elicit that reaction. Esme does like frozen peas, however. Not just peas that were once frozen. She likes them straight out of the freezer.

Esme, do you like these peas better, or frozen peas?

Frozen peas. But these are pretty good, too. They’re too crunchy.

Did she like the fresh peas enough to eat more than a few? Hard to say, really (see left).

* * * * *

The Ben rating

So Erin and I recently went to this cool restaurant in the Mission called Schmidt’s (as in Christiane Schmidt, of Walzwerk). They sell these light-as-air pea pancakes that beautifully juxtapose deep-fried crunchies with peas so fresh I find myself wondering whether fryolator is their natural habitat. Anyway, after all this, I saw a pea soup with lemon and mint on their menu. I had to order it and check out the competition.

All’s I’m saying is that the head-to-head score is Ben/Esme: 1, Christiane: 0. Not even close, actually. Though I’m sure she’ll come back to haunt us in the braised red cabbage category …

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Categories
Index Italian Noodles Pasta Vegetarian

Spaghettini with green garlic and oil

[one_half][F]ellow lo-temp cooking freaks can rest assured that my suburban sous vide rig is up and fully operational. I have so far been using it to make perfectly cooked eggs, unconventionally moist chicken breast, and most recently, a smokeless pastrami. Descriptions of all will come in due time. But I have been meaning to post about green garlic, and given the rapidly changing season, I felt I should do so while it is still actually available.

I like garlic so much that I have to physically restrain myself from automatically tripling it in every recipe. I’ve had dishes in my life that, even for me, had too much garlic—but I can probably count them on one hand (for you Columbians: garlic chicken at the sadly departed La Rosita was one of them). When people make faux knee-slapping jokes about “making sure that we all have garlic” so as not to suffer from one’s bad breath, I profoundly don’t get it. Garlic smells good. It smells like food.

So I was myself surprised when it hit me one day that I had never actually worked with green garlic. I’ve heard people rhapsodize about the ingredient and it always sounded great to me, but I guess I never got around to it. Availability is generally limited to the first month or two of spring, so I was determined not to miss out this year. For those of you who are unfamiliar, most of the garlic we buy comes in the form of mature bulbs, which have been cured and stored dry. Green garlic refers to young garlic plants whose bulbs have not yet differentiated into cloves. When very young, they look more or less like green onions. As they mature, the stalks broaden, and they begin to resemble leeks. They are quite a bit more delicate in flavor than mature garlic, and can, in fact, be eaten raw with little discomfort. When cooked, they take on a nutty flavor, as well as a sweetness and texture one might expect from onions or leeks.

A couple weeks ago, I triumphantly returned from my local farmers market with bunches in hand. Problem was, most of the articles about green garlic I could find online mostly discussed the very young variety, of which the entire stalk can be used. Mine were of the leeky variety, and I wasn’t certain they could be used the same way. Much like leeks, the outer leaves and ends were very tough, and didn’t seem like they would cook down easily. I was reminded of a mishap I suffered years ago when making a caramelized leek soup. I hadn’t read the recipe carefully, and thus failed to realize that you don’t use the tough, dark green part. (That went a ways toward explaining why I couldn’t get it to caramelize.) At any rate, I consulted my sister (of course), and a couple of foodie friends. They also had never used the big, leeky green garlic. So I decided to wing it and treat them like leeks. I’ll give away the answer: Yes. They are awesome. Instructions below.

* * * * *

There’s a fascinating book by photographer Melanie Dunea called “My Last Supper,” in which Dunea interviews 50 great chefs and asks:

If you were to die tomorrow, what single dish, what one mouthful of food from anywhere in the world or anytime in your life would you choose as your last? What would be your choice for your last meal on earth?

Being a food geek, I was much more interested in the answers than the accompanying portraits (though the pictures, admittedly, are stunning). They ranged from the ostentatious (e.g. Gary Danko) to the elegant (e.g. Nobu—I respect him enough to overlook his desire to listen to a Kenny G CD while eating it). My all-time favorite answer is the one from Eric Ripert, who wants toast with truffles. The reason is made clear in the recipe section at the end of the book (did I mention there are recipes?). He outlines in completely anal-retentive detail how to do everything, even down to the thickness of the bread (1.27 cm), percent acidity of the olive oil (0.3), and why you should use cold butter (so that it doesn’t soak into the bread—thank you!). If anything could cement my not-so-subtle man crush on Eric, it’s this recipe. I love how you can see exactly how much of a control freak this guy is.

Obviously, I’m not a chef. But in the make-believe world in which I’m shooting the shit with Eric Fucking Ripert, my last supper is definitely spaghettini with garlic and oil. I may post about it someday, but honestly I don’t get it right every time. When I figure out how to consistently make it work the way that it does when I have those last supper moments, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, I felt that the most fitting treatment for my first green garlic experience should be a simple dish with pasta. What I made will not qualify for my last meal on earth. It will, however qualify for many meals between now and the end of May.

* * * * *

Spaghettini with green garlic and oil

1/2 lb thin spaghetti (no. 11)
kosher or sea salt
2 – 3 C chopped green garlic (or about 2 of the big, leeky kind, trimmed and cleaned as described below)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
plenty of freshly cracked black pepper
about 1/2 C beef stock (probably any stock would work here, as long as it doesn’t come from a can—I used beef because I had recently made it.)

Particularly in the Bay area, you can readily find green garlic at farmers markets or Whole Foods right now. I have regularly seen both the baby (green onion-looking) garlic, as well as the large, leekish ones. When scheduling your shopping and cooking, keep in mind that their flavors fade rapidly in the refrigerator. If possible, cook them on the same day. Otherwise, leave them, bulbs down, in a cup or vase of water in the refrigerator and deploy as soon as possible.

Trimming and preparing the green garlic Like I said, I got the bigger kind of green garlic. The first quandary that presented itself to me was: how much of  it should I use? As you can see above (and incidentally, you can click to zoom on any of the pictures in this blog), each plant consists of a bulb, a light green stalk, and darker green leaves alternating from the stalk. Many people, when encountering leeks of similar description, simply look for the border between pale green and dark green on the outside leaf, and make a single cut there through the entire plant. The problem with this strategy is that you then lose a lot of pale green material in the inner leaves. If you need a lot of trimmed leeks, you may, for example, have to monopolize all of the leeks from 2 or 3 different markets in Brooklyn Heights (hypothetically speaking). A better way to deal with this is to systematically cut away only the dark green parts of each leaf, starting from the outside and working your way in. This strategy can also be used with larger green garlic, so that what you are left with is a tapered stalk.

Next, trim the roots from the bottom of the bulb. You’ll then want to clean the garlic, particularly of any dirt that may be stuck between the layers. The way to do this is to make a cut, lengthwise, down the midpoint of the stalk, leaving the bulb intact. Turn the garlic 90 degrees along the axis of the stalk, and make another slit down the middle. You are now left with a bulb attached to streamers that can be splayed out and rinsed in the sink.

At this point you can either chop the garlic, or slice it into larger (say, 1″ long) slivers. It works either way; I think it just depends on what kind of texture you want.

In a large fry pan, sauté the chopped garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat until wilted and beginning to turn golden (about 10 minutes). Use enough oil to comfortably prevent the garlic from drying out, but no more. Add beef stock and deglaze the pan, if necessary. Add lots of black pepper, to taste. Cover the pan and lower heat, cooking until the garlic becomes tender (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat.

Selecting and cooking the pasta I do think the kind of pasta matters. For sauces like this, I am partial to thin noodles, either spaghettini or angel hair. The commonly found store brands I like best are Barilla and De Cecco. In almost all cases, I will go with pasta made from refined semolina flour. In the interest of keeping my daughter healthier than me, I did briefly investigate whole wheat flour pastas. I uniformly hate them. The flavors are not always offensive, but the texture is brittle, and that really kills it for me. (For the record, Esme doesn’t like them, either. She knows what’s up.) A compromise that I have found acceptable is Barilla Plus, which is not a whole grain pasta, but rather one made from refined semolina durum flour enriched with other grains. I find this palatable, but prefer traditional pastas.

Boil the pasta in a medium stockpot with at least a teaspoon salt, and taste often, correcting when appropriate. In this case, I advise seasoning slightly beyond what you feel is necessary, because salt doesn’t dissolve well in oil. Therefore, the garlic is likely to be underseasoned. Your goal here is to cook the pasta just shy of al dente. At that point, drain the noodles and add them to your warmed skillet. Toss until evenly coated with garlic and oil. Add more stock or black pepper, if needed. Continue cooking over medium-low heat until pasta is done.

In the presentation below, I took some optional steps of tossing the pasta in fresh miner’s lettuce and serving with a farm egg that had been slow-poached and quickly seared.

* * * * *

The Esme rating

Note to self: When describing to a 2-year-old child what she is about to eat, do not use the word, “garlic.”

I don’t like garlic, Daddy.
Try it. I think you will.
Noooooooooo.
OK, then do you want to try some crazy Daddy noodles?
Yeah. Can I have some of your noodles, Mommy?
(Esme often confuses Erin and me, and then immediately corrects.) Daddy? (She eats about 10 noodles.)
Esme, do you like your crazy Daddy noodles?
Yeah.
Do you want to eat them again for lunch tomorrow?
I want to eat them … right … noooooooow.
OK, baby. I’ll get you your own plate.

 

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green garlic

trim green garlic
trimmed green garlic

slice green garlic lengthwise

layers of sliced green garlic

spaghettini pasta with green garlic poached egg and miner's lettuce

baby esme smells green garlic

child serving of spaghettini pasta with green garlic and miner's lettuce

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